I have been living in dorms and apartments since the Hanukkah of 2008 and have often felt that the instructions given to apartment dwellers are incomplete, contradictory, or confusing. The reasons for this confusion reach all the way back to the original sugyot in the Talmud which discuss the basic laws of Hanukkah lamps. These sugyot raise questions for how to apply the laws which were developed in the ancient world to that of the modern urban apartment dweller, and have bearing on the practical application of the laws of Hanukkah to the ideal place for lighting the Hanukkah lamps.
The discussion of the ideal location of the Hanukkah lamps begins in the baraita quoted in masekhet Shabbat 21b, which gives three distinct instructions:
The Rabbis taught: One is required to place the Hanukkah lamp at the exterior of the entrance of one’s house. If one dwells in an upper story, one should place it in the window which faces the public street. And during a time of danger [due to persecution] it suffices to place it on one’s table [inside the house].
In pre-modern times and using pre-modern construction technology, these instructions were straightforward. However, modern construction techniques enable us to build multi-story buildings (major cities often have apartment buildings with dozens of stories!), which raises a significant question that was barely addressed in pre-modern times—what to do if the window is too high?
Regarding the absolute height of the Hanukkah lamp, the Talmud quotes the position of Rabbi Tanhum (Shabbat 21b-22a):
A Hanukkah lamp which was placed higher than 20 cubits is disqualified, like a sukkah and [the beam across] an alley [required for an Eruv].
In talmudic times, when two-story buildings were commonplace in urban areas, but three-story buildings were almost unheard of, these two halakhic requirements did not contradict. Even in Rome itself, the height of insulae was limited by the Emperor Nero to within 60 Roman feet or around 17 meters. To place the Hanukkah lamp in the window of a second story apartment almost certainly meant that it was still lower than 20 cubits.
Although Rif (9b) follows the order of the gemara (21b) and records these two questions of the placement the Hanukkah lamp separately, Rambam in Hilkhot Hanukkah 4:7 juxtaposes the two, implying that they exist in a certain amount of tension:
If one dwells in an upper story one should place it in the window which faces the public street. But a Hanukkah lamp which was placed higher than 20 cubits accomplishes nothing since it will not be noticed.
By including these two halakhot in the same paragraph, Rambam implies that if one’s upper story apartment window is higher than 20 cubits, one would not fulfill the mitzvah by placing the lamp in the window. One must light elsewhere in order to perform the mitzvah; it is impossible to do so in a window higher than 20 cubits.
Ritva (Shabbat 21b, Moshe Goldstein ed.) addresses this question explicitly, but arrives at the opposite conclusion. We should not read the 20 cubit maximum height as the determinative criterion for the Hanukkah lamp; rather, since one who lives in an upper story apartment has no other option, the requirement to place the lamp in the window is determinative:
And if one dwells in an upper story one should place it in the window which faces the public street. And this was stated without qualification, meaning that even if it is higher than 20 cubits above the people in the public street, we measure according to him [the apartment dweller] since it is otherwise impossible.
According to Ritva, the only reasonable way to understand the 20 cubit requirement is to see the measurement from the perspective of the person lighting the lamp—is it 20 cubits above the floor of the apartment? If the lamp were required to be within 20 cubits of street level then it would be almost impossible for people living above the second floor of an apartment building to perform the mitzvah.
Ritva’s line of reasoning is somewhat paralleled by Raaviah (#843) who states, quoting his father Rabbenu Yoel, that the 20 cubit requirement only applies to someone lighting a lamp out in the street (as is ideal), but in cases where one lights indoors, as permitted by the gemara in times of persecution, and which became customary among most Ashkenazi Jews even in times of safety (cf. Tosafot Shabbat 21b s.v. de-’i; Rema 671:7, 671:8, 672:2; Arukh Ha-shulhan Orah Hayyim 671:24), there is no maximal height:
“A Hanukkah lamp which was placed higher than 20 cubits is disqualified, like a sukkah and [the beam across] an alley.” I received from our master my father and teacher [Rabbenu Yoel Halevi] that this applied specifically in their times when they would place it outdoors; however, for us who place it indoors it is suitable even higher than 20 cubits, like what was said about the sukkah “that if the walls extend to the roof it is suitable even taller than 20 cubits since it will catch the eye.” But in my [Raaviah’s] mind there is room for one who is discerning to distinguish these cases.
Rabbenu Yoel’s recommendation is to place the Hanukkah lamp in the window despite it being above 20 cubits from the street, because of the principle that the eye follows the walls up even beyond 20 cubits. Besides being questioned by his own son Raaviah, his opinion is quoted and rejected by Tur (Orah Hayyim 671) as well as other later codes.
The position of Ritva escaped discussion in the subsequent halakhic literature because his commentary to Shabbat was not printed until 5750 (1989); however, the debate around the application of the 20 cubit maximum height when lighting indoors continued, centered around the position of Rabbenu Yoel. Rabbi Hizkiya da Silva in his Peri Hadash (Orah Hayyim 671:5) claims:
It is obvious that if the window is above 20 cubits that one must place it at the entrance of his house.
Rabbi da Silva’s reading is based on Rambam. The juxtaposition of the 20 cubit maximum to the window placement seems to suggest that the requirement to place the lamp in the window is delimited by the maximum height; thus, as Rabbi da Silva concludes, it should be impossible to fulfil the requirement by placing the lamp in the window if that window is higher that 20 cubits from street-level. Even if the lamp cannot be placed in a location where passersby in the public street will see it, nonetheless, it can be placed at the entrance of the apartment where it will be more visible to both the residents of the apartment and anyone who passes their doorway, and which fulfils the other Talmudic ideal for placement—just outside the entrance.
Others proposed alternative interpretations, bringing Rambam closer to the more permissive positions of Rabbenu Yoel and Ritva. Rabbi Mas‘ud Hai Rakkah in his Maaseh Rokeah commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah suggests:
“If one dwells in an upper story one should place it in the window which faces the public street.” It seems that this refers to [placing it at] the interior, like the interpretation of Rashi, for if it referred to placing it at the exterior, it is possible that it would be above 20 cubits if the upper story were that tall.
According to Rabbi Rakkah, those apartment dwellers who place their Hanukkah lamps in the window are meant to place them at the interior side of the window—the lamp is barely visible to the passersby in the public street anyway (even below 20 cubits) and its primary purpose is to be visible to those living in the apartment. The 20 cubit measurement is measured from the public street, but like Rabbenu Yoel and the Ritva, is inapplicable when one lights indoors.
The position of Rambam and Peri Hadash is adopted by later poskim; though some of them continue to bring Rabbenu Yoel back into the conversation. Notably, Rabbi Shmuel Loew in his Mahatzit Ha-shekel super-commentary on Shulhan Arukh writes (671:6):
The 20 cubits are certainly to be measured from the street level and not from the floor of the house, since the reason one does not fulfil the mitzvah [if the lamp is] above 20 cubits is because it does not catch the eye, and it is crucial that it catch the eye of passersby in the public street. However, for us [who because of circumstance light indoors and thus] where the [primary purpose is to serve as a] reminder to the residents of the house, it is sufficient if it is within 20 cubits of the floor of the house. Nonetheless, it seems that even for us, if the window is above 20 cubits from street level, it is better to place it near the entrance within one handbreadth of the doorpost, since above 20 cubits it does not serve as a reminder for the passersby in the public street and it serves as a better reminder to the residents of the house if it is near the entrance.
Here we can see Rabbi Loew engaging with the rationale of Ritva and Rabbenu Yoel—that the 20 cubits should be measured from the floor of the house—even though he prefers the conclusion of Rabbi da Silva that the 20 cubits be measured from street level. It seems that although he is convinced that Ritva and Rabbenu Yoel’s position is not adopted as the halakhah, he recognizes that since in his day it had become customary for most Ashkenazi Jews to light indoors, the position of Rabbenu Yoel is still worth engaging with. A similar line of reasoning can be found in Rabbi Yosef Teomim’s Peri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 671:5, although Rabbi Teomim ends up slightly more supportive of the position of Rabbenu Yoel to light in the window.
The position of Rabbi da Silva and Rabbi Loew, adopting the less flexible interpretation of Rambam’s position and rejecting the position of Ritva, is adopted by later poskim such as Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (Shaar Ha-tziyyun 671:33, 42) and Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 139:8). This also appears to be the position of Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein (Arukh Ha-shulhan Orah Hayyim 671:22).
Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg was asked regarding someone who lives on the fifth story of an apartment building. He responds (Seridei Esh 3:61:1) with full endorsement of the position of Rabbi da Silva.
[The answer] is obviously like what Peri Hadash wrote in §270 [sic] and quoted by Mahatzit Ha-shekel that one should put the lamps by the entrance… However, one who lives on the fifth story and cannot place the lamps at the entrance to the courtyard must certainly place the lamps by the entrance of his home like Peri Hadash wrote, and they serve no purpose to the interior.
Rabbi Weinberg makes clear that ideally one who lives in an apartment would light their Hanukkah lamps at the entrance to the “courtyard,” presumably referring to the entrance of the building itself or its stairway, but that if this is impossible for logistical reasons, the next best place is the exterior of the entrance to the apartment itself.
A decade later, Rabbi Shmuel Ha-levi Wosner was asked the same question (Shevet Ha-levi 4:65), and defended the common practice to rely on the position of Rabbenu Yoel (and Ritva) to light in the window even above 20 cubits.
At the heart of the question is [the fact] that our case [of being] above 20 cubits is not comparable to the case of above 20 cubits mentioned in the Talmud and Shulhan Arukh §671. [In the case referenced in the Talmud] one does not fulfil the mitzvah even minimally, since in that case [where the lamp is outdoors] even the residents of the apartment are above 20 cubits [from street-level]. However, in our case [where one lights] indoors, and [measured with respect to indoors] there are people lower than 20 cubits, one fulfils the mitzvah this way since [the lamp] is visible to the residents of the apartment. So it seems from Peri Megadim Mishbetzot Zahav ad loc. §§5 who wrote that one may light in the window even above 20 cubits since there is still some level of visibility for passersby in the public street … And the truth is that there are neighbors in the other directions who can see the Hanukkah lamp since for them it is lower than 20 cubits.
Rabbi Wosner is determined to defend the common practice which had developed (perhaps due to the general leniency regarding the placement of the Hanukkah lamps as attested by Rema and Arukh Ha-shulhan et al.) to place the Hanukkah lamp in the window (like Rabbenu Yoel and Ritva) and not by the entrance (like Peri Hadash). He cleverly suggests that although in Talmudic times a high apartment was so uncommon that a Hanukkah lamp placed in the window and too high above the public street would be invisible and thus inadequate for the mitzvah, nowadays, because apartments are often built close enough together, the window of one is visible by neighbors in a nearby building at nearly the same level. According to Rabbi Wosner, this satisfies the requirement that the Hanukkah lamp be within 20 cubits of a place where it is visible by passersby, and thus the window, not the entrance, is the correct place for the Hanukkah lamp, even in a high apartment.
Around the same time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked about the same question and responded (Iggerot Moshe Orah Hayyim 4:125) with a description of his own personal practice. (N.B. Rabbi Feinstein lived at 455 FDR Dr. in New York—a large multi-story apartment building.)
And this is how I practice—I light in the window which is visible to passersby. This was the practice of my esteemed father ztz”l and many other greats of previous generations since the time that it became impossible to light outdoors. And this is proper according to the [letter of the] law and this is found in Mishnah Berurah §§38 and this is how you, my esteemed colleague, should practice.
Rabbi Feinstein, basing himself on Mishnah Berurah, who cites his ruling from Magen Avraham 671:8, concludes that although lighting in the window sacrifices the ideal of being within 20 cubits of street-level, it is still practically the best way to ensure the maximum number of passersby see the Hanukkah lamps.
It is clear from his recommendation that Rabbi Feinstein sees the ideal placement of the Hanukkah lamp as hinging primarily on maximizing the experiential pirsumei nisa—publicizing the miracle. Regardless of any textual arguments for or against, Rabbi Feinstein tries to maximize the number of people who will actually see the Hanukkah lamp, even if it is placed more than 20 cubits above street-level. The alternative to this “practical” approach would be to view the entire question of the placement of the Hanukkah lamp formally, with strict parameters derived from the classical sources. Rambam, Peri Hadash, and Rabbi Weinberg are certainly in the formalist camp, while Rabbenu Yoel, Ritva, Rabbi Rakkah, Rabbi Wosner, and Rabbi Feinstein see the ideal placement of the Hanukkah lamp as a more elastic requirement, or at least see the formalisms as at most an ideal to strive for when there are no other competing concerns.
However, it is possible that these poskim only adopted the position mandating placing the Hanukkah lamp by the entrance because they were unaware that the position of Rabbenu Yoel (which was rejected by many contemporary and subsequent authorities) was corroborated and strengthened by the comments of Ritva which remained obscure until their publication in 1989. Thus, it would be worthwhile to consider the position of a posek who post-dates the publication of Ritva’s commentary to masekhet Shabbat.
Although Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the current Rishon Le-tzion and Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, cites the position of Ritva, he nonetheless adopts the position of Rabbi da Silva, ruling that apartment dwellers must light their Hanukkah lamps by the door and not the window if they live 9.6 meters above street level (Yalkut Yosef Moadim — Hanukkah §11, Kitzur Shulhan Arukh Yalkut Yosef Orah Hayyim 671:20).
In conclusion, although it would seem from the gemara that apartment dwellers living in lower stories should light their Hanukkah lamps in the window facing the public street, and there is some basis to maintaining this practice even in multi-story buildings where the window is above 20 cubits (as advanced by Rabbenu Yoel, Ritva, Rabbi Rakkah, Rabbi Wosner, and Rabbi Feinstein), many other prominent poskim reject that line of reasoning and maintain that a person living in a high story (above 20 cubits) should preferably light by the entrance and not the window. How one sees the application of the requirement and goal of pirsumei nisa greatly affects the conclusion one draws from exploration of this question.
 I strongly recommend Rabbi Moshe Walter’s extensive article in Hakira 16, which touches on many of these issues and cites many valuable sources. Additionally, Rabbi David Brofsky has a brief discussion of this question in Hilkhot Mo’adim p. 353-354, although he does not go into detail or name his sources.