Why do we light the Chanukah lights the way we do?
According to the Talmud, we are only required to kindle one light each day of Chanukah. Nowhere are we told that we must kindle more lights. So why do we kindle eight lights? And why do we begin the first night with only one light, and then add a light each succeeding night?
It has long been customary to beautify a mitzvah, or commandment, when possible. Beautification is not meant to alter the meaning or direction of the commandment, rather to reveal the beauty and wonder of what we are doing. When it came to the mitzvah of Chanukah light, the sages desired that the light show the world that we celebrate a miracle that took place over eight days. The next question was how to do that.
Well, this all goes back millennia to the time of two men who are listed among the names of our greatest sages: Hillel and Shammai. Each was head of his own academy, or “house” of study, Beis (house) Hillel and Beis Shammai. Although both men were very learned leaders and wise men in the study of Torah, they often formed differing opinions and in true Jewish fashion, an argument would ensue. One of their more famous arguments concerned kindling the Chanukah lights.
According to Beis Shammai, one begins with the maximum potential of the light, meaning that to begin the holiday people should kindle all eight lights. On each succeeding night, one less candle would be lit signifying the number of days left in the holiday. One begins lighting with the maximum potential, and gradually decreases till the last night when only one candle is lit.
Beis Hillel on the other hand, argued we should light according to “realized potential,” or actual days celebrated. Thus, on the first night since we realize the first day, we light the one candle, the second night we light two candles, etc. until the eighth night we light all eight candles.
At first glance it appears that Hillel won the argument. But things are not always as they appear! When two men of such great knowledge and stature among Jewish religious leaders of all time form opinions on an issue, every effort is made to figure out ways in which to observe the rulings of both men. While the assembly of religious leaders voted to follow Hillel’s teaching on the Chanukah lights, the Talmud tell us that Shammai’s reasoning and analysis was generally deeper and sharper than Hillel’s. So, why do we follow Hillel’s model of lighting the Chanukiah?
The sages tell us that Hillel’s argument was good for the pre-Messianic times. We are looking ahead at how the light grows and increases the nearer we approach those days, and therefore we light each day looking forward to increased potential, adding light and excitement each day till we realize all eight days.
Shammai, on the other hand, is more appropriate for the Messianic times when the world has reached a higher level of being, or realized it’s full potential. In that case, we start with the maximum and light according to how many days are left.
Obviously we have not reached the messianic age yet, so we light according to Beis Hillel, but we look forward to the messianic days when we can light according to Beis Shommai.
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- Jewish leaders deny Chanukah has become too commercial (charlotte.news14.com)
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- Olim land in Israel on eve of Chanukah (jta.org)
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- Is There a Right Way to Spell Hanukkah? Chanukah? Hannukah? (newsfeed.time.com)