The following is a response from Hakham Ya’aqob Menashe to numerous inquiries that we received concerning the manner of lighting the Hanukkah lights.
The following question is being asked with increasing regularity, every year at this time. There appears to be general confusion and, indeed, division, as to the correct manner of physically lighting the Hanukkah lights.
Specifically, does one use the additional candle (sometimes refered to as “Shammash”) to light the others, or is that extra candle (Shammash) lit last? And are there differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom in this matter?
Maran Yosef Karo, z”l, whom the Sephardim follow, writes in the Shulhan ‘Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law) that this additional light is lit LAST and should be placed slightly further away from all the other candles.
Rabbenu Moshe Isserles, z”l, (the Rama) whom the Ashkenazim follow when he disagrees with Maran Yosef Karo, says that in [Ashkenazi] lands, they do not add one more candle as Maran mentioned, but use the Shammash to light all the other candles and then put it in the place reserved for the additional light.
In other words, in Ashkenazi lands it is lit FIRST.
Hakham Yosef Hayyim, in BEN ISH HAI writes that the additional candle (which some call Shammash) is lit LAST.
In short, the age-old customs are clear. Sephardim use another candle (or other device) to light all the Hanukkah candles and then when all are lit, light the additional light (Shammash) LAST. It is placed in a slightly different position to the other candles.
Needless to say, this is also the custom at Midrash BEN ISH HAI, where the additional light is kindled last.
Ashkenazim light the Shammash FIRST and use it to kindle all the other lights.
One might be tempted to ask then, how we explain the fact that numerous Sephardim today, seem to be lighting the additional light first? The answer is simple, that in this particular matter, at least, they are following the customs of the Ashkenazim.
In any case, whichever method you choose to light the Hanukkah (Menorah), we wish you Tizku LeShanim Rabboth. Please celebrate this Holiday in keeping with the spirit and meaning that our Hakhamim of blessed memory intended.
For more information on customs and laws pertaining to Hanukkah, please refer to: http://www.midrash.org/halakhoth/hanukkah.html
With Torah blessings,
Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe
Midrash BEN ISH HAI