Chanukah Guidelines for a Person with Dementia and their Family

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Shaul Bruchi, Rabbi Uriel Ganzel, and Rabbi Yaron Moskowitz

Chanukah brings with it light for the household and for the family – candle lighting, familiar customs, and uplifting tunes. When dealing with a person with dementia it can have almost the opposite effects. On the one hand, they are faced with a change in daily routine which can aggravate and confuse them. On the other hand, the experience awakens joyous memories together with the family. This matter brings up numerous discussions surrounding halacha, mental health, and ethics. We will address these in the guidelines below.


Chanukah is a unique time defined by its celebration as a family, “A light for man and his household”. The primary aspect of the mitzvah of lighting the candles is its centrality to the home, at the door to the household and in the presence of the family members, with publicizing of the miracle outwards. In families with a person with dementia (or a person with cognitive decline), these days bring forth new challenges: fulfillment of the holiday’s mitzvot, and no less importantly preserving the dignity of the person and their place in the familial hierarchy, as well as the desire to integrate them into family rituals or communal ceremonies, which can bring up pleasant memories and improve their wellbeing. Dealing with these challenges is not the exclusive responsibility of the family, and some of this responsibility falls on the community.

How, therefore, should one fulfill the mitzvah of candle lighting in a family where the head of the household suffers from dementia? Can one who has difficulty reading Hallel fulfill the mitzvah by listening to another person read it? Can one use his money to buy presents in his name for other family members? We will answer these questions in the following article.

Candle Lighting

1. A person with dementia who understands the concept of Chanukah and the mitzvah of candle lighting– is obligated to light candles and say Hallel, even if he requires a reminder and assistance fulfilling these mitzvot. When he is unaware of the significance of the day – he is exempt from the mitzvah1.

2. Even when a person is aware of the mitzvah, if it is incredibly burdensome to fulfill it or he experiences great suffering in the process– he is exempt from it2.

3. Candle lighting may be done, even when unnecessary, by one of the household members3. Despite this, if lighting the candles is important for the person with dementia as part of maintaining their old habits and as part of their status within the family, it is both fitting and proper to allow them to light on their own. One may assist them in reading the blessings or holding the candle, when necessary, and in a respectable fashion.

4. For those following the custom of the Shulchan Aruch, according to which one of the family members lights for everyone, if the person with dementia experiences difficulty lighting the candles – another person should light the candles for everyone else.

5. For those following the custom of the Rema, according to which every household member lights individually, if a person with dementia experiences difficulty lighting the candles – both men and women fulfill their obligation through the candle lighting of their spouse4.

6. If his wife is not at home (or is unable to light for any other reason), the individual can fulfill their obligation through the candle lighting of one of the other household members5.

7. If a person with dementia lives alone and is unable to light the candles, he may have the candles lit for him by a Jewish ‘messenger.’ Even if it is technically better for the messenger to make a blessing over the candle lighting, if it is important for the person with dementia to make the blessing himself – he may do so6.

8. If there is no Jew at home with the person with dementia, he is unable to fulfill his obligation with the candle lighting of a gentile7. The gentile may assist him in reading the blessing and lighting the candle, however the act of saying the blessing and lighting the candle must be performed by a Jew. If the person is unable to light even one candle and there are no other Jews present, he is exempt from the mitzvah.

9. A person with dementia who has difficulty reaching the proper place for candle lighting (at the door of the house or on the windowsill), he may light candles elsewhere and the chanukiah should remain there. One should not light the candles within the house and afterwards transfer them to the door or the windowsill8.

Reciting Hallel and Holiday Customs

1. It is a mitzvah to say full Hallel throughout the holiday of Chanukah. This mitzvah is an obligation of men while women are exempt from reciting it (a women who recites Hallel should make a blessing according to Ashkenazic custom and should not make a blessing according to Sephardic custom)9.A person with dementia who has difficulty reciting Hallel can listen to another man recite the Hallel with intent to fulfill his obligation – through the principle of “listening is akin to response”. Even if a person is not in the synagogue, a person who has already recited Hallel may recite Hallel with a blessing and have intent to release the dementia patient of their obligation.10.

2. The holiday of Chanukah is a time of joy, and even if there is no obligation for a seudat mitzvah (holiday feast) – we have the custom to engage in many festive meals, with songs, words of praise and thanks for the miracle. The family members and the community have an obligation to include people with dementia in this joy as well11.

3. When a person with dementia requests to participate in the candle lighting of the synagogue or a communal celebration and the like but may act in a manner that would embarrass themselves and their family or possibly disturb the community – the community has a responsibility to find the proper way to integrate them into the communal festivities. If the disturbance or embarrassment would be significant, it is best that they should not attend12.

4. For a person with dementia who has their financial matters arranged by another person and would regularly give presents or monetary gifts to their children and grandchildren, one may purchase gifts with their money, in their name, as they would assume they would have done so if they were of sound mind13.

You are not alone! Caretakers and family members with questions or concerns are invited to contact Tzohar Ad 120’s call center. The rabbis and social workers at the center are at your service and will assist you in bearing the burden of taking care of family members.

הערת שוליים

  1. See the document that we have drafted ‘Obligations of a Dementia Patient on Fast Days and in Mourning Rites of the Three Weeks’, endnote 3. Our conclusion there is that a person with dementia who is capable of understanding their actions – is obligated in fulfilling the mitzvah like a person of sound mind; however, when one does not understand their actions or is unaware of the act that they are performing – he is exempt from it. The precise definition of this is dependent on many variables, primarily the state of the person and their level of consciousness as well as the consciousness and abilities required to fulfill said mitzvah.
  2. See ibid., endnote 4.
  3. The fundamental mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles is “A light for man and his household” – one candle for the entire household on each of the nights of Chanukah. The custom adopted by the entirety of Israel is for utmost beautification of the mitzvah (Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin): according to the Shulchan Aruch – one of the family members should light one candle on the first day and add an additional candle every single day afterwards; according to the Rema – each household member should light one candle on the first day and add an additional candle every single day afterwards (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 671:2).
  4. Women are obligated to light Chanukah candles in the same manner as men and may fulfill a man’s obligation just like he may fulfill her obligation (ibid., 675:3). Practically, even when all the family members light, a woman generally does not light individually and fulfills her obligation with the candle lighting of her husband because she is considered akin to his body (Mishneh Torah, article 671:9). Just like a husband may light for his wife, so too a woman may light for her husband (ibid, article 675:9).
  5. Even according to those who follow the Rema, one may rely on the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, just like how one may rely on more lenient opinions in situations of illness. This is especially true when discussing candle lighting on Chanukah – since we are dealing with the beautification of the mitzvah and not the fundamental idea itself.
  6. See Tzohar Ad 120: The Halachot of Treating a Terminally Ill Patient and a Person with Dementia, second section, chapter 14, article 8, endnote 10. There we determine that if a woman with dementia would like to make the blessing over Shabbat candles performed by a messenger, one may rely on halachic authorities who hold that the one sending the messenger makes the blessing – and the same rule applies here. This is also written by the Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Vayeishev 6) regarding a sick person, where the messenger lights and the sick person makes the blessing. The Mishneh Brura, following his logic in the aforementioned note, rules similarly in Hilchot Chanukah, article 671:1, regarding a woman who already accepted Shabbat through lighting the candles, that the messenger should bless “להדליק נר של חנוכה”, yet the blessings of “שעשה ניסים” and “שהחיינו” may be recited by the woman herself. Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (Torat HaYoledet, new edition, 5776, chapter 56:4) discusses the question of whether we differentiate between the mitzvah of Chanukah candles and other mitzvot, because it contains a publicizing of the miracle which the dispatcher can make a blessing on as well, however his conclusion is that the messenger should make the blessing. Thus, the messenger – who does not live in the house of the sick person – does not fulfill his obligation with this lighting even if he makes all the blessings and he should light candles with a blessing in his own home, aside from the blessing of שהחיינו.
  7. See Tzohar Ad 120, ibid., article 9, endnote 11, regarding lighting Shabbat candles; there we have determined that when there is no other Jew with the sick person, one may make a blessing on the candles that a gentile has lit and rely on the authorities who allow this – because the fundamental aspect of the mitzvah of Shabbat candles is not the lighting but the existence of the light. However, the lighting of Chanukah candles is the mitzvah itself and therefore one does not fulfill their obligation with a gentile’s candle lighting. This is what Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank writes, Mikraei Kodesh, Chanukah, article 11; Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Me’orei Eish, 97a; and see Nishmat Avraham, Orach Chaim article 675:1.
  8. Even though the primary obligation to light is at the door of the house for publicizing the miracle, one may fulfill their obligation even by lighting indoors, however not opposite the window (“and in times of trouble, he should place it on his table and it is enough” – Shabbat 21b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 671:5). One may not light the candle in one place and move it to the ideal location because “the lighting causes the mitzvah to take effect” (ibid., 675:1). Therefore, when a sick person cannot light in the proper place there are two options: 1) to light in the proper place via a messenger, as written by the Ben Ish Chai (earlier, endnote 6) and Rabbi Chaim Palachi (Lev Chaim Responsa, volume 3, article 146); 2) the sick person may light in his place, as written by the Nishmat Avraham, article 675:1 in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth. Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (Torat HaYoledet, earlier endnote 6) writes that lighting within the home by a sick person is preferable to lighting by the window via a messenger.
  9. The obligation to say Hallel is brought down as halacha in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 583:1. According to the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah and Chanukah 3:14, women are exempt from Hallel on Chanukah. There are some Achronim that learn from the words of the Tosafot, Sukkah 38a, ד”ה מי שהיה עבד, that women are obligated in Hallel on Chanukah in the same manner that they are obligated in lighting candles, yet practically the opinion of the majority of poskim is that women are exempt. See Yechave Da’at Responsa, volume 1, article 78, and this can also be inferred from the words of the Biur Halacha, article 422, ד”ה הלל. Regarding a woman making a blessing on a mitzvah she is exempt from see the disagreement between the Shulchan Aruch and Rema in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 589:6 and 17:2, as well as Yabia Omer Responsa, volume 1, articles 39-42.
  10. Based on the discussion in Mesechet Rosh Hashanah (29a-b), even one who has already fulfilled their obligation may help others fulfill their obligation in blessings and mitzvot (aside from blessings made over food, drink and other pleasurable items [Birkot HaNehenin]), amongst which Hallel is listed. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in a number of places (Orach Chaim, 273:4 regarding Kiddush; 213:1-3 regarding Birkot HaNehenin; etc.). However, the custom nowadays – primarily for longer blessings – is that each person should bless themselves, for it is difficult to follow the recitation and have intent for every word. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 59:4 regarding the blessings of Kriyat Shema, and article 183:7 regarding Birkat HaMazon, even though it was primarily recited by the Mezamen with the others responding amen. The opinion of the Shulchan Aruch in article 59 relies on the Rosh’s Responsa (klal 4, article 19), who writes that if the one listening turns his heart towards other matters – he does not fulfill his obligation, which is not the case regarding the one reciting it himself. The Biur Halacha (ibid. ד”ה עם השליח ציבור) has difficulty with the Rosh and at the end of his statement writes that perhaps the intent of the Rosh was that the listener does not fulfill the mitzvah to the highest degree, however he has fulfilled the mitzvah even if he did not have proper intent for every word. See the Yalkut Yosef, Hilchot Netilat Yedayim and Berachot, article 183, end of subarticle 2, who writes in the name of his father Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef that a sick person who is unable to make a blessing themselves should listen to the blessing from another person and have intent that both should fulfill their obligation – and the sick person should pay attention to each word.Regarding kiddush the Shulchan Aruch (273:4) rules that one who has already made kiddush is only able to release those who are not proficient at saying kiddush of their obligation; however, the Biur Halacha (ibid., ד”ה והוא שאינם יודעים) writes that as a last resort one may even release one who is proficient of their obligation, in line with the opinion of the Pri Chadash, who disagrees with the Shulchan Aruch. The Biur Halacha (article 422, ד”ה הלל) writes that one may fulfill their obligation by listening even in Hallel. However, the proper thing to do in Hallel is for the listener to answer “Halleluyah” after each verse (as explained in Sukkah 38a-b and the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah and Chanukah, chapter 3, halachot 12-14). The Biur Halacha does also bring the opinion of the Pri Chadash, that if the listener cannot answer “Halleluyah”, he fulfills his obligation even by listening alone.A person with dementia, who has difficulty reciting Hallel will of course have difficulty answering “Halleluyah”, which they are unfamiliar with, and therefore they are able to fulfill their obligation through recitation by another man with no response at all, even if the reciter has already said Hallel and even if the person with dementia is not able to concentrate on the entire Hallel recitation. If he is able to have intent for at least the blessings and say them on his own – it is best. However, when necessary, one may be lenient in this as well.A woman may not release a man of his obligation to say Hallel since she is not obligated in its recitation (see Biur Halacha, ibid.) and therefore if a person with dementia hears Hallel from his wife, he must recite it with her. Even though the Gemara states (Sukkah 38a) “a curse shall be brought upon a man whose wife and children bless for him” (since he does not know how to read), in cases such as these both shall be blessed (the ruling is different when reciting Hallel on the Seder Night and on Rosh Chodesh that does not fall on Chanukah, see Biur Halacha, ibid.)
  11. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 670:2) writes: “the expansion in the number of meals that [people have become accustomed to] are elective meals, which were not designated for feasting and joy”, and from his wording one can infer that the custom is to have multiple festive meals. The Rema (ibid.) adds that it is the custom to sing songs of praise at these meals and they are thus designated as seudot mitzvah. See what we have written regarding the obligation of the community to care for the joy of the impoverished of society during holidays, including sick people and those who are engaged in caring for them, in ‘The Guide to the Holiday Season for a Person with Dementia and their Family’, Sukkot, article 6.
  12. See what we have written there (Rosh Hashana, article 5) regarding entering the synagogue for Rosh Hashana prayers.
  13. The halachic principle of using one’s property based on the assessed wishes of the owners appears in a number of discussions. In the Mishnah (Ketubot 6:6) it is explained that according to Rebbe Yehuda, of whom the halacha follows, an orphan who marries receives her dowry at the same amount that the father granted his eldest daughter when he was alive. The Gemara (ibid. 68a) explains that we follow the estimated wishes of the father even if he did not marry a child off beforehand, and this is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer, 113:1): “one who dies and leaves a daughter, we assess his wishes as to how much was in his heart to give her for financing her dowry and we give it to her. And how do we know what to estimate for his wishes? From his friends and acquaintances and his business and his respect, and so too if he married off a daughter while he was alive, we use her for an evaluation”. In another discussion in Mesechet Ketubot (48a) the Gemara discusses one who ventures overseas or one who becomes mentally incompetent and the issue of whether one may use their property for his sake for needs that are not his total obligation, such as providing food to his sons and daughters, jewelry for his wife and money for charity. The matter is dependent on the question of how he expressed his opinion and what he would want to be done with his property. Following this logic, regarding a person who was wont to give presents to his descendants when he was healthy, it is permissible to use his money to buy presents based on the assumption that these are his wishes. Even when one of the family members is deemed the guarantor or has power of attorney, it is proper to include additional direct relatives in decisions such as these.

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