The Hanukkiyah (Menorah)

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

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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.

The Most Beautiful

It is customary to acquire the most beautiful hanukkiyah one can afford in order to fulfill the precept of hiddur mitzvah, the embellishment or beautification of a basic commandment. In recent years, Jewish artisans have created spectacular hanukkiyot, rendering the old green "souvenir of Israel" menorahs quite unfashionable. If you do not already own a hanukkiyah, or wish to give your family a wonderful Hanukkah gift, purchase one of these modern pieces of Jewish ritual art. It will become an important family heirloom in years to come.

On the other hand, the greatest "beautification" of Hanukkah may be to create your own hanukkiyot. Certainly, families who use hanukkiyot made by children in school or by families in workshops fulfill the notion of hiddur mitzvaha even more so than those who buy an expensive piece of art.

Wicks or Oil?

To this day, many families acquire and light hanukkiyot that utilize oil as fuel. Undoubtedly, the feeling of authenticity of this type of Hanukkah lamp adds much to the flavor of the celebration. Olive oil is preferred, for it is drawn easily into the wick, its light is pure and clear in color and, of course, it reminds us of the actual olive oil used in the Temple. Wicks made of any material are acceptable, although cotton or linen are the wicks of choice. The wicks may be relit each night until used up.

Since olive oil has not been readily available in many of the places Jews have found themselves throughout history, wax candles were permitted for use in the hanukkiyot. Specially made Hanukkah candles are readily available during the season. Unlike Shabbat candles, Hanukkah candles need not be white. In fact, one of the joys of the holiday is to see the multicolored candles aflame in the hanukkiyot. Hanukkah candles are also much shorter than Shabbat candles, since they are only required to burn for one-half hour.

All candles should be of the same height, although the shamash is usually placed higher (though it could be lower) in order to distinguish it from the other eight candles. Most hanukkiyot allow for this in their design.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.