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Hanukkah Riddle: The Elusive Origins of the “Shamash”

Was the "servant light" invented by the 1st-century Nazarenes, and then suppressed by the rabbinic community? The idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

The hanukkiah, or Hanukkah lamp, follows two traditional designs: a branched candelabra or a straight row. The eight lights (one for each festive night) are supplemented by a ninth light, identical but set apart from the others. Whether it burns oil, electric or candles, the hannukiah is so familiar you would never guess it has a short history.

A rabbi at Yeshiva.org, when asked about an unusual hanukkiah which someone had inherited, remarked, “The first use of an eight-armed menorah for Chanuka is not known, although there are some dating back over 500 years.” The Israel Museum’s earliest hanukkiah on display is from the 14th century. But in commemorating an event from 165 BC, that’s fairly recent! What did these ceremonial lamps look like before 1300 AD? Apparently no one knows.

Even more mysterious is the shamash, the ninth light bearing an Aramaic name that means “servant”. What is its purpose? Rabbinic sources offer contradictory answers.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21-23) testified that during or after the second Temple, Jews were lighting Hanukkah lights in their homes. But the passage only mentioned eight lights… no “shamash”. That name first appeared in the 16th-century summary of Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 671-673), applying it to the Talmudic description of an extra light sometimes kindled in the same room with the Hanukkah lamp.

This light was recommended for utilitarian use, so that the ceremonial lights would remain holy (for viewing enjoyment, rather than mundane work). According to Jewish law, it was not attached to the hanukkiah; on the contrary, it was placed far enough away to be disassociated with the holy lights. And since its distinction was in NOT being holy, it was made of materials inferior to the Hanukkah lamps.

However, Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director at United with Israel, reveals the opposite attitude, which is now standard Jewish practice:

“Although it is clear that the actual Chanukah candles possess much sanctity, is there any inherent holiness to the shamash? While we might instinctively think not, especially considering that it may be used for mundane purposes, some authorities rule that the shamash must not be used for anything truly demeaning. This teaches us that even the shamash is not just ‘any’ light source, and it has a degree of holiness.”

This is confusing, since the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) and Shulchan Aruch (OC 671:5) both state that not only is the shamash ordinary, but “if there is a blazing fire” or “a torch” in the room, it’s not even necessary! Rabbi Enkin acknowledges this contradiction without explaining it: “Most people do not realize that this primary candle is not truly required, though its use has become nearly universal.”  

Indeed, all Ashkenazi (western) Jews light the shamash first and use it to light the Hanukkah candles. The Sephardic Jews (from the Middle East and Mediterranean region) light the hanukkiah with an unrelated fire source, saving the shamash for last. But both communities light the shamash – always. Both customs likewise attach the shamash to the hanukkiah, despite the command to keep it separate.

The first comment on the conflicting traditions was from “the Rema”, Rabbi Moses Isserles, who lived in 16th-century Poland. See a thorough explanation here. But this sage simply reported that the shamash was already an established custom in his area, without explaining how or when. Who changed these ancient laws, and by what authority? I queried the popular “Ask the Rabbi” site. Their reply: “We haven’t a clue!” They referred me to “one of the foremost experts in Jewish history today“; he had no answer either.

While many see the trail ending here, the hanukkiah riddle continues, fueled by unexplained archeological discoveries in Israel.

The first was an ancient hanukkiah offered in a recent California auction. The description indicated a truly historic find:

JUDAEA. Second Temple / Roman Era (circa 70-200 CE). Ceramic nine-spouted Hanukkah lamp…with nine wick spouts in a line along the front and a single central filling hole….The decorative motif and general form share similarities to the Beit Natif type, commonly dated to the Third Century CE or later. However it appears to be an early, transitional form, extending the dating to the period between the Jewish War (66-70 CE) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE).

It’s peculiar that this artifact was even allowed to leave Israel. Dr. Meir Ben Dov, archaeologist and Field Director for the Temple Mount Excavations in Jerusalem, examined it in 1988, and called it “an object of extraordinary significance. It is undoubtedly the earliest Hanukkah lamp extant. It is also possibly the oldest Jewish ceremonial object to have been discovered to date.” Its uniqueness is heightened by comparing it with its closest relative, the single-spout “Beit Natif” hanukkiah. Nevertheless, for three decades Israeli archeologists, museums and the Antiquities Authority remained strangely uninterested.

Instead, this one-of-a-kind lamp sat for years in a small New York museum, which recently sold it for $17,500. Considering that at the same auction a Samaritan tablet from 200 years later went for $850,000, the world’s oldest hanukkiah traded hands for peanuts.

If this hanukkiah style was birthed in the 1st or 2nd century, why was it ignored by Jewish communities for over 1000 years? And why aren’t Israeli experts excited about “possibly the oldest Jewish ceremonial object” ever found? I propose a logical theory.

Since contemporary rabbinic sources like the Mishnah showed no awareness of a tradition that made the shamash one of the holy Hanukkah lights, we can assume that the innovation was hatched outside their authority. The theory is strengthened by specific elements on this lamp.

First is the inscription: “with God’s help“… in Greek. Try to imagine a Greek-speaking Judean community so devoted to God that they celebrated Hannukah in the shadow of the recently destroyed Temple, but they did so apart from the Mishnaic rabbis. Only one group comes to mind: the Hellenist Nazarenes, who had gathered in great numbers around the apostles in 1st-century Jerusalem (Acts 6:1).

Moreover, the decorations (“vine scrolls, grape bunches and grape leaves”) and the same oil shared by all the lights are images from the New Covenant (John 15:1-8, 1 Cor.12:13). So is the concept of a shamash identical to the other lights: “the Light that gives light to all men” humbling Himself to live as one of us (John 1:1-14).

A similar archeological find escaping scholarly attention is an intriguing photo in the 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia: an undated Hanukkah lampfound in Jerusalem excavations” sometime before the Encyclopedia’s publication, which closely resembles the Greek-Judean hanukkiah.

A third witness is a portrayal of the other “new” design, a nine-branched candelabra, also dating back to the 1st-2nd century. This one was unearthed in the ancient Golan town of Sogana (renamed by local Arabs as el Yehudiye). The engraving is thought to be from the arch of the town synagogue. But no scholar has commented on this appearance of a hanukkiah design that Jews would not use for the next 1000 years.

Of Sogana little is known beyond a bare description by the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 4:1). The town wall was fortified by Josephus himself during the 70 AD Judean rebellion against the Romans. Yet despite its potential to withstand attacks, Sogana unaccountably surrendered rather than fight to the death (as neighboring Gamla did). Josephus made no attempt to explain Sogana’s strange decision, undoubtedly made over his objections. But as a town only a few miles northeast of the places where Yeshua spent most of His time, we might imagine a strong Nazarene presence there, which motivated them to obey the New Covenant instructions (Romans 13:1-7) to “submit to the governing authorities“, namely King Agrippa who represented Rome.

So although the evolution of the shamash from profane to holy mystifies both religious and secular experts, these tantalizing archeological clues have provoked no interest… a mystery in itself. The answer to both riddles might be buried in our unknown history as a community.

Messianic Jews effortlessly make the connection between Hanukkah’s “servant light” and Yeshua, God’s Righteous Servant and Light of the world. What if these 1st-century hanukkiot incorporating a “holy servant” into the Festival of Lights were Nazarene teaching tools, which contemporary rabbinic authorities tried to suppress?

It wouldn’t be the first such discovery. The afikoman, the centerpiece of the Passover celebration, is equally shrouded in mystery – the only element in the Seder left unexplained… or explained poorly. Yet Messianic believers clearly see Yeshua’s sacrifice in every move silently made with that middle matzah, as it is broken, hidden, sought and returned, then shared. Likewise the remembrance of the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, was unaccountably shifted during the Mishnaic period, from Passover Eve to the day after the Feast of Trumpets (day two of the rabbinic Rosh Hashanah). One rabbinic scholar explained this move as an attempt to weaken the Nazarene claim that the Akedah was fulfilled in Yeshua’s atonement.

But the shamash also speaks to those who don’t know Yeshua. Recognizing that it carries strong human symbolism, one Hasidic site proposed that “because the shamash lowers itself to serve the others, it ends up with an exalted position on the chanukiyah.” This is a close paraphrase of the Messianic passage fulfilled by Yeshua: “By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great.” (Isaiah 53:11-12) Paul’s declaration also comes to mind: “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him.” (Phil.2:8-9)

Perhaps the origins of the shamash were deliberately hidden by God, in order to make the connection with Yeshua even stronger: “However, we know where this man is from; but whenever the Messiah may come, no one knows where He is from.” (John 7:27)

A joyous Hanukkah to all!

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Hannah Weiss
Hannah Weiss lives in Israel with her husband Hillel, their three children and two grandchildren. Besides writing on issues relevant for followers of Yeshua, she also works as an English writer, editor and translator for Israeli exporters and academics. Hannah is part of a small home fellowship, Restorers of Zion, which serves the Body of Messiah by focusing on neglected or dysfunctional areas of Scriptural teaching and practice.

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