2019 Grateful 8: How many candles?

A recent dinner conversation wandered into a discussion of Menorahs. My friends were on the lookout for a nine-candle Menorah rather than the more common seven. As has happened so often that I’m no longer surprised, once the wish had been voiced I went from never seeing any to tripping over them. Well, not quite tripping, but close enough. Walking back to the flat earlier today, I decided to take the back streets. It’s always an adventure. The city still has pokey little shops that have been around for years bursting at the seams with all sorts of old stuff. I need to start taking down addresses though. Sometimes I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw what. Anyway, I was passing once such treasure trove and spotted several brass Menorahs in the window, two of which had spaces for nine candles. Not a piece of plastic in sight. I WhatsApped (when did that become a verb?) a photo to my mates and got the go-ahead to purchase.  Job done. And it wasn’t even 10 am.

But the job wasn’t done. I was curious about the difference between the two. Seven or nine? It turns out that what I bought wasn’t Menorah but a Chanukiah. The Menorah takes seven candles and can be lit whenever; the Chanukiah takes nine and is lit during Hanukkah. My bad! The Menorah is what was mentioned in the Bible:

Speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, according the bible, God handed down highly specific directions for his sanctuary and for the menorah that was to be placed inside (Exodus 25:31-40): it was to be made of hammered gold and have six branches, three on each side, with a central stem.

The Chanukiah is lit at the start of the Jewish festival of lights, better known as Hanukkah. Way back around 160s BCE, a Jewish rebel by the name of Maccabeus sent packing the Greek emperor Antiochus, a nasty piece of work by all accounts. He’d outlawed Judaism, banned the Shabbat, started to worship Greek gods in the Temple, and basically told the Jews to convert or die. Once rid of the evil incarnate, Maccabeus then rededicated the Temple and Hanukkah was born. [For the full story, have a read of Elon Gilad’s piece on the Revolt of the Maccabees – the story behind Hanukkah.]

Another Hanukkah story involves the lovely Judith, a woman whose single act of courage is credited with changing the course of history. Her exploits have led to the customary eating of dairy on the first day of Hanukkah. I’ve made a note to myself to try this cheesy kale and potato gratin recipe and I might not even wait for the day itself to come ’round.

But what does the word Hanukkah mean? Aviya Kushner, author of The Grammar of God, a book I’d very much like to read, says:

“Hanukkah,” defined in one word, is “dedication.” Or more elaborately, for the holiday’s namesake — “the re-dedication of the Temple as a temple.”

There’s a lot more to it, of course. If you’re interested, check out her article: The word Hanukkah means a lot more than you think it does.

But where did the nine come from? Well, in the Talmud, it says that when Maccabeus entered the temple, he found only one small jar of oil that hadn’t been ruined by Antiochus. It would take a miracle for it to burn for more than one day. But the miracle happened, and the oil lasted eight days, hence the eight-day festival. Back in the first century, two scholars differed as to how these candles should be lit. Hillel preached that one should be lit each night starting on the first night, while Shammai said all eight should be lit on the first night and then one quenched each night that followed. From what I’ve read, Hillel won out. Lighting the Chanukiah is quite involved. It should be placed to the left of a door and lit, in the same way, each night. First, you place the centre candle, the shamash, the candle from which you light all the other candles. Then you add the other eight candles from right to left. Then each night, working from left to right you light one candle, then two, then three… There are prayers and blessings to accompany each lighting and the candles must burn for 30 minutes after sunset – so get the long-lasting ones. And if you’re buying a Chanukiah, all of the candles must be at the same level (apparently an even slant is acceptable, too) except the shamash which should be on a higher level. That said, there’s a debate on Quora about whether this is really a must-be. Me? I’d err on the side of caution. And there’s an interesting message-board discussion on non-Jews lighting up during Hanukkah.

Now that I’ve read so much about them, I want one, too. And one year, when I’m in the same place from 25 Kislev (this year, 22 December) for eight days, I’ll do it all. And I’ll do it because I really like the idea of candles dispelling the darkness and in a world that’s getting scarily more anti-Semitic, I’d like somehow to show my support. Recently, an 89-year-old Jewish grandmother who survived the Holocaust and is living in Milan has had to have police protection following threats from members of Italy’s ultra-right. Back in 1993, the people of Billings, Montana, lit 10 000 Menorahs (or Chanukiah – who knows) in solidarity with a local Jewish family who’d had a brick through their kid’s bedroom window. The window had a menorah. [Janice Cohen’s The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate] is another addition to my book list.

I’m grateful I found the shop and the Chanukiah and that I’ve learned so much in the process. I’d be even more grateful if the world would let Jews be. If antisemitism didn’t exist. If the darkness gave way to light.


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