The Mixed-Up Blessing on Chanukah Lights
Rabbi Gil Student
Reasons to Deviate
Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel; Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 676:1) says that the first blessing on Chanukah lights is: “le-hadlik ner Chanukah, to kindle Chanukah light.” Many have noted how puzzling this is because the Gemara (Shabbos 23a) says that the blessing is “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” This is similar to the blessing we recite on Shabbos and Yom Tov lights, “le-hadlik ner shel…” Why does the Shulchan Aruch deviate from the blessing text in the Talmud and most commentaries? Despite this important question, this version of the blessing has lasted and is used by most Sephardim and many Ashkenazim, including the Vilna Gaon (18th cen., Lithuania; Ma’aseh Rav, par. 239) and Aruch Ha-Shulchan (19th cen., Lithuania; Orach Chaim 676:1).
Commentaries offer two explanations for the Shulchan Aruch’s blessing text.
While Rav Horowitz is actually addressing a slightly different blessing text, which we will discuss below, his explanation works well within the Shulchan Aruch’s text, as well. With Shabbos, there is a light we are using for personal benefit. We recite a blessing on that light and use it also to honor Shabbos. Therefore, we recite a blessing on a light that has its own purpose and we use it for Shabbos. It is a light, for Shabbos. In contrast, with Chanukah there is no light if not for the holiday. The light has no independent use. Therefore, it is not a light for Chanukah but a Chanukah light.
To put it differently, according to the first explanation, there is no light without Chanukah. According to the second explanation, there is no Chanukah without light.
The Lost Blessing
However, the prevalent Ashkenazic practice is to recite the blessing “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” As Rav Te’omim says (ibid.), this is what people customarily say. And with good reason. Rav Avraham Bing (19th cen., Germany; Zichron Avraham 676) argues strongly in favor of this text. The Gemara (Shabbos 23a) clearly states that this is the text of the blessing. Who are we to deviate from that? The Shulchan Aruch must have been imprecise because we have on the highest authority, the Talmud, that the blessing is “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to kindle the light of Chanukah.” All the explanations and speculations in the world can’t push away that fact.
There is another version of the blessing, “le-hadlik ner she-la-Chanukah.” The words “shel” and “Chanukah” are merged into one. This is how the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Chanukah 3:4) has it (in the Frankel edition) and how Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 85) says to recite the blessing. It is in explanation of this text that Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (Shelah, quoted above) says that this refers to the sole purpose of the Chanukah light to publicize the miracle. This seems to be the old Ashkenazic version of the blessing. Dr. Seligmann Baer (19th cen., Germany; Siddur Avodas Yisrael) has it this way, vocalized as “she-la-Chanukah,” which he explains means “asher le-Chanukah, that is (solely) for Chanukah.”
Similarly, Mishnah Berurah (676:1) quotes Maharshal who says to pronounce it as one word but then Mishnah Berurah adds that people are not careful about this. In other words, really we should pronounce it that way but for one reason or another, that isn’t the custom. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim say the blessing in a way that singles out Chanukah light as being dedicated solely for Chanukah.
As Mishnah Berurah says, many Ashkenazim aren’t careful about the pronunciation and it does not really matter. Similarly, Aruch Ha-Shulchan (676:1) says that it doesn’t really matter how you say it (although he personally says “ner Chanukah”). Either “le-hadlik ner Chanukah,” “le-hadlik ner she-la-Chanukah” or “le-hadlik ner shel Chanukah.” Any of these three are valid.