Over the eight days of Chanukah, we light the candles progressively: one candle on the first night, two on the second night, and so on, until we light all eight on the final night.
Instead of using a match to light the candles directly, we light the candles using another candle. This “lighting candle” is called the shamash, which literally means helper, or servant.
The concept of using a shamash is unique to Chanukah. We don’t light sabbath or holiday candles this way.
What is the purpose and significance of the shamash? What does it teach us?
In honor of the eight nights of Chanukah, I came up with eight lessons.
(1) Anyone Can Serve
There is nothing outwardly special about the shamash. It could be any candle in the box.
So too with us. Anyone can serve. You don’t need special skills, or certifications, or advanced degrees to be of service to others.
Each of us has a light inside of us, that, if we share it with others, will grow brighter. If you think you have nothing to offer, try a smile or a nod hello. Open the door for someone. Say thank you. Even catching someone’s gaze can create a magic moment and brighten someone’s day.
No matter what is going on in your life, you have a light inside you that can light up others.
(2) We Are Here to Serve Multiple Outcomes
Even though the shamash has completed its task once we light the other candles, we don’t extinguish it.
We put it in the menorah with the others, where it is available to serve if necessary. If one of the other flames dies, we use the shamash to relight its flame.
Even if the shamash isn’t needed again to reignite the other candles, it also serves us. We are prohibited from using the light of the candles for our enjoyment or personal gain. To the extent we derive incidental benefit from the candles, we attribute that to the shamash.
Like the shamash, our task isn’t limited to our initial service. We may be called to serve in different ways to different groups.
(3) A Pure Flame Doesn’t Diminish By Sharing With Others
On a practical level, it makes sense to use another candle to light the candles. As we progress through the eight days of Chanukah, we will reach a point where a match would burn out before we lit all the candles.
To avoid this fate, we use a match to light the shamash, and then the shamash to light the other candles.
The flame of the shamash does not diminish from lighting the other candles. Not even on the eighth night, when it is tasked with its heaviest workload.
We can use a fire to start another fire, without diminishing the first flame.
Like the shamash, when we share our light with others we increase the light in the world around us.
When we give from our true nature and essence and a place of integrity, we are not diminished and we don’t burn out.
(4) To Give, You Must First Receive
Consider what would happen if the shamash didn’t have a wick or wax. It wouldn’t be able to receive the flame from the match, and, in turn, light the other candles.
A candle cannot give a flame that it doesn’t have.
So too we can give our light to others only if we come from a place of wholeness where our fire burns bright. We cannot give to others what we don’t have.
Take care of your wick and wax or you can’t share your light with others
(5) Change Requires Only One Bold Lightmaker Enlightening One Other
The first blessing we say before lighting the Chanukah candles is
Blessed are you, Hashem our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
This makes sense on the first night, when we light only one candle. But we say the same blessing on all eight nights, even though we light multiple candles on each subsequent night.
Why don’t we change the language to the plural, lights?
I will offer that perhaps this is because we fulfill our obligation by lighting the shamash — the singular light that lights the other candles, and by the shamash lighting one candle.
Even though the shamash isn’t the candle used for the commandment, we light this one candle with the purpose of lighting the others. It strikes me as similar to the dictum in Judaism that a person who saves one life is viewed as if she had saved the world.
You don’t need to enlighten the whole world. Simply bringing light to one person is enough to spark change that will spread to others.
(6) A Servant Leader Stands Out and Blends In
The shamash is the ultimate servant leader. The words literally means attendant. This candle goes first, receiving its light and in turn giving light to other candles.
It has a place in the menorah with the other candles, but is separated from them. Sometimes it sits above them, sometimes below them, and other times to the side.
The shamash is always ready to serve, either by lighting the other candles or being a guiding light for us.
This is what it means to be a servant leader. You may be called to go first and lead the way, but leaders don’t always stay in front. Sometimes the task of a servant leader is to hang behind or on the side and wait to be called to duty.
Following the shamash, the path to elevation is not through pushing others down, but by sharing with them and coaxing out the flame they carry within.
As we watch the candles burn down, we see an increasing number of flames with each additional night. The candles may be different colors, but the flames are not separate. The flame of each candle came from the shamash. And they present to us as one source of light.
The one light creates many lights. The many lights give off one light.
Each flame flickers differently. Some shake. Others dance. Some get small. Others grow tall. But their essence is the same because they originate from the same source.
So too with humanity. No matter what we look like on the outside, we share a single source of origin. We are all connected. Each of us is an individual candle, sharing the same flame.
(8) The Way of the Long Pole
Note: Given that Chanukah has eight nights, I challenged myself to stretch for eight lessons. Thanks to Rabbi Paul Kipnes for this one.
The essence is that the shamash allows us to reach the candles we might not be able to reach on our own. According to Rabbi Kipnes,
The lesson of the long pole says that we should aspire to spiritual heights that lie beyond our reach. We should not desist from our efforts to reach that place. Even when we worry that we, ourselves, will never be “there,” we can still act upon places in the distance, influencing them, and even illuminating them.
Which lesson resonates most with you? Or do you have another insight? Please share in the comments!
- I am not a Rabbi and this is not an official answer from anywhere, so please don’t rely on this if you wish to know the actual laws. This is simply my interpretation. ↩