Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Helping Out at Hanukkah

Lighting with Family. (courtesy)

What does it mean to be the Shamash?

When I was a little girl, in Sunday School at my synagogue, I learned that the Shamash was the “helper” candle:  we use it to light the other candles in the hanukkiah.  (I also learned to call it a “menorah,” even though the word “menorah” is usually used in the Jewish world to refer to the light in the Temple, which holds seven candles. A “hanukkiah” refers to the nine-branched lamp, which we use on Hanukkah.  But that is another story.)

This understanding of the shamash is not complete.  Firstly, you do not have to use the shamash candle to light the others.  In my family, I use a “helper” candle to melt and stabilize all the candles in their spots, including the shamash.  By the end of Hanukkah, this “helper” candle is small; I use it each night – even for helping the shamash stay in its place and burn in the darkness.

And the darkness is part of purpose of the shamash.

We live in amazing times, times the rabbis (whether in the rabbinic era or in medieval times) could not possibly imagine, much less create law that would make sense today.  One of those remnants of an earlier era is the shamash.

For most of us, after lighting the hanukkiah each night, we might stand and admire the lights burning before us.  It is winter, and darkness comes early each night.  The candles of the hanukkiah shine boldly.  It is traditional to place your hanukkiah near a window, so that those passing by might the lights, and remember the holiday we are celebrating.  One of the few mitzvot (commandments) concerning Hanukkah is, in fact, to פרסום הנס/to publicize the miracle,  Just as we are reminded of Christmas when seeing our neighbors light trees and houses, put up decorations of all kinds, and create nativity scenes on their front lawns, so, too, the Talmud explains, we should light our hanukkiah in our windows facing the street.   We don’t decorate for Hanukkah per se (although some have fun with window stickers and the like, as well as Hannukah PJ’s and other clothing).  Rather, we observe the holy days of Hanukkah by lighting a new candle each night, and placing them where outsiders might see them.

The mitzvah of Hanukkah is very low-key in the Talmud. The rabbis require one light each night per household.  Those who would go beyond the requirement might have one candle per person each night.  It is in later days that the hanukkiah took root, with the number of candles corresponding to the days of the holiday.  Today, those who would go far beyond the underlying mitzvah have one hanukkiah per person, thus creating almost a bonfire of the eighth night.

As a side note, I will remind our readers that we place the candles each night starting from the right and moving towards the left side of the hanukkiah. But we light from left to right, lighting the newest candle first.  And, unless you are using yahrzeit candles or the like, it is tradition to allow the candles to burn themselves out, rather than blowing them out at some point.

And we are back at the shamash.  According to halacha, the shamash needs to be set apart in some way:  usually its holder is higher than the regular candles, so that we can distinguish its light from the other candles.  Why?

Well, according to the prayer said after candle lighting, the Hanukkah lights are there to remind us of the miracle of the oil.  Their light glows upwards, towards Gd, and that is their purpose.  WE are not allowed to use the lights of Hanukkah in any way, except to praise Gd and celebrate our redemption.

Two thousand years ago, the time of the Talmud, or even 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago:  none of the rabbis who made the halakha around Hanukkah could have envisioned the ease of lighting a room by flicking a switch.  Darkness comes early in the winter (in the Northern Hemisphere), and houses would be dark but for the glow of candles in the house.

So, how to avoid using the Hanukkah lights for light?   The shamash – a legal fiction.

We are not eating by the brightness of the hanukkiah, the law says.  We are using the light of the shamash and only that light, even as families sat down to dinner with Hannukah lights burning in the dark.  The shamash, literally the “helper,” just as I was taught, “helps” by providing the light we need to go about our daily business:  supper, washing up, even reading before bed.

Today, we no longer need the shamash to light our paths.  We have electricity; we have gas.  We can create our own lamps to brighten our homes.

But we can use the shamash to remind us of the history of needing light.  One candle, the shamash, burns so brightly that it can, in theory, provide enough light for the household.  Perhaps we might ask ourselves how each of us, individuals all, could be that shamash, could be one who brings light into the dark.

Each of us has our own particular gifts:  some are musicians, some make amazing latkes, some preach, some learn, some create homes out of houses.  Byt ourselves, we are sadly lacking:  most of us are not qualified to be a doctor and and author and an electritian.  But each of us can contribute something to our communities – to neighborhoods, to synagogues, to our children’s schools, to our cities and, ultimately, to our country and world.  It takes a village, the adage goes.  Or, in our case, it takes a shamash to light the other candles.

I am the shamash, spreading light among my family and friends.  But I am not only  a shamash.  Sometimes I am a Hanukkah candles, whose only job is to glow and remind us of miracles in days of old.  Sometimes, I am useful, lighting the way in darkness; sometimes, I simply burn, admiring the light and help of others around me.

So, yes, the shamash is the helper candle.  In our world, we all need all sorts of help.  Let us strive to use our gifts and our passions to spread light – and let us not forget to admire the candles burning around us, reminding us that, together, we can light up the darkness and spread our blessings.

Happy Hanukkah!

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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