The Jewish festival of Chanuka will take place this year the evenings of December 20th through the afternoon of the 28th. It is both the celebration of the defeat of the Greek armies in Jerusalem in the second century BCE and a commemoration of the miraculous burning of oil candles in the Temple in Jerusalem which should have lasted less than a day, but lasted eight days.
A large part of the celebration is the lighting of a candle in the eight-branched candelabrum known as a “menorah.” An additional candle is lit each of the eight nights of the holiday. Today, many people use either synthetic or natural wax candles. But if the original event occurred with olive oil candles, why use wax? In fact, it seems many people have forgotten that olive oil even burns.
However, as Rabbi Shlomie Chein of Santa Cruz, CA points out, “According to Jewish law, the preferred fuel for kindling the menorah is of course olive oil, since the miracle originally occurred in the holy Temple with olive oil.” In other words, wax candles are good, but olive oil is better. And, as it turns out, olive oil is also greener.
Unlike many of the synthetics used to produce solid candles, olive oil is renewable, sustainable and clean. With what other type of fuel source do you feel good about eating the leftovers? Like most DIY endeavors, designing your own olive oil menorah is very satisfying and enjoyable.
The laws regarding the menorah are very flexible, unlike many other Jewish laws. “People actually get creative with how they build their menorahs. It's very beautiful that people can commemorate the miracle and at the same time have their own personal expression with their own creativity,” says Rabbi Chein. However, there are numerous details that anyone starting out with olive oil should be aware of. I've been using olive oil for Chanuka since about 2004, and from my experience I present this DIY guide to Chanuka oil menorahs.
How to Pick Your Vessel
Almost any type of vessel is kosher to use for a Chanuka lamp. “It just shouldn't be rusty or dirty, which would be disrespectful,” Rabbi Chein notes. I have found that the most useful and convenient vessels to use are beer bottles or shot glasses. (Ceramic and metal vessels would work too, but don't use plastic or any other material that will melt or burn when exposed to the heat of a flame.) So first of all, you should drink the beer if you're using beer bottles. Then rinse them out and fill the bottle(s) with water up to about an inch-and-a-half to two-inches from the top. The water just takes up volume in the bottle so you don't have to waste 12 oz. of oil in each bottle, which would be enough oil to have your own eight-day burning miracle.
When the bottles have water in them, pour your oil on top of this water (as you'll remember from primary school, oil floats on water). You will then suspend your wick in this oil.
Important tip: Don't ever let the wick dip into the water, or touch water for that matter. The reason is the wick will readily absorb water which will effectively block the flow of oil through the wick. If you wish, you can reuse a wick numerous times as long as it remains saturated with oil and doesn't touch water.
If you're using smaller vessels like shot glasses, just fill with oil.
How to Pick Your Oil
We are blessed here in California with a Mediterranean climate which is great for crops like grapes and olives. There are a number of local organic olive oil producers, even some like Tehama Gold which are certified kosher (not that you would eat the leftovers from your Chanuka candles, but I thought I'd mention it). If local oils are too pricey or don't exist, foreign olive oil burns just as well.
How to Pick Your Wicks
According to Rabbi Chein, “Cotton is the preferred material for the wick” because it burns cleanly and brightly. Now, when it comes to cotton there is a lot with which to be concerned. While the benefits of organic farming for soil, water, and air health is virtually undisputed, most people overlook organic cotton when shopping for clothes, furniture, bedding, or other cotton materials.
However, cotton is responsible for "25% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single crop,” (as of 2008) according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. I suggest buying organic cotton if it's available to you. I have used Maxim brand organic cotton balls since 2009. Organic cotton balls should be available at your local natural foods store or co-op. Presumably you could also cut out a wick from an old cotton shirt or other cotton material.
Now, if you're starting with a ball of cotton, making wicks is fun. Pull off a wisp about two-and-a-half inches long. It should be about as thick as a #2 pencil. Roll the wisp it in between your palms to form a compact wick, still about the same length but more dense. If you have water under your oil, cut your wick to a length so that, when suspended in your oil, it will be about a quarter inch above the water at the bottom end, and about a half inch above the oil on the top end. If you're using a shot-glass type setup, the bottom length doesn't matter (let it coil on the bottom of the shot glass if you wish), but the top should still be about a half inch above the oil. Then saturate the wick in oil from top to bottom and then suspend in the oil reservoir.
You can also buy pre-made wicks which are much easier for the beginner, and I actually suggest using them until you get a good grasp on how oil wicks work. They should be available at your local Judaica store, if it's a good Judaica store. The style known as “floating wicks” are probably the easiest to use. They are a short wick (usually red in color) suspended on a round piece of cork, so they float.
How to Suspend a Wick
If you're making your own cotton wicks, you need something to support the wick so it stands up straight in the middle of the oil reservoir. It is possible to just hang a wick over the edge of the vessel and light it, but it will leave a burn mark on your DIY menorah and usually burns inconsistently (but in an emergency, it will work).
The most basic design for the DIY-er is to bend some paper clips to suit your needs. The paper clip should be able to sit across opposite lips of your vessel and should be able to suspend a wick in the middle, but not wrapping too tightly around the wick or else oil won't be able to flow properly. It might take a few tries to get it right, but once you figure it out it will work perfectly.
The easier path, again, is to buy pre-made wick holders. They are made of metal and can usually be bought very cheaply at Judaica stores in the weeks before Chanuka.
When It's Time to Light
When you have your menorah all set up, you just take a lit candle (known traditionally as the “shamash” candle) and apply to flame to your cotton wick like you would with a wax candle. And voila!
Remember, always use caution with open flames. Don't light your menorah near curtains or other hanging fabric, don't leave the house with open flames burning, and make sure the menorah is situated on a non-flammable surface.
For more insights into a sustainable Chanuka, check out this blog post from my blog Old Growth Yiddishkeit or take a look at the Hazon sustainable Hanukkah resources.