Growing up, we only lit one menorah. It is a special menorah that was hidden in a secret room in Rome throughout World War II. In 1947, my great grandfather Nonno Arturo returned to Rome and brought it back to New York with him. It is made of intricate silver with a depiction of the tablets that contain the Ten Commandments, and little doors that swing on delicate hinges. It resembles an aron, the ark in the synagogue that contains the Torah itself. (You can see a picture of it here.) I have only ever seen one other menorah like it. And it was in a museum attributed to the Jews of Rome. It is iconic. Each night we would gather with anticipation and melt the bottom of the candles into the little tarnished dish that was designed to hold a spot of oil with a loose wick. Bending time, merging worlds.
These days, my family has filled an entire window sill with hanukkiot. Most of them are handmade. Mosaic depictions of baseball fields (there are conveniently nine players), a ceramic snake, and other assorted craft projects that have slowly accumulated such that each person (including guests) can light their own menorah. I think there are seven of them this year.
The thing is, this year I only bought four boxes of candles. On the first night, we put a candle in each and then set aside a shamash to accompany each menorah. Then I thought to myself, well, maybe we can share the shamash. I started rationing out the candles. Maybe we don't have to light all of them every night? And in an instant, I found myself having the most Hanukkah feeling of all: It would be a little miracle if these four boxes of candles could last all eight nights.
And then my kids asked, well does each menorah need its own shamash?
A question I joyfully did not actually know the answer to. So I went digging in the sources. And it returned me to a more essential question. Why do we have the shamash at all?
We have a shamash because we are forbidden to derive any benefit from the Hanukkah lights, which is a rabbinic way to say, to make use of them. This applies in two ways. First, we cannot use one of the eight candles to kindle any of the others. And second, we cannot use the light of the candles as a source of functional light, say, to read or write or cook. They exist for their own ritual sake, to just be light. They cannot be put to any other use.
As we learn in the Talmud (m. Shabbat 21b),
אָמַר רָבָא: צָרִיךְ נֵר אַחֶרֶת לְהִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ לְאוֹרָהּ
Rava said: One must kindle another lamp in addition to the Hanukkiah in order to use its light, since it is prohibited to use the light of the Hanukkiah.
The idea that Hanukkah candles cannot be used to generate light (lo l'hishtamesh bahem l'orah) took me back to the words of the poet Marge Piercy, in her poem, "To be of use."
"I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again."
I have been so shaped to understand myself as an ox pulling a heavy cart, to value my ability to pull like water buffalo, though perhaps with less patience. This is a deeply held value. The idea of being of service, of supporting the collective, of doing my part. But the Hanukkah candles come and they say, perhaps we are not here for any reason other than our essence, to glow.
And perhaps that is also true of us.
In the words of Proverbs,
נֵ֣ר יְ֭הֹוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם חֹ֝פֵ֗שׂ כׇּל־חַדְרֵי־בָֽטֶן׃
The lifebreath of a person is the lamp of The Ineffable
Revealing all the inner mysteries of our Source (20:27).
On the one hand we long to be of use. And on the other hand, to be useless.
This idea, that the candles can have no other use, is reinforced each week as we cease from the work of creation and celebrate Shabbat. And it is amplified in the yearly cycle. I returned to our communal reflections throughout the Days of Awe on the themes of Shmita. The idea of letting the land rest and lay fallow, and by extension our own personal means of production. It returned me to the call of Miriam Stewart on the second day of Rosh Hashanah: "What can you do to make yourself useless to capitalism?" Allowing ourselves to be useless, or rather, to just be, is so aspirational, so helpful, so rooted in the wisdom of disability justice organizers and so difficult for me personally.
I can barely honor this quality in the Hanukkah candles. Imagine in my own life! Once we have lit them all, the room glows and for a moment it feels like we have a fireplace. I want to curl up with a book and read by the light of the fire. But that would be putting them to use, deriving some kind of other benefit from them.
One night this week, I actually had the chutzpah to turn on the overhead light so that we could read in the same room as the hanukkiot. Understandably, my kids revolted. "The candle light is so pretty. We just want to see that." I put the book down, picked up a dreidel, and spun it upside down. Allowing everything to just glow and be.
Now for those who are wondering about my original question, it is preferable to have one shamash per menorah, especially if the hanukkiot are in different rooms. If they are in the same room, there is some rabbinic discrepancy about whether each one requires its own shamash or whether they can share. It is my own sense that it is preferable to have one shamash per menorah, but not for any practical reason. Rather for the sake of hiddur mitzvah - that there is value in making things more beautiful, indulging the spirit, generating more light.
To close, I want to share one last beloved teaching on Hanukkah from Sefat Emet, an 18th century Hasidic master. He writes,
"Especially at this season, when lights were miraculously lit for Israel even though they did not have enough oil (or candles!), there remains light even now to help us, with the aid of these Hanukkah candles, to find that hidden light within." (Hanukhah 1:5, Translation by R. Art Green)
This Shabbat Hanukkah, beneath the new moon of Tevet, you might ask yourself if you are feeling called to be the candle or the shamash? Do you need a chance to let your light shine? Or an opportunity to be of use, to share your light with others?
Together may we collectively reveal more of the hidden light in this world.
Shabbat shalom, Hodesh Tov, Hanuka Alegre, and Hag Urim Sameach!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.