Why Do We Need to Use a Shamash Candle?

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes
(Also published on
Or Am I?)

Question: Why do we need to use a candle – the Shamash (helper) candle – when we can just as easily use a match to light the Menorah?

It has to do with the “Way of the Long Pole.”

Some background: Back in Biblical times, in the outer chamber of the ancient Jerusalem Temple, the Menorah stood in a special area called the heichal (sanctuary). The Menorah was a five-foot, seven branched candelabra of pure gold. Every morning, a kohen (priest, member of the Israelite clergy) filled the menorah’s lamps with the purest olive oil; in the afternoon, he would climb a three-step foot-ladder to kindle the menorah’s lamps. The flames burned through the night, symbolizing the light of the Holy One radiating throughout Israel and the world.


Interesting Pair of Factoids:

  • Actually, it did not have to be a priest (kohen) who lit the menorah. The Jewish law states that an ordinary layperson could also perform this mitzvah.
  • But there was also a law that restricts entry into the ancient Jerusalem Temple’s Sanctuary to priests only. In the ancient world, ordinary Israelites could venture no further than the azarah (Temple courtyard).

These two ancient laws created a legal paradox: a layperson can light the menorah; but the menorah’s designated place is inside the Sanctuary, where a layperson could not enter.

Talk about inconsistencies:

  • If an ordinary person should be able to light the Menorah, why doesn’t Torah instruct us to place And if the sanctity of the ancient Menorah is such that it requires the higher holiness found in the sanctuary, why does the Torah permit someone without a kohen’s level of holiness to light it?

This paradox, teach the Chassidic rebbes, is intentionally set up by the Torah in order to convey to us a most profound lesson. You are here, and you want to be there (“there” being someplace better, loftier, more spiritual than “here”). But you are not there, and cannot get there for a good while, perhaps ever.

So what do you do? Do you act as if you’re already there? Or do you tell yourself that here’s just fine, and who needs there anyway? You could, of course, become a hypocrite, or you could come to terms with the limitations of your situation. But there’s also a third option – the Way of the Long Pole.

The solution – the “Way of the Long Pole” – is that a layperson could light the menorah by means of a long pole. This ordinary Israelite stands outside the ancient Sanctuary, extends to the Menorah a long pole with a flame on the end, and thereby lights the Menorah.

What a great solution to a spiritual problem!

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.

At times, this means that someone closer to those places – to the Menorah – needs to reach over and light it for us. At other times, it means that we contrive a way to reach beyond where we are at the present time. In either case, we turn to (or turn into) a “lamplighter,” a person who carries a long pole with a flame at its end and goes from lamp to lamp to ignite them; no lamp is too lowly, and no lamp is too lofty, for the lamplighter and his pole.

The shamash candle reminds us of the Way of the Long Pole. This Chanukah, if you are gathered with a group without the ability to physically get close enough to light the Menorah, allow others to illumine for you the way to a higher spiritual place. If you are able, let the shamash candle be your “long pole,” transforming you into the “lamplighter,” illuminating the way ahead. Either way, may this Chanukah be an inspiring one for you and your loved ones.

[Now read my post about being a Lamplighter.]

  • For Chanukah Resources to enhance your celebration – songsheets, blessing sheets, 8 Nights of Chanukah Tzedakah, 8 stories, and more – go to www.orami.org/chanukah
  • Come back each night to the blog (http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com) for more 8 Blogs for 8 Nights: Answers to Questions You Never Thought About, which enhance your understanding of Chanukah.
  • If you would answer today’s question differently, or have other Chanukah ideas/questions, please share your insights in a comment. I will make a donation to tzedakah for every comment written.

[Adapted from A Long Pole, an article by Yanki Tauber]

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Rabbi Paul Kipnes

About Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rabbi Paul Kipnes the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. He serves as rabbinic dean at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and as vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights). He also co-edited a national CCAR Journal issue on New Visions for Jewish Community. Under his leadership, Congregation Or Ami has won national awards for social justice programming, for innovative worship programming, for outreach to interfaith families, and for engaging family education, and for best overall use of technology in a synagogue. Or Ami also wins the hearts of its families for its Henaynu caring community, which reaches out during times of need. He serves on the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education clinical faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings can be viewed on his blog, Or Am I? He tweets @RabbiKip.

One Response to “Why Do We Need to Use a Shamash Candle?”

  1. avatar

    I really enjoyed this article Paul.
    I wrote about the Shammash on the Jewish Contemplatives website a while back, (http://jewishcontemplatives.blogspot.com/2007/11/shammash-ninth-light-nov-2007.html)and said:-
    “The Shammash is alight before all the other lamps: perhaps I could see it as a potential reminder of the “Pillar of fire”? That flame was the primal beacon for Israel long before the Temple era.
    The eight lights represent the eight days of the Hanukah miracle and, like a ner tamid, the Shammash is alight on every one of them: it might be seen as a symbol of constancy, eternity, or even of the Divine Presence which never left us even in the days before the temple was re-dedicated.
    As it brings all the other lights to life, perhaps it could represent revelation or inspiration? As it can be viewed as standing behind or above the cultic lights of the menorah… perhaps it could remind us of the ultimate inadequacy of all our attempts to describe, understand, or worship God. A memory of the burning bush?
    Perhaps I wax too lyrical- but it does seem odd that a subservient light/candle in the Hanukah menorah should so often have a decidedly prominent place in its designed construction. (It is often central and elevated).
    Perhaps it is one of those parts of a mitzvah that awaits a progressive “revelation” of its true or ultimate significance. Who knows….. It certainly seems to have more about it than its name (assistant/servant) might suggest.

    Thanks Paul for posting your revelatory article here…so informative and inspiring!
    Norman R Davies

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