By Ruth Ellen Gruber
In Tablet Magazine, editor Alana Newhouse recently wrote about the variety of Hanukkah menorahs, the eight-branched (or nine, if you count the Shammas) candelabras lit for the Hanukkah holiday — one candle a night, with increasing candles until on the last night all eight are lit.
Throughout the vagaries of my connection to religion, I’ve never once had doubts about my connection to its material culture—the challah knives, washing cups, mezuzahs, etc., of Jewish life. Of this stuff, and it is stuff, none has been more alluring for me than our various candle holders. That these pieces occupy the particularly female realm of our religious universe is relevant, but that the point of these accoutrements is to hold fire is even more so. The Hebrew word shamayim—the heavens —is comprised of two words: aish, or fire, and mayim, which means water. As rabbi Shlomo Riskin, among others, has noted: “[While] fire has the ability to bring warmth, it can also devour and destroy. … [C]loud and fire—the lack of clarity expressed by a cloud and the inability to gaze directly into a flame—likewise express one of the deepest truths of the Jewish message: religion is not so much paradise as it is paradox. God demands fealty even in the face of agonizing questions and disturbing uncertainty.”
Sabbath candles certainly fit the bill, as they demand our weekly attention to the challenge of this uncertainty. But what of the chanukiah, the nine-armed fire-holder that represents, in addition to Judaism’s essential paradox, the assertion of a miracle—an alleged interruption into our earthly landscape by the Divine? And here we are, back at the original problem: God.
When I was a kid, the Hanukkia was the only “menorah” I knew — I didn’t realize that there was another, seven-branched menorah which was the more general Jewish (and Israeli) symbol.
Some of the candlesticks depicted on Jewish women’s tombstone resemble these candelabras, but actually represent the Sabbath (and holiday) lights.