The hanukkiyah (or Hanukkah menorah) comes primarily in one of three shapes:
The first type is flat, like the ones I made in preschool.
The second has rounded branches, like the one that is the symbol of the State of Israel and is the menorah outside of the Knesset.
The third has eight straight branches attached diagonally to a central spine, like the one that holds the record for the world’s largest hanukkiyah (60 feet tall, 17 metric tons, with an area of 600-square meters, in case you were wondering).
A very large hanukkiyah in this third shape is put up every year at 86th Street and Broadway, just near BJ on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There’s also one in Central Park. And Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. And Trafalgar Square, London. And at the Eiffel Tower, Paris. And in dozens, if not hundreds, of other locations all over the world where Chabad Lubavitch hosts public Hanukkah candle lightings. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was adamant that the Chabad community exclusively use this straight-branched hanukkiyah, and no other.
It seems like a rather inconsequential thing to care about. Why does the shape of the hanukkiyah matter, as long as the candles get lit? What’s wrong with the more familiar shape of the hanukkiyah with rounded branches? Or, for that matter, a 2×4 with nine screws adorably glued onto it and decorated with glitter?
The Rebbe knew that the image of a rounded menorah is depicted on the ancient Arch of Titus, which shows the menorah and other spoils of war being transported from the just-destroyed Jerusalem to Rome. Because of this, he believed that the rounded menorah had become too closely associated with Jewish exile and suffering to use for the mitzvah of lighting candles. Is this the image that we want to conjure up on Hanukkah—the image of our degradation?
The straight-branched hanukkiyah, by contrast, has none of these negative connotations. It evokes only the holiness of our relationship with God, of miracles, and of light overcoming darkness. The Rebbe insisted on this shape for the hanukkiyah because he felt deeply that the symbols of our identity should reflect our highest values, not our lowest moments, and that they should contribute to Jewish pride.
This year, these gigantic straight-branched hanukkiyot are being lit in a world of rising antisemitism, more insidious than most of us could ever have imagined. In the face of this darkness, Jews across the globe are painfully debating whether to take down the mezuzot on their doorposts, to stop wearing a Star of David pendant, to trade a kippah for a baseball cap. There is legitimate concern that these and other public expressions of Judaism could invite harassment or even violence.
At this moment, the underlying message of the Rebbe’s teaching—which, in my view, applies not only to the shape of the hanukkiyah, but to all public displays of Jewishness—rings loudly in my ears: We cannot allow the symbols of our identity to become primarily associated with victimhood or suffering.
This Shabbat, hundreds of people will gather at BJ for our second Community Shabbaton. Our prayers will not be said softly. Our singing will not be tempered. Our celebration of Shabbat and of Hanukkah will not be hidden away. Our love and commitment to this community and to our Jewish lives will shine brightly into the darkness that surrounds us—and we will draw strength, and pride, and hope from this light.
Whether your hanukkiyah is flat, rounded, straight branched, or any other shape, I pray that it be a source of love and light for you and yours.
Shabbat shalom and hag urim sameah ( a very happy Hanukkah),