Beginning today for eight nights, Jewish households across the globe will celebrate Hanukkah. The theme never gets old: Light triumphs over darkness.
The menorah is the most widely recognized symbol of the holiday. And although there are eight nights of Hanukkah, menorahs have nine spaces for candles.
So what is this extra candle for? The ninth spot is reserved for the Shamash. It is a candle, no different in appearance than the others, but has a specific job. In Hebrew, Shamash means “attendant” or “to serve.” The Shamash is the first candle lit and is used to light the other candles.
We explain to children that the Shamash is the helper candle. Each night it is responsible for sharing its flame with the wicks of the other candles until they are also illuminated. The Shamash is not extinguished, but placed just above, below or off to the side of the other candles, depending on the menorah. It is always ready to serve and relight a candle that may be blown out.
Although the Shamash doesn’t actually “count” as one of the Hanukkah candles, its job cannot be undervalued. In the same way, we all have the power within us to behave as a Shamash candle –to share our light when those we love, or those we don’t know, are in need of our warmth. We have the power to ignite a flame that has been blown out, lift a downtrodden spirit, or rekindle a forgotten hope in others.
We can use our lights to touch lives and brighten an otherwise dark world, even if it’s only for a brief time. The Shamash candle is always at the ready, yet never demands the glory. Turning the focus to the other candles, yet burning brightly on its own.
According to the Talmud, a central text in Judaism, the main reason the menorah is lit is to give praise and Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah is dripping with symbolism – literally: I can’t wait to bite into my first hot fried latke and our family’s celebration this weekend. But more than that, each year, I enjoy reflecting on what the Festival of Light truly means.
This year, I pay tribute to the Shamash, who leads by example and reminds us to stand tall and shine brightly, but rather than focus on ourselves, be an attendant ready to serve. Be aware of lights that have been extinguished. We can share our financial and material wealth, yes, but also powerful and necessary, is sharing our light. Be the bright moment in someone’s day so they too can shine bit brighter, stand a bit taller, or smile a bit wider.
Many small lights, when put together, make a huge glow.