shammash

Today’s word tasting note is a guest tasting by C M Morrison.

The letterhead of the Israeli government bears a 7-branched candelabrum – a replica of the one in Solomon’s Temple:

On the other hand, candelabra used on Chanuka have 8 straight or curved branches plus one at a different height from the others, thus: iiii i iiii. It is not the shape or the material that defines the Chanuka menora or Chanukia, but this structure of 8+1. Glamorous creations of silver, brass or crystal follow the same formula as the classic home-assembled row of 8 whisky tots (or shot glasses, if you prefer) with a double-decker or bigger one at the right-hand side, thus: uuuuuuuu U . At a pinch, of which there have been many, a row of hollowed-out potatoes serves the purpose.

The extra one, the odd one, whether a humble tumbler or tuber or a sophisticated silver stanchion, is called the shamash. Serving and purpose are what the shamash is all about.

He’s a servant, or better, a facilitator – the unnoticed one who provides light to ignite flames one to eight.

He is also the right-hand man of a senior figure. Or he can be the familiar, indispensable, silent promoter of order and efficiency in the synagogue, guiding strangers and those nominated to step forward, rolling scrolls to the column of this week’s reading and handing out printed texts for participants to follow the hand-written words on parchment. In an English village or a Trollope novel he would be a beadle or a sexton. His are the tasks that are only noticed when they are left undone.

One who encourages others to donate to worthy causes is considered even greater than those who give. It follows that one who causes others to shine is greater than those who shine.

The root of the Hebrew word is shhh-mmm-shhh —he whispers, hints, encourages with a gentle nudge.

It’s related to other sh-m words: name, hear, there, heaven, and notably, the sun, shemesh, that enabler of all life on earth. Astronomical splendour, the modest light at the end of the row and the unnoticed functionary who smooths the service for a congregation are all members of the same Worshipful Company of Catalysts.

We are enjoined to look at the Chanuka flames in order to see what is in them, and not “l’hishtamesh bahem” not to work or read by their light. When electric lights fail and even when they don’t, the sanctity of these non-utilitarian flames is sheltered by the shammas, unobtrusive as usual, stepping into the limelight – we read and count and function by his light, not theirs. Even though he is only one, and they are one or two or three… or eight.

They also serve who only stand and wait.

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