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Thought for the Day: Using Electric Lights In Chanuka Menorah -- Probably Not a Great Idea

Spoiler alert: We are not going to come to a conclusion about whether one fulfills his obligation to light Chanuka lights using electric lamps.  On the other hand, we are going to have a lot of fun along the way.

Minchas Shlomo T'nina 58:7 is all about this topic.  Let's first set some basic principles.  Using electricity to heat a tungsten filament to incandescence is halachically equivalent to lighting a fire.  You can certainly (even l'chatchila according to many poskim) use an electric light (the old fashioned ones... with a filament, not florescent -- including CFLs -- and certainly not LEDs) for havdala.  Someone who turns on an electric light  (the old fashioned ones... with a filament, though maybe not florescent nor LEDs) on Shabbos has earned himself a chatas; that is he has violated the prohibition of making fire m'di'oraisa. (Don't try that at home, kids.)  The question of using electric lamps for Chanuka has nothing to do with whether or not screwing a  Christmas tree bulb into an electric menorah is making fire; it is.  But there are a whole lot of other questions to address.

First of all: the miracle was that one day's worth of oil lasted for eight days.  Using a filament is not similar to that at all, since the filament is not consumed.  Good question; needs more investigation.

So maybe you need a combustible fuel.  Can you fulfill the mitzvah by burning wood?  Imagine little wooden matchsticks that are made out of some kind of wood that will burn for 1/2 hour or so; ie, the shiur required for the lights to be burning.  It is certainly fire.  Moreover, even though the miracle was with oil, our sages have not required the use of oil.  Olive oil is best, according to some poskim, though others prefer our wax candles because of the clear, bright flame; but everyone agrees that any kind of candle or oil or other flammable liquid with a wick is acceptable.  But maybe it at least needs to be similar to the menorah in the beis ha'mikdash in that it uses a fuel other than the wick.  Good question; needs more investigation.

While we're on that topic... what about using oil without a wick?  Just lighting the surface of the oil (or kerosene or whatever) certainly does not fulfill the mitzvah, because the mitzvah requires a flame, not a torch.  However, by floating a small plate with the thin tube stuck through the middle, you can get the oil drawn up that tube and light it.  Single flame, uses oil.  However, the Chidushei HaRim says that they cut the wicks very thin (1/8 normal thickness) to make the oil last longer; the miracle according to him was that the lamps burned as brightly as if the wicks were full.  From that is seems that the wicks were part of the miracle, so maybe there needs to be a wick.  Good question; needs more investigation.

Since we're talking about the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash, the Torah introduces the mitzvah lighting the menorah in parshas b'ha'alos'cha -- literally, to cause to go up, not to light.  The mitzvah is to keep the source of ignition held on the lamps until the flame goes up.  Maybe, therefore, the mitzvah of Chanuka requires a flame and not just fire.  Good question; needs more investigation.

R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, ztz"l, ends this ma'amar (which is actually transcribed from his handwritten notes for giving the shiur  in yeshiva during Chanuka one year) with this:
All of this I have written only to arouse one to the issues involved in this question.  May it be HaShem's Will to enlighten us constantly with His Torah and may we merit days of light and rejoicing.  There is no joy like the dissolution of doubts.

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