The Order of the Chanakah Candle and its Implication for Our Daily Life

            November 2013    
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Rationale for the Order of the Chanukah Candle Lighting and it Implication in Our Life

By Menachem Mendelsohn

We are all aware that on the first night of Chanukah we light one candle and the second night, we light two etc. What we are not aware of is that once this custom that we take for granted and upon which no one argues about was once a red hot fiercely debated item.

If we were to look in the Talmud perhaps one of the most famous arguments is the argument between the schools of Shamai and that of Hillel in regards to the proper order of lighting the Chanukah candles. There were many arguments between Shamai and Hillel and between the two schools that they founded. But one of the most famous is that regarding the proper order for the lighting of the Chanukah candles.

The school of Shamai is of the opinion that on the first night we should begin to light eight candles and then each successive night diminish the number to correspond to the remaining nights (the second night seven candles, the third night six candles, etc). The school of Hillel reasons just the opposite, that the proper manner of lighting should correspond to the length of the miracle; since the miracle becomes greater with each night, so too should the number of candles increase with the days of the miracle. All Jews today follow the opinion of Hillel and light one candle on the first night and on the second night two candles and so on until the eight night, lighting eight candles.

There are many reasons given to explain the logics of the schools of Shamai and Hillel. If we remember that the custom was instituted in the year following the miracle and not on the year of the miracle. This would mean that everyone was already aware of the fact that the miracle had lasted eight days. With this in mind we can safely state that the lighting of the candles commemorates the miracle that had already taken place the year earlier.

The purpose of the Chanukah candle lighting is the commemoration and recalling the miracle that lasted for eight days therefore the school of Shamai instructs us to begin with eight candles and each night the commemoration dwindles down until the last night we only light one candle since only one night of the miracle. As each night passed, the potential for the great miracle decreased and accordingly we should light the candles to recognize this aspect.

But perhaps the recollection of the miracle should it be like the school of Hillel who reasons that since the miracle lasted for eight days and therefore each day that the miracle lasted increased the intensity of the miracle and therefore we begin with one candle and increase each night until we reach the greatest intensity of the miracle which is the eighth night for which we light eight candles. This is how the miracle happened and therefore we commemorate it in kind.

This is similar to a Mishnah (Uktzin 3:8) which asks when do fish become ritually impure? (Living animals do not become impure; it is only after they had died that the body can become ritually impure.) The school of Shamai states that it is after the fish leave the water since in potential they are doomed to die and since they will die the school of Shamai says that then they become ritually impure. The school of Hillel disagrees and says that they can not become ritually impure until they actually are dead.

This argument parallels the argument in Chanukah; do we look at the potential or do we consider the actual?

In Chanukah the potential for the miracle starts as eight days and diminishes each night similar to the potential for the fish to die when removed from the water. The school of Hillel disagrees and looks at the reality; the fish are alive and the reality of Chanukah is that only one night of commemoration has come in.

Practical Application:

In a similar manner we can compare it to a dilemma facing people who have sinned. They have defiled their internal sanctuary, their soul, by sinning. What should they do first? Should they try to eliminate the evil that is now within them or should they try to cling to holiness first?

By working at diminishing the evil within each day the evil inclination becomes less and less and therefore the effort to erase the potential to sin becomes less and the effort needed each day is lessened. This is like the school of Shamai that each night we lessen the need for candles.

However there is another approach to dealing with the evil inclination that caused a person to sin and that is to increase doing mitzvoth and good deeds. At first it is difficult since the evil inclination rejects the person's desire to come close to G-d. But as the person persists in increasing his mitzvah and good deed observance, the evil inclination becomes weaker and weaker. As the increase of light of holiness permeates his soul so too is there a reduction in the effectiveness of the evil inclination to persuade the person to sin. This is like the school of Hillel who increase each night the lights.

The advantage of the latter method over the former is obvious. Whereas the former does not bring the person into holiness but rather weakens his desire to sin, the latter method brings the person closer to holiness and the desire to sin is dissipated on it own.

Perhaps this is the reason all of Israel have been followers of the school of Hillel and not Shamai? What do you think?


from the November 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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