Why Do We Light Menorahs for Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is associated with the lighting of nine candles on a menorah. But it wasn't always that way.

Low key image of with menorah (candlestick with 8 candles) by the window with the night view on Tel Aviv, Israel. Candles burning on the Jewish holiday Hanukkah menorah stock image.Nina Mikryukova/Shutterstock

Many people think of Hanukkah as a “festival of lights.” And while “light” plays a role (as we’ll see in a bit), the word “Hanukkah” is actually Hebrew for “dedication“. The dedication it refers to is the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabees (a group of Jewish people) wrested control of the Temple from people who hated Judaism and wanted it banned.

Light was important

The actual re-dedication took place in 164 B.C. on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev—which in our calendar falls sometime in November or December. Since the days are short around that time, light was an important factor. Unfortunately, oil was in short supply, but some say a miracle occurred: while there was only enough oil to light the Temple for one day, the oil continued to burn for eight whole days.

But it wasn’t necessarily the focus of the holiday… yet

Other versions of the story don’t make reference to the miracle of the oil. Whether or not the miracle actually happened, the dedication has been celebrated every year since 164 B.C. for eight days (which also corresponds to the length of Sukkot, the holiday some say the Jewish people celebrated upon rededicating the Temple, shares History.com). It was still a while (at least another 250 years, as indicated below) before the lighting of a special Hanukkah menorah (a nine-light candelabra called a “Hanukkiah”) became part of the festivities. These warm and fuzzy holiday traditions are a great addition to your celebration!

First, there was no such thing as a Hanukkiah back then

The first celebration of Hanukkah couldn’t possibly have involved a Hanukkiah. That’s because it didn’t yet exist. The traditional Jewish candelabra (called a “menorah”) has seven lights. When the Temple was rededicated following the victory of the Maccabees, the Temple was lit via a traditional seven-light menorah. The Hanukkiah was developed later with nine candles—one representing the original vial of oil and eight representing the days that the oil burned, in celebration of the miracle that occurred during the original dedication. But that wasn’t for at least another 250 years.

But eventually, the “light” took flight

Even though the Jewish people were celebrating Hanukkah every year after the original rededication, for the first 250 years, the focus was strictly on the rededication itself. Then the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, noted that Hanukkah marked a victory of light over darkness. Some later historians believe Josephus was referring to the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights. Others argue Josephus was referring to light only metaphoricallyas in the “enlightenment” that occurred when the Jews took back their right to worship as they wished.

Whether the mention of “light” was literal or metaphorical, it caught on as an idea. Jewish people began associating the re-dedication of the Temple with light, and over time, began celebrating Hanukkah by lighting their traditional menorahs. Some argue they might have come to light their menorahs anyway to celebrate Hanukkah since menorahs were a long part of Jewish culture. These are the facts you never knew about Hanukkah.

The Hanukkiah eventually followed

Whether the nine lights of the Hanukkiah actually reference a miracle involving one vial of oil lasting eight nights (one plus eight equals nine), or whether it was a reference to something else (perhaps the eight days of Sukkot and the one day of the dedication), the Hanukkiah gradually found its way into Jewish tradition, although no one seems to be able to say when exactly that happened or even when the first Hanukkiah was introduced.

About the Hanukkiah

For a Hanukkiah to be “regulation” (or “kosher” in the parlance of the Jewish religion), its eight candles must be in line with one another, not one higher or lower than the other, but the ninth candle, which is used to light all the other candles (it’s called the “shamash” in Hebrew) must be out of line and separate from the others, per Chabad.org. The correct way to set the candles in a Hanukkiah is from right to left. So on the first day of Hanukkah, you place one candle at the far right of the line of eight. Every day after that, you add another candle, going right to left. Learn about another important Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah, and how it is celebrated.

Rules about lighting the candles

While the candles are set right to left, they are lit left to right. The time for lighting the Hanukkiah is at dusk—how else to distinguish darkness from light? However, on Saturday, the Hanukkiah is lit after nightfall (because strictly speaking, in the Jewish religion, you’re not supposed to light candles during the Sabbath, which ends Saturday after sunset). And on Friday, the Hanukkiah is lit before sunset (again so as not to be lighting candles during the Sabbath). Looking for a way to get your kids involved in Hanukkah? Try these fun crafts projects.

Where to display the Hanukkiah

Originally, the traditional place to display a Hanukkiah was at the front door of the home, facing the street, shares Chabad.org. But at various times during history when identifying as Jewish was not without risk, the Hanukkiah came indoors. Today, many Hannukiahs are displayed on a windowsill so as to proudly announce the freedom to practice Judaism. However, that’s not always workable, and in high-rise buildings, a Hanukkiah io a high-floor window won’t even be noticed. So, ultimately, where you display your Hanukkiah is up to you and guided by matters of practicality. Check out these 8 special and amazing places to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.