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Shamash: The Servant

by Tim O'Hearn

Perhaps the best known aspect of Hanukkah is the menorah. This is the nine-branched candelabrum that gives the holiday the designation as the Festival of Lights. It differs from the Temple menorah, which had seven branches. Each branch holds a bowl for oil or a candle.

The menorah has eight branches for the nightly candles. The ninth branch, usually raised in the center or off to a side, holds the shamash (servant) candle which is used to light all the others. Soon after nightfall on the first night of Hanukkah (after sundown December 9th this year) one candle is placed in the shamash holder and one in the extreme right holder as you face the menorah. Light the shamash, hold it up and recite the following blessings.

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, at this time.
(only on the first day) Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach and enjoy this day.

After the candle is lit, replace the shamash candle, still lit. This is followed by the following chant, then presents, games, and singing.

We light these candles to commemorate the miraculous happenings and unbelievable victories experienced by our ancestors in ancient times during this very season of the year. We kindle these holy lights for the eight days of Hanukkah, and we use them to remind us, as we gaze on their flickering flames, that we must give thanks to God for having delivered a mighty army into the hands of a small band and for having delivered an arrogant and wicked tyrant to those who believe in the pursuit of the moral law.

On subsequent nights add a candle so that the number of candles from the right equal the number of the day of the holiday. After the first two blessings are recited, light the leftmost candle (the newest) and light toward the right until all are lit.

When using an electric menorah, normally for safety reasons, start with the bulbs unscrewed in all holders. After plugging in the menorah screw in the shamash light, recite the blessings, and then screw in the appropriate bulbs to light them.

The first candle lit each day, before the blessings, is the shamash. This, as has been stated, means "servant" or "slave." Because it is lit each night before the blessing, and is technically not one of the Hanukkah lights, it would be easy to consider the servant to be "meaningless" because it does not represent one of the eight nights of Hanukkah. It has the lowly purpose of lighting the "important" candles. But without the servant, nothing would happen, the lights of remembrance would never shine.

So it is with us. As we go about our lives putting others first, serving mankind before ourselves, it would be easy to say, "I am unimportant. If only I were a great scholar of God's word, or a rich philanthropist whose name is on a building, or some other famous person, I could let my light shine." But we can't all be famous or "important." Someone needs to be the shamash.

Remember, it is the servant that gives light the longest of all the candles. The lowly servant, without a blessing, is the one that allows all the others to shine. When lighting the menorah, truly the least shall be first.

"Rejoice the soul of thy servant: for unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul." (Ps 86:4)