Rabbi Cassi Kail
Aside from Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders, lighting the hanukiyah is one of the most beloved at-home Jewish rituals. Each night, Jewish families around the world gather to say the blessings, and welcome extra illumination into our homes and our lives.
The Hanukkah lights are a powerful symbol of hope and resilience. We remember how, in the 2nd century BCE, the Greek army overpowered us, turned our Temple into a shrine for Zeus, and turned the Jewish community against one another. Even after it appeared that all was lost, a small army of Maccabees were able to restore the Temple and the Jewish community was able to reunite. On Hanukkah we celebrate the miracle of our survival, and our ability to bounce back against incredible odds. Despite it all, the Jewish flame was never snuffed out. In lighting the candles each Hanukkah, we make a commitment to ensure that it never will be.
If the lights of the candles are highly symbolic, then so is the way we choose to light them. There are two main competing traditions for candle lighting. The more popular teaching is that of Rabbi Hillel, who taught that we should increase the number of candles we light as the holiday progresses. Alternatively, Rabbi Shammai taught that we should begin Hanukkah by lighting all the candles and diminish the number of candles each night until the holiday was complete. Both traditions are deemed appropriate.
If we light the candles according Rabbi Shammai, we begin the holiday with the full vibrant light of the hanukiyah. For eight days, we watch the light diminish, though it remains. Shammai taught that this practice reflects the diminishing number of bulls traditionally sacrificed during Sukkot. Just as the bulls were symbols for the other nations of the world, diminishing the number of candles is symbolic of the decreasing power of the Greeks and of all surrounding nations to aim to hurt us. Whereas they fail, we remain.
Rabbi Hillel had a very different understanding of Hanukkah, teaching that as the days become shorter, it is increasingly important to add light to the world. The light of his candles isn’t just physical light, but also the spiritual light within. He believed that humanity always growing, maturing and moving towards perfection. He taught “One should always go up in holiness and not go down in holiness.” Whereas Shammai lit candles to celebrate the defeat of our enemies, Hillel lit candles to celebrating the increasing holiness Hanukkah brings into our lives. One isn’t more correct than the other. Even Hillel and Shammai always argued from a place of respectful understanding.
This year may each of us light the candles in the ways that are most meaningful to us, and may we respect and learn from those who observe the holiday a little differently.