By Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski
(AJNews) – One small candle stands apart, different from all the others. It is not a Mitzvah candle, yet it seems so indispensable. Yes; let us discuss the Shamash – the helper candle of the Chanukiyah.
The custom to have a Shamash with our other Chanukah candles can be traced to a single sentence in a Gemara in Tractate Shabbat, Folio 21b. There, the Amoraic Sage named Rava (c. 280 – 352) states that another candle is needed to use for its light. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, commonly referred to by the acronym Rashi (1040-1105), explains that this is in order to make the Chanukah candles recognizably for a Mitzvah purpose.
Let us take a moment to contextualize Rashi’s explanation. The common electrical structure and grid we rely on today for our lighting needs, did not exist at the time of the Gemara’s compilation (c. 500). As such, candles and oil were relied upon as sources of light in one’s home once the sun had set. That being the case, when the custom was to light a Chanukah candle in the home, it would not be easily identified as being done for a Mitzvah purpose. Instead, it would simply look like a person providing themselves light after dusk. If the Chanukah candle is accompanied by another distinct light – by the Shamash, then the redundancy of lights allows onlookers to understand that the Chanukah light is something unique; that it is for a Mitzvah purpose.
The Ra”N (Rabbi Nisim ben Reuven 1320-1376) suggests another reason for the Shamash. He highlights that the necessity for another candle, according to Rava, is due to the light of the Chanukiyah being forbidden for personal use. Since when lighting in one’s home one will inevitably use its light, an additional candle is added to circumvent the Mitzvah candle’s use.
Another reason cited for the need of the Shamash candle is that it is best to use a different candle than a Mitzvah candle to actually light the Mitzvah candles (see Rama on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 674:1 and the wording of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139:13).
Now, exactly when the Shamash received its name cannot be stated precisely, but one of the earliest texts which utilizes this term is the Arba Turim, written by Rabbi Yaakov (c. 1269 – 1343). He quotes a question in the name of Rabbi Yechiel, his brother, that was posed to their father, the Talmidist Halachasist Rabbi Asher (RoSh, 1250 – 1328), in which the language of Shamash is employed (see the Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 673:1). In modern times, the helper candle is regularly referred to as the Shamash.
Besides the technical Jewish legal ramifications, is there anything else we can learn from the custom of the Shamash candle?
The Kav HaYashar, composed by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover (c. 1650-1712), shares a very bold idea about the importance of the Shamash. He states: “The custom is to place the Shamash higher than the Chanukah candles. If so, in accordance with this, there is a great holiness also in the light of the Shamash candle, that they are even a bit greater than the Chanukah candles. And the light of the Shamash is similar to the Kohen that would perform the lighting of the candles on the Menorah in the Bet HaMikdash, creating the light before Hashem’s Throne of Glory, may He be blessed.” (Kav HaYashar, Chapter 96, Paragraph 6).
From here, we can learn a very profound idea: just as the Shamash helps us accomplish our Mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiyah, so, too, are we urged to be like a Shamash candle and extend help to others. This is especially so with regards to facilitating a Mitzvah purpose. If we do so, the Kav HaYashar says this is equal to the Divine service of the Kohen lighting the Menorah in the Bef HaMakidash, may it be speedily built in our days.
May we all be blessed to be like the Shamash, being there for our fellow Jews in helping them kindle their internal and external flame.
Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski is the Head of Judaic Studies at Halpern Akiva Academy.