Chanukah, and the Academies of Hillel and Shamai
By S. M. Samuels
We are all familiar with the present method of lighting the Chanukah candles; on the first night we light one candle and on the second night, we light two candles and so on. What most people are not aware of is that the Talmud records a disagreement between the academies of Hillel and Shamai as to the correct method of lighting the candles.
These two academies played a very important part in our Jewish heritage. Each academy consisted of the students of either Hillel or Shamai. These two sages are amongst the earliest of the sages recorded in the Talmud. They maintained many opposing viewpoints, yet, argued with each other with honor and reverence. Many arguments are recorded in the Talmud. The argument presented herein is only one of many.
The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat relates that the academy of Hillel advocates lighting the candles as we know today, in ascending order. The academy of Shamai disagreed and advocated that we light the Chanukah candles starting with eight candles on the first night, then seven candles on the second night. This is in reverse order that we know today. The academy of Shamai advocated lighting the candles in descending order. Therefore, each succeeding night of Chanukah had one less candle than the preceding night.
It is important to state that the argument between these two great academies was for the sake of heaven. Even though today we follow the rulings of the academy of Hillel, we must recognize the deep reasons for each groups' decision. It is important to note that the members of each group were known for their exceedingly great wisdom and piety.
The later sages in the Talmud asked the two academies for their rationale. The wise men in the academy of Shamai said that there should be eight candles and each succeeding night there should be one less candle. This, they reasoned, is similar to the bullocks that were brought to the Temple during the festival of Sukkoth. On Sukkoth, on the first day, thirteen bullocks were offered as sacrifices, on the second day twelve were offered and on the third day eleven and so forth for seven days. On each succeeding day the number of sacrifices decreased by one. The total for the seven days (13+12+11+10+9+8+7) equals seventy. The sages taught us that the significance of seventy sacrifices is that they were brought for the seventy nations (who spoke the seventy different languages that came into existence during the time of the Tower of Babel). The nations of today are an extension of these seventy nations, therefore the significance of the number seventy.
Since we see that the only example of the Torah counting in an unequal manner is from the bullocks brought to the Temple, so too, on Chanukah, we should follow these examples and light the eight candles on the first night, then on the second night seven candles, etc.
When the sages of the Talmud asked the academies of Hillel for their reasoning, they explained that they compare the lighting of the candles in ascending order to the concept of continually increasing in holiness. Therefore, they contend, we must start with lighting one candle and increase by one candle each night. In this manner we will always be reminded that the successive lighting of the Chanukah candles represents not only increasing our holiness but increasing in all things that deal with holiness.
As with all things in the Talmud, these arguments can be and must be understood on a deeper level. After all we can ask: what do the bullocks offered on Sukkoth have to do with the miracle of Chanukah? Or conversely, we may question the reasoning of the academy of Hillel by asking, was not the miracle greatest on the first day, and subsequent nights were just an extension of the first original miracle of the oil? If so, then the beginning is the most important and not the increase until the end.
Upon further contemplation and examination, we find that there are two different approaches to the victory of Chanukah. One is the celebration of the defeat of the Greeks and the Hellenists. The other is the restoration of the service in the Temple and the resumption and purification of our cultural heritage and Temple services. It is like asking is the glass half full or half empty?
The academy of Shamai looks at the miracle of Chanukah as a celebration of the defeat of the Greeks and the Hellenists. Therefore the lighting of the Chanukah candles is similar to the bullocks offered in the Temple in recognition of the seventy nations of the world, especially since the Greeks at that time were the head of the gentile world.
At the time of the miracle of Chanukah, Greek culture was at its apex. The Greek philosophy was the manifest wisdom of the nations. Wisdom is symbolized by light. The Greeks prided themselves in their analytical abilities and skills. They adored the sages of the Talmud for their great reasoning skills, but they opposed them because the sages recognized a higher power than human wisdom, the unfathomable wisdom of G-d.
According to the academy of Shamai, as the light of the menorah decreases on each successive night, this indicates the waning of the Greek philosophy, wisdom and rule in the world. Our redemption came about through the weakening and eventual defeat of not only the Greek armies, but also the Greek culture. G-d had mercy upon his people and wrought defeat upon them. Therefore it is only fitting that we should light the candles in a descending order.
The academy of Hillel looked at the miracle in a different light. They view the defeat of the Greeks due to the resurgence of Maccabees to bring about the purification of the Temple and the Jewish heritage. It was our initiative and desire to bring back the presence of G-d in the Holy Temple that brought about the miracle. The rebellion started as a small group of Jews who were disgusted by the tainting of the Jewish land and heritage. Slowly it enjoyed popular support. The Maccabeans increased their numbers and successes as time continued until finally they defeated the Greeks and realized their goal: the purification of the holy Temple.
We see here two opposing concepts. On one hand we look towards the downfall of our enemy as the pivot for our salvation. The other view is the effort made on our part to bring about that very salvation. Both views are valid, yet we must choose which is the path that we must follow.
We can see these two concepts existing in modern life. As an example, in the Israeli Arab conflict, the Arabs never seem to be concerned much about the improvement of their lot. They will always choose to destroy Israel rather than improve their life. They will blame the Israelis for all of their ills, like the Communists, the Nazis, etc. The Israelis are just the opposite, we see that they are not out to destroy the Arabs, but the Israelis choose to improve their own lives.
We follow the rulings of the academy of Hillel. Perhaps the reason is that their rulings are closer to our lifestyles. Perhaps we can bring that message home to our own selves and profit from the Chanukah message. Instead of focusing on our enemies, our discomforts, our defeats, let us be positive and look at our personal accomplishments and our achievements.
Or perhaps as the Chassidic masters taught: You cannot dispel darkness with a stick, you must light a candle. The benefit of the candle is twofold. It brings light to he who lit the candle. It also helps someone nearby, without diminishing its light.
Let us keep this message in mind when we light our Chanukah candles.
from the October 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine