Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
December 8, 2003
Number 5764-10 Hanukkah I: Hanukkah Halacha
Hanukkah celebrates the first known battle for religious freedom. The Hasmonean Jews fought for their right to practice Judaism a world where Greek Hellenism was prevalent. When they won their battles and the right to practice the rituals of their faith, they immediately went to the Temple in Jerusalem and relit the great candelabra. There was not much oil left to burn but they had faith that more would come and they lit the central light that was to burn perpetually in the sacred space. By a miracle, the little oil lasted eight days until new oil could be prepared and the Festival of Lights, The Festival of Dedication, or Hanukkah was commanded to be an annual celebration.
It is no surprise that the festival centers on lights and oil. The most important ritual of Hanukkah is to light a Hanukia, (what we used to call a menorah) in order to publicize the miracle. The first thing we need therefore is a kosher Hanukia. A kosher Hanukia is a lamp that has eight lights. Each light must be exactly the same. They should all be at the same level and in a straight line. Since no one day of Hanukkah is greater than the other, the eight lights should all be the same. The Hanukia should also have a ninth light. This ninth light is called the “shammas” or the “helper” candle. Since it is not part of the miracle, it should be clearly different from the other eight lights. Either higher, lower, or off to one side or the other. Most authorities prefer oil lights to candles, but candles are permitted as lights. Electric lights can be used as decorations but one should not say a blessing over them.
The lights should begin at the far right side of the Hanukia. The first light at the far right and on the second night we add a light to the left of the first light working our way from right to left each night of the holiday. However, we always kindle the lights from left to right, that is, we light the new candle first and work back to the right. The Shammash is used to light the other lights, and it is not extinguished when we are finished, but placed back in its holder and allowed to burn out. We recite two blessings before we light the lights. Praised are you, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah Lights. We then add, Praised are you, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who has performed miracles for our ancestors at this time in ancient days. On the first night we add the Shehechiyanu as a third blessing.
The Hanukia should be placed in a window or by the door where it can be see from the street. It is part of the ritual to “proclaim” the miracle so the Hanukia should be in a place where those passing by can see it. In some cases, if we put the Hanukia in the window and light is as we face it, from outside it will look as if we kindled it backwards. Do not turn it around. If you use an electric Hanukia, then since it is not used for the blessing it should be lit the right way as one is facing it from the street.
Hanukkah lights should burn for at least ½ hour after dark. Usually this is not a problem. On Shabbat, however, the Hanukia should be lit before Shabbat candles, which are lit no later than 18 minutes before sunset. This means that the Hanukia should burn for almost an hour to burn ½ hour after dark. One should try to get longer candles or add extra oil to the lights to make sure they burn long enough.
Since the purpose of the lights is to proclaim the miracle, one can not use the light of a Hanukia for any other purpose. There should always be another light on in the room when they are lit. One should not read or maneuver around the room by the light of a Hanukia but if for some reason you err and use the light for some other reason. Since the Shammas is still burning, one can say that it was the light of the Shammash that was used and not the other lights. Please also remember basic fire safety when there are many candles burning. Keep the flames away from drapes and other flammable objects and place the Hanukia in a place where children and pets will not knock it over.
Next week: Hanukkah III: Dreidles, Latkes and other Hanukkah Customs