Hanukkah (which means dedication) is known both as the Feast of Dedication and the Festival of Lights. Mentioned only once in the Bible (John 10:22), it commemorates the victory over the Syrian forces of Antiochus, who had desecrated the Temple and demanded to be worshiped as a god in human form. Much of the Hanukkah celebration has to do with the legend surrounding the rededication of the Temple. It is said that there was only enough oil to keep the flame (which was supposed to burn continuously) alive for one night. But wonder of wonders, the oil kept the menorah burning for eight days—until such time as more oil could be procured. It’s a legend . . . but it might well be a true legend. It surely sounds like something our God would do, doesn’t it?
So if the legendary miracle of the oil was that it burned for eight days, why are there nine branches on the hanukkiah* (the nine-branched menorah used to celebrate the holiday)? Well, eight lights represent the eight days of oil that burned, and the ninth is the shamash. Shamash means servant or caretaker. Most of the year it refers to the person who takes care of the synagogue. But at Hanukkah time, it refers to the first candle that is lit on the hanukkiah—the candle that is used to light all the other candles.
Today’s contemporary hanukkiahs have various designs and themes. But the more traditional hanukkiahs place the shamash at the center of the menorah, often slightly elevated from the other candles.
When I was a child, my sister and I took turns lighting the Hanukkah candles. Our parents would strike the match that lit the shamash. My sister, nearly five years older than me, had the honor of using it to light the candle on the first night. I remember watching the flame as my mother lifted the candle from the center of the menorah and cautiously handed it to me on the second night of the holiday. I tilted the shamash so its flame touched the wick of the first candle—and then the second—before I replaced it ever so carefully back in the center of the hanukkiah.
Our celebration differed somewhat from those of my school friends because while my parents were Jewish, they also believed in Jesus. I remember my father explaining that just as the shamash, or the servant, is used to bring light to the other candles, so Jesus came to be a servant, bringing light into the world. And he told us that when Jesus lives in our hearts, we too become servants, bringing His light to other people.
When I think back to those wonderful Hanukkah celebrations, I remember the bright glow of the candles, and I remember the wonder I felt as I reflected upon the Servant who bent down to bring light to those whom He served.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Hanukkah. May the flame of the Shamash burn brightly in your heart as you share His light with others this holiday season!
P.S. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 21 and lasts for eight days. Why not let your Jewish friends know you are thinking of them by sending a Hanukkah card? We have several from which to choose on our website.
*Hanukkiah is pronounced hah-new-KEY-ah. Shamash is pronounced SHAH-mahsh