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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


For all that Chanukah is considered a minor holiday there certainly is a lot to learn about it. Over the past two weeks our Monday Jewish texts class has traced its long and winding road from ancient pagan solstice festivals to today's holiday to Christmas and back again. In last week's commentary I wrote about how ancient rabbis latched onto the "miraculous oil" lore as a way of playing down the Maccabean military victory after subsequent Jewish military uprisings which had disastrous results. This week I found a new topic to research after someone asked me about the origins of the Chanukah Menorah (or "Chanukiah" in modern Hebrew) and whether it arose directly from the seven-branched Menorah that served as a centerpiece of the ancient Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 25:31-40).

As far as we can tell, the Chanukah Menorah is new in Jewish terms, probably not older than 600 years or so. But it certainly does look like its much more ancient cousin as you can see in these side by side pictures:

This similarity actually creates some confusion for people. Every year I see some Rosh Hashanah clipart or greeting card featuring the Chanukah Menorah at very much the wrong time of year. In any case, to figure out the origins of the Chanukah Menorah I went way back in the Talmud.

According to the Talmud's rabbis, Jews kindle the Chanukah lights strictly for the purpose of "making known the miracle." Because of that they cautioned people against using the lights for actually seeing things. Which raised a pretty obvious question. How are people supposed to have lights present and not use them for seeing things? The rabbinical answer was to make sure there was always at least one additional light present for seeing things. If that seems like a stretch, it is. It falls under the category of a legal fiction and Jewish law is filled with those.

At this time Jews did not yet have special Chanukah Menorahs. They simply used the regular oil lamps that were around the house, like the one below. So having an additional light simply meant putting out one of those or relying on what is burning in the fireplace.

With the development of more sophisticated household lamps, it appears that some Jews started making little specialized Chanukah Menorahs. But they still looked nothing like the seven-branched Temple Menorah. The example below only has places for eight wicks all drawing from the same little oil reservoir.

What about the ninth light, the "shamash" or "helper" light? Well some Chanukah Menorahs, like the Sephardic one pictured below, did have a place for a ninth light.

t was not, however, put there to help light the others. It was there because of that teaching in the Talmud about not using the Chanukah lights to see things. That's the light for seeing. That's the legal fiction.

The term "shamash" referring to a light to help kindle the other lights does not appear until the mid-16th century. It is found in the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive compilation of Jewish law written by Sephardic Rabbi Joseph Karo and amended for Ashkenazim by his contemporary, Rabbi Moses Isserles.

Here's a snippet from their "conversation" in the book:

Rabbi Karo: We have the custom to kindle an additional light [for seeing things with] ... placed at a small distance from the other lights. (Like the Sephardic Menorah above.)

Rabbi Isserles: In our countries, we do not have the custom to add [a light]. One only places by the Chanukah lights the "shamash" light with which he kindles [the miracle-publicizing] lights ... [I]t should be made longer than the other lights, so that if he comes to use [its illumination for "seeing" things ], he will use that light. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayim, 673.1)

Because the Chanukah oil legend is about the seven-branched Temple Menorah, some people began to create Chanukah Menorahs that looked like it with the middle flame serving as Rabbi Isserles' "shamash."

As a rabbi and Jewish historical researcher, I love exploring the evolution of Jewish customs. As a Humanistic rabbi, I am especially anxious to share what I discover with other Humanistic Jews. Knowing the stories behind traditional Jewish practices reminds us that Jews created them for their own needs. And that inspires us to do the same.

Happy Chanukah everyone!

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