The most obvious and symbolic element of Chanukah is the ’chanukiyyah (commonly, though inaccurately, called the m’norah), used for the commemoration of the alleged miracle. The chanukiyyah is usually a nine-branched candelabra designed to hold eight Chanukah candles, one for each night, plus the shamash (meaning “servant”). In typical fashion, the shamash is lit, then used to kindle each Chanukah light in turn: on the first night, one light; on the second night, two; and so on, until all eight lights are kindled on the last night of the Festival.
The chanukiyyah, while apparently ancient, is not explicitly prescribed by the Rabbis. Neither is the use of candles as Chanukah lights. Indeed, most of the Talmudic references are to oil lamps. For example, Mas. Shabbath 23a, discusses which kind of oil is best for kindling the Chanukah lights (evidently, it’s olive oil).
But what is truly intriguing about the traditions surrounding the chanukiyyah, is that the most common method used today for kindling the Chanukah lights was originally meant only for the “extremely zealous.” You may be surprised to know that according to Mas. Shabbath 21b, only one Chanukah light per household is “demanded,” and any increase in the number of lights is merely an indication of one’s “zeal.” According to the Rabbis, each household must light at least one Chanukah light per night; for the “zealous,” one light nightly for each member of his household; and for the “extremely zealous,” eight lights—with Beth Shammai saying to reduce the number by one each night, and Beth Hillel maintaining that the lights should progressively increase each night up to eight.
In short, there’s more than one way to kindle the Chanukah lights, and the traditions and rituals are not quite as fixed as we have been led to believe. Read more