MODERN 9-BRANCH CHANUKIAH (photo by Steven Stern)








     The Chanukah menorah, more accurately called a chanukiah, is one of the most iconic symbols of the holiday. It is often placed in public places alongside Christmas trees. Unlike Christmas trees, reindeer, Santa Claus, and other items used in winter holiday displays, though, the Chanukah menorah is a ritual object, not a cultural one. A better secular object to counterbalance the prevalence of Christmas scenes would be the dreidel (questions #57-61).

38. What does menorah mean?

      A: The word menorah translates as “lamp.”  A generic menorah can be lit by oil or candles or electricity. It can be used to read the latest best seller in bed at night, unless it was lit for ritual purposes.

39. What is a chanukiah?

      A: A chanukiah is the specific lamp used for Hanukah and no other purpose. We don’t use the chanukiah to keep from stubbing our toes on the furniture during a power failure.

40. Why is there a ninth candle on the menorah?

      A: The ninth candle is called the shamash and is used to light the other candles on the chanukiah.

41. What does shamash mean?

      A: The word means a guard or watcher. (The sexton in a synagogue is also called a shamash.) It watches over the other candles and has no symbolic significance, just a practical use.

42. Why are there menorahs with seven candles?

Arch of Titus (photo from Google)

      A: In English, we tend to use “menorah” to refer to the chanukiah. The candelabrum seen in synagogues or in iconic works dating back to the First Century CE is the seven-branched eternal light that was in the Temple in Jerusalem. It can be seen at the entrance of the Roman Forum on the Arch of Titus, the Roman Emperor who destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE and carried off the menorah with the rest of the spoils of his conquest of Judea.

43. What are the different customs for lighting the chanukiah?

       A: There are two customs. The one we follow, according to the ruling of the sage Hillel, is to light an additional candle each night of the holiday. The candles begin on the far right, and the newest one (to the left of the earlier ones) is lit first. His rival sage, Shammai, preferred to light all the candles the first night and then decrease the number by one on the subsequent nights (question #6).

44. When is the chanukiah lit?

       A: All Jewish holidays begin (and end) at sundown. Candles for Shabbat and holy days are lit before sunset. Chanukah, however, is a minor non-Biblical holiday (questions #13-16), so the candles can be lit any time after sunset, but before midnight.

45. When is the chanukiah lit on Friday night?

      A: Shabbat (the Sabbath) and its regulations take precedence. Among the restrictions for the Day of Rest is no lighting of fires. Therefore, the Chanukah candles are lit just before the Shabbat ones (traditionally, eighteen minutes before sundown), even though, technically, it’s not yet the next day.

46. What are the prayers for lighting the chanukiah?

      A: There are three prayers said each night as the candles are lit; a fourth is added on the first night. The fourth prayer, known as shehecheyanu, the first word following the formulaic beginning, meaning “who has kept us alive,” is said whenever we experience a joyous occasion or celebration for the first time ever or the first time in a while.

      Nightly blessings:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Ehloheinu mehlech ha’olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitzvatanu vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

 Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who made us holy by commanding us to light the candles of Chanukah.

 Baruch Atah Adonai, Ehloheinu mehlech ha’olam, she’asah nisim lavoteinu bayamim hahem bizman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this time.

As new candles are lit:

Ha’nerot ha’lalu anachnu madlikin
Al ha’nissim ve’al ha’niflaot
Al hatshuot ve’al hamilchamot
She’asita la’avoteynu
Bayamim hahem, bazman hazeh
Al yedey kohanecha hakdoshim.

Vechol shmonat yemey Chanukah
Hanerot halalu kodesh hem,
Ve-ein lanu reshut lehishtamesh bahem
Ela lirotam bilvad
Kedai lehodot leshimcha
Al nissecha veal nifleotecha ve-al yeshuotecha.

We light these lights
For the miracles and the wonders,
For the redemption and the battles
That you made for our ancestors
In those days at this season,
Through your holy priests.

During all eight days of Chanukah
These lights are sacred
And we are not permitted to make
Ordinary use of them,
But only to look at them;
In order to express thanks
And praise to Your great Name
For your miracles, Your wonders
And your salvations.

Additional blessing on first night:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Ehloheinu mehlech ha’olam, shehecheyanu v’keeyehmanu v’heegeeanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

47. What is the difference between Ma’oz Tzur and “Rock of Ages”?

      A: It is traditional to sing the hymn Ma’oz Tzur, known in English as “Rock of Ages,” after lighting the candles. The tunes of the Hebrew and English are the same, but the literal translation of the Thirteenth Century Ma’oz Tzur (“Fortress of Rock”) and the lyrics of the Nineteenth Century “Rock of Ages” are very different.

     The original Hebrew version of first verse (there are five) of Ma’oz Tzur emphasizes the re-dedication of the Temple and destruction of Israeli’s enemies:

Rocky Fortress of my Salvation,

It is delightful to praise You.
Restore my House of Prayer
And there we will give thanks with an offering.
When you have prepared the slaughter for the blaspheming foe,
Then I will complete with a song of hymn the dedication of the altar.

The lyrics of “Rock of Ages,” by Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil, are more about thanksgiving and praise, and less about revenge:

Rock of Ages let our song,
Praise thy saving power;
Thou amidst the raging foes,
Wast our shelt’ring tower.

Furious they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us,
And Thy word broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.

48. How long should the candles burn?

      A: There should be enough oil or the candles should be long enough to burn for at least a half-hour.

49. Are there rules for how a chanukiah should look?

A: No. The only requirements are eight candle or oil holders, plus a ninth which is set apart from  or otherwise differentiated (taller, lower, to the side) from the others, to act as the shamash  (question #41). Chanukiot  are made from a variety of materials and styles and themes: sports, animals, hobbies, modern art, Chasidic dancers, buildings, dinosuars … if you can imagine it, it can become a chanukiah. (Karate and coffee set photos by Meira Itzkowitz; children, dogs, New York cityscape, Noah’s Ark, abstract art, bicycle and merry-go-round photos by Steven Stern; dinosaur from Rabbi Nathan Weiner; others from Facebook.)