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.
Some other Talmudic instructions concerning the Chanukah lights include the exceptions for placing the lamp inside the home (it’s supposed to be outside), how far from the doorway it is allowed to be, how high above the ground is acceptable, and who must pronounce a blessing and what that blessing must be.
The Talmud also includes prohibitions against using the Chanukah lights to perform the natural functions of a household lamp—i.e., casting usable light, providing heat, or transferring a flame from one lamp to another. This, of course, renders the Chanukah lights useless for all but one task, and it is an extremely limited (though charming) one, at that. Additionally, it is from these prohibitions that the tradition of the shamash arose. Since the Rabbis forbid the use of the Chanukah lights for natural purposes, the shamash—not being one of the Chanukah lights itself—was added as a ceremonial convenience.
Should we not find it curious, then, given the extraordinarily non-authoritative nature of the Rabbi’s opinions, that something as innocuous as the shamash would garner such profound meaning in Messianic and Jewish Roots circles? Though it is an entirely contrived, completely rabbinic innovation, the concept of the shamash really “preaches”—especially to a Messianic audience.
The mundane purpose of the shamash notwithstanding, it is easy to make the leap to a brilliant representation of Yeshua: a set-apart “servant,” yet elevated (as on some modern chanukiyyot) above all others, setting them aflame with His holy light, so that they in turn may shine that light, and brightly penetrate the darkness of the world around them. Indeed, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28), and He is “the true Light, which enlightens every man” (John 1:9)! Without a doubt, it is a glorious portrait of our Master—even more so when we imagine that this picture has been amazingly “hidden” for centuries in plain view of His own Jewish people. But the fact of the matter remains: when we “see” Yeshua in the chanukiyyah, we are “seeing” Him in a “Rabbinical [institution]” (Mas. Shabbath 24a)—we are being inspired by a man-made prohibition against nature and reason. As disciples of Messiah, we have an abundant treasure of spiritual richness in the legacy of the Scriptures. Can we not honor and observe a holiday established by our forefathers without camouflaging and disfiguring it with more spiritual meaning than they intended?
Does the chanukiyyah’s shamash represent Yeshua? It certainly can, if we choose to see it that way. But if we do, isn’t it possible that we’re just “seeing things” where they ought not to be? Or, at least, making too much out of something that was never meant to get our attention?
Think about it.
Intrigued? This was just an excerpt from the Appendix of my book The Real Story of Chanukah.