The Hanukkiyah (Menorah)

There is great leeway in the appearance of the Hanukkah lamp.


Many people refer to the hanukkiyah as a Hanukkah “menorah.” Menorah is the Hebrew word for lamp, and specifically refers to the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Hanukkah lamp contains nine branches, though it is possible to find some antique European examples with 10 candle holders. Reprinted with permission from Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration (Jewish Lights Publishing).

While eight lights are required on the hanukkiyah, one to be lit each night of Hanukkah, it became customary for the Hanukkah menorah to have place for nine flames. The ninth flame is called the shamash (“the servant”), for its purpose is to light the others. The reason for the shamash probably derives from the legal principle that the Hanukkah lights themselves are not to be used for any purpose other than to “publicize the miracle.” Thus, a “servant flame” is needed to light the other eight, keeping them from serving the pragmatic function of lighting another flame.

What Kind of Material Should a Hanukkiyah be Made of?

The hanukkiyah may be made out of any material. Metals, ceramics, even woods are common. Some prefer metal, to remember one of the stories given for the eight lights. Pesikta Rabbati, an early collection of midrashim, records that when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found eight metal spears left by the Greeks, from which they fashioned the first hanukkiyah–a kind of prototypical beating of spears into eternal light.

The freedom of expression enjoyed by modern Jewish artisans has resulted in a panoply of beautiful hanukkiyot. The only caution about their form is that the receptacles for the lights should form a straight row [and be the same height], not a circle or semicircle, lest the flames appear as a torch. One can thus tell by a glance at the hanukkiyah which night of Hanukkah is being celebrated. It may also have something to do with the rabbis’ attempt to remove any hint of the pagan torch festivals from which the winter solstice candlelighting was originally adapted.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson, visionary educator and inspirational speaker, is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000.

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