I hope that Hanukkah has provided a welcome bit of light and warmth in these dark days of winter. As we light the Hanukkiyah each night, hopefully the light of redemption increases just a bit more, up and up until we have the full complement of all eight nights- but even then, we will have nine lights. Perhaps for those of us used to lighting the menorah, the presence of the shamash no longer even registers. Yes, on a regular menorah there’s 6+1 lights and on a Hanukkiyah theres 8+1 lights, but does that mean that we should say there’s 7 lights on a menorah and 9 on a Hanukkiyah? Strangely, not exactly.
The shamash is often referred to as a helper candle, that is, we use it to light the others. Which is true. However, is it really neccessary to have a helper candle, especially if we remember that, until recently, all hanukkiyot were oil-burning? (In which case you can’t really pick up one cup of oil and use it to light the others!) So, if the idea that the shamash is there to light the others is not strictly true, then why bother with our +1 candle at all?
The hint, as usual, is in the Hebrew word itself. The root shin-mem-shin is the verb for two things in English: 1) to use, and 2) to serve. The usual explanation for the shamash candle has assumed it is the second meaning that matters, when actually it’s the first. The shamash is there because it is the only light that is meant to be used.
In the paragraph we recite after lighting, haNérot Hallalu, we describe how the lights of Hanukkah are not meant to be used. That is, quite literally, the light is not supposed to be used to light up our houses, to read a book by, to provide warmth or energy. The light must be purely aesthetic. By lighting the shamash first (the one to be used) we can guarantee that it is that light which is “used” while the other lights we kindle after will be there only for their beauty.
This may sound absurdly technical- but consider what Hanukkah would have meant in a pre-modern, pre-electrified world. Oil, candles, etc were very expensive- if you were going to light them after dark (and not just go to bed as most people did) then you had better have a good reason- that light better be functional, it better be used for something! And here we have our rabbis telling us that these lights, for these eight days, can’t be used for anything.
Although Hanukkah doesn’t involve the expense it once did, or the complex dynamics of functionality, we can still learn from the lesson of the shamash– to remember, perhaps even more in our modern world than in our ancestors’, that the light of the Hanukkiyah is there to be beautiful, to illuminate our lives and share the power of miracles with the world. We continue to light the shamash first, so that it can be used, while the other flames shine pure and bright for no functional purpose whatsoever.
Hag Urim Same’ah,