How Many Candles Are on a Menorah?

The menorah is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Judaism, and especially of Hanukkah.

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Hanukkah celebrates an ancient miracle when Judah Maccabee and his band of warriors successfully fought back against oppression and reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. To rededicate the Temple, they needed to burn oil in a candelabra, known in Hebrew as a menorah. They found a tiny amount—enough for just one night—but miraculously, it burned for eight nights. Today, lighting Hanukkah candles on a menorah is one of the primary ways we commemorate the miracle. Find out 18 Hanukkah facts you never knew.

What do the candles of Hanukkah mean?

The candles we light on Hanukkah symbolize the miraculous oil that was found in the Temple. Because it burned for eight nights—giving the Maccabees time to find more and properly rededicate the temple—we light candles for eight consecutive nights, with the amount of light increasing each night. On the first night, we light one candle (plus a “helper” candle, called the shamash). Using the shamash, we light two on the second night, three on the third night, and so on, until all nine candles are aglow on the eighth and final night. This is why Hanukkah is often called the “festival of lights.”

What is a Hanukkah menorah?

It’s a special type of candelabra designed specifically to hold the Hanukkah candles. According to Jewish law, it must have eight branches, all perfectly aligned at the same height in a straight line. The branches must be spaced apart enough so that the flame from one candle does not join with the flame from the others. The ninth branch, for the shamash, should be higher, lower, or off to the side.

A Hanukkah menorah is sometimes called a hanukkiah, although the term has only gained traction in recent decades. Rabbi Norman Patz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom of West Essex, in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and visiting rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, says the increasing use of the term likely stems from the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in the 20th century coupled with greater Hebrew literacy among Jews worldwide.

How do you light a menorah?

On the first night of Hanukkah, we place a candle in the holder farthest to the right. On the second night, we place a new candle where the first one was, plus a second candle immediately to its left. We continue in this manner each night, placing candles from right to left.

Once the candles have been placed, we light the shamash and recite a series of blessings. Then, using the shamash, we light the evening’s candles left to right, so we are always lighting the newest one first. Candles may be lit anytime after nightfall and should remain lit for at least 30 minutes.

A total of 44 candles is required to light the proper number of candles each night for the duration of the holiday, though most boxes—like these colorful, dripless candles from Ner Mitzvah—include at least one extra in case of breakage.

Why do some menorahs have 9 candles while others have 7?

Menorahs with branches for nine candles are used exclusively for Hanukkah. Though we understand why we light menorahs for Hanukkah, no one can say exactly when the tradition of using hanukkiahs began, though it was probably at least 250 years after the Maccabees’ triumph.

Long before then, a menorah with seven branches was used. “It was biblically [mandated] in Exodus, with an elaborate description,” says Rabbi Patz. The passage details God’s instructions to Moses for creating the menorah, specifying the ornate flowers, bulbs, and goblets that should adorn it. The menorah was built in the desert so the high priest Aaron could light it daily in the Tabernacle (a portable sanctuary), and later, in the Temple. Some scholars believe that the branches represented six types of secular human wisdom, plus one to remind us of the importance of God.

What blessings do you say when lighting the Hanukkah candles?

Three blessings are recited on the first night of Hanukkah, but only two on each of the remaining nights. They should be said after the shamash is lit but before lighting the other candles. The first prayer acknowledges that God commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. The second thanks God for the miracles shown to our ancestors. The third—recited on the first night only—thanks God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this season. Some families recite an additional prayer after the candles have been lit, which reminds us that the Hanukkah candles are sacred. “We are not permitted to make any other use of them,” such as for reading or ordinary illumination, Rabbi Patz says. “We light these candles on account of the miracles and wonders that were performed.”

Where do you place a menorah?

Once lit, a menorah should be placed in a window that is visible from the street. “The Talmud says we are supposed to publicize the miracle,” says Rabbi Patz. He adds that ancient rabbis may have elected to make the miracle of the oil the focus of the holiday, and not the wartime victory of driving the Seleucid Greeks out of Jerusalem and the Temple, based on the sheer need for survival. “When the Greeks were superseded by the Romans, the Romans crushed any hint of revolt. It was very inappropriate for Jews to be celebrating a holiday that marked a triumph over the ruler, so they may have shifted the emphasis,” to the miracle of the oil, he says. Now, the tradition persists, and many families enjoy sharing the light of Hanukkah with their neighbors.

Read on to see the best Hanukkah gifts for the season.

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Laurie Budgar
Laurie Budgar is a certified speech-language pathologist (MS, CCC/SLP) who spent over a decade helping people with brain trauma, stroke, MS and Alzheimer’s regain language, speech, swallowing and cognitive skills. She contributes regularly to RD.com, where she writes about health, pets and travel. Previously, she was the editor at Momentum, the magazine of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Under her direction, the magazine won its first-ever Folio awards for best complete issue and best article. She has covered health, nutrition and lifestyle topics for Healthline, Parenting, LIVESTRONG.com, Delicious Living, Natural Solutions and more. She has written about travel destinations and profiled small businesses for AAA Colorado, American Way, the University of Denver and Fortune Small Business.