Every year during Hanukkah people come from all over the country to tour certain neighborhoods where the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) is lit in little glass boxes outside the doors of the homes. This creates a magical atmosphere of light and warmth on the the otherwise cold and dark wintry streets.
The original text in the talmud which describes the mitzvah (commandment) for lighting Hanukkah candles requires one to light them outside the front door of the house facing the street. The central purpose of this mitzvah, according to the rabbis, is to ‘publicize the miracle’ of the can of oil that burned for 8 days. Thus we want the lights to be as visible and recognizable as possible.
Why Doesn’t Everybody do That?
Through thousands of years of exile, the Jewish people adapted to the conditions in which they found themselves. In many parts of Europe, in late December, it is impossible to light candles outside even in a glass box and expect them to stay lit long enough to be effective. So many communities developed the custom of lighting them indoors in the window. Not ideal, but still ‘publicizing the miracle.’
Unfortunately there were many times in Jewish history where any outward sign of Jewish observance in ones home could be dangerous, especially when Hanukkah came out at the same time as Christmas, a common time for anti-Jewish agitation and pogroms in much of Europe. Over the centuries it became the custom among European Jews to light the candles in a central location of the house, such as today on the kitchen counter, a mantle, or a table. This is not ideal, but the mitzvah is fulfilled by ‘publicizing the miracle’ among the family members.
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