The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is not one of the more religious of the Jewish holidays. However, what religious significance Hanukkah does have surrounds the menorah and its role in the story of Hanukkah and its celebration. The menorah used at Hanukkah is modeled after the menorah which was at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, with some important changes that reflect the Hanukkah story.
What is the Significance of the Menorah to Hanukkah?
The menorah at the Temple was a symbol of the wisdom of the Torah, and had seven branches; three branches placed evenly on either side of a seventh branch in the middle. It was to be lit at all times. The menorah was present at the original Temple, which was first destroyed by the Babylonians in 423 BCE.
What is the Story of Hanukkah
The story of Hanukkah tells of the Holy Temple fallen into grave disrepair as the Greeks, who were the conquering power in ancient Israel during the Second Temple period, tried to dominate and assimilate the Jewish community by desecrating the Temple. Two Jewish groups opposed to Greek rule came together to revolt against the Greek oppression and as protest against the Jewish assimilation into Hellenistic culture.
The Jewish revolt was successful and the first action take to rededicate the Temple was to light the menorah in 165 BCE. However, there was very little ritual oil remaining with which the Jews could keep the menorah lit. The expectation was that there was sufficient oil to last a night. Instead the small amount lasted a full eight nights, long enough for more ritually pure oil to be prepared. The holiday Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the Jewish community’s ability to withstand the attempt at forced abandonment of Jewish traditions, and the lighting of the Temple’s menorah represents the rekindling of Jewish life. As such, the menorah has a singular role in the celebration of Hanukkah and remains as a symbol of the continuation and vibrancy of Jewish life and traditions.
What is the Hanukkah Menorah?
The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches, one branch to represent each of the eight days the oil lasted once the Temple was rededicated, and one, called a shamash, which is used to light the other eight. This alteration to the physicality of the menorah allows it to both symbolize the menorah of the Temple and its traditional role as a symbol of the nation of Israel, while also recalling the story of Hanukkah. As the miracle of Hanukkah was the rededication, not only of the Temple, but of Jewish life, having the menorah now present in every Jewish home is itself a powerful symbol of the continuing vibrancy of Jewish life.
Because of its symbolic role, the lights of the menorah are not to be used for any practical purpose. Indeed, it is possible to say of these Hanukkah menorahs what was said of the lights of the menorah in the Holy Temple, “These lights are holy, we have no authority to make use of their light, only to see them.”
Furthermore, the menorah is to be lit in a place where others can see the act of the lighting. In modern times, this has generally meant that Jewish families place menorahs in the window during Hanukkah and light them there, leaving them in the window for the public to see for the duration of the holiday. In fact, the mitzvah, or commandment, regarding the menorah is to light the menorah and make public the miracle of Hanukkah. As a result, a menorah lit where no one else can see it would not fulfill the mitzvah.
On each night, an additional candle is lit on the menorah to represent the continuation of the burning of the menorah at the Temple. The light from the menorah has also been said to represent the wisdom of the Torah, and the or ganuz, the hidden light concealed for the righteous in the world to come. While the menorah and its lights may have multiple layers of symbolism, there is consensus as to the one meaning the menorah does not have. As Judaism does not celebrate military victories, the lighting of the menorah is not in remembrance or celebration of the vanquishing of the Greeks.
How to Light Hanukkah Candles?
First, the candles are displayed in a candelabra used specifically for Hanukkah called a menorah. The menorah has eight candle holders, one for each of the eight nights. These candle holders intended for the nightly candles should all be on the same level and aligned with each other, not placed in a circular pattern. As it is important to see each individual flame, there must be enough spaces between each candleholder in the menorah so that two flames never blend together into one.
There is a final candle holder that is situated clearly out of place from the other eight and is called the shamash. Candles made of wax or paraffin are permissible to use as Hanukkah candles, although using lamps holding pure olive oil with floating cotton wicks is most traditional, as they most closely allude to the miracle of the oil lamp staying lit for eight days that is the source of the holiday.
Traditionally, anyone and everyone in a household can light a menorah. Indeed, each person would have their own menorah for which they would be responsible for lighting. The most religiously significant aspect of lighting Hanukkah candles is in fact the act of lighting them, not the lit candles. The mitzvah of lighting the candles is to publicize the miracle of the oil lamp that burned at the Temple. Therefore, it is customary for the Hanukkah candles to be lit in a place where passersby can see the actual lighting; a window or an open door.
The candles themselves are not lit directly, but one lights the shamash using a match and then uses the shamash to light the rest of the candles. The number of candles to be lit depends on the night. The first night of the holiday, only one candle is lit. On the second night, a second candle is added, and so on, for all eight nights. The menorah is ultimately completely lit only on the eighth and last night of Hanukkah.
The first candle is placed in the candle holder furthest to the right on the menorah. Each subsequent candle is placed immediately to the left of the previous night’s candle. However, the candles are lit starting with the leftmost candle, moving rightwards.
Blessings To Say Each Night While Lighting the Hanukkah Candles
During the act of lighting the Hanukkah candles, one recites a number of blessings. The following two blessings are recited each night.
Blessing 1: Baruch ata HaShem, Elokenu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzotav vitzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Blessing 1 Translated to English: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to light Hanukkah lamps.
Blessing 2: Barch ata HaShem, Elokenu melech ha’olam, sh’asha nissim la’avotenu, bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh.
Blessing 2 Translated to English: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has done miracles for our fathers in bygone days, at this time.
Blessing First Night Only, the Following Blessing is Added After the First Two are Recited
Blessing: Baruch ata HaShem, Elokenu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higi’anu lazeman hazeh.
Blessing Translated to English: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has given us life, and has sustained us, and has brought us to this time.
Each person lighting a menorah is responsible for reciting the blessings for himself. The mitzvah is not complete otherwise.
Once the menorah is lit, it is traditional to begin singing Hanukkah songs. One does not use the light from the menorah for any practical purpose. Furthermore, most people refrain from doing any sort of work for at least the first half an hour following the lighting. Some other traditions hold that women do not perform work for the entire period the menorah is lit.
The Hanukkah candles are to be lit once stars can be seen in the sky, although some light at sunset, which can be earlier. The menorah lights should burn for at least half an hour if lit upon seeing the first stars or at least fifty minutes if lit at sunset. Most candles will burn far longer, so ensuring the candles remain lit is usually not a problem. If one is using oil and floating wicks, then one needs to ensure that each oil lamp has enough oil to burn for the prescribed amount of time.