12/10/15

Shamash . . .

Hanukkah has lots of foods, icons, and symbols that are well known and celebrated . . . the hanukkiah (menorah), the dreidel (spinny-top), gelt (chocolate coins), latke (potato pancakes), and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) among them . . . and maybe totaling.

But there is one thing about Hanukkah that doesn't get the credit it deserves - the shamash.

If you look at a candle hanukkiah you'll see that one of the nine holders/prongs/whatever is "different" . . . either set above or below, in the center, off to one side, or a combination of the above. That candle is the shamash and is not, technically, part of Hanukkah. It is the candle you light with your match, lighter, or portable flame thrower of choice. You then use the shamash to light the other candles that mark the eight "magic" nights of Hanukkah.

Why? Simple - Hanukkah candles and the glow of their light is only to be "admired" - you are not allowed to use it for work, pleasure, to read by, or for arson-related crimes and urges. So you can't use a Hanukkah candle to light other Hanukkah candles because that is "work" so the first candle is just sorta there to keep the flame moving. Make sense? I don't think so either - yet - here we are, talking about a religious holiday and the faith we Jews put in it so . . .

Here's the point - shamash (Hebrew for sun/helper/minister/a few other things) - is the "helper" of the Festival of Lights. It has a specific role and duty and it does so without complaint (which helps because it, like all candles, is inanimate) and without any drop of resentment (which, again, makes sense). If you think about it - the rules of Hanukkah imply that, without the shamash, there would be no Hanukkah light to "admire" so - in a way - it shouldn't be angry about being set apart . . . it should be proud.

We should feel the same way when offered a chance to help or support or play a role that has no direct benefit to us but carries all upside for those served in the action. Yet we do it very, very rarely. We don't seem to like it. We seem to resent it (which is, as we've established, a very "human" thing to do) and we seem to avoid it. Shameful - because a good shamash leaves much to be admired.