Frum or Krum: Using the Shamash on Chanukah

The time has come once again for our should-be-award-winning exploration into mores and vicissitudes in the Jewish world and how they stack up to the light of objective research (spoiler: usually, not well).

Today’s question: Does the presence of the shamash in the Chanukah menorah allow one to read, learn, or otherwise benefit from the other candles? If not, may one receive such benefit anyway but presume that this benefit is derived in fact from the shamash?

Background: As we approach Chanukah, the question of the shamash is a thorny one, what with our ubiquitous electric light casting darkness over what was once a surefire solution to the prohibition against benefiting from the Chanukah candles themselves. Already in the days of the Gemara (Shabbat 21b), one who had an alternate light source did not need an extra candle (נר אחרת), unless he was an important person who did not rely on the alternate light source:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף כא עמוד ב
אמר רבא: צריך נר אחרת להשתמש לאורה
ואי איכא מדורה – לא צריך
ואי אדם חשוב הוא, אף על גב דאיכא מדורה – צריך נר אחרת

Given that we do use our electric lights exclusively, the shamash would seem to be expendable nowadays. Nevertheless, no competent Posek since the proliferation of electric lights has written that we can definitively do away with the age-old custom of having an extra light by the Menorah. But further obscuring the need to maintain the custom is the possibility that it serves no purpose anyway, as we read in ArtScroll’s aptly named volume “Chanukah” (p. 118): “If someone wishes to do anything needing light, he should refrain from doing it near the menorah, even though the shamash is burning (OC 673:1 with MB).” This struck me as a strange statement. Why bother lighting the shamash if it can’t be used anyway? What purpose is the so-called shamash then meant to serve? This claim by ArtScroll sounds frum, but is it true?

Discussion: Let’s first look at the sources ArtScroll claims to cite – “OC (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim) with MB (Mishna Berura).” To the Shulchan Aruch we go:

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
… ונוהגים להדליק נר נוסף, כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה יהיה לאור הנוסף שהוא אותו שהודלק אחרון. ויניחנו מרחוק קצת משאר נרות מצוה. הגה: ובמדינות אלו אין נוהגים להוסיף, רק מניח אצלן השמש שבהן מדליק הנרות, והוא עדיף טפי, ויש לעשותו יותר ארוך משאר נרות, שאם בא להשתמש, ישתמש לאותו נר (מרדכי).

We can already see hints of ArtScroll’s direction from the prevaricating nature of the wording of the Shulchan Aruch and Rama – note the bold words above. Still, we need to see how this is explained by the Mishna Berura:

משנה ברורה על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
שאם ישתמש וכו’ – ועיין מגן אברהם, שלכתחלה אין להשתמש אצל כולן יחד, כם אם לאור הנוסף [או להשמש] בלבד, כשהוא אחד בפני עצמו, דהרואה יאמר לצרכו הדליק כולן, דלפעמים אדם מדליק כמה נרות, ועיין בבאור הלכה

The Mishna Berura references a vaguely worded Magen Avraham (paragraph 4) that “initially, one should not do things near all of them together, but rather (כי אם) only by the light of the extra candle, when it is by itself.” On its own, this could be interpreted to mean (as ArtScroll seems to assume) that even when it is part of the group of candles but separated slightly, the shamash should not be used, though again the point of having it there would then be hard to understand. But the Magen Avraham might also mean that it is only when the extra candle is by itself that the other candles may not be used, but then, by extension, if it is with them they all may be used. And would the Magen Avraham perhaps consider the shamash to be “by itself” (בפני עצמו) when it is near the group but raised or otherwise separated slightly? We need to see other interpretations of the Magen Avraham, most of which will not read it as ArtScroll does.

The Beur Halacha (the Mishna Berura’s own super-commentary) weighs in:

ביאור הלכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
שאם ישתמש וכו’ – עיין במגן אברהם שכתב, “אבל מכל מקום אסור להשתמש אצלן וכו’,” עיין בפרי מגדים שפירש דאף נגד אור הנוסף או השמש, גם כן אסור לכתחלה

The Pri Megadim, a super-commentary on the Magen Avraham, does indeed interpret the Magen Avraham as ArtScroll does, that the shamash should not be used. But the Beur Halacha continues:

והמעיין ברבינו ירוחם שהובא בבית יוסף לא משמע כן, אלא דנגד השמש, כשמניחו בפני עצמו רחוק קצת מהנר, מותר לשמש נגדו. וכן כתב במחצית השקל בביאור דברי המגן אברהם, עיין שם. אחר כך מצאתי באליה רבה שהסכים גם כן לדינא, דנגד השמש מותר להשתמש. ועיין בשערי תשובה סוף דבור המתחיל “השמש,” דעתו נמי כמו שכתבנו

The Rabbeinu Yerucham quoted by the Tur, the Machatzit Hashekel discussing the same Magen Avraham, the Eliyah Rabba, and the Sha’arei Teshuva all assume that if the shamash is separated slightly, it may be used, against ArtScroll’s narrower interpretation of the Magen Avraham. This seems to be the interpretation preferred by the Beur Halacha, who again is the same person as the Mishna Berura that ArtScroll was supposedly quoting.

The Machatzit Hashekel (another super-commentary on the Magen Avraham) makes the point that the Magen Avraham would allow use of the shamash itself, but not the candles it is “serving,” even though the very presence of the shamash would appear to mitigate the possibility that one is using the other candles:

מחצית השקל על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
אבל מכל מקום אסור להשתמש אצלן – רצה לומר, דוקא אצל השמש מותר להשתמש, אבל אצל נר חנוכה, אסור להשתמש, אף על גב דאיכא שמש, דנהי דלא חיישינן במה שנהנה מאורן, כיון דאין צריך להם, דהא איכא שמש, וכמו שכתב מגן אברהם סוף סעיף זה [סעיף קטן יא] … ואף על פי שהרמב”ן לא מיירי שיש לו נר אחר אצל נר חנוכה כי אם על שלחנו, מכל מקום, סבירא ליה למגן אברהם, דהוא הדין בשמש, אף על פי שעומד אצל נר חנוכה. מכל מקום, שייך חשש הרמב”ן אם ישתמש אצל נר חנוכה, יאמר הרואה, לצורכו הדליק כמה נרות

The Machatzit Hashekel further assumes that the Magen Avraham, in allowing the shamash to be close to the other candles, is disagreeing with the Ramban, who requires it to be farther away. The Machatzit Hashekel does make an interesting distinction between the presence of the extra candle, which he says (explaining the Magen Avraham) may be close to the other candles, and the location of the activity (such as reading or sewing), which should nevertheless not be done close to the Menorah. Nevertheless, the extra candle may be put close to the other candles – and even should, so that one may then reasonably be assumed to be using that extra candle when engaging in activities elsewhere in the room.

Throwing a further wrinkly into the Pri Megadim and ArtScroll’s read of the Magen Avraham is that the Magen Avraham himself makes a startling revelation a few paragraphs down the page (paragraph 11):

מגן אברהם על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעג סעיף א
מותר להשתמש אצלן – דהא הדלקת השמש הוא כדי שישתמש לאורן! שמע מינה דאם הם ביחד, מותר להשתמש אצלן [דרכי משה]. והב”ח חולק וסבירא ליה דדוקא שמש שעומד למעלה מכל הנרות שרי דמשתמש לאור השמש, מה שאין כן כאן, עד כאן לשונו.

Here, in Paragraph 11, far from doubling down on his earlier claim that the shamash may not be used, the Magen Avraham claims that the entire purpose of the shamash is to allow use not only of the shamash but of all the candles! Not only does the Magen Avraham explicitly side with the broader interpretation of his earlier words preferred by the Machatzit Hashekel, but even the stricter opinion mentioned in this Magen Avraham in the name of the Bach would hold that if the shamash is “standing higher than the other candles” (as ours is), it would be “permitted to benefit from the shamash.” That is apparently the strictest the Magen Avraham can imagine being on the issue. So how does this square with the Magen Avraham’s earlier, apparently stricter opinion in Paragraph 4? Let’s look at it now inside piece by piece, rather than in the briefer form cited in the Mishna Berura which we saw earlier.

מגן אברהם סימן תרעג סעיף קטן ד
שאם ישתמש –
אבל מכל מקום אסור להשתמש אצלן, דהרואה אומר לצרכו הדליק כולן, דלפעמים אדם מדליק כמה נרות [מלחמות]

This was the line quoted by the Mishna Berura. While he could have meant (as ArtScroll assumed) that even the presence of the shamash does not permit the other candles to be used, he also might mean that despite the presence of the shamash, the candles still may not be used on their own, i.e. without the shamash assisting them. The existence of the shamash does not ipso facto permit the candles themselves to be used. This would fit with what the Magen Avraham himself says in the later paragraph (#11) that we already saw. Then, after quoting two other sources, the Magen Avraham concludes thus:

 ומכל מקום, צריך להניח שמש אצלן, שמא ישתמש אצלן

Apparently the shamash needs to be close to the other candles specifically so that in case the other candles are used, we will have a reasonable guarantee that one is in fact using the shamash. Again, this is an indication that the shamash itself is supposed to be used and that it should be close to the other candles, all as the Machatzit Hashekel explained the earlier Magen Avraham. Clearly, the beginning of Paragraph 4 (the part quoted by the Mishna Berura) was not meant to suggest that a shamash cannot be used or that it prevents other candles from being used, a point the Mishna Berura himself made in the Beur Halacha and the Magen Avraham made in Paragraph 11. This would seem to end any remaining interpretation of the Magen Avraham as having forbade use of the shamash altogether (or at least in the way that we lay it out in our Chanukiyot), and the line of argument based on that possible reading of the first line of Magen Avraham #4 by the Mishna Berura, as advanced by ArtScroll, becomes impossible.

Verdict: So what to do with ArtScroll’s frum-sounding statement that “if someone wishes to do anything needing light, he should refrain from doing it near the menorah, even though the shamash is burning?” We label it “krum,” and another example of the English-speaking Jewish world held hostage by books written as if their readers lack the resources, ability, time, or wherewithal to look anything up themselves, especially when, as in this case, no clear source reference is given. As an educator, it is a reminder that the central goal of our profession is to give every student the ability to question, research, and solve problems for themselves, or to consult competent authorities to which they have personal access, and not trust what is given to them in English books with which they cannot interact. A liberating feeling indeed, when we can do it. A happy holiday of liberation to all!

This entry was posted in Chanukah, Frum ... Or Krum??, Halacha, Holidays. Bookmark the permalink.

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