NOVEMBER 29, 2018 – Here’s a question I’m asked from time to time, especially at this season of the year: Why is it our custom to use a “shamash” candle to light the Hanukkah lights, but we don’t use a “servant candle” to light the Shabbat lights every week? In other words, on Hanukkah, we take a special candle to light the other candles, and then that special one is attached to the menorah. But on Shabbat, there’s no need for a candle to light the other two. Why the difference in practice, and how did that come about?
The short answer is that the shamash, the ninth candle on a full Hanukkah menorah, was created by the rabbis to benefit the poor.
The lighting of the Hanukkah lamps (originally, of course, burning olive oil rather than the candles we’ve come to associate with Hanukkah) is intended for a singular purpose: proclaiming the miracle of the season.
Some consider the “miracle” to refer to that one, small cruse of oil that burned for longer than naturally expected. Others consider the military victory by the under-manned Judeans over the powerful Assyrian/Greek forces to be the miracle that we celebrate. But regardless, the Hanukkah lights proclaim the miracle, and are to serve no other use or purpose. As we read in the ceremonial ritual for lighting the menorah:
“We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles … During all eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them; in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.”
Unlike the kindling of Sabbath candles, which likely originated from the need to utilize their light during the night when kindling flame (or even flicking on a light switch) is forbidden, the Hanukkah lamps are not intended to be used – only to be viewed. But not so long ago, in a time before flicking switches or even lighting candles, light after dark could be an expensive commodity.
Many families needed to illuminate their homes at night in order to continue working – spinning pots, sewing clothing, reading, writing, or working on other business and household needs. Certainly, families without the financial resources for both nighttime light for working AND lights that were not eligible to be used (only gazed upon) would have had to make the difficult choice between Hanukkah and sustenance. And because throughout the millennia of our people’s history, poverty and scarcity was far more often the norm often than the exception, it would be a widespread problem that needed to be addressed.
That is why our sages of old invented the shamash, an extra candle on the menorah. It serves as something of a legal fiction, allowing us to declare in all sincerity that it is by the light of the shamash, the servant candle, rather than the official lights of the Festival, that we are utilizing the menorah’s luminosity. With the invention of the shamash, families didn’t need to choose between Hanukkah or sustenance, between the light for our needs and the light proclaiming the miracle of the Festival. They could work or entertain by the light of the menorah, or more precisely by the light of the shamash.
As we light our Hanukkah menorahs, passing the flame of the shamash onto the increasingly numerous candles as the festival takes its course, we are urged to consider ourselves to be such a light. We are pressed by the flames to keep in mind the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the needy, and the lonely in our midst. Whenever we share our own resources – our light – with those in need, we live up to the ideal expressed through the wisdom of our sages. That need and impulse are as vital today as they have been over the past 2,000 years.
So this year, let us be the “servant candle.” We can be the source of light shared in places and with people where it is needed the most.
Moadim l’simcha – Happy Hanukkah to all of our community!
Rabbi David J. Meyer is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.