A menorah in the foreground displays a shadow on the wall.

The story of the Chanukiah

The Chanukiah (or menorah) is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight day holiday of Chanukah.

Eight of the candle holders are displayed in a line, and the ninth holder is always a little higher or lower than the others. The candle that stands apart is called the shamash, and it is used to light all the other candles on the Chanukiah.

The candles should be lit from right to left, and on every night of the festival we light a new candle on the Chanukiah. So on the first night, the shamash is lit and then used to light the first of the eight candles. By the eighth night, all of the candles on the Chanukiah will be burning brightly.

What’s the backstory of Chanukah and the Chanukiah?

Chanukah translates to mean “dedication,” and it is a holiday that reminds us to stand against forces that would destroy Judaism and to keep alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation.

Chanukah is also known as the Festival of Lights and usually occurs during the month of December.

Part of the story behind Chanukah is about turning darkness into light. It is a story that dates back thousands of years to times when there were great tensions between the Greeks and the Jewish people.

As the story goes, a Syrian tyrant, known as Antiochus Epiphanes, tried to abolish Judaism. However, a resistance movement—the Maccabees—rose up against him. Though outnumbered, the Maccabees and their loyal fighters miraculously won two major battles, saving the Jewish people.

According to legend, when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks, they immediately relit what is called the “ner tamid” (eternal light), a constant light source that is replicated in all modern day synagogues. However, once inside the Temple, they discovered that there was only a single jar of oil (enough to last for just one day). A messenger was sent to secure additional oil, but it took eight days for him to complete his mission.

Miraculously however, that single jar of oil continued to burn until his return, and so the rabbis of the Talmud attributed the festival of the eight days of Chanukah to the miracle of this single jar of oil.

In order to remember and commemorate the miracle of the single jar of oil, the Chanukiah was created. The light of the Chanukiah also signifies the dark times for the Jewish people who were eventually turned towards the light as they fought against oppression and saved Judaism.

So now you know how darkness can literally be turned into light!

Buying a Chanukiah

Chanukiot can be made from a variety of materials, all of which will vary in price depending on what you choose. Regardless of what material you select, make sure when you are shopping for your Chanukiah that you are buying the right thing. It must adhere to the following guidelines:

  1. It must have nine branches. There are other types of candelabrum associated with this holiday, and these have fewer branches. It’s important that you do not confuse them.
  2. The nine branches must consist of a row of eight at equal height, and the shamash placed slightly higher or lower than the others.

If you would like to buy a Chanukiah, there are several options available. Enquire at your local store specialising in Jewish artefacts or seek advice from your synagogue—you can also ask friends and family for suggestions.

Many people acquire their Chanukiah as an heirloom passed down from generation to generation, so it’s also worth asking family members whether something like this exists within the family.

Further information

A great way to learn more about the festival of Chanukah and the story behind it is to share the learning with your family—particularly with children! You can get a fun and concise roundup of the key aspects of Chanukah and lighting a Chanukiah from the Jewish Art page entitled Hanukkah and the Menorah—Can miracles really happen?

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