Understanding Hanukkah

“May the Lord light up your soul and bless you with all the love and joy you deserve. May these eight days be the best times of your life. Have a bright Hanukkah and enjoy the holiday!” ~Author Unknown

The menorah (or “lamp” in modern Hebrew) is the nine-branched candelabra used during the celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. The menorah has eight branches with candle holders in a long line to represent the Hanukkah miracle, when the oil that was supposed to last only one day burned for eight days. The ninth candle holder, which is set apart from the rest of the candles, holds the shamash (“helper” or “servant”)—the light used to light the other branches. On each night of Hanukkah, the shamash is lit first, and then the other candles are lit one by one. 

The menorah

It’s important to note that the nine-branched menorah (also called a hanukiah) is specifically intended for use at Hanukkah. A seven-branched menorah represents the menorah kept in the temple. The Hanukkah menorah is set in the window on display to publicly affirm the family’s Jewish faith.

Instructions for Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah

Hanukkah menorahs come in all shapes and sizes, with some using candles, others using oil, and yet others using electricity. All have nine branches: eight to represent the eight-day miracle of Hanukkah, and one to hold the shamash or “helper” candle.

Glowing candles lit for the eighth night of Hanukkah

Choosing Your Menorah

Ideally, unless you are using a family heirloom, you should choose the finest menorah you can afford as a way to glorify God. No matter how much you spend, you should be sure that there are nine branches in your menorah, that the eight candle holders are in a line—not a circle—, and that the space for the shamash is set apart or misaligned with the eight other candle holders.


While public menorahs may be electrified, it is important to use candles or oil in a home menorah. There is no such thing as an “official Hanukkah candle;” the standard Hanukkah candles sold in shops are usually the blue and white of the Israeli flag, but that particular color combination is not required. You should, however, be sure that:

  • The candles or oil will burn for at least 30 minutes from the time of their lighting till nightfall (the time of the evening at which stars can be seen).
  • The candles, if used, are all of the same height unless one is being used during Shabbat.
  • The Shabbat (sabbath) candle must be larger than the others, as no candle may be lit after the Shabbat candles, which are lit 18 minutes before sundown.


There are two options for the location of your menorah. Both fulfill the mitzvah of lighting and displaying the candles publically, as is commonly done at the recommendation of Rabbi Hillel (a highly respected rabbi who lived around 110 BCE). Public display of Jewish symbols is not always safe, however, and there is no absolute rule regarding display of Hanukkah lights.

Many families place their lit menorahs in the front window or porch on display, to proclaim their faith publicly. When this is done, however, the menorah may not be more than 30 feet above the ground (thus it’s not an ideal option for apartment dwellers).

Another popular option is to place the menorah at the door, opposite the mezzuzah (a small parchment scroll with the text from Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21 written on it, which is placed in a case and attached to the doorpost).

Lighting the Candles

Each night you will light the shamash and one additional candle after saying the prescribed blessings. You will start with a candle in the holder farthest to the left, and add one candle each night moving toward the left until, on the last night, all the candles are lit.

The candles should be lit 30 minutes before nightfall; the website Chabat.org offers an interactive calculator to tell you exactly when to light the candles in your location. Candles should be lit from left to right each night; you’ll replace the candles for all prior nights and add a new candle every evening.

  1. Fill the unlit oil or place the unlit candles in the chanukiyah as you face it from right to left.
  2. Light the shamash and, while holding this candle, say the blessings (see below).
  3. Finally, after the blessings, light the candle or oil, from left to right, and replace the shamash in its designated spot.

Saying the Blessings

Say the blessings in Hebrew as transliterated. The translations, below, are not said aloud. First, say,

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah. 

Then say,

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, she’asah nisim l’avoteinu, b’yamim haheim bazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who made miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time.

On the first night only, you’ll also say the Shehecheyanu blessing: 

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, shehekheyanu, v’kiyamanu vehegianu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Repeat this process every night of Hanukkah, remembering to leave out the Shehecheyanu blessing on the evenings after the first night. During the half-hour that the candles are burning, you should refrain from work (including housework) and focus, instead, on telling the stories surrounding Hanukkah.

In addition to these prayers, many Jewish families sing or recite the Haneirot Halolu, which explains the story and traditions of Hanukkah. The words are translated in Chabad.org as:

We kindle these lights [to commemorate] the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvations.

  • Hanukkah candles are burned to remember the miracle that occurred in the temple when one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days.
  • Nine Hanukkah candles (including the shamash, which is used to light the other candles) are placed in a nine-branched menorah (candelabra).
  • Traditional blessings in Hebrew are said before the candles are lit.
  • One additional candle is burned each night.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s