Hanukkah is an annual celebration commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. The occasion is marked by the lighting of an eight-candle holder called a menorah. As the story goes, Jews were able to keep the menorah lit for eight nights, even though they only had enough oil for one. Hence, the celebration of Hanukkah and the miracle of the oil is part of the ritual. But when is the first candle lit?
The first candle of Hanukkah is lit in darkness on the first night of the holiday, which occurs in late November or early December each year. It is lit with a special bracha, or blessing. The blessing is recited before each of the eight candles is lit. The blessings are the same each day, though on the first day, they are recited twice: once for the shamash (the ninth candle in a traditional menorah) and once for the first candle. On the Shamash, the bracha is:
“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.”
The bracha for the first candle is:
“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-Olam, she-asah nisim la-avoteinu bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh.”
Once the blessings are said and the candles lit, the menorah should be placed in a window or doorway, as is customary, so that its light is visible from outside.
The candles of the menorah must be lit during certain times during Chanukah. In Israel, they must be lit at nightfall (meaning the end of the day, but before real dark). In diaspora communities (where Jews living outside Israel), they must be lit after dark (usually around 8 pm).
The candles burn for about an hour, so if it’s too early, wait and light the menorah later. On Shabbat, the lighting must take place either before or during Shabbat, depending on the tradition of the community.
On each night of Chanukah, one additional candle is lit, reading from right to left, until all eight candles are lit on the last night. Each night, a song of thanksgiving, called Hallel, is sung and the miracle of Chanukah is recounted with stories and songs.
The symbolism of Hanukkah is to keep the light of freedom alive and to overcome darkness. The first candle of Hanukkah is lit as a reminder of the miracle of the lights that followed the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is joy, appreciation for the liberation from the Seleucid Greeks, and thanksgiving for the continuous miracle of the menorah oil. The lighting of the first candle also reminds us of the obligation to share our blessings with those who are less fortunate and those who are oppressed.
The Festival of Lights has been celebrated by Jews around the world for centuries, and will continue to be for many more generations to come. The rituals may vary from community to community, but the underlying message is the same: to light up the darkness with the celebration of hope and freedom.
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Last update 2023-11-27. Price and product availability may change.