Each day of Hanukkah, our editor Sara Himeles, who recently graduated from rabbinical school, is sharing a teaching and reflection prompt focusing on different themes of the Hanukkah story. Journal your response or simply reflect on each prompt. We hope these teachings and prompts make your Hanukkah brighter and more meaningful.
Each year on Hanukkah, as the days progress and the candles increase, I find myself focusing on the shamash (or “helper”) candle that is used to light all the rest.
And here’s why: On the first night of Hanukkah, the shamash passes the flame to one other candle, representing a 100% increase in light. Pretty awesome. But by the eighth night, the shamash is used to light eight candles, an 800% increase in light.
The idea that one small candle can share its light with many other candles, exponentially increasing the light without being diminished itself, is something that is worth pausing to consider. On one level, the shamash is a metaphor for an essential message of Hanukkah. Just as the Maccabees brought light to the Jewish people and the world in a time of darkness, we as their descendents are called to do the same.
How can we do this? Although there are many ways to bring light into our communities, one of the critical ways that we can do this is through the mitzvah of tzedakah. Translated as “charity,” “justice,” or “righteousness,” giving tzedakah is an obligation on each person in Judaism — including those who are themselves in need and receive tzedakah from others.
Why is this? The reason is that giving tzedakah benefits the giver as well as the recipient. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “The paradox of giving is that when we…give to another, it is we ourselves who are lifted.” Similarly, Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (who is best known as the author of the halachic work, the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh) wrote about the custom of giving more tzedakah during Hanukkah, noting that “Tzedakah can correct the flaws in one’s soul.”
Just like the shamash candle gives light to many other candles without being diminished, when we give tzedakah, we spread light to those in need and even shine more brightly ourselves.
On the seventh night of Hanukkah, as you use the shamash to light each of the other candles, consider yourself to be such a “helper” candle. Consider those in need and a cause you are particularly passionate about. What is a charity you will contribute to before Hanukkah ends? This website lists 10 top-rated Jewish and Israel charities you can consider, or research a different charity and check how efficiently it uses its donations with Charity Navigator. After you donate, see how giving impacts you as well.
Missed a Hanukkah prompt? Read the prompts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5 and Day 6.