The Tradition of Menorah

Menorah is a Hebrew word meaning "candelabrum." In relation  to Hanukkah, it refers to the nine-branched ceremonial lamp in which the Hanukkah candles are placed and then blessed.

Although it is an old and cherished custom, the roots of gelt-giving go back much further than the Middle Ages, the era in which the custom is usually said to have originated. Even though it is not mentioned in neither the Talmud nor the Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law), the importance of coins in the history of the Hasmonean period is undeniable.

The menorah originated as a religious symbol in biblical times. The Torah records how the great artist Bezalel fashioned a seven-branched menorah for the desert tabernacle in fulfillment of a Divine commandment (Exodus 25:31-40; 37:17-24). Such a seven-branched menorah adorned the Temple in Jerusalem and was carried away by the Roman legions at the time of its destruction in 70 C.E. While the Roman Empire has long since vanished, a seven-branched menorah stands before the Knesset building in Israel, yet another tangible reminder of the indestructibility of the Jewish people.

The nine-branched Hanukkah menorah was a modification of the biblical model and seems to have originated in the first century C.E. It had eight branches, one for each day of the holiday, and a ninth branch for the shamash or “servant” light.

On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking God for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking God for allowing us to reach this time of year). The first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. Each night, another candle is added from right to left. Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). Because ofthe law prohibiting the lighting of a fire on Shabbat, Chanukah candles are lit before the Shabbat candles on Friday night, and they are lit after Havdalah on Saturday night.

In ancient times, oil was used in the menorah. Over time, candles were substituted for the oil. Interestingly, some scholars believe that the use of small candles for the menorah was a deliberate choice, designed to distinguish Hanukkah lights from Christian votive candles. Except in times of religious persecution, the menorah was placed outside the front door or, as is the custom today, displayed in the window of every Jewish home.