Every Menorah Needs a Shamash: Reflections on Idealism and Practicality

by Raizy Lichtenstein, Jewish Studies Teacher 

I found the Chanukah Menorah (Chanukiyah) that I lit this Chanukah at a thrift store in Manhattan’s Upper West Side a number of years ago.  It’s made of brass, in the style of mid-century Israeli Judaica, and its body, which supports the candles, is composed of the words “Hanerot Halalu Kodesh Hem” (“These lights are holy”). 

What are holy lights? The answer lies in the prayer called “Hanerot Halalu,” which is the source of the words on my Menorah.  It is traditionally recited as one lights the Chanukah candles. Here’s the full prayer: 

הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ שֶׁאָנוּ מַדְלִיקִין, עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת, שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה, עַל יְדֵי כֹּהֲנֶיךָ הַקְּדוֹשִׁים. וְכָל שְׁמוֹנַת יְמֵי הַחֲנֻכָּה הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ קֹדֶשׁ הֵם וְאֵין לָנוּ רְשׁוּת לְהִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בָּהֶם, אֶלָּא לִרְאוֹתָם בִּלְבָד, כְּדֵי לְהוֹדוֹת וּלְהַלֵּל לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל עַל נִסֶּיךָ וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְעַל יְשׁוּעָתֶךָ.

We kindle these lights for the miracles, the wonders, the deliverance, and the battles that you did for our ancestors, by means of your holy [temple] priests. For all eight days of Chanukah these lights are holy, and we may not make ordinary use of them; instead we may only look at them in order to praise and give thanks to Your great name for your miracles, your deliverances and your wonders. (Liturgy of Chanukah, Siddur Ashkenaz and Sefarad)

According to this text, a holy light is one meant solely for viewing and contemplation of God’s wonders, and not for practical use.  When we sing Chanukah songs around a lit Menorah, we are engaged in this act of intention and holiness. But what happens when we turn, say, to opening gifts or frying latkes by the light of the Menorah?  Are we profaning the holy light with practical use? 

Rabbi Yosef Karo (Safed, 16th century) outlines the law as follows:

כָּל זְמַן מִצְוָתָן, דְהַיְנוּ חֲצִי שָׁעָה, אָסוּר לֵהָנוֹת מֵאוֹרָן. וְלָכֵן נוֹהֲגִין לְהַנִּיחַ אֶצְלָן אֶת הַשַּמָּשׁ שֶׁהִדְלִיקוּ בוֹ, כְּדֵי שֶׁאִם יִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ אֶצְלָן, יִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ לְאוֹר הַשַּׁמָּשׁ, וּצְרִיכִין לְהַנִּיחוֹ קְצָת לְמַעְלָה מִן הַנֵּרוֹת, שֶׁיְהֵא נִכָּר, שֶׁאֵינוֹ מִמִּנְיָן הַנֵּרוֹת.

During the time [the candles are burning] in fulfillment of the mitzvah, that is, one-half hour, it is forbidden to have any benefit from their light. It is the custom therefore, to place the shamash near them so that if you use the light, [for any personal purpose] you will be using the light of the shamash. You must place [the shamash] a little higher than the other lights, so that it is recognized that it is not one of the required number of lights. (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 139.14, trans. Sefaria.org)

In summary, Jewish law requires a “shamash:” a candle which lights the other lights, and which is not sacred in its own right.  This extra candle’s light is the “practical” light; a light by which, when lit alongside the Chanukah lights, one may do everyday things. The Shamash candle is raised or lowered from the other flames on the Menorah to showcase its separate, practical function. 

Every Menorah needs a Shamash.  And in Judaism, every holy endeavor needs to make space for practical considerations.  As members of the JCHS community, the shamash can serve as an inspiration for us to consider how to temper the ideal with the real so that the two can coexist. For teachers, the “shamash” might be incorporating practical accommodations in an already-wonderful lesson to accommodate different students’ learnings styles; in social interactions, the “shamash” might be finding ways for more people to be warmly included in our already-great conversations; in a family the “shamash” might be making space for another’s dietary needs or sleep schedule amidst the perfect joy of a lovely, festive dinner. In the sobering and imperfect reality of the Israel-Gaza war, our shamash might be a flame of communal prayer and intentional togetherness and love even as our ideals or hopes for how this painful time might come to a resolution may exist on differently imagined ideal planes.   

As the final day of Chanukah wanes and we enter into Shabbat, let us take both the holy lights of the ideal and the practical shamash with us, harnessing their necessary interplay to create a better, kinder, and more generous world.