The Chabad-Lubavitch public menorah lighting ceremonies are a familiar feature of the organization’s worldwide outreach activities. These annual events are extremely valuable, as they serve to awaken Jewish pride and offer the Chanukah experience to those who might otherwise not observe the holiday in any way. In addition to the speeches, concerts and free sufganiot, the central feature of these events is, of course, the actual lighting of the menorah. It is not completely clear, however, whether the practice of reciting the accompanying blessings when lighting the menorah at these events is halachically permitted.
The reason for this uncertainty is that all the classic halachic texts rule that one may only recite the blessings when lighting a menorah in the home or the synagogue. Indeed, it has been noted that while the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged these public Chanukah menorah lightings, he actually never commented as to whether or not the accompanying blessings should be recited. No one is quite sure why he was silent on this issue.
Even the current practice of reciting the blessings when lighting the menorah in the synagogue has had fierce opposition in the past. This is because there is no source in the Talmud or early halachic codes that authorizes doing so. Many halachic authorities in the past opposed the custom of lighting the menorah in the synagogue, and even in more recent times there were great rabbis, including the Chatam Sofer, who would decline the “honor” of lighting the menorah in the synagogue for this reason. According to this minority approach, congregations that insist on lighting the menorah each night should do so without reciting the accompanying blessings.
Nevertheless, normative halacha is not in accordance with this view, and the menorah is lit in synagogues each night of Chanukah along with its accompanying blessings.
Our Sages actually had to go to great lengths in order to justify the lighting of the menorah in the synagogue. Some authorities defended the practice by arguing that lighting the menorah in the synagogue accomplishes the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracles of Chanukah. Other authorities explain that the menorah is lit in the synagogue on behalf of those who are unable to light a menorah at home themselves. Even so, the halachic authorities are quick to assert that approval to recite the blessings on the menorah in the synagogue does not extend to any other venue.
Nevertheless, there may be grounds to justify reciting the blessings at these public menorah lightings, based on other considerations. There is a precedent cited in halachic literature that allows for study groups who meet nightly during Chanukah to light the menorah along with the accompanying blessings. It is also noted that the original enactment of the menorah lighting at home was for it to take place outdoors, a practice that is uncommon in most of the world today. As such, it is argued that recitaing the blessings at these public menorah lightings is justifiable because they often include a dvar Torah. They also recall the original enactment of the Sages to light the menorah outdoors.
There is additional justification for reciting the blessings at these events if they include mincha and ma’ariv prayers as well. Similarly, one will also find that weddings that take place on Chanukah often include a menorah lighting ceremony in which the accompanying blessings are recited, and this practice has won the support of many contemporary halachic authorities.
Ultimately, therefore, although the issue of these Chabad outdoor menorah lighting ceremonies is generally not directly addressed by contemporary halachic authorities, the features of these events are similar enough to the synagogue and wedding hall menorah lightings to justify the recitation of the blessings.
 Rema, OC 671:7.
 Maharam Shick, YD 374; Mishnat Sachir, OC 2:202.
 Shibolei Haleket 185; Tanya Rabati 35.
 Beit Yosef, OC 671; Meiri, Shabbat 23a; Shu”t Rivash 111.
 Beit Yosef, OC 671; Orchot Chaim, Chanukah 17; Kol Bol 44.
 Tzitz Eliezer 15:30, 22:37; Minchat Yitzchak 6:65; Shevet Halevi 4:65, Az Nidberu 6:75; Kinyan Torah 1:131:3.
 Mishne Sachir 2:202.
 Az Nidberu 6:75.
 Mishna Berura 671:39; Kaf Hachaim, OC 671:65; Yabia Omer 7:57:6; Torat Hamo’adim p.312 note 97; Rivevot Ephraim 8:409.
 Yabia Omer 7:57:6; Shemesh U’magen, OC 3:33; Rivevot Ephraim 7:190:4.
 Eleh Hem Mo’adai 2:17; Az Nidberu 6:75, 5:37.