Hanukkah’s main ritual is the lighting of a menorah, a candelabra with nine candleholders, lit during the eight nights of the holiday. On the first night two candles are lit: the shamash, “servant,” which is used to light the other candle. On the second night, three candles are lit: the shamash and two others. On the next night four candles are lit: the shamash and three candles, and so on until the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, on which all nine candles including the shamash are lit.
But when did this tradition appear, and how? It is often assumed that this tradition is as old as Hanukkah itself: that it was inaugurated by the Maccabees themselves when they first created the holiday of Hanukkah back in 164 B.C.E. That seems implausible.
The First Book of Maccabees, written shortly after the holiday was created, makes no mention of the candle ritual whatsoever, nor of the well-known story of the miracle of the little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one.
What I Maccabees does say is that Hanukkah was instituted as the second holiday of Sukkot, which is an eight-day holiday.
While I Maccabees makes no connection between Hanukkah and fire, a letter preserved in II Maccabees, purportedly written by Judah Maccabee himself to the Jews of Alexandria but probably dating later – to the second half of the first century B.C.E. – makes the connection explicit. The letter calls on the Jews to celebrate Hanukkah as “the days of Sukkot and fire.”
The letter tells how the fire burning in the Temple of Solomon miraculously came down from the sky, and claims that this holy flame was protected and hidden by the prophet Jeremiah when the Temple was destroyed, to be rediscovered when Nehemiah founded the Second Temple.
While not explicitly stated in the letter, it seems to be implied that the flame the Maccabees lit when inaugurating the Temple was ignited by miracle. But while a connection between Hanukkah and fire was made by this letter it says nothing about lighting candles.
It is true that absence of mention does not definitively prove that the custom did not exist back then. But the fact is that the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus wrote at the very end of the first century C.E., in his book Antiquities of the Jews, that he does not know why the holiday is called “The Festival of Lights”.
That strongly indicates that though the holiday had become connected with flame, Josephus and his contemporaries did not light candles on Hanukkah.
Enter the camel
About a century later, in approximately 200 C.E., when the rabbi called Judah the Prince was compiling the Mishnah, he did not devote a special tractate to Hanukkah as he did with the other holidays. In fact, the Mishnah hardly mentions the holiday, which indicates that Judah must have felt it not an important holiday at all, likely because it is not mentioned in the Bible.
However, when the Mishnah does mention the holiday, it also mentions a Hanukkah candle, almost as an aside, in a section dealing with tort law:
If a camel laden with flax passed by in the public domain and its load of flax entered into a shop and caught fire, the owner of the camel is liable. But if the shopkeeper left his light outside, the shopkeeper is liable. Rabbi Judah says: ‘If it was a Hanukkah light, he is he is not liable’ (Bava Kama 6:6).
From this we learn that while Rabbi Judah the Prince did not consider the lighting of candles on Hanukkah a religious commandment, his teacher Rabbi Judah considered it important enough to be a mitigating factor in legal disputes.
And this in turn indicates that sometime in the second century, after the time of Josephus and before the time of Rabbi Judah, Jews began lighting a “Hanukkah candle,” but this wasn’t seen as a religious obligation by the influential Rabbi Judah the Prince.
We do not know how this custom came about but considering that the custom appeared in Roman Palestine, where the pagan holiday of Saturnalia was celebrated, and considering the fact that one of Saturnalia's customs was giving candles as gifts to friends and family – it is plausible the Roman holiday influenced the Jewish one, much like Christmas trees have given rise to "Hanukkah bushes" in the modern era.
Babylonian rabbis are not amused
The tradition of lighting a Hanukkah candle would be brought from Palestine to Babylonia by the next generation of rabbis. Abba Arikha, one of Judah the Prince’s star students commonly known as Rav, took the Mishnah with him to Babylonia and taught it in the rabbinic academy he founded in Sura.
It was apparently Rav who brought the custom of lighting a candle on Hanukkah to Babylonia. We are told that it was he who wrote the blessing recited to this day when lighting the Hanukkah candles (Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah 3:4; and in manuscript versions of the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 23a): "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah candle."
This custom got some pushback from the local Babylonian rabbis, namely the influential Rabbi Samuel, head of the Nehardea Academy. The Talmud records that when one of Rav’s students told him that his rabbi taught that counting money to the light of a Hanukkah candle was forbidden, Samuel mocked this decision asking “Why? Does a candle hold holiness?” (Shabbat 22a).
We are told that Samuel even thought it permissible to use a Hanukkah candle to light another candle. Rabbi Judah forbade this (Shabbat 22b). But later generations sided with Rav and the Hanukkah candle gained in importance with the next generation of Babylonian rabbis. Another prayer was added to the ceremony of lighting the Hanukkah candle by Rav’s students (Brachot 9a).
Up to this point, the sources we discussed all talk of a single Hanukkah candle, not multiple ones. Even the prayer recited today and composed by Rav only talks about one candle. So how did this custom develop into the practice of lighting multiple candles – eight plus shamash on the last night?
The Talmud has it as follows: “The Sages taught in a baraita [oral law]: The basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for himself and his household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household” (Shabbat 21b).
Thus the tradition of lighting a single candle gave way to a custom of lighting multiple candles.
The rabbis start to argue
It was the influential Rabbi Abba ben Joseph bar Rama, known simply as Rava, who in the fourth century C.E. decreed that the Hanukkah candle may not be the only candle lit in the house and that another candle to provide light and be used for secular use must be also added (Shabbat 21b). This extra candle decreed by Rava eventually evolved into the shamash we use to light the candles today.
Then in the fourth century C.E., or perhaps even later, someone added to the Talmud passage quoted above, stating that only one candle was required, the following passage: “And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily."
The houses of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. The adherents of Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And the adherents of Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights, the Talmud says.
This custom of adding (or decreasing) the number of candles lit on each day of Hanukkah is attributed to the ancient rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai, from the last century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., but clearly this could not be the case since we have seen that the tradition did not exist at the time.
It is hard to determine when this passage was added to the Talmud and thus when it was created. The Talmud itself attributes the discussion of these two schools' decrees to Rabbi Ulla, a Palestinian rabbi who came to Babylonia in the fourth century C.E. It is possible that it was he who brought this tradition to Babylonia then.
Evidently, the tradition of lighting candles on Hanukkah did not arise during the time of the Maccabees but rather was adopted by Jews in the second century C.E. under the influence of their pagan neighbors, and evolved over the third and fourth centuries C.E. in the rabbinic academies in Babylonia until the custom took the shape we recognize today. And like the Shabbat candle (a tradition that appeared even later in the Gaonic period) – you're not supposed to use the Hanukkah candles to light your cigarette, but you may use the shamash.