Um, How Do I Light the Hanukkah Candles?

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I have a bad sense of direction, which plays itself out in all sorts of ways. For example, with Hanukkah beginning tonight, I face the challenge of placing and lighting the Hanukkah candles “in the right direction.” Left to right, or right to left? And when people say left, does that mean facing the Menorah, or from the Menorah’s perspective? And when do the blessings come into the picture?

Never fear. Even if you light the Hanukkiah (the special 8-branched menorah used on Hanukkah) in the wrong direction, it still counts. But posted below is an explanation for how to light the candles in the right way (”right” as in “correct”). All directional instructions are from your perspective.

The Shamash: Menorahs have a place for the shamash, the helper candle, which stands at a different height than the others (usually taller). The function of the shamash is to light the “real” candles, and you light it first, before any blessings are said.

Placement: Stand facing the Menorah. You place the candles from right to left as the nights go on. On the first night, place the first candle on your far right. On the second night, add a candle to its left (you now have candles in the two spots furthest to your right). On the third night, add a candle to its left, and so on, until the last night when you place the eighth candle to your far left.

Lighting: The newest candle gets lit first. What this means is that you light from left to right (even though placement is from right to left).

Blessings: After you light the shamash, hold and say/sing the blessings. The first two blessings are said every night; the third is said only the first night. After you’ve finished with the blessings, light the Hanukkah candles.

What’s interesting is that even the actual number of candles lit on each night was not something everyone agreed on when the holiday traditions were still forming….

The Talmud records a debate between two schools of thought on how to light the Hanukkah candles. The House of Hillel says to light the candles in ascending order, with one candle the first night and eight the last night (the way that became the tradition), whereas the House of Shammai argues that they should be lit in descending order, with eight candles on the first night and one on the last. The different approaches represent counting the number of days as they are actualized (with increasing anticipation and joy), verses counting the days of the holiday that remain.

For an interactive demonstration, visit Happy Hanukkah!

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