Reading the Chanukiah

Image: Pewter Menorah. Photo via

One of the things I enjoy doing is “reading” objects as if they are texts. The first time I did it was back in 1981, when I wrote a master’s thesis with the fancy title Anamnesis in the Baptistery of the Orthodox. The orthodoxy in this case was Christian orthodoxy in about the year 500 CE, and without getting too far down the rabbit hole, I will just say that the Emperor Neon decided to redecorate a building built for Christian baptism, and I studied (“read”) the building to see what his redecoration could tell us about baptismal theology at the time.

That’s a very long intro to explain why I suddenly have the urge to read my chanukiah. Some things I’ve noticed in my reading:

A model of the Temple Menorah. Public Domain.

1. A chanukiah may be reminiscent of the menorah in the Temple, but it has important differences. We know from Exodus 25:31-40 that the Temple Menorah had six branches and a center post. It was made of pure gold, and it was made with oil-holders like almond blossoms and knobs. The oil-holders carried linen wicks for the flames. The branches held seven lamps. Besides this description, we have a picture of the Temple Menorah in the Arch of Titus, a work of art the Romans made to celebrate their destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Now, it makes sense that many chanukiot resemble the Temple Menorah, because the Menorah is at the center of the story in the Talmud, in Shabbat 21b, about the cruze of pure oil that kept the Temple Menorah burning for eight days. However, there is no requirement that our chanukiot look like the Temple Menorah. Some chanukiot look quite different.

2. The Temple Menorah burned only a certain purified olive oil. The Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century compilation of Jewish law, says that while olive oil is the best, any light that burns “cleanly”is suitable. It mentions the use of wax candles as common in the 16th c. Today there are circumstances in which electric lights are used, when safety is a consideration.

3. On a kosher menorah, all the candles are on the same level and the shamash (the candle with which we light the others) is on a slightly different level or is set apart. The reason for this (again according to the Shulchan Aruch) is that we are not allowed to have benefit from the eight candles – we must not use their light to do anything other than the commandment for which they are intended, to advertise the miracle. Therefore we have the shamash nearby, but set apart, so that we have its light to cover any benefit from the others. One thing I see here is a very practical thing: the shamash is there to make sure we perform the mitzvah correctly. But I also see in it a lesson about the Jewish community. All of us are equal before God – just as the candles are on the same level – but the shamash, the servant candle, is slightly set apart. It is not better, in fact, it does not participate in the mitzvah, but it is important because it serves. Sometimes leaders in the community may feel set apart – lonely even! – precisely because we serve. We have to have appropriate boundaries with those we serve. We have to keep confidences. All this I see in the shamash candle.

4. We place the candles in the chanukiah from right to left, in the same direction as we read Hebrew. That seems appropriate, since the chanukiah is a text from which we learn the story of Chanukah again every year. However, we light the candles from left to right, since the newest candle is the one farthest to the left. Why would that be? Again, I think about our communities: it is natural to honor those who have been in the community longest. But it is essential that we honor our newest members as well, because they need to feel welcome if they are going to become truly a part of things. Then we all stand together and shine.

5. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disputed about the way to light candles. The dispute went on a long time – from Shabbat 21b I get the impression that there may have been a long time when some Jews lit one way and some the other. It eventually was settled that Beit Hillel was correct: we light one candle on the first night and then increase because we always must increase in holiness. I suggest that there is also another thing going on here: we are increasing joy. In winter in Israel it is often cold and wet, and Chanukah comes at the darkest time of the year. It would be depressing to see the light decrease, but it is exciting and joyful to see it increase. Yet again, the rabbis are good psychologists!

6. Not all chanukiot are perfectly kosher. Some Jews prefer a kosher chanukiah. Some prefer one that perhaps breaks one rule but enhances the holiday with its beauty.

Tree of Life, by Scott Nelles.

Using something beautiful to fulfill a mitzvah is actually a mitzvah in itself. We call it hiddur mitzvah, an enhancement of the commandment. For instance, here is a chanukiah  in the shape of a tree, suggesting to us the Tree of Life. Torah is often called the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life, and ultimately the point of Chanukah is our faithful adherence to Torah, despite fashion or convenience. We remember the Maccabees and rededicate ourselves to the Tree of Life.

Another example is the Menorasaurus Rex, a chanukiah that looks like a dinosaur.

Menorasaurus Rex, by thevanillastudio

It certainly isn’t kosher, and it doesn’t look like  the Temple Menorah, but I can imagine a child who loves dinosaurs being enchanted by it. If it gives pleasure, if it raises questions, that can only be good.  I can imagine the dinosaur representing the awesome rage of Judah Maccabee, as he fights with the Syrian Greeks! The Book of Maccabees tells us that he and his sons were fearsome fighters, so perhaps the dinosaur is more appropriate than it first appears!

Try “reading” the text of your chanukiah. Why did you acquire that particular one? Was it a gift from someone dear to you? Did it catch your eye in a store? What about it appeals to you? How does it speak of the holiday? I look forward to your comments!



Menorah or Chanukiah?

Image: My chanukiah, 2nd night of Chanukah. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

The nine-branched lamp we use at Chanukah is most correctly called a chanukiah, (pronounced khah-noo-KEE-ah.) It is a calendar of a sort, measuring out the eight days of the holiday, with an extra candle to light the others.

However, you will often hear people refer to one as a menorah (muh-NOH-rah or meh-noh-RAH). That is also correct: in Modern Hebrew, menorah means lamp. The thing on your nightstand is also a menorah, but it is unlikely to work as a calendar.

How to light the chanukiah/menorah:


May your holiday be bright and warm!

Chanukah: Why so minor?

menorah“It’s just a minor holiday.” When someone makes a big deal of Chanukah, someone will step in to remind that it is really no big deal. You seldom if ever hear that about any other Jewish holiday: why?

Chanukah began as the celebration of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. In the early days it was a celebration of the military victory that established the rule of the priestly Hasmonean Dynasty. The Maccabees threw off the Greek ruler with military prowess, and celebrated by rededicating the Temple with a festival to replace the festival of Sukkot which the Greeks had made impossible that year. The Jews continued to celebrate it for eight days beginning on 25 Kislev every year, and they called it the Festival of Lights. We know this from a book by Josephus, who wrote about it about 250 years later.

The next we hear of the holiday, it is mentioned in passing a few times in the Mishnah, 200 years later. (for example, M. Bava Kama 6:6) but one gets the distinct idea that the rabbis don’t like to talk about it.  Also, it has changed names: now it is Chanukah [Dedication.] When the rabbis finally do talk about it in the Gemara, a few hundred years after that, it has become a holiday based on the miracle story of a single bottle of oil that lasted for eight days.

Why the change? Why no mention of the military festival for several hundred years, and then this miracle story? In the meantime the Jewish People had had two great disasters, both associated with attempts to throw off the Romans with an armed uprising. The disaster was the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. The second disaster was the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 136. As Rabbi Lawrence Schiffmann wrote, “By the end of the [Bar Kokhba] war many Jews had been massacred, the land had been devastated again, and distinguished rabbis had been mar­tyred.”

So it is no wonder that the rabbis did not encourage the celebration of the old Festival of Lights. It celebrated a military uprising, and subsequent uprisings were disasters. They turned instead to the miracle story of the oil, to turn young eyes from the glitter of weapons to the peaceful glow of the menorah in a dark night. That is also why you will hear people insist, “It’s a minor holiday.” There is a tradition for playing down Chanukah.


First Night, First Light!

1stCandleTonight is my favorite night of Chanukah: the first night, when two little candles shine in the dark.

We light the first, the shamash (SHA-mash) “helper” candle, then use it to light the first of the eight candles of the festival. The two are almost silly looking, standing up tall and proud in an almost-empty menorah.

Every year those little candles inspire me. They stand up bravely, lighting up the night, holding up the hope for brighter nights to come. They don’t apologize for standing almost alone.

They remind me of the people who stand up for what is right, long before it is popular to do so. They shine their light regardless of who is looking or who might laugh. They shine and shine until their wax is gone and they sputter out. And then the next night – a miracle! – we light again, and there will be THREE candles standing against the dark.

Let us all be brave as those candles of the first night: Shine your light no matter who shines with you. Stand tall and be proud to stand, no matter how dark the night.

Hanukkah for Beginners

Image: A menorah, lit for the 4th night of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is coming! Rather than write a redundant “how-to” post, here are resources from around the web for celebrating the holiday.

How to Light the Menorah:  

In the video, Rachael talks about the nine candles being on the same level. That’s the most common arrangement and according to some sources, the most correct one. However, some artists have made chanukiot (menorahs) with candles at many different levels. To find the shamash [helper candle] on those, look for the one that stands out in some way.

What to Eat:

This holiday, like many holidays, has special foods.  Since one of the Hanukkah stories is a story about oil, it’s traditional to eat fried foods.  Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) eat latkes, potato pancakes:

Latke Recipe

Sephardim and Mizrachim, Jews of Spanish or Eastern descent, eat Sufganiot, a fried pastry like jelly doughnuts:

Sufganiyot Recipe

I’m a Jew who grew up in the American South, so I make Hush Puppies for my family (this is not a tradition except in my house, but I offer it to you. Hush Puppies are delicious and are fried in oil, which makes them Hanukkah-appropriate.)

Hush Puppy Recipe

Songs to Sing

We are supposed to stop work and celebrate Jewish culture while the lights are burning. I’m going to leave you a project for this one: go to and search on Hanukkah and see what you find!

How to Play Dreidel

The Story (Stories!) of Hanukkah

This holiday has some interesting stories and ideas connected with it.  This article from will get you started.

How To Spell Hanukkah

The correct way to spell Hanukkah is חנכה.  If you transliterate the word (change the Hebrew letters to Latin letters) then it can be spelled many ways: Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukka, etc.  In other words, it’s a hard word to spell, and a harder word to mis-spell.

How are you going to celebrate חנכה this year?