Hanukkah Riddle: The Elusive Origins of the “Shamash”
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 lamp “found 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!
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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Calling Jonathan Edwards
If you’ve never read the famous sermon by Pastor Jonathan Edwards entitled “Sinners in the Hand of and angry God” you should. Here’s a link where you can read it when you’re done reading this blog.
Edwards preached this sermon in 1741 in the midst of a revival that became known to history as the “First Great Awakening” because it was so widespread in the English speaking world. Many scholars say that it was the foundation of the Evangelical movement that most of the readers of this blog identify with. So it’s part of our theological DNA.
But even more than that, I think this sermon from 277 years ago is HIGHLY relevant to what’s happening in our world today.
It is truly astounding how Western countries which maintained a Biblically-based culture for hundreds of years have, in just a few decades, completely jettisoned it and have even become radically post-Christian. We watch in alarm and sadness as the countries where we grew up rapidly dive deeper and deeper into the Abyss and we wonder how it happened so quickly.
I think “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” answers the question.
The central thesis of this sermon is that all of humanity is being drawn towards Hell by the power of Sin and that it is only the mercy and “pleasure” of God which allows us to sit in His Hands for a time, time we should make use of by repenting and living lives holy and pleasing to God so that when our inevitable death comes we can avoid being cast into everlasting torment.
Edwards was saying this about individual sinners like me and you but he was also saying it was true of humanity as a whole. The theme of URGENCY, because God’s patience could run out and He could remove His Hand from underneath us at any moment, runs through the entire sermon.
Brothers and sisters, I’m not a prophet, but I think it’s very likely that that moment Edwards was warning about has come. God has removed His Hands from underneath the Human Race, and we’re plunging towards Hell at spectacular and increasing velocity.
So, with this in mind, read the sermon and if it speaks to you, share it with your pastor (who might have already read it in seminary) and share it with others who maybe don’t yet feel a sense of urgency. Because of all the things that is sorely lacking in the Church today a sense of urgency to be about the work of the Kingdom is the thing which I believe is most badly needed.
The Age of Grace is rapidly coming to an end and the time before our Lord Jesus Christ returns to this Earth, at which point it will be too late for anyone who has not yet accepted the Gospel, is imminent.
Aaron is a member of Jerusalem Assembly, House of Redemption.
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The oil of Hanukkah
ARTICLE SUMMARY: Hanukkah recounts the miraculous victory of a tiny Maccabean army of warrior priests over the mighty Selucid-Greek Empire in 165 BC. A second, presumed event generally regarded as equally miraculous, celebrates that a minute amount of holy oil kept the fire of God’s lampstand burning for eight days. Today the Holy Spirit wants to keep His fire supernaturally burning in you and me. By the oil of His Spirit, He will empower us for battles of this age resembling those of the Maccabees. (For a foundational overview on Hanukkah, including its relationship to Sukkot and prophecies in Daniel, click here.)
When the Maccabees regained Jerusalem, they began cleansing the heinously defiled Second Temple. Early in the process they discovered a small cruse (jar) of oil with which to light the menorah (lampstand). God had instructed that only “clear oil of beaten olives for the light, to make the lamp burn always” could be used. (Exodus 27:20, Leviticus 24:2) The Scriptural preparation of holy oil was a lengthy process, taking eight full days. Once purified, the oil was poured into a jar, closed with a priestly seal and carefully set aside.
That even one cruse of oil had survived the Temple’s riotous desecration signaled to the Jewish people God’s supernatural, loving provision. That this same oil presumably burned for eight days – the exact time needed for preparing more oil to keep the fire burning – was seen as miraculous.
The earliest recorded account of the oil miracle appears in the Talmud, about 600 years after the events described in the Books of the Maccabees. The Talmud is a collection of rabbinic discussions, debates, insights, historical accounts and legends. It is not the inspired Word of God. Some Talmudic teachings can be spiritually edifying but others clearly are not. Therefore, while traditional Judaism generally regards the Hanukkah oil story as accepted fact, it should not be given the same weight as Scripture. What Scripture does strongly suggest about Hanukkah (“Feast of Dedication”) is that Yeshua observed it along with the other Jews of His day. The direct reference to Messiah at Hanukkah reflects a degree of New Covenant significance for believers today. (John 10:22-23)
The Talmudic text describing the oil of Hanukkah miracle reads as follows: “What is the point of Hanukkah? It is in line with what our rabbis have taught…On the 25th day of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah, which are eight, begin….For when the Greeks entered the sanctuary, they made all of the oil that was in the sanctuary unclean. But when … they [the Maccabees] conquered them, they searched but found only a single jar of oil, lying with the seal of the high priest. But that jar had enough oil only for a single day. But there was a miracle done with it and they lit the lamp with it for eight days.” (b. Shabbat 21b, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary.)
What could the mystery of the oil of Hanukkah mean for believers today? First, there is the celebration of God’s gracious and miraculous, historic victory over His enemies who sought to annihilate the Jews. Had the Hanukkah miracle never taken place, our Messiah and Savior would never have been born. Second, there is the traditional and possibly very real, inspirational miracle of the oil of Hanukkah. Third, Hanukkah is a set time by which you can – and perhaps should – celebrate the miracle of the oil of the Spirit which keeps the fire of God’s lampstand burning within you. Hanukkah is a time to press in with faith for Him to revive and fan those flames of holy love, “beaten” into purity, within you.
God told His people the menorah fire was to stay continuously lit, fueled daily by fresh oil. He blessed this command as “a statute forever” throughout our generations “on behalf of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 27:21, JPS) Similarly, you and I need daily, fresh Holy Spirit oil to keep our lampstands burning. As in the Hanukkah story, God is faithful to secure and provide the oil you need, supernaturally, at the right time, at all times. One small cruse of oil from heaven can reignite the fire within, cleansing you anew. Because your body is a cleansed temple of God’s Spirit, Hanukkah is also a time to rededicate your flesh-and-blood temple to Him. (1 Corinthians 6:19)
There is even more. The armies overcome by the Maccabees were, at their core, driven by a spirit of anti-Messiah/anti-Christ.Though Maccabee means “Hammer,” these ancient, courageous Jews were not highly trained warriors. Their leaders were actually priests anointed to serve in God’s Temple. It was zeal for their Father’s House that consumed them, propelling them to victory. Their battle was won not by might or power, but by the Spirit of God. (Zechariah 4:6)
Many of the battles you and I fight today are driven by an anti-Messiah spirit not unlike that which the Maccabeean priests had to face. As a New Covenant priesthood you can take courage and gain faith from their example. (1 Peter 2:9) You will overcome not by human might or power, but by the same Holy Spirit as the Maccabees. In truth, God offers you even more than He did them. He offers you not just one small cruse of oil, but “His Spirit without measure.” (John 3:34) So receive the oil of Hanukkah! You need it in these last days. And Israel is waiting to see that holy oil, the Light of the World, burn powerfully in you.
This article originally appeared on Light of Zion, December 1, 2018, and reposted with permission.
Sandra is co-founder and director, along with her husband Kerry, of Light of Zion Ministries. Light of Zion is an Israeli Messianic Jewish, prophetic intercessory prayer ministry in Jerusalem with humanitarian outreach. Sandra is a prayer mobilizer and network leader, international speaker, prophetic liaison, professionally published author, Bible teacher, and retired attorney.
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When translation becomes over-interpretation
When studying the Bible one very important but often overlooked thing is
(All of the verses I will be using in this article will be from the King James Version.)
11 The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?
In this verse, the word Sir is translated from the word “Kurios” while in John 20:28 we see the same word translate
28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
These two verses show the same Greek word translated
10 Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have a
Where is John 20:28 it is clear that Thomas is proclaiming the deity of Yeshua as his LORD.
While some interpretation in transla
Let me provide an example of this. In Hebrews 8:13.
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the fir
You will notice that in the printed text of Hebrews 8:13 there are two words that are in italics “covenant” and “is.” The reason they are in italics is to identify to the reader that these two words are not in the actual Greek manuscript. These two words were added by the translators, in order to a
Let me explain in the Book of Hebrews the writer begins
10 Called of God a high priest after the order of Melc
20 Whither the forerunner is
11 If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,)
Then in Chapter 7:12 we find the first mention of something that is going to change and the chapter begins to explain the difference
12 For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.
Chapter 8 begins with these words which continue the same topic that started in chapter 4.
1 Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum:
Chapter 8 continues to describ
16 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17 For a testament is of force after
Also consider Galatians 3:14-17.
14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.15 Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it b
Notice that we are told that when G-D makes a covenant it cannot be disannulled and the example we are given is
One more this to consider is that Hebrews was written somewhere between 65 and 68 CE just before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and with that destruction the priesthoo
So we see that in context the Book of Hebrews is speaking of the transition from the Aaronic Priesthood to the Priesthood of Messiah, a better priesthood. Yet by adding one word of interpre
Eric Tokajer is author of With Me in Paradise, Transient Singularity, #ManWisdom, OY! How Did I Get Here?: Thirty-One Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Entering Ministry, Jesus is to Christianity as Pasta is to Italians, and his most recent book God Has No Plan "B".
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The unexpected significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls
It was November, 1947. The learned professor studied the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls to try and ascertain if they were as important as he dared to suspect. No one had yet identified whether or not they were genuine, or the huge significance held in those ancient and fragile fragments.
“My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them”, Professor Eliezer Sukenik of Hebrew University wrote in his journal.1 “I read a few sentences. It was written in beautiful biblical Hebrew. The language was like that of the Psalms, but the text was unknown to me. I looked and looked, and I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew Scroll which had not been read for more than 2,000 years.”
He took them back to his home in Jerusalem to examine them further. The timing of Professor Sukenik’s eureka moment was almost as significant as the discovery itself. The world was in the throes of deciding whether or not the people of Israel could have a home in the land of their fathers: the UN were voting on the Partition Plan that exact hour, on November 29th 1947.
“While I was examining these precious documents in my study, the late news on the radio announced that the United Nations would be voting on the resolution that night—whether or not Israel would be allowed to become a nation… It was past midnight when the voting was announced. And I was engrossed in a particularly absorbing passage in one of the scrolls when my son rushed in with the shout that the vote on the Jewish State had passed. This great event in Jewish history was thus combined in my home in Jerusalem with another event, no less historic, the one political, and the other cultural.”
God’s remarkable timing to reveal his secrets
Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, suggestions had been arising that the Jewish people had fabricated the Bible, and that they had no real connection to the land. Just as the people of Israel faced great obstacles entering the Promised Land the first time round, so they faced great opposition in the twentieth century. But now a shepherd boy in the desert of Qumran blew those doubts about the Bible out of the water with his accidental discovery… just in time for the birth of Israel in 1948! God’s timing was perfect, as always.
“On the very day, the very day, that Israel’s rebirth was confirmed, a Jewish professor confirms the existence of ancient Israel. You really have to intellectually dishonest if you are going to claim that God was not behind Israel’s dramatic rebirth,” says Ron Cantor, a Messianic Jewish pastor in Israel.2
This amazing discovery shows us that the Biblical texts were passed down with extraordinary accuracy. The scrolls were 1000 years older than any text we had before the discovery, yet the book of Isaiah you have in your Bible is the same as the one found in that ancient jar in Qumran, with only a few letters changed.
What the Dead Sea Scrolls bring us today
As well as solid evidence that the Biblical text has not changed for two millennia, we now have invaluable insights into Jewish culture and lifestyle at the time of Yeshua and the birth of the church. We can also see how minor changes made to letters in the Biblical text by Medieval rabbis covered up some Messianic prophecy pointing to Yeshua! Today, Jewish people can examine the ancient texts and decide for themselves what – or who – the Biblical prophets were referring to. More than that, the scrolls show us that there was significant Messianic expectation among the Jewish community in the century right before Yeshua was born. They were expecting a Messiah whom heaven and earth would obey – one who would be the very Son of God!
(Above: Excerpts from a fascinating conversation with one of the leading New Testament scholars of our time, and an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Dr. Craig Evans.)
And the findings continue: More recently, remains of an ancient Torah scroll were found in a burnt synagogue by the Dead Sea, and only this year, another cave in Qumran was found to contain evidence of more scrolls.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls made for a symbolic birthday gift for the state still struggling to survive out of utero. The texts are celebrated icons of Israel’s heritage”, writes Shelley Neese in her book, The Copper Scroll Project. “The Egyptians have their pyramids and the Chinese have their wall… but the Jews have their scrolls, monuments built from words rather than mortar”. These ancient scrolls symbolize the people of Israel and their great contribution to the world: the Oracles of God.
In short, the Dead Sea Scrolls were an absolutely extraordinary discovery, full of invaluable treasures for us today.
This article originally appeared on One For Israel and is reposted with permission.
ONE FOR ISRAEL strives to be the leading organization in sharing the Gospel of Yeshua the Messiah with Israeli Jews and Arabs in the Hebrew language. Our staff is comprised of both Jewish and Arab Israelis, with the shared belief that true peace in the Middle East can only come into existence under Yeshua.