How Do You Light Hanukkah Candles?

(Hanukkah blessings and songs, text and audio)

How do you light a Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukkiah?  Jews have disagreed on this throughout the ages.  The controversy surrounding the Hanukkah menorah lighting goes back about 2000 years.  Talmudic rabbis coming from different schools of thought debated ritual practices and two schools that commonly debate one another were that of Hillel and Shammai. The school of Shammai taught that eight candles should be kindled on the first night of Hanukkah and each night, we should decrease a candle.  Makes sense, right?  Decreasing candles would symbolize the fact that remaining oil decreased each night.  Yet, common practice sides with the school of Hillel, which taught us to increase a candle each night. The Maccabees didn’t increase the number of lights the kindled; why should we? 

We increase a candle each night of Hanukkah because it’s beautiful.  The mood we create with our Jewish practice is as important as the technical practice itself!  So here are some ideas about how to create a joyful mood of Hanukkah:

  • Publicize the miracle.  Our ancient rabbis created the story of Hanukkah—the story that the Maccabbees had one day’s worth of oil that lasted 8 days.  Medieval commentator Maimonides teaches that we show additional praise and thanks to God when we place our Hanukkiah in the window, so that our Jewish pride can shine.
  • Deepen your learning.  My interpretation of the above story about kindling the lights according to the school of Hillel is only one perspective.  Read Rabbi David Ellenson’s commentary and discuss his social justice lens. 
  • Focus: The ancient rabbis taught that even if one is studying Torah, the lesson must stop in order to kindle the Hanukkah lights.
  • Kindle the lights with other people.  Join together with family and friends.  If you live alone, find someone to invite and suggest they bring a Hanukkiah to your home.
  • Fry something.  Whether it’s potato latkes, sufganiot (jelly donuts) or any other deep-fried dish, take a night off from watching your cholesterol.  (Heed fire safety tips
  • Get crafty.  Create your own Hanukkah Menorah.  It can be made out of any material.  Tradition stipulates that the candles be in a straight row, but some deviate from this custom. 
  • Recite blessings. For audio with text, click here.
  • Sing.  The Hanukkah blessings are traditionally followed with the song Ma-oz Tzur/Rock of Ages.  Add more singing as well!  Learn some new songs here.

Whether you’re deep-frying latkes, unwrapping gifts, spinning the dreidel, studying text or reciting the blessings, I hope that your Hanukkah rituals are beautiful and uplifting, and that they increase the light in your life!

So, how do you light a Hanukkiah?  Light the shamash, or helper candle, which will serve as your lighter for all other candles.  On the first night, Dec. 1, place the candle to the far right, light it with the shamash, return the shamash to its holder, and recite the blessings.  On the 2nd night, place 2 candles to the far right.  Each night, candles are placed from right to left and lit from left to right, so that the newest candle is lit first.

But really, how do you light a Hanukkiah?  With joy!