Electric Menorahs-Towards a Teleological Halakhah
It is safe to say that most of us are familiar with the electric menorahs that we see in storefront windows or in the windows of people’s homes. What I would like to do is examine a halakhic responsum of a certain posek who discussed whether these electric menorahs are able to fulfill one’s halakhic obligation of lighting Hanukkah candles and פירסומא ניסא, publicizing the Hanukkah miracle, and extrapolate from this responsum possible implications for halakhah in general. The posek whose responsum I would like to discuss is R. Yosef Mesas (1892-1974). R. Mesas was born in Morocco and later moved to Israel (in Hebrew read about him here).
R. Mesas wrote about the use of electric menorahs in two places. The first was in his collection of responsa מים חיים and the second was in a response to a critique of his responsa which was included in his book on Hanukkah, נר מצוה. R. Mesas begins his responsum by saying that he does not know why one even has to research the question and that the permission is simple, “וצעיר אני לא ידעתי מדוע צ”ע, ולא יהיה ההיתר פשוט”. R. Mesas responds to three possible objections to the use of an electric menorah. The first involves the wicks, whether a light bulb is halakhically qualified. R. Mesas claims, on the basis of the Shulhah Arukh in Orach Hayyim 673:1 that all types of wicks are permissible, “כל הפתילות כשרות”. The next possible objection is that the mitzvah must be observed through the use of oil since the Hanukkah miracle itself was observed with oil. R. Mesas responds by saying that in Ashkenaz it is already acceptable to use wax candles since their light was considered superior to that of oil lamps (see the Ramah on Orach Hayyim, loc. cit.). As to the third possible objection that there is no lighting and extinguishing of the light, R. Mesas says that this is accomplished by turning the light(s) on and off. In this responsum R. Mesas make an important observation about an electric menorah. He says that there is no light which is as clear as that which comes from an electric menorah, “ובנד”ד אין לך אור צלול יותר ממנו”. Thus is seems that not only is one permitted to use an electric menorah, rather it may even be the preferred method of performing the mitzvah.
While R. Mesas does discuss a number of other points in his book Ner Mitzvah (pp. 13-16), it is his comments on this last point, the possible preferred use of electric menorahs, which we would like to focus on. R. Mashash describes the superiority of the electric menorah in even clearer terms.
ועוד אני אומר, דפשוט וברור, שאם היה אור האלקיטריסיטי מצוי בזמן המקדש, ודאי שבו היו מדליקין המנורה, משום שאי אפשר להיות שנמלא בתינו החולין באורים גדולים של אור החשמל היקר הזה, שהוא מעין דוגמא של מעלה, ובבית אלהינו הקדוש נדליק בשמן זית, שאפי[לו] העניים הגרועים מואסים אותו בזה”ז, ופשוט שממנו נדליק בבית האחרון שיבנה בב”א
And I say more, that it is simple and clear, that if the electrical light existed in the time of the Temple, certainly with it they would have lit the menorah, since it is impossible to be that we would fill our everyday homes with these great lights of the precious electrical light, that it is a kind of example from the heavens, and in the House of Our Holy Lord we would light with olive oil, that even the extremely poor are disgusted by it at this time, and it is simple that from it [i.e. electrical light] we will light in the last house [i.e. Temple] that will be built speedily in our days amen. (p. 15)The approach to halakhah which can be found in these writings of R. Mesas is what Zvi Zohar has called a teleological approach to halakhah, from the Greek word telos which means purpose or goal (see Zohar, p. 260). By teleological we mean that R. Mashash sees a clear purpose and goal in the halakhah of lighting the Hanukkah candles, i.e. to provide the clearest light possible in order to publicize the miracle. While at one point in time this may have been best accomplished through the use of olive oil lamps, and at a later time through the use of wax candles, in our times the best way to accomplish the performance of the mitzvah is through the use of electric lights.
R. Mesas’s opinion raises questions on both the micro and the macro level. On the micro level there is the question of what are the implications of his opinion regarding the permissibility of using electric menorahs in order to fullfill the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles to the question of using electric lights to fulfill other mitzvot which were traditionally done with candles? How does this effect the question of using electricity on Shabbat and Yom Tov? On the macro level his approach has implications for almost any halakhic question. How best can the purpose of the halakhah be fulfilled? Is there a better way to fulfill the purpose of a certain halakhah today than there was in the past?
Yosef Mashash-מים חיים חלק א, נר מצוה
Zohar-צבי זוהר, מסורת ותמורה, ירושלים, מכון בן-צבי
For a listing of authorities who both permit and prohibit the use of an electric menorah in order to fullfill the mitzvah see החשמל בהלכה, חלק א , 34-45
R. Chaim Jachter and R. Michael Broyde, “Electrically Produced Fire or Light in Positive Commandments”, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, no. XXV, pp. 89-126, esp. pp. 108-117.