The lighting of Hanukkah candles is undoubtedly one of the most widespread and certainly the most recognized custom among the Jewish people.
Nevertheless most Jews are unaware that the ritual of the lighting and, more precisely, the order in which Hanukkah candles are lit, underwent an evolution over many centuries and that the order which has been adopted by the overwhelming majority of Jewish people was initially a marginal rite originating in France.
The emergence of the French rite was the result of an extraordinary combination of circumstances, including: the importance and prominence of R. Joseph Colon; the adoption of his ruling by R. Joseph Caro in Beit Yoseph and then in Shulhan Arukh; and the adoption of this rite by the Ari and his followers. The successful spread of Hassidism also contributed to the general acceptance of this rite in Eastern Europe, where other traditional rites still prevailed.
Today an overwhelming majority of Jews follow the French rite, while concurrently, the French Siddur, once considered as important as the German Siddur of Rhineland, died out completely and can only be found in rare books and manuscripts.
J. Jean Ajdler, “The Order of Lighting the Hanukkah Candles: The Evolution of a Custom and the Influence of the Publication of the Shulhan Arukh”, Hakirah 7 (Winter 2009), 205.
The question of the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles was not raised before the thirteenth century when it was reported that when R. Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg (Maharam) was lighting the Hanukkah candles, he began on the left side and then turned to the right, following the Talmudic aphorism “all the rotations that you do, should be to the right.” Maharam thus always began the lighting of the candles by the same left candle, the lighting of which he considered as the basic fulfillment of the mitzvah.
From that time onward the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles became a recurrent theme among scholars and each author adopted a definite position about this issue. Similarly, the question of whether the Hanukkah candles should still be placed at the left of the entrance when there is no mezuzah, or on the right, continued to be debated.
J. Jean Ajdler, “The Order of Lighting the Hanukkah Candles: The Evolution of a Custom and the Influence of the Publication of the Shulhan Arukh”, Hakirah 7 (Winter 2009), 209.