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

Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

Parashat Korach – Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

In Parashat Korach, Moses confronts an epic challenge. Korach, an ordinary Levite, a small band of followers, and 250 elected leaders “combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?'” (Numbers 16:3). In response, Moses instructs those who oppose him to appear with him and Aaron “before the Lord” the next morning bearing fire pans with incense. God would then resolve the issue: “… the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one” (16:7).

At the appointed time and place, Moses, Aaron, Korach, the small band and the elected leaders all gather “before the Lord” with their fire pans in hand. At that moment, “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions” (16:32), and “a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense”(16:35). In this stunning fashion, God once again chose Moses and Aaron to lead the People of Israel.

This incident, known as Korah’s Rebellion, serves as the basis for the rabbis’ discussion in the Talmud of arguments that are or are not for the sake of heaven:

Every machloket (conflict) which is l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is destined to endure. And that which is not l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is destined not to endure. What is a machloket that is for the sake of Heaven? The disagreements over Jewish law in the Talmud between Hillel and Shammai. What is a machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his cohorts. (Mishnah Avot 5:17)

This teaching raises several questions. What does it mean for an argument to “endure?” Wouldn’t it make sense for a “bad” conflict to endure but a “good” conflict to come to a tidy resolution? Why do the rabbis elevate the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai to the status of “for the sake of Heaven?” What exactly is wrong with the “dispute of Korach and his cohorts?” The answers to these questions are instructive in our lives, where conflict, which is inevitable, can either be positive and constructive or negative and destructive.

Hillel and Shammai represent two schools of rabbinic thought around the beginning of the first century of the common era, each of whose arguments on issues from ritual practice to the essence of Torah are recorded in the Talmud. What distinguishes the Hillel-Shammai disagreements and, thus, warrants the inclusion of each school’s positions in our sacred literature, is that Hillel and Shammai and their followers are searching for Truth. They are in dialogue over their understandings of God’s instruction as laid out in the Torah. They aren’t arguing just to prove a point, to build themselves up or to bring each other down. They are arguing over big ideas. In fact, they aren’t even so much rivals as partners in a sacred, ongoing effort to discern what God wants of us.

Not so with Korach and his ilk. They seek victory for victory’s sake. They seek power. There can be no greater good to their dispute, no higher purpose to perpetuating their struggle with Moses and Aaron. According to Nechama Leibowitz, a great and revered contemporary Torah scholar writes:

…that Korah and his followers “were simply a band of malcontents, each harboring [individual] personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron hoping thereby to attain their individual desires.” Eventually, ”they would quarrel among themselves, as each one strove to attain selfish ambitions….” They deserve their punishment, argues Leibowitz, because all their motives were self-serving, meant to splinter and divide the Jewish people. (See Studies in Bemidbar, pp. 181-185). (Fields, Harvey J. [1991].  A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Vol. Three: Numbers and Deuteronomy. New York, NY: UAHC Press, p. 50)

How often do we engage in or witness a debate in which one or more parties resembles Korach and his followers, arguing from a place of pride, ambition, and self-interest? Argumentation in such debates is often couched in noble terms. (Note that Korach hides his grab for power behind the pretext of caring for the holiness of “all the community.”) But don’t be fooled. The noble terms are merely a smoke screen or a tactic of manipulation. In the end, there is no higher purpose to such debates. They waste time and energy and may very well end only after a great deal of harm has been inflicted. To be sure, the Korach-like arguments in our lives should be avoided if at all possible.

It is interesting that Korach finds himself being swallowed up by the earth. It is not only his argument that is not for the sake of Heaven. He himself has degraded himself by his own actions. Neither he nor his argument is for the sake of Heaven. In the words of our parashah, “They went down alive into Sheol (the netherworld)” (16:33).

We must remember that, as tempting as it may be to lash out against those with whom we disagree and to seek their demise, holding hatred in our hearts and expending our resources vengefully usually comes at a huge price. Not only does our lust for power and our pettiness separate us potentially from our friends, family and community, it also affects our health, our daily functioning, and our self-image. Little good can come out of such conflict, save a degree – albeit even a large degree — of personal gratification.

On the other hand, legitimate, respectful, impassioned debate over big ideas may very well bring us into relationship with others, sharpen our minds, and give greater meaning to our lives. This is why argumentation is so valued in Jewish houses of study. As Jews, we belief that argumentation at its best is ultimately redemptive for all concerned.

Let us seek to emulate the ways of Hillel and Shammai as we find ourselves in conflict. Let us ask if what we are arguing for is ultimately about ourselves or if there is a larger, sacred purpose. Are we repeating the mistake of Korach and his associates? Or are we carrying on our sages’ legacy of sacred debate? If the former, let us consider if our short-term objectives are worth the longer-term destruction we may cause. In any case, let us stop and think before engaging in conflict and resolve to make all our debates l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.