The Sages ordained that one must light the Ĥanuka candles when the miracle will be publicized most effectively. In the past, when there were no street lights, at nightfall the streets would fill with people returning home from their daily activities. Therefore, the Sages declared that the proper time to light the candles is “from sunset until the marketplace empties out” (Shabbat 21b).The Rishonim disagree whether “sunset” here refers to the beginning of sunset, meaning when the sun disappears from view, or to the end of sunset, meaning when the sunlight disappears from view as well and the stars become visible. On one hand, at the beginning of sunset the streets are more crowded. On the other hand, since there is still a relatively large amount of sunlight at that time, the candles are less visible. Therefore, it is better to wait until tzeit ha-kokhavim to light. Indeed, the widespread practice in Israel is to light at tzeit, which is about twenty minutes after shki’a in Israel.
Another issue that arises, however, is that men are obligated to pray Ma’ariv, and many regularly do so immediately at tzeit. For these men, praying Ma’ariv takes precedence over lighting Ĥanuka candles, since the former is a more constant practice than the latter. Additionally, by praying Ma’ariv they also fulfill the Torah commandment to recite the Shema in the evening. After praying, they should return home quickly, in order to light as close as possible to tzeit. Those who usually pray Ma’ariv later should light candles at tzeit and pray at their usual time.
Even though one fulfills one’s obligation as long as the Ĥanuka candles remain lit for half an hour, some say that nowadays, when people regularly walk through the streets well beyond tzeit, it is preferable to beautify the mitzva by lighting candles that will remain lit for two hours or more. They contend that this is a commendable practice because the more people that see the candles, the more the miracle will be publicized.
The vast majority of Aĥaronim maintain that the best time to light Ĥanuka candles is at the end of shki’a, when the stars are visible – in other words, tzeit ha-kokhavim. This is the position of Baĥ, ma, Taz, Eliya Rabba, Ĥayei Adam, Ben Ish Ĥai, and others. (The Prushim community in Jerusalem follow the Vilna Gaon, who writes in Bi’ur Ha-Gra 672:1 that one should light at sunset.) See Peninei Halakha: Prayer ch. 25 n. 3, where I point out that many consider tzeit to be about twenty minutes after shki’a. (Regarding Keri’at Shema, which is a Torah obligation, I recommend waiting thirty minutes. However, since lighting Ĥanuka candles is a rabbinic obligation, one need wait only twenty minutes from sunset. Some maintain that tzeit is about fifteen minutes after sunset.) A comparison of the positions of the Rishonim shows that twenty minutes is an intermediate position. Rambam maintains that one should light at sunset, Ran and Rashba maintain that one should light about 58 minutes after sunset, and Rabbeinu Tam maintains that one should light about 72 minutes after sunset. Accordingly, the view that one should light at tzeit, which in Israel is about twenty minutes after sunset, is the intermediate position. (If the candles remain lit until 52 minutes after tzeit, one meets the requirements of all the different positions.)
. According to those who maintain that one should light at tzeit, Ma’ariv takes precedence. According to mb 672:1 and bhl ad loc., if one prays Ma’ariv at tzeit, it is preferable to light the candles beforehand, in deference to the opinion that one should light at sunset. Furthermore, according to Rambam, one must light within half an hour after shki’a. If one waits to light until after praying Ma’ariv at tzeit, he will miss the opportunity to light at the proper time. Even those who maintain that one should light at tzeit agree that one may light a few minutes before then. Nevertheless, most Aĥaronim maintain that tzeit is the proper time to light, and thus praying Ma’ariv at tzeit takes precedence over lighting. They are not concerned about the opinion that one must light within half an hour after shki’a, since after Ma’ariv there are still people in the streets. Furthermore, as we saw in the previous note, the other opinion maintains that the ideal time to light is tzeit, not sunset (Ran, Rashba, Rabbeinu Tam, and others). We should add that many families sing Ĥanuka songs and give the children candy after lighting candles, in order to deepen their connection to the mitzva and the miracle of Ĥanuka. If their father were required to run to the synagogue immediately after lighting, it would diminish their enjoyment of the mitzva. If one always prays Ma’ariv late, there is no reason to change his practice on Ĥanuka. In fact, adhering to this practice will enable him to light precisely at tzeit (Yeshu’ot Yaakov 679:1).
. The candles must be lit “from sunset until the marketplace empties out.” The Rishonim explain that this means about half an hour, and this is the ruling of sa 672:2. Otzar Ha-Ge’onim (Shabbat, Teshuvot §65) states that it means an hour or half an hour. Perhaps in different areas the Tarmodians would leave the market at different times.