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

The Real Miracle of Joseph and the Maccabees

Parashat Miketz / פרשת מקץ
Torah Portion: Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

One of the great ironies of Hanukkah is that on the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read in Genesis, chapters 41-44, about the rise of Joseph in Pharaoh’s court and about his reunion with his brothers. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. The story of Joseph tells of the assimilated Israelite extraordinaire. How do we reconcile these two contrasting tales?

First, let’s look at Hanukkah. On Hanukkah, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE after its desecraction by the Syrian-Greeks under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. During this momentous event, legend has it, the miniscule amount of oil to kindle the Temple’s menorah lasted eight days, rather than the one day it should have lasted. The Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, were then able to produce enough olive oil to keep the menorah lit perpetually once again.

The miracle of the oil parallels the history of the Jewish people. Though enemies like Antiochus have tried to wipe us out through forced assimilation and worse, we have survived. Our flame has never been extinguished. In fact, at times in our history, our flame has burned more brightly than ever before. Despite our struggles, we have maintained a sense of peoplehood informed with our own religion, culture, land, language, values, and sacred texts. At any moment in history, the nations of the world might have expected the Jewish nation to disappear, but we have continually rededicated ourselves to our mission to be a Holy People and a Light Unto the Nations.

In contrast to the story of Hanukkah, Joseph’s story seems to celebrate assimilation and disconnection from the Jewish people. Once Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, he ceases to be recognized as an Israelite. Joseph is endowed with the gift of insight. Not only does he interpret dreams, it is through his own dreams that he devises a solution for Egypt to ride out a terrible famine that will eventually befall it. Thanks to his gifts, Joseph achieves success and great power in Egypt.

The only way we know that Joseph is an Israelite is through utterances in which he speaks of the One God. In those utterances, however, Joseph never refers to the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Rather, he thanks God for simply enabling him to interpret dreams and also for enabling him to shed his Israelite past. Joseph’s gratitude to God for these self-centered reasons is seen clearly in the names he gives his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 41:51-52):

Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”
Indeed, Joseph had strayed from his ancestral roots that, when they first appear before Joseph, his own brothers fail to recognize him (42:8). How ironic that Joseph then attributes his nearly total assimilation to Egyptian society and culture to none other than God!

But the story of Joseph does not end there. It ends later, with Jacob bestowing a blessing on Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons (48:20). In essence, Jacob takes this measure to ensure that Joseph’s Israelite lineage will not die out after he is gone. Jacob reconnects Joseph to the story of his people through the blessing he gives Ephraim and Manasseh. The flame is stoked; Ephraim and Manasseh go on to head two of Israel’s tribes.

In today’s world, Judaism is a choice not only for those who would convert to Judaism but for those born Jewish, too. Every Jew can choose to leave the fold and become something else, but they can also choose to hold onto their Jewish identity. The great miracle of the Jewish people is that, despite oppression and temptation, Jews continue to choose to be Jewish and to keep the flame of Israel alive. The Jewish People could have gone the way of Joseph, but instead we’ve gone the way of Ephraim and Manasseh. In this way, we are very much like the flame of the menorah kindled by the Maccabees, a flame that didn’t seem to have a chance of staying lit.

On this Shabbat Hanukkah, may we celebrate the miracle that is the Jewish People today even as we celebrate the wonders that God wrought for our ancestors in days gone by.