Shedding light on the chanukiah

An Israeli boy watches candles burning in fully lit menorahs on the last night of Chanukah, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim, Jan. 1, 2006. (Brian Hendler)

An Israeli boy watches candles burning in fully lit menorahs on the last night of Chanukah, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim, Jan. 1, 2006.

(Brian Hendler)

PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 28 (JTA) — Just as not every pancake is a latke, not every menorah is a chanukiah.
While Chanukah commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians more than 2,100 years ago, the word chanukiah — the term for the menorah, the singular symbol of the holiday — was coined just about 100 years ago by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Hebrew writer and lexicographer responsible for the revival of Hebrew as a modern spoken language.
Israelis call this candelabra a “chanukiah,” but most Jews around the world say “menorah” or “Chanukah menorah.”
Menorah is a broader term that describes both the Chanukah menorah and the ritual candelabra that has been a symbol of Judaism for thousands of years. In fact, carvings on the archaeological ruin of the Arch of Titus in Rome depict Roman soldiers sacking Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and carrying a menorah out of the Temple.
The seven-branched menorah appears in front of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, as well as on modern Israeli coins and synagogue furnishings. Flanked by two olive branches, the symbol is also part of the national emblem of the State of Israel.
The chanukiah features nine candle holders — for eight Chanukah candles and the shamash, the candle used to light the others. It celebrates the story, first mentioned in the Talmud, of the Maccabees entering the Temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it, finding enough pure oil to kindle the menorah for one day, but the oil burning miraculously for eight days.
Rabbis later decreed that Chanukah would be observed annually for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. The holiday became known as “The Festival of Lights.”
Why is there a ninth candle?
Halachah demands that Chanukah candles be lit for the purpose of pirsumay nisa, publicizing the miracle of Chanukah. Using the lights for a practical reason — to read by, for example — would be disrespectful. But if Jews could not use the Chanukah candles for light, some other source was needed to kindle them. Thus the shamash provides the practical light for other activities, including kindling the other candles.
In keeping with the command of pirsumay nisa, a lighted chanukiah is traditionally placed in the window of one’s home. In Israel, some houses are built with a small indentation near the front door, which may be covered with a piece of glass, specifically to display chanukiyot.
Talmudic times featured a debate over the lighting of Chanukah candles. Rabbi Shammai said all eight candles should be lit the first night, with a decreasing number illuminated each subsequent night. Rabbi Hillel believed that one candle should be lit on the first night, two on the second night and so forth.
Hillel’s instructions on kindling Chanukah candles have been interpreted to mean that by increasing the number of candles, and by increasing the light each night, one increases the holiness in the world. Of course, his teaching prevailed.
(Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are co-authors of “The Dictionary of Jewish Words.”)

NEXT STORY