Holy Hanukah Lights
By Joel M. Hoffman
“These lights are holiness — haneirot hallalu kodesh hen.”
This famous line about the Hanukah lights, now part of the standard Hanukah liturgy, comes from masechet sofrim, an 8th-Century Palestinian work that describes the practices of our ancestors in and around Jerusalem. Masechet sofrim goes on to warn that we are not allowed to use the Hanukah candles for anything except looking at them.
Unlike the Shabbat candles, then, which can be used to provide light for reading, or, presumably, warmth (though obviously not much), the Hanukah candles just sit there.
In fact, this is why we have a shamash. The shamash, the “ninth of the eight Hanukah candles,” is technically not actually a Hanukah candle itself. We use it to light the real Hanukah candles, while the shamash sits next to or above the Hanukah candles.
This way, in case you’re walking around the house reading a book, say, and if just as you walk by the Hanukah menorah the power goes out, and if by accident you keep on reading, you can maintain the fiction that you weren’t reading by the Hanukah lights. No! You were reading by the light of the shamash.
Or, if just as you walk by the menorah you suddenly find yourself in pressing need of a candle, you won’t be tempted to use the real Hanukah candles. You can grab the shamash instead.
This is why the shamash is supposed to be the first candle lit and the last candle to go out. (This is possible, even when the candles are identical. Can you figure out how to do it?) You wouldn’t want to find yourself with Hanukah lights and no shamash, not even for a moment.
At first glance, this all seems a bit silly, particularly in our modern day of electricity. I like to think of myself as fairly creative, and yet I have trouble conjuring up a situation in which I might be in dire sudden need of a burning candle.
But the real point has nothing to do with ambulatory reading or candle emergencies or any other practical concern. The real point goes back to the first line: these candles are holiness.
The light from the Hanukah candles, we are taught, is different than any other kind of light. Most light is just, well, light. (Photons, we might now call it.) But the light of Hanukah is the embodiment of holiness itself.
It’s hard enough to understand light, let alone holiness. We speak of light and darkness, even though there’s no such thing as darkness. (The old photography joke about opening the darkroom door and letting the dark leak out comes to mind.) Scientists have studied light and concluded that it is both a wave and a particle, though it’s also neither a wave nor a particle. It’s true, but it doesn’t help most people understand light. Still, we know what light is when we see it, and we know it’s part of our every day life.
Holiness is even harder. We may have a vague sense that God is holy, or that we are supposed to be holy. Holiness is involved in childbirth, perhaps, and according to some in the majesty of mountains and glory of nature. But, unlike light, most of us don’t think much about holiness. Would we even know it if we saw it?
Not surprisingly, the combination of light and holiness is even more difficult. How can light be holy? Even more vexing, how can a Hanukah candle emit holy light when the seemingly identical shamash gives us mere ordinary light? And what would that even mean?
I certainly don’t know. But I do know that we only get once chance a year to see the holy light.
So as we approach the darkest time of year and get ready to celebrate light, amid the stress of the holidays and the curious combination of exuberance and disappointment that accompanies gift-giving, let’s remember that life is mysterious. And let’s not miss our opportunity to gaze on the faces of the people we love as they are illuminated by flickering flames of the Divine.