On the first night of Hanukkah, how many candles do we light?

December 15, 2017
By bethmordecai
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On the first night of Hanukkah, how many candles do we light?

I would like to share with you these wise words which were written by a fifth-year student, Sam Rotenberg, at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Please let me know your thoughts and reactions:

“On the first night of Hanukkah, how many candles do we light? The most common answer to this question is one. On the first night of Hanukkah we actually light two candles. The first is the shamash, the serving candle, and with the shamash, we light the first candle of the holiday – two in total. On the second night, we do not light two candles. We light three: the shamash, plus two candles to mark the second night. On the third night, we light four candles, and so on. I think it’s safe to say that most of us take for granted the shamash, this extra candle.

It’s easy to ignore the shamash. Shamash means servant, and it is called this because its purpose is to light the candles that we really care about. The miracle of Hanukkah was that the oil lasted for eight nights, and we understandably focus on the candles that embody that miracle, not the serving candle used to light them. In the symbolism and beauty of the other candles, the shamash tends to be forgotten. So why have a shamash at all?

In this week’s parsha, we are reminded of another shamash, another servant that assisted in creating a miracle. Our parsha begins with Pharaoh dreaming two dreams, but nobody can tell Pharaoh what those dreams mean. Even though he knew there must be some hidden meaning, Pharoah was at a loss for answers. Finally, it took a servant, Pharaoh’s wine pourer, to tell Pharaoh about a certain Hebrew youth in prison who had a knack for dream interpretation. That youth, Joseph, was rushed out of prison and brought before Pharaoh. Joseph interpreted the dreams, and was promoted to vizier of Egypt. Using his wit and political influence, Joseph not only saved Egypt, but he saved his family as well – Jacob and Leah, and his brothers too.

A number of miracles began when Pharaoh’s servant mentioned Joseph. Joseph’s sudden freedom from his prison cell was a miracle. Sforno, an Italian Rabbi of the 16th century, notes that Joseph’s sudden transformation from inmate to free person is exemplary of all divine redemptions which are characterized by suddenly, and without warning, being lifted up from the lowest low to the highest high. Joseph being able to save his family from the famine in Canaan is a miracle. Because of Joseph’s political influence, the children of Jacob had ample food and fertile land for generations.

Without Pharaoh’s servant, Joseph would have remained forgotten in his prison cell. The miracle of Joseph’s sudden freedom and his family’s survival would have never occurred. Pharaoh’s servant’s role in this story reminds us that miracles do not just happen. It takes a shamash, a servant, whose role it is to uplift, to get it started. We are likewise reminded of the importance of the shamash each night we light our chanukiah: we prepare a shamash, and with that serving candle we raise the flame of the other candles. It is only through our shamash that we can reenact the miracle of Hanukkah.

This parsha and Hanukkah teach us that miracles occur only when we raise others up. Because Pharaoh’s servant raised Joseph up, miracles could happen. We can’t all be like Pharaoh’s servant, raising people from fetters and chains to freedom. But supporting a friend in need uplifts. Teachers inspiring student’s uplifts. Reminding friends that there is hope in the face of despair uplifts. When we find ourselves marveling at the beauty of our chanukiah, let’s not forget the importance of our serving candle. Without being kindled by another, the candles in our chanukiah would remain dark. When we kindle the flame in others, when we enable their light to shine, we might just make a miracle.”


Please join us tonight for services at 6:30 and potluck Hanukkah dinner at 7:30.

Tomorrow morning Shabbat AM services 10 AM with a discussion on current events and the Torah.

Sunday, Dec 17 11 AM Barnes and Noble at the Menlo Park mall. Join Rabbi Metz for a Hanukkah story and craft. For more information, click here: https://stores.barnesandnoble.com/event/9780061905504-0

See NEW TIME!  Monday, Dec. 18 5:30 PM Please join us a little early to help bring Chanukkah light to the Menlo Park Mall.  We will be distributing cards and dreidels with information about Congregation Beth Mordecai.  At 6 PM we will light the Chanukiah in the mall sing the blessings and Hanukkah songs together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Metz

Category : Rabbi Rabbi's Journal