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The Need for a Shamash Candle These Days


Rabbi Daniel Mann

Question: Is there a need for a shamash (extra candle) for our Chanuka candles now that we have plenty of electric light?

Answer: The short answer: yes and no. As always, we will start with background.
The gemara (Shabbat 21b) says that it is forbidden to use the light of the Chanuka candles. Rashi explains that this is so that it is clear the candles are for the mitzva, not for other use. The Ba’al Hamaor and Ran (9a of Rif’s pages to Shabbat) explain that since the candles are modeled after the happenings in the Beit Hamikdash, we forbid their use for other purposes, like sanctified objects. The gemara does not yet mention the idea of a shamash, but it comes up later in the context of the Chanuka lighting being moved inside at the time of danger. Rava says that one then needs to have a non-mitzva light – unless there is a medura (fireplace). Again, Rashi says that the other light is needed so that the Chanuka candles will be clearly for the mitzva.
The simple explanation is that when the Chanuka lights were in places that usually did not have lights, their identification as for mitzva purposes was clear and there also was no particular concern that one would improperly use the light. Thus, there was no need for a shamash. The Meiri (ad loc.) says that while those who light the candles near the door theoretically should not need a shamash, since sometimes one uses the Chanuka light even there and the minhag is to have one, that is what should be done. The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayim 673) says that even in places where we would not logically need a shamash, we put one because people do not know how to distinguish. The Shulchan Aruch and Rama (673:1) both say to have an extra candle, with one difference between them: the former says that this is in addition to the candle one uses for lighting; the latter says that the candle used for lighting is put in the shamash’s place after the lighting is finished.
It would seem that electric lights cause a situation where no one uses candles for seeing, and the situation is no worse than the medura that the gemara says makes an extra candle unnecessary. Even the Beit Yosef’s logic of not knowing how to distinguish does not seem to apply when the situation is uniform throughout society. Apparently, Rav S.Z. Auerbach indeed posited that the shamash is not halachically needed in our times when the house’s lights are on, although he still felt it was worthwhile (see Halichot Shlomo, Moadim II:16:13; Nitei Gavriel, Chanuka 20:8 agrees). (Some sources give great importance, based on kabbalistic reasons, to the shamash, but these are extra-halachic concerns into which we do not, as a rule, delve.)
There is room to discuss whether we can now relax certain parameters of the halachot of shamash. The Magen Avraham (673:5) says that when several people light, there should be a shamash next to each set of candles. The Mishna Berura (673:18) explains that this is based on the halacha that each person lights in a distinct place so that it will be clear how many candles there are per person (Rama, OC 671:2). It seems that nowadays, when we have clearly defined chanukiyot, we do not separate them so much. Therefore, it does not seem so important for there to be multiple shamashim (I saw a claim that Rav Auerbach was lenient on this point because the need for a shamash is now a chumra). On the other hand, in our present system, where the shamash has a set place in the chanukiya and people expect there to be one, some might find it harder to discern the number of candles in a chanukiya without a shamash.
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 672:1) says it is permitted to benefit from the Chanuka lights after its required time period (see Living the Halachic Process II, D-9) is over. The Mishna Berura (672:8) cites those who are stringent. However, it is an extreme stringency to still nowadays require the shamash to last as long as the mitzva lights. This is of particular practical value for those who light with olive oil but use a simple wax candle for the shamash.
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