07 Dec The Mixed-Up Brachas on Chanukah Lights
I. Reasons to Deviate
Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel; Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 676:1) says that the first bracha on Chanukah lights is: “le-hadlik ner Chanukah, to kindle Chanukah light.” Many have noted how puzzling this is because the Gemara (Shabbos 23a) says that the bracha is “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” This is similar to the bracha we recite on Shabbos and Yom Tov lights, “le-hadlik ner shel…” Why does the Shulchan Aruch deviate from the bracha text in the Talmud and most commentaries? Despite this important question, this version of the bracha has lasted and is used by most Sephardim and many Ashkenazim, including the Vilna Gaon (18th cen., Lithuania; Ma’aseh Rav, par. 239) and Aruch Ha-Shulchan (19th cen., Lithuania; Orach Chaim 676:1).
Commentaries offer two explanations for the Shulchan Aruch’s bracha text.
1. Rav Yosef Te’omim (18th cen., Germany; Peri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 676:intro) quotes Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (17th cen., Germany; Shelah, Maseches Tamid) who explains that Shabbos lights are for personal use and also for Shabbos, as opposed to Chanukah lights which we may not use for our own benefit and are only for publicizing the Chanukah miracle.
While Rav Horowitz is actually addressing a slightly different bracha text, which we will discuss below, his explanation works well within the Shulchan Aruch’s text, as well. With Shabbos, there is a light we are using for personal benefit. We recite a bracha on that light and use it also to honor Shabbos. Therefore, we recite a bracha on a light that has its own purpose and we use it for Shabbos. It is a light, for Shabbos. In contrast, with Chanukah there is no light if not for the holiday. The light has no independent use. Therefore, it is not a light for Chanukah but a Chanukah light.
2. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel), in his Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 677:1), explains similarly to Rav Horowitz. In his Machazik Berachah (Orach Chaim 676:1), Chida offers a different explanation. He notes that Shabbos and Yom Tov have many mitzvah actions — a meal, kiddush, wearing especially nice clothing, etc. Lights are only one of many Shabbos mitzvos and therefore the bracha refers to the lights of Shabbos, the one of many mitzvos. In contrast, Chanukah has no mitzvah action beyond lights. This is the only mitzvah of the holiday and therefore it is called Chanukah lights, inherently identified with the holiday.
To put it differently, according to the first explanation, there is no light without Chanukah. According to the second explanation, there is no Chanukah without light.
II. The Lost Bracha
However, the prevalent Ashkenazic practice is to recite the bracha “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” As Rav Te’omim says (ibid.), this is what people customarily say. And with good reason. Rav Avraham Bing (19th cen., Germany; Zichron Avraham 676) argues strongly in favor of this text. The Gemara (Shabbos 23a) clearly states that this is the text of the bracha. Who are we to deviate from that? The Shulchan Aruch must have been imprecise because we have on the highest authority, the Talmud, that the bracha is “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” All the explanations and speculations in the world can’t push away that fact.
There is another version of the bracha, “le-hadlik ner she-la-Chanukah.” The words “shel” and “Chanukah” are merged into one. This is how the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Chanukah 3:4) has it (in the Frankel edition) and how Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 85) says to recite the bracha. It is in explanation of this text that Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (Shelah, quoted above) says that this refers to the sole purpose of the Chanukah light to publicize the miracle. This seems to be the old Ashkenazic version of the bracha. Dr. Seligmann Baer (19th cen., Germany; Siddur Avodas Yisrael) has it this way, vocalized as “she-la-Chanukah,” which he explains means “asher le-Chanukah, that is (solely) for Chanukah.”
Similarly, Mishnah Berurah (676:1) quotes Maharshal who says to pronounce it as one word but then Mishnah Berurah adds that people are not careful about this. In other words, really we should pronounce it that way but for one reason or another, that isn’t the custom. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim say the bracha in a way that singles out Chanukah light as being dedicated solely for Chanukah.
As Mishnah Berurah says, many Ashkenazim aren’t careful about the pronunciation and it does not really matter. Similarly, Aruch Ha-Shulchan (676:1) says that it doesn’t really matter how you say it (although he personally says “ner Chanukah”). Either “le-hadlik ner Chanukah,” “le-hadlik ner she-la-Chanukah” or “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah.” Any of these three are valid.