Lessons from a Classic Debate about How to Light the Hanukkah Candles

The question of how to light the Hanukkah candles was hotly contested by two great rabbis in the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud is the central body of Jewish law and lore that developed between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE in both Palestine and Babylonia. Though the debate over the Hanukkah candles occurred two millennia ago, it is worth reminding ourselves what the issues were then and seeing what lessons each side has to offer us today.

As heads of the Sanhedrin at the beginning of the first century of the common era, Hillel and Shammai distinguished themselves for their knowledge of Jewish law and their ability to adapt to changing social, political and religious circumstances. Most of all, though, Hillel and Shammai are remembered for their divergences of opinion. Typically, Hillel would take a lenient, humanitarian approach to matters, and Shammai veered toward strict legalism. While the opinions of Hillel and his students were accepted more often than not by the rabbis of the Talmud, Shammai’s positions did emerge as normative on occasion. In any case, both rabbis’ positions and those of their disciples became a matter of record, an indication of the esteem accorded them by later generations.

One disagreement between the schools of Hillel and Shammai is of especial note at this time of year: should we light all eight candles of the Hanukkah menorah (properly called a hanukkiah) on the first night and take away one candle on subsequent nights or should we light one candle the first night and add one candle on subsequent nights? Beit Shammai (the House or School of Shammai) held the first view, Beit Hillel the second. Beit Hillel emerged victorious, and it is their order of lighting that we use today.

Why would Beit Shammai argue that we should begin Hanukkah by lighting all the candles first and decrease the light as the holiday progresses? One reason was to have the number of candles correspond to the number of days remaining, from eight on the first night to one on the last. Another reason was so that the procedure for kindling the Hanukkah lights would mimic how the priests sacrificed a total of 70 bulls during the festival of Sukkot. While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the priests would sacrifice a diminishing number of bulls from 13 on the first day to 7 on the last.

Though both of these reasons were compelling in their day, the latter might have had special appeal to the rabbis since it speaks to the very origins of Hanukkah. In 165 BCE, the year the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Syrian Greeks, the fighters had been unable to observe Sukkot at its proper time in the month of Tishrei (October in the Roman calendar). Thus, when the fighting ceased two months later, in the month of Kislev, the Maccabees rededicated the defiled Temple by rekindling the eternal light and offering the Sukkot sacrifices at that time. This late observance of Sukkot eventually morphed into what we now know as Hanukkah — which means “dedication” in English — with the lights substituting for the sacrifices. If we were to diminish the number of candles each night of Hanukkah, we would be re-enacting, in a way, the ritual as practiced by the Maccabees themselves.

As sensible as Beit Shammai’s method of kindling the hanukkiah was, Hillel’s method was favored by the rabbis for at least two reasons. By increasing the lights by one each day, the number of lights corresponded to the appropriate day and might have served as a mnemonic device to help people remember which day of the holiday they were celebrating. A more powerful reason for following Beit Hillel’s procedure, however, was that it reflected the rabbis’ desire to increase joy with each passing day, a desire that extended beyond Hanukkah to life itself. Perhaps because life was so difficult for Jews, the rabbis wanted to preserve the practice which would most likely lift people’s spirits in the darkest days of winter.

Today, Hillel and Shammai and their students present us with a choice. Shammai and his school would have us look toward our glorious past, to remember the Temple and its sacrifices. Hillel and his school would have us look to the future, to embrace a life full of possibility. As the classic example of an “argument for the sake of Heaven,” this debate offers an abiding Truth: as Jews we must be firmly rooted in the soil of our heritage in order to grow new branches extending upward and outward toward the future. Still, while the past and all its lessons may shine a light on the present, only the future can continue to grow brighter.

Therefore, as we kindle the lights of Hanukkah and recall the miracles that befell us in days of yore, let us now rededicate ourselves to building a more radiant future — a future filled with appreciation for all who are different from ourselves, a future free of preventable diseases, a future of wellness for our planet, a future of blessing.

Wishing you joy and light this Hanukkah,
Rabbi Dan

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