Op-Ed: Everything is different this year, so why not add a ninth night to Hanukkah?

A menorah with all nine candles lit.
The ninth candle on the menorah is the shamash, or “helper” candle. In 2020, this candle deserves its own night to shine.
(Los Angeles Times)
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Hanukkah, like so many other holidays, is poised to look a little different this year.

Usually my synagogue in Washington, D.C., invites congregants to bring their menorahs into the sanctuary for a huge communal candle-lighting. This festive fire hazard is not exactly made for Zoom. Meanwhile, the invitation for my neighbors’ annual latke fest has not arrived, which is no surprise. While inviting friends over to spin dreidels, sing songs and commiserate about this dumpster fire of a year is tempting, it also screams “superspreader.”

It’s understandable but more than a little depressing. It makes me want to rip December off the calendar. Enough, already! Forget Hanukkah — bring on 2021.

Instead, I have a counterintuitive proposal: This year, we should start a new tradition and extend Hanukkah from eight nights to nine. The reason? To honor the helpers.


There is a direct connection between Hanukkah and helping. A Hanukkah menorah, also known as a hanukkiah, has nine branches. Eight are for the candles representing the nights of the holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple after it was defiled by King Antiochus’ soldiers and the miracle in the temple of a small amount of lamp oil burning for eight days when it should have lasted only one.

The ninth branch is reserved for a special candle, the shamash, or “helper.” The shamash is used to light the other candles: one on the first night and an additional one each subsequent evening until all nine burn on the eighth and final night.

But think about it: The shamash is so busy giving its light to others that it never gets its own night to shine. And isn’t 2020 the perfect year to start an annual Hanukkah tradition of honoring the people who, like the shamash, give of themselves to help others?

I can think of lots of those people this year, starting with the friends who delivered toilet paper (and tofu, of all things) when I couldn’t find these items in any store. The hospital staff who cared for my mom when she needed emergency surgery. The teachers who juggled and pivoted to keep my kids connected and learning. The online fitness instructors, doctors, nurses, therapists and DJs. (D-Nice’s Club Quarantine got me through the month of April.) The journalists, who kept reporting, no matter how many dragons they had to slay in the process. The mail carriers, delivery people, grocery store clerks, trash collectors and so many others who, without fanfare, helped in ways great and small.

The online festivities include latke-making classes, sing-alongs and a puppetry performance.

Dec. 2, 2020

The best part is, it’s easy to do — if you’re Jewish, you probably finish the holiday with extra candles you can use. And if you’re not Jewish, this is a celebration that everyone can take part in. First, make a list of the helpers in your life, and invite friends and family members to do the same. Then, on the ninth night of Hanukkah (in 2020, it will be Dec. 18), light the shamash (or any candle as an honorary shamash, if you don’t have a menorah) in honor of the helpers on your list, and let them know.

You can go big — throw a virtual Shamash Night party! — or go small, sending cards, texts or emails. Either way, you are likely to make your honorees feel acknowledged and appreciated, which means you’re helping them, too.


Like the shamash, individual people have the power to brighten the lives of those around them. That’s why Hanukkah, especially in the year 2020, is the perfect time for all of us to show appreciation for those who help us, help others and help heal the world.

And if it means eating jelly donuts and potato pancakes for one more night — well, it’s been a rough year, so who’s going to argue with that?

Erica S. Perl is an author of books for children and young adults. The most recent is “The Ninth Night of Hanukkah.”