Question: Does one fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles with an electric menorah? Can one recite the blessings before lighting it?
Answer: My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, maintained that when there is no other choice, we can use electric lights (Responsa of Modern Judaism, vol. I, p. 199). This ruling is in accord with those of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski and Rabbi Meir Blumenfeld.
Rabbi David Hayyim Chelouche, chief rabbi of Netanya, discusses fulfilling mitzvos with electric lights in great detail in his Hemda Genuza. We will give an overview of his comments. Rabbi Chelouche notes that a mishnah (Berachot 51b) teaches: “A blessing is not said over the [Havdalah] light until it has been utilized.” The Gemara (53b) explains that a person need not literally use it. As long as the light can be serviceable if he stands near it, he can say a blessing over it.
The Gemara points out, however, that if the light was in the folds of his garment or emanates from a lantern, or if he can see a flame but not use its light, or can use its light but not see a flame, he should not recite the blessing. The Gemara says it is understandable how one can use a light without seeing a flame; perhaps the light is hidden in a corner. But how can one see a light but not make use of it? The Gemara answers that a flickering flame can be seen but not used.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 8:6) adds an interesting case to those mentioned above: “If one sees the flame in an aspaklaria (a looking glass).” Evidently, then, seeing a light reflected in glass is not considered the same as seeing it directly.
Rabbi Chelouche discusses whether there is an essential difference between a lantern and a looking glass. Is “a looking glass” a glass that has a coating on its back and thus reflects light, like a mirror? Or is it an uncoated glass pane positioned in front of a dark wall or other object so that light shining on it is reflected, but not as brightly as light shining in a mirror?
In this connection, Rabbi Chelouche cites the opinion of Rabbi Benzion Chai Uziel, a former chief rabbi of Israel, who states that if one exclude a lantern from those lights a person can make a berachah on, one has to also exclude light seen through eyeglasses.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, another former chief rabbi of Israel, disagrees with Rabbi Uziel’s reasoning. He argues that light in a lantern is like “a light within the fold of his garment.” One doesn’t see the light directly. But looking at light through eyeglasses is the normal manner in which a person with glasses looks at things. Therefore, he is considered to be looking at the light directly even though technically he is looking at it through glass.
Rabbi Chelouche notes that the majority of halachic authorities, including the Rashba (whose decisions serve as a guide to Klal Yisrael), agree that a flame in a glass lantern may be used for Havdalah. The Meiri, Rashi, and Rabbi Yaakov Emden (see Siddur Beit Yaakov) rule accordingly.
In conclusion, Rabbi Chelouche points out that an electric light bulb, which is a light in a glass, is considered a flame, and lighting it is like a flame it from an existing flame – one of the halachically required characteristics of a valid flame. He also compares the filament inside a bulb to the wick of a candle, questioning whether the filament is a lit flame or the subject of intense heat that glows and emits light.
The light produced by the filament of an electric light bulb is a single light. We rule, though, in accordance with Beit Hillel (Berachot 51b) that a Havdalah flame must consist of more than one light (which is why we say “borei me’orei ha’esh,” not “shebara me’or ha’esh” as per Beit Shammai). Thus, the blessing in Havdalah cannot be recited over an electric light bulb.
What about using electric lights as Sabbath candles? If there are extenuating circumstances, electric bulbs would be permitted. The purpose of Sabbath lights is to enhance shalom bayit, domestic tranquility, and electric light accomplishes this task just as well as older types of illumination. Rabbi Chelouche states that one is even permitted to recite the proper blessing when using electric bulbs as Sabbath candles.
One would therefore expect that he would rule similarly regarding Chanukah lights, yet Rabbi Chelouche specifically states that he hesitates to do so. He points out that the Chanukah lights serve as a reminder of the menorah in the Temple, and electric bulbs are clearly not similar to the flames of that menorah as described in the Torah. We read in Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20), “Ve’yikchu elecha shemen zayit zach katit lama’or, leha’alot ner tamid – They shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually.” The Torah clearly describes a natural flame lit from oil. Thus, an electric menorah would not be valid.
Rabbi Zev Dov Slonim (Sha’arei Halacha 354) remarks that the word “ner,” which is part of the blessing “le’hadlik ner,” refers to the light of a candle (or oil wick), which would exclude a gas flame, which has no wick. Thus, according to Rabbi Slonim, gas lights would be invalid both for Sabbath lights and Chanukah lights. Since electric lights have no wicks, we may deduce that the same rule applies to them.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in his responsa Yechaveh Da’at (38), points out that the statement of the Sages (Shabbat 21) that all oils and wicks that one may use for Sabbath candles are permitted for Chanukah lights seems to include electricity, especially since it produces such fine illumination.
Rabbi Yosef notes Rabbi Isaac Shmelkes’ opinion (Beit Yitzhak, Yoreh De’ah 120:5) that one may use neither a gas flame nor an electric bulb for Chanukah lights since olive oil is preferred for fulfilling the mitzvah. Gas and electric lights are used all year long; therefore we do not perceive their use as something extraordinary, and the desired effect of pirsum ha’ness may not be accomplished.
This opinion is in accord with the Rema’s statement (Orach Chayim 671:7) that a person should “take care not to light Chanukah candles where he lights other candles because then it will not be noticeable that he is kindling the lights for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah of Chanuka lights.” The kindling of Chanuka lights should be noticed, and this can only be accomplished with an action involving something out of the ordinary. Therefore, Rabbi Shmelkes concludes, one should not use a gas flame or electric bulbs.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef disagrees, remarking that the statement of the Rema refers only to olive oil as the optimal choice, but the Sages included other mediums of lighting. As to the concern of differentiating electric bulbs lit for Chanukah from other lights around them, he notes that the electric Chanukah menorah is distinctly shaped, is a separate vessel, and its purpose is clear.
He offers a different reason for invalidating an electric menorah: no oil is involved. Citing a number of halachic authorities, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef emphasizes that the Chanuka lights must possess both oil and wicks. He does, however, note one authority, Rabbi Mordechai Fogelman (Beit Mordechai 40), who permits someone passing near a synagogue displaying an electric menorah on its roof to recite the blessing of “She’asah nissim” (but not “Le’hadlik ner” since he has not kindled any light) provided the menorah is located less than 20 amot above the ground and he also does not light at home.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef does not allow the recitation of “She’asah nissim” in such a case, commenting that doing so would be considered a beracha levatala, uttering G-d’s Name in vain.
In his summation, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef states that one does not fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles with an electric menorah, but agrees that if a person has no other menorah, he should light it without a blessing. If he comes upon a kosher menorah later on, he should kindle the lights on it with the appropriate blessings.
We thus see from the various opinions (with the exception of Rabbi Shmelkes) that if one has no other choice, an electric menorah may be lit, but the usual blessings should not be recited, despite the possibility that the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lights may have been accomplished.
As to omitting the blessing: It should be noted that saying it does not constitute the mitzvah, nor does the lack of a blessing detract from its performance, as the Gemara states (see Berachot 15a and Rashi ad loc. s.v. “Lo yitrom” and “Beracha deRabbanan he“).