How to Light the Hanukkah Menorah

Lighting menorah
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For eight nights in the winter, Jews the world over gather and light the chanukiyah to fulfill the commandment of the public display of the miracle of Hanukkah. There are many different ways to light the chanukiyah. How do you light yours?

The Objects

The chanukiyah (ha-new-key-uh) is better known as a Hanukkah menorah, although the two are very different objects of Judaica. Although both are a type of candelabra, the chanukiyah has nine branches while the menorah only has seven. The former has eight places for lighting with a ninth spot for the shamash ("helper" or "servant"), which is the light used to light the other branches. On each night of Hanukkah, the shamash is lit first and then the others, whether oil or candles, are lit one by one. 

The Source

The chanukiyah is the symbol that represents the miracle of Hanukkah (חנוכה). In the Second Century B.C., during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, the oil that lit the menorah lasted a miraculous eight nights instead of just one. The story of Hanukkah is recorded in the books of I and II Maccabees, which are not part of the Jewish canon, making the holiday a unique aspect of the Jewish calendar and one of the first "modern" holidays to enter the cycle of holidays. 

In the First Century A.D. Josephus also wrote about what would become the Festival of Lights:

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs when after a long time of intermission they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival on account of the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it "lights." I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (Book 12, Chapter 7, Part 7). 

Different Observances

There are three areas of contention when it comes to lighting:

  • For some, on the first day all eight lights are kindled and are reduced one at a time each day of the festival, while others start with one and work up to eight. The latter is the more common practice.
  • In some households, a chanukiyah is lit for every member of the family, while in others a single one is fine for everyone in the household to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment). 
  • Some use candles exclusively while others insist on using oil to be as authentic to the original commemoration as possible. Chabad, for example, uses a beeswax candle for the shamash.

The debate on starting the holiday with eight versus one candle comes from the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 21b) in a classic Beit Hillel and Beith Shammai debate. Beit Shammai held that all eight lights are kindled on the first night, while Beit Hillel said to work up to eight day by day. 

Ulla said: In the West [the Land of Israel] ... R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida differ concerning this: one maintains, the reasoning of Beit Shammai is that it should correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone. But another maintains: Beit Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival [of Sukkot], while Beit Hillel's reason is that we increase in matters of sanctity but do not reduce.

That being said, there was no general agreement, which is why different communities still observe varied types of traditions. When in doubt, talk to your rabbi about what your community does and choose the right observance for you and your family. 

How To

  1. Purchase a chanukiyah. They come in all shapes and sizes, with some using candles and others using oil. There are designer ones and simple ones, travel size and those that sit on the lawn overlooking the White House. Just make sure there are nine branches for your chanukiyah. Additionally, you'll need matches and candles or oil. Some also place a mat underneath their chanukiyah to prevent wax and oil from spilling and staining furniture. 
  2. On the first night, choose which traditions you'll observe (oil or candles, starting with one or eight, etc.).
  3. Place your chanukiyah in the line of public sight, as the commandment is meant to be public. Many place their's in the front window of their home, on their porch, or, in Israel, in a box outside the home. 
  4. Fill the oil or place the candles in the chanukiyah as you face it from right to left, and prepare to light them from left to right.
  5. Light the shamash and say the following blessing

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah. 

Then say,

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, she’asah nisim l’avoteinu, b’yamim haheim bazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who made miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time.

On the first night, you'll also say the Shehecheyanu blessing: 

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, shehekheyanu, v’kiyamanu vehegianu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this season.

Finally, after the blessings, light the candle or oil and place the shamash in its designated spot. Repeat this process every night of Hanukkah, leaving out the Shehecheyanu blessing. Then, enjoy latkes, sufganiyot, and games of dreidel!

For a video on how to light, visit The Jewish Channel