Every holiday has its own unique traditions, and lighting candles is arguably Hanukkah’s most famous and iconic ritual. This is our guide to explain the basics of lighting your Hanukkah menorah.
Who? Women and men are equally obligated in the mitzvah of candle lighting. In Ashkenazi households, every member of the family lights their own menorah; in Sephardi homes, the head of the household lights on behalf of their family.
What? Traditionally, the Hanukkah candles are lit in a designated candelabra called a Hanukkiah or Hanukkah menorah. This special lamp has eight level candle holders, with an additional space set either higher, lower or more forward than the rest in which the shamash (“helper” candle) resides. Most menorahs either have eight branches emanating from a central core, or have a series of holders extending from a flat platform. You can light using oil lamps of candles.
Where? Lighting candles is all about remembering and sharing the story and miracle of Hanukkah (see below), so we light candles in the most public parts of our homes, so that people will see them. Many people place their menorahs on window ledges so they are visible to those outside. In Israel, religious Jews place their menorahs in special glass boxes which are put on the porch, balcony or street outside.
When? We welcome each new day of the eight day festival by lighting the number of candles corresponding to the day (remember, Jewish days start at nightfall). This means our number of candles ascends from one on the first night to eight on the last! The Talmud calls this method of lighting, as prescribed by the sage Hillel, mehadrin min hamehadrin – the most beautiful way.
Why? It comes back to the infamous Hanukkah story. The Greeks invaded the ancient Israelite kingdom of Judea, and decreed that practicing Judaism was henceforth outlawed. No more Shabbat, no more festivals; no more teaching religion or holy biblical texts; no more brit milah (circumcision). The Greeks also desecrated the Jews’ holy Temple, by erecting an alter to Zeus and sacrificing pigs in the holy sanctuary.
The Jews were an oppressed nation in their own land – until the High Priest’s family (known as the Maccabees) staged an uprising. In a series of meticulously planned military operations, the tiny Jewish rebellion reclaimed their country – and eventually their Temple – from the powerful Greeks.
They set to work cleaning and purifying the Temple, so that it could be rededicated to God. The Maccabees wanted to relight the Temple’s enormous golden candelabra (the menorah), which was always kept alight. But they found just one sealed jug of consecrated oil that was fit for use – enough for just one day. Miraculously, this one tiny jar of oil burned and burned and lasted for the eight days needed to produce new oil.
To remember this astonishing miracle, we light Hanukkah menorahs each night for eight nights. This is also why a Hanukkiah has more branches than the golden menorah that stood in the Temple.
So there you have it: your complete guide to lighting Hanukkah candles! Click here to learn more about choosing a beautiful Hanukkah menorah.