By Adam Grobman and Mary Klaus
Seven branches or nine? Menorah or Chanukiah? Is one right and one wrong?
If you’re confused about which candelabra to use for Chanukah, you are not alone.
Rabbis agree that the seven-candle Menorah was only used in the Temple in Jerusalem, and that the nine-candle Chanukiah is appropriate for Chanukah observations today. But, as the days get shorter and darker, we should embrace any and all opportunities to bring light to our lives and to the world.
Rabbi Carl Choper of Temple Beth Shalom calls the seven-branched Menorah “a symbol of Judaism,” adding that it has not been used since the ancient Jews defeated the army of Greek-Syrians, reclaiming the temple and witnessing the miracle of one day’s supply of oil lasting eight days.
“I like to think that the Menorah symbolizes the light cast into the world through Torah,” he said. “Just like the oil, the Jewish people have lasted much longer than anyone expected. The light of the Torah still shines out into the world. Maybe that is the miracle of Chanukah.”
LIGHT AND HOPE IN THE DARKNESS
For Nigel Savage, CEO of Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability, Chanukah’s miracle presents a story about conserving resources, one where a limited reservoir of oil is able to last longer than it should. With the COVID-19 pandemic at the forefront of many minds this year, he notes the ongoing climate crisis among other challenges as adding to what he calls “a bruising year.”
However, in the face of these challenges, Nigel says there are opportunities to embrace the Chanukah story and apply lessons from it to our current world.
“The Jewish understanding of miracles is that they start one step at a time,” Nigel says. While environmental issues are global and can be daunting, we can all do our part to help address and raise awareness of the problems.
Nigel posits that Jewish holidays help remind us of practices that we should take up year-round.
“Chanukah, at the deepest, darkest moment of winter, comes to say ‘there is light and hope in the darkness – take a step forward.’”
Nigel suggests that Jews can help bring light to the darkness of the climate crisis by doing three things: making some change to personal behavior (i.e. eliminating wrapping paper from gifts or giving non-material gifts), donating time or money to organizations that address sustainability, and by advocating for concrete changes in the direction of a more sustainable community.
The candles that we light and place in one of the eight leveled branches on Chanukah, adding one for each night of the holiday, are considered holy.
But what about the shamash, or “helper” candle?
“This candle is not technically a part of the Chanukiah,” says Rabbi Elisha Friedman of Kesher Israel. “It is a non-sacred candle and is lit on a different plane, lowered or raised, to clearly distinguish it from the others.”
Still, we cannot understate the importance of this prime candle. While it is standard and unheralded, it is central to the other candles ability to bring light into the world. Like a community member who organizes a Mitzvah Day, or a neighbor giving an elderly friend a call, it need not be extraordinary to be the catalyst for light – any candle in the box can serve as shamash.
The power of the shamash’s ability to spark action in others is demonstrated by Gabrielle Goodman. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shutdown in March 2020, the high school senior (then a junior) put her art skills to work by mailing her grandmother a hand painted flower as a sign of solidarity and connectedness, helping to brighten her grandmother’s spirits.
Soon, Gabrielle recruited about a dozen of her friends to create cards and artwork for the residents of the Campus of the Jewish Home. Known as the Sunshine Inside Project, the group has created more than a hundred pieces of artwork, ensuring each resident has received a positive message.
“I just wanted to bring joy to people,” she says, noting that she was inspired by childhood trips to the Jewish Home with her Hebrew school. “When the pandemic hit, I felt like I should be more involved with my community and this was a good way to do that.”
As the pandemic lingers on for months, many nursing residents can feel the weight of isolation and a small outward gesture can go a long way. Gabrielle led another round of messages for the residents in preparation for Veteran’s Day and is planning another series for the Chanukah holiday.
“Providing some kind of relief in this way can lighten the situation that they’re in.” Gabrielle says. “The main goal is to brighten everyone’s day.”
This year, the majority of Chanukah falls within a week of the Winter Solstice, some of the darkest days of the year. Yet, Chanukah celebrations tend to be joyful. They are a time for Jews to enjoy latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), play games, sing, and light candles, staving off the early nightfalls with festive light.
But beyond celebration, the holiday gives Jews an opportunity to themselves become the light amidst the darkness.
“It’s great that Chanukah is a fun family holiday,” says Rabbi Choper. “But we cannot let it be only that. This is an important holiday about the light of the Torah shining out into the world through each of us and through the Jewish people.”