Lighting Hanukkah Candles with Electric Lights: A Teshuvah from Rav Yaakov Moshe Toledano Translation by Rabbi Avi Schwartz, introduction by Rabbi Dov Linzer by Rabbi Avram Schwartz

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano (1880-1960), author of Responsa Yam HaGadol, was a Sepharadi rabbi and posek. He served Jewish communities in his hometown of Tiberias, in Tangier, Cairo, and finally Tel Aviv, where he served as the Sepharadi chief rabbi. In 1958, he was appointed the Minister of Religions. He was active in religious leadership throughout his life, setting up schools and batei din, including one in Tel Aviv dedicated to resolving problems of agunot.

In this responsum, Rav Toledano deals with the permissibility of lighting Hanukkah candles with electric lights. This has ramifications for those in hospitals or college dorms who are not permitted to have open flames in their rooms. In addition, for safety concerns we should never leave burning candles without anyone at home (far too often we here of homes burning down due to Hanukkah or Shabbat candles). Being able to use electric lights would be extremely helpful in such cases.

Central to the halakhic question is whether an electric light, specifically an incandescent light, is considered halakhically to be eish, fire. There is a pretty unanimous consensus among the poskim that it is fire, and that to turn on an incandescent light on Shabbat would constitute a Biblical violation of making a fire on Shabbat. If so, it would seem that electric lights could be used for Hanukkah, but in fact this is a matter of debate.

Some poskim argue that one needs to have all the oil in the lamp at the moment of lighting, and here the “oil,” i.e., the electricity, that will be needed for the duration of the candles’ burning will only be generated and delivered through the outlet after the lighting. A battery-run menorah would solve this problem, but, more to the point, many other poskim rule that when you plug into a system that will reliably provide the fuel, then fuel is considered to be present at the time of lighting.

Rav Toledano focuses on another concern: if lighting Hanukkah candles requires a formal act of kindling, then perhaps flipping a switch does not constitute such an act. In the end, he rules that he believes that electric lights may be used, although he states that he cannot prove it conclusively.

My ruling would be that in situations where a person may not have an open flame, or if someone has to leave them unattended (and can’t blow them out a half-hour after lighting), then she may use incandescent lights and make a brakha over them. The use of LEDs is somewhat more questionable. When it comes to Shabbat candles, electric lights and LEDs are certainly permissible. If there are any safety concerns, such as leaving Shabbat candles unattended when invited out for Friday night dinner, one should use electric candles or just turn on the electric lights in their dining room. See my longer discussion on this issue here.

Let this coming Hanukkah bring light to our world, and help us see God’s presence in our lives and in all our successes.

שו”ת ים הגדול, ס’ ל”ב

נשאלתי אם מותר להדליק נרות חנוכה בנרות חשמליות אלקטריק שיעשה שמונה מנורות כאלה ולהדליקם ע”י הנעת הכפתור כידוע

עי’ לעיל סי’ כ”ג שכתבתי דדוקא בנר הבדלה צריך שלא יהיה האור סגור תוך פנס אבל בנר חנוכה וכן נר שבת מותר

… ומשום הך דשבת כ”ג דשמן זית מן המובחר ופסקה מור”ם בסי’ תרע”ג ס”א אין זה לעיכובא כלל ובפרט דאם יש אור שצלול ומאיר יותר הו”ל כשמן זית… וא”כ אם ליופי אין לך יפה מאור החשמל.

ואי משום דמנורות החשמל הן עגולים כידוע ונתלים ואין להם תורת כלי… גם מנורות התשמל שעשוים לכך וזו מלאכתן הוו כלי

ושו”ר שכנד”ד הביא בשדי תמד במע’ חנוכה אות ו’ משו”ת בית יצחק שנשאל על נרות המדליקין בשמן בלי פתילה והכשיר, ורק דלמצוה מן המובחר כתב דבעי בשמן זית ופתילות דדמו למנורה וכו’ ע”ש. וכנראה שכוונתו על נרות שנותנין בהם תמצית שמן הגאז שנדלקין ע”י צינורות של האד בלי פתילות.

אלא דיש לחלק בין הנך ובין נרות החשמל דנד”ד, דהתם בצינורות תמצית הגאז איכא הדלקה מיהא שמדליקין אותם באש אבל בנרות החשמל אין בהם הדלקה כי אם מניעים ולוחצים את הכפתור והאור יוצא. וכיון דקי”ל בחנוכה הדלקה עושה מצוה ומטעם זה פסלינן התם בשבת כ”א הדלקת חש”ו… א”כ גם נר החשמל שהוא כבר כמוס וגנוז בחוטים הנמשכים ממרכז בית החרושת ורק מתנוצץ או נכבה ע”י דפיקת הכפתור, אין בזה הדלקה גמורה. ועמ”ש לעיל סי’ כ”ו.

ואולם י”ל דמ”ש הדלקה עושה מצוה דברו בהוה שכל הנרות היו נדלקין באש בזמנם, אבל הוא הדין ג”כ כשמנוצץ האש הסגור ומאיר אותו, כבכה”ג של החשמל, דפיקת הכפתור מקרי הדלקה, דהא ההארה הוא העיקר ולא ההדלקה, כמ”ש ולהאיר ביום ובלילה. וכך נראה בעיני הגם שאין לי לע”ע הוכחה ברורה ע”ז.

Responsa Yam HaGadol, no. 32

I was asked if it is permissible to use electric lights as Hanukkah candles by setting up eight electric lamps and lighting them by flipping the switch.

What it says on Shabbat 23a that olive oil is the preferred fuel, and this is ruled in Shulkhan Arukh OH 673:1 – this does not mean that not using olive oil prevents one from fulfilling the mitzvah. Moreover, if one has a light that gives off a clear and bright light, this is just as good as olive oil…The sources indicate that the key consideration is the quality of the light, and if it is the quality that we are concerned about, then nothing is as beautiful as electric light.

If the concern is that electric bulbs are round and they hang from the ceiling, and therefore don’t meet the technical definition of avessel…since electric lights are made for this purpose, they are by this measure considered a vessel [citing Kelim 4:3].

I saw in the Sdei Hemed (under the heading for Hanukkah, no.6) that he cites a responsum of the Beit Yitzhak, who was asked about lamps in which the oil is lit without wicks. He permitted these lamps, adding only that it is preferable for the purposes of the mitzvah to use olive oil with wicks, similarly to the menorah. It is likely that he was referring to gas lamps, where the gas enters through a pipe and is lit without a wick.

There is, however, a distinction to be drawn between such lamps and the electric lights under discussion. In the case of the gas lamps, the gas is still lit at the [end of] the pipe, even though what is burnt is the gas itself [and not a wick], whereas in the case of the electric lights, nothing is burnt. One merely flips a switch and the light comes out. Since we hold that with regard to Hanukkah candles, the kindling itself accomplishes the mitzvah, and thus lighting done by a minor… is invalid [Shabbat 23a, OH 675:3], it should follow that with the electric light, where the electricity already exists within the wires flowing from the power plant, and the light begins shining at the flip of the switch, there is no actual act of lighting the fire.

However, one can say that when the Sages said “kindling accomplishes the mitzvah,” they were speaking about what was commonplace, as all lights were lit with fire in their times. So with regard to a light which is hidden and then shines like electric light, flipping the switch is defined as “kindling,” for the key is the illumination that is created, and not the act of lighting per se, as it is said “to shine… by day and by night” (comp. Gen. 1:17-18). So it appears to me, although I do not have a clear proof for this at this time.