There is a debate in the Talmud about the proper way to light the Chanukah lights. According to all opinions, the basic obligation for the Chanukah light is “ner ish u’veito,” one light each night per household each night of the holiday. Meaning, we do not vary the number of lights according to the day of the holiday, lighting one light each night is sufficient. The Talmud then goes on to say that the mehadrin, those who seek to fulfill the mitzvah at a higher level, light one light each night for each member of the household. But the mehadrin min hamehadrin, those who seek to fulfill the mitzvah at the highest level, vary the number of lights according to the day of the holiday. But this is the point where the debate gets interesting.
The House of Shammai says that we start with eight lights on the first night and take one away each night until we count down to one, while the House of Hillel says we start with one and add each night until we get to eight.
The House of Shammai gives their reasoning as “similar to the bullocks of Sukkot.” During Sukkot, while the Temple stood, our ancestors sacrificed 13 bullocks on the first day of Sukkot, 12 on the second day, 11 on the third day and so on. Chanukah like Sukkot is eight days long and many scholars believe that it was set at eight days precisely as a sort of “makeup” for the Sukkot which could not be celebrated during the actual Maccabean revolt. If this theory is indeed correct, then Shammai’s suggestion makes sense.
Hillel’s reasoning is that “we ascend in holiness, we do not descend.” In other words, our task and goal is to put more light into the world, not less. And of course, this is the practice which we follow and this is our goal as Jews. During the darkest time of the year, we spread light.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at email@example.com or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian