Q: Can electric candles be used for Hanukkah?
A: According to Rabbi Yosef Messas[i], one is allowed to light an electric Hanukkiah, reciting the blessings before flipping the switch or tightening the light bulb. The most common situation where this would be required is when staying at a hotel where it is forbidden to light candles, but there could be other reasons. For example, one might have a choice between an indoors oil Hanukkiah and an outdoor electric one which will not be affected by the wind, or it could be a question of availability or convenience.
One cannot argue that the since the Menorah at the Temple was not electric, the Hanukkiah also cannot be electric, because the Halakha requires distinction between the Menorah, which had seven branches, and the Hanukkiah which has eight. Additionally, the Menorah could be lit with olive oil only, while it is customary to light Hanukkah candles made of wax or paraffin. Finally, had the Halakha required the creation of fire for either the Menorah or the Hanukkiah, electricity would be disqualified since it is not fire. The insistence, however, is on producing light, and therefore any source light can be used for the Hanukkah lights.
Q: Is it desirable to light colossal Hanukkiahs or to place an electric one on the car rooftop?
A: It might sound strange to those of us who grew accustomed to see gigantic Hanukkiahs lit in public squares and near government buildings, but the Hanukkah candles were never meant to become the center of a public celebration. As a matter of fact, Judaism shuns centralized, public displays of devotion, and concentrates on the practice of the individual. The personal experience is internalized and then influences its surroundings in growing concentric circles. The original idea of Hanukkah was that each intimate and family-centered lighting at home would send a tiny message to the outside world and that the connected dots of many households will create a community of faith. Today public Hanukkiah lightings are ubiquitous, as are electric Hanukkiahs on cars.
With all the advantages of Jewish pride and freedom, there is a downside of turning Hanukkah into a hollow external display of decoration and lights, not much different than the Christmas tree. It has now become natural to see buildings, stores, windows, and papers, decorated with both Christmas and Hanukkah symbols, and in some cases Kwanza joins too. Obviously, public Hanukkiah lightings are here to stay and many of us enjoy them greatly, but we should keep in mind that the true place to celebrate Hanukkah is in the intimate family environment, with emphasis on spending quality time together and internalizing Jewish values and history.
Q: Why do women refrain from work after lighting the Hanukkiah and does this practice apply to men?
A: The halakha speaks of women not working for at least half an hour after candle lighting. Men are not mentioned because traditionally, men did not do any work at home. It was obvious that men would not work after lighting candles, and it was important to clarify that women should also refrain from work, which originally referred to crafts such as embroidery, sewing, and needlework. The reason for avoiding work is to enable the family to spend quality time together, even if the activity or discussion does not revolve around Hanukkah. In this manner the Holiday remains embedded in the children’s minds as a precious memory of the family coming together around Jewish traditions. It is therefore imperative that both men and women refrain from work[ii], including texting and answering mail, for at least half an hour after candle lighting. They should also schedule the lighting in a way that will allow them to spend that time at home before leaving for outside Hanukkah activities.
[i] רבי יוסף משאש, מים חיים, א:רעט - כל הפתילות כשרות לנר חנוכה… העיקר הוא שיהיה האור צלול… אין לך אור צלול ממנו.
[ii] החיד”א, ברכי יוסף, או”ח תרע:קד - מדברי מהר”יל משמע שגם הגברים לא יעשו מלאכה בעוד הנרות דולקים