When I first started doing Jewish holidays I remember being baffled by the Hanukkah candles. Wasn’t the Hanukkah story all about oil? Most every kid’s book highlights the miraculous oil, we fry our latkes and sufganiyot in oil, but every year we (and all the Jews I knew) pull out boxes of multicolored candles to light in honor of the oil. Shouldn’t we light oil to honor oil?
What I didn’t know—because this was pre-Internet—was that plenty of Jews burned oil instead of candles, and plenty of Judaica stores sold oil menorahs. Both were off my Liberal radar. What else I didn’t know was that most of us do candles because candles are easier: easier to sell and buy and store and use. Still, oil is worth the trouble. Oil gives us a closer link to the Hanukkah story and, when burned in a menorah as part of a classroom demo, can make even disaffected teens sit up and stare.
Nowadays, you can buy a perfectly efficient oil menorah online for less than ten bucks, plus shipping. The one I use for classroom demos and Hanukkah carnivals is pictured above. I like the price, the low center of gravity (no wobbly stand), and I like how simple and visible it is: golden oil in a transparent cup, on fire. Perfect. Kids can see oil burn.
Well, not really. Oil doesn’t burn. The wick sucks the oil up from the cup via capillary action, and when it reaches the flame, the oil vaporizes. But still, kids see oil being fuel. As per the Story.
Visibility is why I prefer glass cups for DIY Hanukkah menorot. Besides, the Talmud says we are to “publicize” Hanukkah, and clear cups with golden oil does that beautifully.
DIY OIL MENOROT FOR HANUKKAH:
You can also make your own. I’ve organized this task into categories below: Adapt, Cups, Oil, Wicks.
Some are easy, some will have you pulling out your hair. You decide.
I’ll tell you right now that the easiest DIY is to pop 9 little shot glasses in row, fill them with water and a bit of olive oil, set a store-bought floating wick atop each and YOU’RE DONE. I know this because I’ve tried every single thing below and have already pulled out my hair.
•Adapt Your Old Menorah I: Look at the menorah you already own. Does it have cups big enough to hold even half a teaspoon of oil, and are the cups made of something that won’t ignite? Try filling them with olive oil and adding a wick.
•Adapt Your Old Menorah II: Look at the menorah you already own. Does it have a cup big enough to hold an oil cup made of aluminum, glass or plastic? Ner Mitzvah sells all these, and in different sizes. I love the idea of adding oil cups to convert a candle menorah, but I don’t want to fool with figuring out what size my cups need to be. If this idea doesn’t daunt you, here’s the link. Buy wicks while you’re at it, because those wicks are designed to work well with the cups.
•DIY CUPS THAT ARE ALREADY CUPS: Any container that won’t burn, melt or leak can hold olive oil, and you only need a teaspoon or so in each cup. Examples: shot glasses, votive candleholders, metal bottle caps, teensy jam jars from fancy hotels, test tubes. The cups can be freestanding or attached to a base.
•DIY CUPS THAT YOU ACTUALLY FASHION INTO CUPS :
Clay, for example. Real earthen clay is, of course, a classic oil lamp material: classic as in Ancient Times. It will scorch, but the scorch marks look cool and “authentic.” Unless sealed, it will be porous and therefore absorb and “sweat” oil, so set it on a tray. I’m talking about air-dry clay made of actual clay, not synthetics. If baked in a kiln, clay becomes glass-like, and thus a fired oil lamp will not leak.
Synthetic clays: The big bummer is that polymer clay, Model Magic and Crayola Air Dry clay all come with dire warnings about how we should Never Use Near Candles. They are not safe near open flame. (Shhhh. I use them all with candles anyway, but I cannot recommend that you do, else I might get sued. I do vote Model Magic most likely of the three clays to catch on fire. )
Vegetables: Heard of the potato menorah? Folks too poor to buy a menorah have made do with what they had on hand: potatoes. Cut a small potato in half to make two oil cups, and repeat till you have 9. Scoop out a hole in the top of each, fill with olive oil, add a wick. Link the DIY with one of the children’s books about potato menorahs for a lesson plan. (Some stories are about potato candle menorahs, some are about oil potato menorahs. See Peninnah Schram’s story The Chanukah Blessing, which is also anthologized in Eric Kimmel’s A Hanukkah Treasury.)
•HOW MUCH OIL? You don’t need a lot. And if you have too much—say, if you fill up 9 baby food jars with olive oil—your Hanukkah menorah will still be burning when you wake up next morning. (But you would never, ever go to bed with a lit flame in the house, right? Right?) Technically, you just need at least 30 minutes of flame (longer on Shabbat). A teaspoon should do it, but experiment before the holiday.
If you do use big cups—like the baby food jars mentioned above—just add water. Oil and water don’t mix, so the teaspoon of oil will float on the top of the water. Let the wick absorb the oil before lighting. Mix the water with food coloring if you wish, but I like plain water so kids can see the oil better.
•WHAT KIND OF OIL? Olive, of course. (And serve olives when you introduce an oil menorah lesson. Kids won’t forget that. ) Old, cheap oil works just as well as Extra Virgin Cold Pressed, so buy the cheap stuff unless your goal is hiddur mitzvah or total mehadrin. Olive is best because it is what was used in the original Hanukkah story, but also because it has a high flash point and won’t burst into flames even if you drop a lighted match on it, and yes, even if the dog accidentally wags the whole lit menorah onto the carpet. Also, when an olive oil lamp is lit, there is no brain-killing petroleum odor as with paraffin and lamp oils.
•DIY WICKS: If you want to go all Survivalist, make your own, but I warn you it is an iffy enterprise and will require endless tweaking. Uncoated cotton is the most traditional Hanukkah wick, but homemade wicks can be made of many different materials: dryer lint, pipe cleaners, braided gauze, Tshirt scraps, paper toweling, cotton balls, etc. (My favorite DIY wick was medical gauze as detailed at my Manishewitz Tiki Torch post.)
Far more dependable are wicks already inside broken or half-burned candles: just harvest the insides and cut to length (and melt the outsides next time you make havdalah or Shabbat candles). I’ve also re-used wicks and metal wick holders inside wax tealights.
Wicks can lean against the side of a nonflammable oil cup, or can stand erect in the center of the cup inside a wire jig. Bend a paper clip or thin florist wire to hold the wick upright; or just lay a paper clip athwartships if it can span the mouth of the cup, and thread the wick up through it. The wicks in the store-bought oil menorah pictured at the top of this post are held inside tubes of tin fashioned from scrap. (I can see writing inside the tubes, like they were cut from an old can. . . cool reuse.)
Wicks that float atop a layers of oil (or of oil and water) need to be anchored in a floating, non-flammable disk. A common method is to use a thin disk of cork with a hole in the center for the wick. I’ve made these and guess what? Cork burns. And slices of synthetic cork from a wine bottle MELT. You’ll have to cover the cork with a similarly shaped bit of foil, which is way too much trouble even for me. I’ve had luck with discs of thick foil cut from the bottom of used disposable baking pans, but the disk must be slightly convex or it will take on oil, sink and douse the wick. Just BUY THEM instead.
A Floating Wick tip for any wick: make sure the bottom of the wick is touching only oil, not water. The wick needs to stay saturated with oil. Let oil soak from the bottom to top before you light it in the first place.
•STOREBOUGHT WICKS: You’ll have the best luck with wicks made for olive oil and sold by companies who sell oil menorot. Prepare to be amazed: Ner Mitzvah Chanukah wick page. Ner Mitzvah sells stuff on Amazon, too. There are other brands, but this is the one I have experience with. (No, I don’t get a commission.)
Some craft stores sell wick, but note that each type is designed for a particular fuel (paraffin, beeswax, gel, oil, floating, etc.).
Oil hanukkiyot are sustainable, thematic, pretty, and can be easy and cheap. DIY attempts are great if approached in the spirit of inquiry, and can be memorable lessons with or without kids in tow. But, if you need a sure-fire menorah for classroom demos or programs, stick with store-bought everything: menorah, wick and oil.
LINKS and NOTES
My Oil-centric Hanukkah program in lieu of carnival
Oil menorahs in classroom visits (my guide)
My oil menorah made from rifle casings and toy elephant
Ner Mitzvah: purveyors of oily Hanukkah gear galore
Olive oil video from Shalom Sesame, featuring boy in Modi’in making oil like the Maccabees. I show this at carnivals and in class.
I use menorah and hanukkiyah interchangeably, but menorah just means “lamp,” and a hanukkah menorah is a hanukkiyah.
Also, the whole miracle of the oil thing is not even in our canon, but I love it and that’s what I teach kids. There is time for complexity later.