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Light My Fire

By: Rav David Milston

Light My Fire


“The Rabbis taught in a Baraita: The essential commandment of the Chanukah lights (i.e. the minimum number of candles that may be lit to satisfy the obligation) is one light each night for a man and his entire household. And those who wish to embellish the mitzvah have one light each night for everyone in their household. And for those striving to enhance the deed even further: Beit Shammai say that on the first day of Chanukah they would light eight lights and then decrease in number daily (that is, on the second night they would light seven lights, on the third night six, etc.), whilst Beit Hillel say they would light one candle on the first day and continually increase that amount (that is, on the second night two lights, on the third three, etc.)[1]


Let us focus on this famous and fascinating dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. The former suggests we start with eight lights on the first day and finish with one light on the eight day while the latter upholds the opposite formula – starting with one and finishing with eight. The Talmud then offers two possible explanations to the differing rationales: 


Firstly, “Ulla said: Two Amoraim in the West (i.e. Eretz Yisrael – situated to the west of Babylon) disagree about the interpretation of this Tannaitic dispute – R. Yose Bar Avin and R. Yose Bar Zevida. One of them argues that Beit Shammai's reasoning for requiring a continual decrease from eight lights to one is that the various lights correspond to the number of days yet to come, whilst Beit Hillel's reason for requiring a continual increase from one to eight is that the various lights correspond to the number of days already passed.”


Beit Shammai's rationale could be that since the amount of oil gradually decreased during the original miracle of Chanukah, the most accurate way to reflect this would be by gradually reducing the lights each night.[2] A reenactment of the miracle today.


In contrast, Beit Hillel say we are celebrating and internalizing the cumulative effect of the miracle. The longer the oil lasted, the greater the miracle and the more obvious it became.


Both are strong arguments but the Shulchan Aruch rules in favor of Beit Hillel.[3] Of course we could say the Mechaber is simply following the rule that Halacha is generally in line with Beit Hillel,[4]but I think there is a deeper reason. 

On Pesach, where the events took place such a long time ago and the miracles are plain for the eye to see, there is more of a need to reenact the wonders in ‘exactly’ the way they happened. Hence, “In every generation a man is obliged to see himself as if he was part of the actual exodus from Egypt.”[5] Our objective is to keep Pesach relevant by making it contemporary. In the case of Pesach, we would adopt Beit Shammai’s suggestion.


On Chanukah, the events are more recent but considerably less obvious. Therefore our emphasis has to be more on the actual miracle and less on re-living it. So we rule in line with Beit Hillel.


The truth is we need both.


On the one hand, we need to work extremely hard to keep our Torah relevant for ourselves, our children and our students. Perhaps this is why we celebrate Seder Night, our first day of independence, by educating our children about what happened all those years ago and why it is important today. 


On the other hand, in a world advocating natural cause and effect and the supremacy of Man, we have an equally important mission to show that miracles are happening “evening, morning and afternoon.”[6] 


On a homiletic note, we could suggest that the views of our two great schools very much reflect the ideologies of their respective mentors:


Shammai was the Av Beit Din, the Chief Justice, always demanding absolute truth.[7] He is more stringent than Hillel and not overly interested in what we have done already. He looks at what there is still left to do – “the number of days yet to come.” There is no time for sitting back on our laurels. There is still more to be done.


Hillel is the Nasi, the President.[8] He is the more diplomatic of the two, and seemingly more flexible. Even though there are a “number of days yet to come,” let us not totally ignore “the number of days already passed.” For if we can look back at what we have achieved so far with the aim of spurring ourselves forward, it may well give us the strength, purpose and commitment to fulfill even more!


The Talmud offers a second explanation of the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel:


“Beit Shammai's reason for requiring a continual decrease from eight lights to one is so that the various lights correspond to the bull sacrifices of the Sukkot festival.[9] And Beit Hillel's reason for requiring a continual increase from one light to eight is in line with the principle that in sacred matters we raise rather than lower the degree of sanctity.”[10] 


This seems like a completely different answer. What is the connection between Chanukah and Sukkot that parallels bulls with lights?


As we answer this question, we will see that this second explanation is actually an extension of the first.


The Maharasha[11] explains that the principle of raising the degree of sanctity in sacred matters is unanimously accepted. However, in our case, Beit Shammai chose to deviate from that rule because “the bull sacrifices of the Sukkot festival” provide a precedent for doing so.


In other words, the rule was suspended for a compelling reason. The progressive reduction of sacrifices symbolizes the gradual weakening of those heathen nations that oppose God's teachings. In the same way, there is also a good reason to suspend the rule on Chanukah and publicize the true nature of the miracle, wherein the single flask of oil divided into eight parts gradually diminished over an eight-day period.


According to this understanding, we see that Bet Shammai’s rationale is indeed to re-live the miracles exactly as they developed, and light from 8 to 1. And in answer to the argument that such a custom negates the “raise and not lower” rule, Beit Shammai would refer us to the halachic precedent established by the bull sacrifices on Sukkot. On the other hand, Beit Hillel, who are more interested in emphasizing the cumulative miracle, are happy to abide by the rule of “raise and not lower,” because it only helps to drive the point home.


In conclusion, let us refer to an insight from Rav Shlomo Zevin:[12]


"Depart from evil, and do good…" (Tehillim 34:15). The simple way to understand this verse is as a practical directive how to better ourselves. First steer away from evil, for only then will you be able to do good.


Very often in life, we immerse ourselves in good deeds whilst simultaneously neglecting our faults. But if we do not analyze and work on our negative middot, the true value of our good deeds will be limited, or at least unclearly defined. We will never know whether our positive actions are completely pure or influenced by negative motives.


King David advises that we should first “depart from evil.” Once we have mastered that negative area we can concentrate on the positive. Indeed, the Ramchal in Messilat Yesharim adopts this approach too, by insisting on dealing with the trait of watchfulness before the trait of zealousness.


In contrast, a more Chassidic approach interprets the verse somewhat differently – "Depart from evil, by immersing yourself in good." This suggestion implies that the more good we do, the less room there is for bad. If we submerge ourselves in positive activity, it will ultimately take over our entire being. Hence there is no need to deal with our negative traits. By diving straight into the deep-end of doing good, the evil will be drowned in the flood of mitzvot and chessed.


Beit Hillel seem to be following this more Chassidic strategy whilst Beit Shammai are adopting the former approach.


Beit Shammai claim we cannot move forward until we have thoroughly searched out and destroyed our 'spiritual chametz.' They see the lights of Chanukah – our personal re-dedication process within the context of the national rededication process – as representing a cleansing fire in the midst of a challenging winter. Each day the fire burns, as we proceed in our 'watchfulness,' there is less negativity and the fire decreases in size. Hence we light one less each night – “Depart from evil, and do good.”


Beit Hillel do not see the Chanukah lights as representing a cleansing fire, but rather as a torch that lights up the darkness. As each day passes, the light increases, shutting out any darkness or negativity – “Depart from evil, by increasing the good.”


Of course we need a little bit of both. We need the fire, the relentless determination and willpower to better ourselves, and we need to see the light – to emphasize and immerse ourselves in good so that the darkness remains firmly locked outside!



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