Most people do not realize that kindling the Chanukah menorah in shul falls under the category of custom, and it is not part of the mitzvah that our Sages instituted. How did this practice become so established that we even recite a beracha on it? For that matter, when do we ever recite a beracha prior to observing a custom?
We find some discussion among rishonim whether one should recite a beracha when kindling the shul’s Chanukah menorah. Although a few rishonim opposed reciting a beracha on this kindling, in the course of time we find the practice gaining full acceptance. In the Fourteenth Century, a scholar named Rabbi Amram ben Meroam queried the Rivash, one of the greatest halachic authorities of his era, as to why we kindle the menorah in shul. Rabbi Amram reports that he had been unable to find a halachic reason for why the beracha recited upon this kindling is not considered a beracha levatalah, a blessing recited in vain. After all, each individual is required to light in his own home, and no one fulfills the mitzvah with the shul kindling.
Rabbi Amram considers the possibility that the kindling in shul is for the sake of the destitute, who cannot afford to purchase oil or candles for Chanukah, but he rejects this approach. Even the poorest of the poor is, after all, required to kindle Chanukah lights at home, just as he is required to observe a seder and drink four cups of wine on Pesach, because these mitzvos accomplish pirsuma nisa, publicizing the miracle.
The Rivash responded that kindling Chanukah lights in shul is a time-honored practice that began when Jews were no longer able to light Chanukah lights outside, as Chazal had originally ordained. When the kindling of the menorah was moved indoors, pirsuma nisa still took place with respect to our families, but we lacked the true pirsuma nisa that a public kindling accomplishes. Therefore, explains the Rivash, the custom of kindling Chanukah lights in shul developed, whereby the entire community could witness the commemoration of the miracle and thereby fulfill the ideal of a public pirsuma nisa.
The Rivash implies that he accepts Rabbi Amram’s position that no one fulfills the mitzvah with the kindling in shul. Nevertheless, we recite a beracha, notwithstanding the fact that it is technically a custom, and not a mitzvah instituted by Chazal. The Shulchan Aruch and, to the best of my knowledge, all later authorities, accept this ruling that one recites a beracha prior to kindling the Chanukah lights in shul.
Regarding the question of how we can recite a beracha on a custom, the Rivash compares this to our practice of reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. Although the Gemara states explicitly that this recitation is not required according to halacha and is a custom that developed, we make a beracha prior to reciting it.
The Kolbo cites two other reasons for the practice of kindling the Chanukah menorah in shul:
(2) We kindle on behalf of those who do not observe the mitzvah in their own homes. (This appears to be the exact reason that Rabbi Amram and the Rivash rejected.)
(3) We kindle in shul, our mikdash me’at, to commemorate the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash.
In addition, the Beis Yosef suggests two more reasons:
(4) To educate those who do not know how to recite the berachos.
(5) Similar to the custom of reciting Kiddush in shul Friday night, which originally was established so that guests, who stayed and ate their meals in the shul (or in nearby rooms) would be able to hear Kiddush, the kindling is done so that travelers would thereby fulfill the mitzvah.
The Beis Yosef meant that a wayfarer who slept in the shul would fulfill his mitzvah with the menorah there. It may also include the situation of a traveler who will be unable to fulfill the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights, and thus is required to recite the berachos of she’asah nissim and shehechiyanu when he sees Chanukah lights burning. According to the Beis Yosef, it is possible that the traveler may rely on the shul Chanukah menorah for his berachos. This matter is discussed by the late authorities.
Do these variant reasons have any effect on the halacha?
Indeed, they do. According to the reason given by the Rivash, no one fulfills a mitzvah with the shul menorah, and this is, in fact, how the Rama rules, whereas according to some of the other reasons, the menorah was kindled specifically to assist people in fulfilling the mitzvah. Following are several other differences in halachic practice that emerge from this dispute.
When Do We Light?
The Rama states that we kindle the lights in shul between mincha and maariv, which is earlier than the optimal time for kindling the Chanukah menorah. The Mishnah Berurah notes we kindle the shul menorah before maariv, since that is when everyone is gathered and, as a result, there is greater pirsuma nisa. This approach assumes that the kindling in shul is because we want to fulfill pirsuma nisa in a public forum, the first reason mentioned above. If, however, the basis of the custom is to enable travelers or others who would not otherwise be lighting to fulfill the mitzvah, one should kindle the shul menorah at the halachically optimal time, which is after maariv.
Is the Shul Menorah Kindled for Shacharis?
Common custom, mentioned by many authorities, is to rekindle the shul’s menorah, without a beracha, and have it burn during Shacharis. Yet this practice appears unusual, since Chazal required commemorating the miracle only by kindling Chanukah lights at night, and there is no custom of kindling the Chanukah lights in the daytime at home. Several authorities explain that the reason for kindling the shul’s Chanukah menorah in the morning is to commemorate the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash, whose lights burned in the morning. Thus, we see that this reason (#3 above) manifests itself in our practice.
When Do We Extinguish the Shul Menorah?
There was a common practice in many communities to extinguish the Chanukah lights after maariv, although they had not yet burned for a half-hour after dark, which is the minimum time that halacha requires. The Melamed LeHo’il permits the continuation of this practice, although other authorities object to it. Indeed, the dispute hinges on why we kindle the menorah in shul. The Melamed LeHo’il contends that if the kindling in shul is for public pirsuma nisa, then there may be no requirement to leave the menorah burning. However, if the reason for the minhag is so that some individuals could thereby fulfill the mitzvah, then one must allow the lights to burn for the same amount of time as when they are lit at home.
May a Child Kindle the Shul Menorah?
Again, this should depend on the reason for the minhag. If no one fulfills any mitzvah with the shul menorah, then a child could kindle the shul’s menorah. However, if we are kindling for adults to help them thereby fulfill the mitzvah, only an adult should be permitted to kindle the menorah.
Kindling the Menorah at a Wedding
If someone is making a wedding on Chanukah, should he kindle his menorah at the wedding or celebration rather than, or in addition to, kindling at home? Assuming that he already kindled at home, may he recite a beracha upon the kindling outside the home?
One Chanukah, I attended the wedding of the son of a prominent talmid chacham and noticed that the baalei simcha brought their huge silver menorahs to the hall and kindled them there. I assumed that the talmid chacham had also kindled at home, but he told me that he felt that there was greater pirsuma nisa through kindling at the wedding, and since he was at the wedding hall all evening, he considered it his “home” for that night of Chanukah. I personally did not agree with his decision, since the halacha is that one is required to kindle Chanukah lights in his own home. Subsequently, I found a teshuvah from Rav Moishe Shternbuch about a similar case – a minyan davening maariv at a wedding on Chanukah — in which he rules that lighting in shul is a specific, established minhag, and that we cannot randomly extend this minhag to other situations and permit making a beracha.
I tell people in this situation that if they cannot be home the entire evening, they should arrange for someone to kindle their menorah for them at their house as their agent (see Mishnah Berurah 677:12). If they are concerned about leaving unattended lights burning, they should have their agent remain with the lights for half an hour, and then the “menorah sitter” may extinguish the lights.
Lighting at a Concert
During Chanukah, various concerts and other similar community celebrations and events often take place. May one recite the berachos if one kindles a menorah at these events? Although lighting a menorah at the assembly will also be an act of pirsumei nisa, one fulfills no mitzvah or minhag by doing so. Therefore, most authorities I have seen rule that one should not recite a beracha on this lighting.
 Shibbolei HaLeket #185; Sefer Tanya, quoted by Birkei Yosef, Orach Chayim, 671:6.
 Shu’t HaRivash #111.
 The Rivash, Rav Yitzchak bar Sheishes, a disciple of the Ran and Rabbeinu Peretz, was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1326, where he earned his living as a merchant until his early 40’s. He then assumed rabbinic positions in Spain; in Saragossa, Catalayud and Valencia. During the massacres in Spain of 1391, he fled to Algiers, North Africa, where he was appointed the rav and av beis din, a position that he held until his passing sixteen years later.
 Arachin 10a
 Taanis 28b
 See Tosafos, Taanis 28b.
 Kolbo #44
 Orach Chayim Chapter 671
 The Shibbolei Leket mentions this basis, but feels that when there are no longer guests staying in the shul, that there is no reason to kindle, and no reason to recite a beracha.
 Several sources are quoted in Chovas Hador Chapter 2, ftn. 46.
 Orach Chayim 671:7
 Orach Chayim 671:7
 Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 670:2; Binyan Shelomoh #53; Shu’t Melamed LeHo’il 1:121
 1:121. The Melamed LeHo’il reports that the minhag in Frankfurt was to kindle very long candles in shul that would burn all night until after shacharis; and the minhag in Berlin was to extinguish the candles after maariv and rekindle them in the morning.
 Shu’t Shevet Halevi 8:156
 Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 6:65:1
 Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:398
 Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 6:65:3; Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 15:30; Shu’t Divrei Yetziv, Orach Chayim 286:3; Shu’t Shevet HaLevi 4:65; Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:398; cf., however, Shu’t Az Nidberu 5:37 who rules that one may recite berachos at these kindlings. Shu’t Yabia Omer 7: Orach Chayim: 57 rules that if a shul has several minyanim for maariv through the night, one may recite a beracha before the kindling that precedes each minyan.