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Why Do We Need to Use a Shamash Candle?

8 Blogs for 8 Nights of Chanukah
Blog #4: Making Chanukah Come Alive, Four Nights Later

Question: Why do we need to use a candle – the Shamash (helper) candle – when we can just as easily use a match to light the Menorah?

It has to do with the “Way of the Long Pole.”

Some background: Back in Biblical times, in the outer chamber of the ancient Jerusalem Temple, the Menorah stood in a special area called the heichal (sanctuary). The Menorah was a five-foot, seven branched candelabra of pure gold. Every morning, a kohen (priest, member of the Israelite clergy) filled the menorah’s lamps with the purest olive oil; in the afternoon, he would climb a three-step foot-ladder to kindle the menorah’s lamps. The flames burned through the night, symbolizing the light of the Holy One radiating throughout Israel and the world.

Interesting Pair of Factoids:

  • Actually, it did not have to be a priest (kohen) who lit the menorah. The Jewish law states that an ordinary layperson could also perform this mitzvah.
  • But there was also a law that restricts entry into the ancient Jerusalem Temple’s Sanctuary to priests only. In the ancient world, ordinary Israelites could venture no further than the azarah (Temple courtyard).

These two ancient laws created a legal paradox: a layperson can light the menorah; but the menorah’s designated place is inside the Sanctuary, where a layperson could not enter.

Talk about inconsistencies:

  • If an ordinary person should be able to light the Menorah, why doesn’t Torah instruct us to place And if the sanctity of the ancient Menorah is such that it requires the higher holiness found in the sanctuary, why does the Torah permit someone without a kohen’s level of holiness to light it?

This paradox, teach the Chassidic rebbes, is intentionally set up by the Torah in order to convey to us a most profound lesson. You are here, and you want to be there (“there” being someplace better, loftier, more spiritual than “here”). But you are not there, and cannot get there for a good while, perhaps ever.

So what do you do? Do you act as if you’re already there? Or do you tell yourself that here’s just fine, and who needs there anyway? You could, of course, become a hypocrite, or you could come to terms with the limitations of your situation. But there’s also a third option – the Way of the Long Pole.

The solution – the “Way of the Long Pole” – is that a layperson could light the menorah by means of a long pole. This ordinary Israelite stands outside the ancient Sanctuary, extends to the Menorah a long pole with a flame on the end, and thereby lights the Menorah.

What a great solution to a spiritual problem!

The lesson of the long pole says that we should aspire to spiritual heights that lie beyond our reach. We should not desist from our efforts to reach that place. Even when we worry that we, ourselves, will never be “there,” we can still act upon places in the distance, influencing them, and even illuminating them.

At times, this means that someone closer to those places – to the Menorah – needs to reach over and light it for us. At other times, it means that we contrive a way to reach beyond where we are at the present time. In either case, we turn to (or turn into) a “lamplighter,” a person who carries a long pole with a flame at its end and goes from lamp to lamp to ignite them; no lamp is too lowly, and no lamp is too lofty, for the lamplighter and his pole.

The shamash candle reminds us of the Way of the Long Pole. This Chanukah, if you are gathered with a group without the ability to physically get close enough to light the Menorah, allow others to illumine for you the way to a higher spiritual place. If you are able, let the shamash candle be your “long pole,” transforming you into the “lamplighter,” illuminating the way ahead. Either way, may this Chanukah be an inspiring one for you and your loved ones.

[Now read my post about being a Lamplighter.]

  • For Chanukah Resources to enhance your celebration – songsheets, blessing sheets, 8 Nights of Chanukah Tzedakah, 8 stories, and more – go to www.orami.org/chanukah
  • Come back each night to the blog (http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com) for more 8 Blogs for 8 Nights: Answers to Questions You Never Thought About, which enhance your understanding of Chanukah.
  • If you would answer today’s question differently, or have other Chanukah ideas/questions, please share your insights in a comment. I will make a donation to tzedakah for every comment written.

[Adapted from A Long Pole, an article by Yanki Tauber]

4 comments

  1. Steve Keleman says:

    Though ages ago, I think I remember that the shamash was the guard over all the other candles and protected them.

    According to one source on the internet, though it doesn't resolve the paradox raised by Rabbi Paul:

    A Chassidic Lesson

    Chassidim found inspiration by looking at the shamash's usual placement above the rest of the Chanukah candles. The shamash is the candle that serves the others. In a hasidic court, the shamash was the person who attended to the personal needs of the rebbe. A glance at the chanukiyah's configuration tells of the rewards that doing for others brings. Because the shamash lowers itself to serve the others it ends up with an exalted position on the chanukiyah.

  2. Anonymous says:

    can anyone explain to me why the "attendant candle" is called Shamash and why in ancient babylon there is a sun-diety also called Shamash? is there some relation between the two? i can't help but find this a little disturbing and would like to know if anyone has any insight on this.

  3. Anonymous says:

    shamash and shemesh are two different words with two different roots. shemesh means sun. shamash means attendant. shamash the diety is probably some conflation of shemesh. a year late, but if you ever see this you will no longer be disturbed.

  4. Judith Lazev says:

    and the shames needs to have that exalted position so that you don’t burn yourself when you place it back in the hanukkah after lighting the other candles. Sometimes. it’s good to not overthink things.

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