(taken from Minhagei Yisrael volume 5, by Professor Daniel Shperber)
In addition to the candles that we light each night of Chanukah, it is a generally accepted practice to light an extra candle each night. This candle, known as the "shamash" (a term connoting service), is widely used to light the other candles, and it usually placed in the chanukiyah apart from or above the other candles.
Where did the practice of having this extra candle come from? The first indication of the need for such a candle comes from the gemara in Shabbat (21-23) which serves as the main Rabbinic source for the laws of Chanukah. The gemara there tells us that the best place to light the candles is outside. However, the gemara notes that when there was a fear of the other nations coming and knocking over the candles, a switch was made and people began lighting indoors. Once that was done, Rabbah tells us that another candle had to be added so that its light could be used. Since it is forbidden to make use of the Chanukah candles in any way, there was the concern that when they were placed inside people would take advantage of them and use them for light. Thus, another candle was added so that that could be that one that was being used.
A second reason, albeit similar, is found in several Geonic writings. The practice at that time was also to light the candles indoors, but the reason given is due to climate. Since the weather in Babylon was generally cold and windy around the time of Chanukah, it was not possible to light outside. Thus, the candles were moved indoors and the same situation resulted as had come about during the time of the gemara.
Given these two reasons, it would seem that a person living in a place with a favorable climate in Kislev (such as the Southern Hemisphere) where there is no fear of oppression from other nations or of thieves should be able to avoid using a shamash. TheMeiri mentions that there were those in his time who in fact did without the additional candle. However, he himself continued to use it since it was part of the received tradition and custom of how to light the Chanukah candles.
However, there is a second function for the candle that we call the shamash. TheTur (O.C. 673) writes that there is a need for one candle that is not actually part of the mitzva, which can then be used for its light. He then goes on to say that there is a candle on top of that candle which serves as the one which lights the other candles! On a halachic level this solves the debate in the gemara as to whether or not one may light one candle from another - by introducing another candle which is not part of the mitzva a person can avoid any problems. However, what is truly notable from the Tur is that he seems to be advocating the use of two candles as shamashim! This can perhaps help to explain the practice of the Jews of Aleppo, who did, in fact, light two additional candles on every night (there are other reasons given for this practice as well).
Given the fact that the shamash is not one of candles being used for the mitzva, there are various steps that were often taken to differentiate it.Maharil would use a wax candle as his shamash, while using oil for the candles that were part of the mitzva. The Orchot Chaim writes that the shamash, whatever it is made from, should be placed lower than the other candles. The Bach explains that this way if a person is using the light, he is using the light that is closer down to him. On the other hand, Maharil writes that the shamash should be higher than the other candles. The Bach again offers an explanation, claiming that since the candles should be placed under ten tefachim (handbreadths), so that they will clearly not be fit for regular human use, the shamash should thus be placed over ten tefachim, to show that it is specifically there for the purpose of being used. Mordechai suggests making the shamash bigger than the other candles so that its light will be the brightest.
All seems well and good. Only one question remains - is there any holiness in the shamash? We know that the candles themselves are considered to have some degree of holiness, as seen in the paragraph of "ha-neirot halalu." Does the shamash, whose purpose seems to be purely functional, share in this holiness in any way? While it would seem to not be a part of this holiness, theBe'eir Heitev (O.C. 673:7) notes that even if one uses the shamash, he should not use it for any course or vulgar purpose, a statement that indicates that even the shamash is not just any light source. There are others who warn about using the shamash to illuminate a card game.
Perhaps the most eloquent statement concerning the holiness of the shamash comes from Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kaidnover, who compares the shamash to the priest in the Beit HaMikdash who lit the candles and to the angels who illuminate the Heavenly Throne. As such, he claims that the shamash has even more holiness than the other candles. To shore up his point, he cites Maharil who quotes Yeshayahu 6:2 - "seraphim omdim mima'al lo" - "Seraphs [angels] stood above it." He notes that the numerical value of the word "lo" is 36, representative of the 36 candles lit on Chanukah (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8), and thus the shamash, which stands above the 36 candles is comparable to the angels which surrounded the Heavenly Throne.
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