Daddy, can mummy light the candles too?

If the father is working late, why shouldn’t the mother kindle the candles for her children

By Rabbi Natan Levy, November 24, 2013

Chanucah can celebrate insomnia. Last year, I returned home late from Trafalgar Square, to awaken a somniferous wife, who asked sleepily: “Why can’t I light for both of us?” Why can’t she? Gentle reader, let me tell you that story.

The reason I was shaking my slumbering better half has everything to do with persumei nesa, in which the festival lights intrinsically proclaim the miracles of the Chanucah events of approximately 140 BCE (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim. 771:7). The ritual of candle lighting is framed by this core objective to create a flame visible to others.

Thus, the best place and time to light the chanuciah is outside the doorstep, in the half-hour just after the onset of real darkness, when “there is still footfall in the marketplace” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 772:2). This year, in London that will occur around 5:00pm. If one arrives home at a later hour, there is still the possibility — though it is considered to be of lesser worth — to light with a blessing all night long, as long as someone else is awake to experience the event. Which explains the late-night wake-up call.

But women also have an equal commandment to light Chanucah candles and my wife is home at 5:00pm, when the proverbial marketplace is still bustling (Talmud Shabbat 23a). Why doesn’t she light the family lights then, fulfilling the commandment for the home and vicariously for her tardy husband as well? Even more so, in the Ashkenazi custom, as recorded by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, each member of the family lights their own chanuciah and each of my children will come home early to frighteningly wield their own wobbly Chanucah flames.

Why can’t my wife join them in that more appropriate hour to light her own chanuciah with the concomitant blessing long before I return? “Wives don’t light,” innovated the Chofetz Chaim in 1884, “for a wife is akin to the body of her husband. Please overlook the rather archaic language, the notion here I think is a touchingly intimate one. In a world of individualised candle lighting, a husband and a wife share the experience with a single act.

Yet, everything is not created equal. Though the experience is shared, it is the man who lights the lights, the man who says the blessing, the woman is the watcher in silence. But let’s not protest too much; when both husband and wife are present, someone has to light, someone has to watch, and the Chofetz Chaim was writing in Belarus, some 20 years before women even had the vote there.

However our situation is different. I am away and my wife is at home with the candles, the marketplace is emptying out, the opportune lighting time is quickly slipping past. Her obligation is equal to mine. As the other half of the husband-wife amalgamation, she can seize the ideal moment, she can light for us both this year! “No,” said the first dayan I asked; “Better not to,” said the next, “ you should light, despite the lateness of the hour.”

I could not let it go. The halachic parameters would seem not only to permit it, but positively encourage her to light in the more appropriate time slot. “There is halachah, and then there is meta-halachah,” the dayan concluded. An overarching structure, not seen in the nuts and bolts of the Shulchan Aruch, hidden to the uninitiated, intuited by those who have steeped themselves in Jewish learning. And of course, unavailable to women.

There are two problems with any meta-halachic decision for our community. The first is that it is hard to frame a serious and nuanced debate in this arena. Who can argue cogently in the face of a feeling about a custom that can’t be found in any text? Secondly, despite the great sensitivity and intelligence of Anglo-Jewry’s rabbinical leadership, in the amorphous zone of meta-halachah, is it really clear where Torah ends and old fashioned bias against women, against minorities and the like blurs in?

Are we sure that our rabbinical values come from Torah insights rather than cultural norms? In the echo of those creepy guffaws of the front benchers of government after the Prime Minister’s jibe to MP Angela Eagle to “calm down dear”; in the near dearth of female leadership in FTSE 100 companies; and the casual sexism within our synagogues, where young women can look forward to joining the “youth kiddush club”, while their brothers lead the youth minyans, herein lies a mess of ingrained prejudices.

Are our rabbis immune from such bias when they leave the page of halachah behind to drift into the meta-halachic space? Questions to keep us up at night, long after the Chanucah candles have
gone out.

Last updated: 10:00am, December 3 2013