Shining a light on menorahs

It is one of the loveliest moments in the Jewish calendar. For eight nights, families gather to light the Chanukah menorah (or chanukiyah) to commemorate a miracle that occurred over two centuries ago.

The rules for lighting the menorah aren’t as nerve-wracking as planning a seder or as sweat-inducing as building a sukkah. But these frequently asked questions do come up:

  • When to light? When the stars appear.
  • Where to light? At the entrance to one’s home, facing the street.
  • What to light? Olive oil is best, but wax is OK.
  • Fancy a curvy, swervy menorah? That’s nice for a decoration – but menorahs in a straight line are preferred.

And then there is the classic puzzler: light from right-to-left or left-to-right? does a fine job of illustrating what to do by walking you through each day with both instructions and animations. The short answer, by the way, is both, sort of. We add to candles daily from right-to-left and then light them from left to right. You’ll get the full story when you go to the site or watch the video below. For extra help, listen to the blessings being recited.

Courtesy of

The Ohr Somayach website tackles plenty of contemporary questions about the commandment. For example, can you fulfil the mitzvah if an overnight flight from the United States to Europe means you won’t have the opportunity to light a menorah? The response: “In this case, there is no obligation to light Chanukah lights. The Talmud describes the mitzvah to light Chanukah lights as ‘a candle for a person and his home’ (Shabbat 21b). The obligation to light Chanukah candles applies only if you are based in a home at the appropriate time for fulfilling the mitzvah. But if you’re riding with your family in a car or plane the entire night – and there’s nobody residing in your home – you’re exempt from lighting Chanukah candles.”

And what’s up with the name “Menorah?” Don’t confuse your Chanukah lamp with the pure gold, seven-lamp candelabrum associated with the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The Chanukah variety – also known as a chanukiyah – has eight lamps plus a ninth, the helper “Shamash.”

Actually the word “chanukiyah“ is a recent creation. It was coined by journalist and author Hemda Ben‑Yehuda, wife of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who is credited for rejuvenating the Hebrew language. The word was first published in Eliezer’s newspaper, HaTzvi, in 1897. Previously it was simply called the Chanukah lamp.

Of course, modern artists have been inspired to craft Chanukah menorahs using a multitude of materials into countless stunning designs. I took a few minutes to stop by Flickr to see the range of almost 1,000 photos of menorahs. One particular shot caught my eye. It’s a photo of the tips of a branch of a pine tree that looks somewhat like a menorah. It’s worth a look!

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see massive menorahs on public display in major cities throughout the world. Chabad’s Virtual Chanukah site has pictures of menorahs from Boston to Bologna and from Denver to Disney World.

You may want to try your hand at making your own menorah. has four plans including the Builder’s Special (which uses ceramic tiles and shot glasses) and the Seaside Special (it calls for seashells and driftwood.) Some others to try: from clay, potato and even baby food jars. If you’d like to go hi-tech (and purely ornamental), try building a menorah using using LEDs (light emitting diodes).

I’m not sure the Maccabees had the following in mind when they celebrated the first Chanukah, but I did come across a site that derives an interesting environmental message from the miracle associated with this holiday. The Green Menorah is described as “a covenant among Jewish communities and congregations to renew the miracle of Chanukah in our own generation: using one day’s oil to meet eight days’ needs – doing our part so that by 2020, U.S. oil consumption is cut by seven-eighths.”

I normally don’t plug commercial products, but there is one other do-it-yourself chanukiyah that really caught my attention. The “Hershey’s Kisses Sweet Menorah“ calls for a base of silver-foiled chocolates topped by nine cardboard “candles.” On each night, an additional red-foiled Kiss “flame” is added until all the candles are lit! But my heart sank when I read the following: “Completed craft is for decorative purposes only and candy should not be eaten.”


Contact Mark Mietkiewicz via email here.