The traditions of Chanukah can be a little confusing.The complicated discussion of these traditions in Talmud tractate Shabbat (beginning on 21a) help clarify certain points, but in regards to the order in which the candles are to be lit says little.
What the Talmud does make clear for us is two points of the tradition that are applicable to today.First, it makes it clear that we are to increase the number of candles each night, according to Hillel, as opposed to decreasing the number of candles each night (as Shammai suggested).This is to recognize the increasing nature of the miracle of the oil for each night (one day’s supply lasted 8 days, so each night is an additional miracle).
The second thing that is clear from the Talmud is that we are not to use one Chanukah candle to light another and that we are not to use the light of the menorah for performing our daily tasks.These two prohibitions led to the creation of the shamas candle, the candle that is used to light the other candles.By using the shamas we assure that we do not use a candle designated to represent a night to light any other candles, and by placing the shamas on a different level (i.e. higher or lower) than the other candles, if the menorah happens to be the only light in the room, we can still do our tasks based on the light from the Shamas.
The standard order for lighting the candles is based on the Shulchan Aruch.As one faces the menorah, the first candle goes on the far right, and then each subsequent candle is positioned directly to the left of the one that preceded it.The lighting then goes in the opposite order, starting with the left most candle as one faces the menorah continuing to the right.The blessings should be recited after the Shamas is lit and as it is being used for lighting the other candles.
One additional tradition discussed in the Talmud is that while the requirement of lighting Chanukah candles means one menorah per household, it clearly states that for those who wish, there may be one menorah per family member.This is a wonderful way to involve everyone in the lighting of the menorah.
Ultimately, the purpose of the menorah and the lighting of candles on Chanukah is to publicize the miracle of Chanukah (therefore menorah’s should be placed near a front window, or even outside if possible). For families and individuals the act of lighting the menorah and saying the blessings can be a powerful reminder of Jewish identity and the importance of keeping the chain of tradition alive.If that goal is achieved, the order in which the candles are lit is ultimately not that important.
According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Menorah in the Temple had its lamps arranged from west to east. Optimally the High Priest when lighting the Temple Menorah in the late afternoon was suppose to begin from the most western candle which was closest to the Holy of Holies and continue lighting lamps eastward. For us this would be from left to right. Since, when we are lighting our Chanukia we are acting as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), who is rekindling the Temple Menorah for the first time after years of Helenist desecration, we also light from left to right. Furthermore, we actually fulfill the requirement of lighting the Chanukah Menorah with the lighting of only one candle. The other candles are there for Hidur Mitzvah (beautifying the commandment) and proclaiming which day of the miracle we are celebrating. Therefore, we light first the newest candle which, followed by the others to its left, tells us what day of Chanukah we are celebrating.
The question of how the Hanukah candles are lit has been an issue since the first century of the Common Era.
In the Talmud, (tractate Shabbat 21b), we are told; “the mitzvah of Chanukah is fulfilled for a person and his entire house with a single candle; those who diligent, light a candle for every member of the house; regarding those who are extremely diligent, Beit (the school of) Shammai says to light eight candles on the first night and to remove one each following day, and Beit (the school of) Hillel says to light one candle on the first night and to add one on each following day.”
The earliest recorded rabbinic debate offers us the insight that originally there was no single tradition on how to light the Hanukah candles, or even how many to light each month.Eventually the Jewish world accepted the teaching of Beit Hillel, and we begin with one candle, plus a shamash on the first night, adding an additional candle each subsequent night.
The tradition of placing the candles in the Hanukah, from the right and lighting them from the left derives from the notion that each candle represents a specific day.Placing the candles from the right acknowledges the ascending order of the days, beginning with the first day of the holiday.Lighting the candles from the left recognizes the primacy of the individual night.The first candle lit each night is the newest candle, the candle for that specific night.As we place the candle in the Hanukiah, from oldest to newest, we light them from newest to oldest and in doing so sanctify each day individually and as a part of the greater festival of Hanukah.
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