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The Mechaber says (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 671:4) that the Chanukah lights may not look like a bonfire. The Remah therefore says that the Chanukah lights must be in a straight line, to make sure it doesn't look like a bonfire. The Mishna Berura (SK 16) says that the candles can't even be staggered (one in and one out), so that one doesn't come to set them up in a circle.

Do the candles have to be set up in a perfectly straight line, or are slight variances acceptable (sources please)? If slight variances are acceptable, how much?

Does this idea of the candles being in a straight line also apply to up and down, or just side to side?

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Chaye Adam 154:10 paraphrases the Rema, but adds in that it isn't "hidur" to use separated lamps in a circle or wax candles on different levels. Everything should be straight.

So, it doesn't "have to" be straight, but it is the best way of performing the mitzva. This seems to be true even if you enhance the mitzva with a nice artsy menorah. Better to have hidur in the lights than hidur in the candelabra.

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My understanding is that the problem with having the candles look like a bonfire is that all the lights look like one big light from a distance, which therefore does not let people know that you're lighting chanukah candles, nor is it publicizing the miracle. The Remah therefore states that the candles need to be in a straight line, so that it doesn't look like a bonfire. Alternatively, he says that you can use a "Lampa", since even though it isn't in a straight line, the individual lights are still noticeable. On this, the Chayei Adam says that even though a "Lampa" might be usable... –  Menachem Dec 13 '11 at 3:58
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...don't think it is hiddur mitzvah since it is still circular. Compare this with the Maharshal quoted in the Be'ar Heitev :7, who may or may not be saying the same thing: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14166&pgnum=278 and hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14166&pgnum=279 . My point is that the Remah is saying that when setting up plain candles, they must be in straight line. If you're using a "Lampa", they can be circular. --- My question is when we do say that it has to be in a straight line, how straight does that line have to be. –  Menachem Dec 13 '11 at 4:00
    
@Menachem, I was trying to bring a source for up and down. As far as how straight, I don't think there's a science, just put them straight. The Torah wasn't given to melachim. Not every candle will be exactly the same height, wicks will float around. I don't believe the CA or BH are addressing that. –  YDK Dec 13 '11 at 4:32
    
what about placing the candles? How in-line do the candles have to be placed. There is obviously a point where it is no longer considered straight and is considered staggered (Mishna Berurah quoted above). When is that point reached? –  Menachem Dec 13 '11 at 19:10
    
@Menachem, This isn't a case of kasher vs pasul, it is an idea of hiddur. You place them straight, not crooked. You don't need a level here. –  YDK Dec 15 '11 at 4:49
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