Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

ACUTE ANGLES: It Needn’t Be All Greek To Us

Dear Rabbi.  I heard there is an opinion in the Talmud that we start on the first night of Chanuka with eight candles and gradually reduce to one. This seems to me much more logical as the supply of oil diminished.   Why don’t we do that? Cheers, Stan.

Rabbi. I had an intriguing question. I know we light on the right side of the Menora and add a candle each night to the left. You once gave a wonderful explanation for that. But don’t we have to show the light to the outside world?.  So shouldn’t the candle be on the right as people outside will see it, rather than on your right, facing you?  Happy Chanuka!  Rhianna.

Dear Stan and Rhianna,

Thank you for your stimulating questions. I am going to attempt to answer you both in one dreidel spin!

The two opinions to which you refer, Stan, represent the views of the leading schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding how to perform the mitsva of Chanuka kindling in the finest possible way – mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. (Incidentally, this is the only context in Rabbinic literature in which this superlative expression is used.) Bet Shammai likens the gradual reduction of lights to the weakening power of our enemies also symbolised by the diminution of sacrificial oxen on Succot, whereas the disciples of Hillel, pedagogue supreme, prescribe the gradual increase of lights from one to eight because of the psychology that “in sacred matters we elevate, and we do not lower” (Shabbat 21b).

However, I believe there is a deeper reason why the Sages chose to accept Bet Hillel’s view over Bet Shammai’s in this matter.

The followers of Shammai sought to portray the historical reality. The oil gradually diminished!  Bet Shammai would have us re-enact that reality by lighting eight lights the first night and gradually reducing to one.

Bet Hillel on the other hand exclaims, in a manner of speaking: to blazes with depicting historical reality! We are not interested in the diminution of the oil. We wish to commemorate the growth of the miracle!

 In other words, Bet Hillel looks beyond the physicality of what happened. He sees the picture behind the picture – namely the Divine Hand at work!

There are two ways of viewing history, and indeed life.  The first is the naturalistic way. This is the way of Hellenism. Nature takes its course! If a jar of oil burned eight days instead of the expected one, it is because the calculations were faulty and we have to revise the science! Just tell the history!  Don’t trouble to look behind the natural for the supernatural!

This represents the world of the Greeks.  It is a world without G-D.  It is the way I learned history in my (non-Jewish) school. Random dates, events, empires, battles, treaties, shifting borders. No attempt to discover holistic patterns.  No attempt to uncover the Hand of G-D.

Bet Hillel says no. Celebrate the growth of the miracle. Celebrate the Divine Providence behind what happened. Start with one and rise up to eight – and end on a glorious high!

This exposes the other disturbing feature of the Shammai way. If you start with eight and diminish to one, what will happen the night after Chanuka?  When you light no candles, the pattern of diminution by one is actually extending! You are left with a negative and empty symbolism.

On the other hand, climaxing on eight – the number symbolising in Judaism that which is above nature (seven representing the natural order of the universe) – delivers exactly the right message! G-D is behind it all!

We inhabit a world in which G-D has been all but forgotten.  Everything is analysed through a scientific or pseudo-scientific lens. If it cannot be proven, it doesn’t exist!  All that matters is the superficiality of natural cause-and effect – which doesn’t prevent fact-twisting to suit political or ideological agendas, but that’s for another time.  All the more reason why we need to emphasise the G-D-infused Torah perspective in all that we do.  The way that, in lighting, we depict the growth of the Chanuka miracle achieves that goal perfectly!

Which bring me nicely to Rhianna’s question. You are indeed correct, Rhianna, that pirsum ha-nes, publicising the miracle, is a vital part of Chanuka observance. This is what is behind the Chabad-driven public lightings that suffuse every city in the world where Jews dwell. However, important as this principle is, the main pirsum is for those in our homes where the lights are lit (see Remo #671:7, 8). This is borne out by the halacha that if the members of one’s household are asleep, one must either wake them or forfeit saying a beracha. (Mishna Berura #672:2:11). On the other hand, if one has no window facing the street and instead lights by an interior door, one still says the berachot!

 I believe there is profound wisdom here! As I have mentioned frequently, there are two aspects to our principal mission as Jews: to be “a kingdom of chaplains (vis-à-vis the world) and a holy nation (within) (Ex. 19:6). To impart to the world while remaining apart from the world.  Of the two, the latter is primary. We cannot be a light unto the nations if our light is sullied through cultural assimilation.

That is why we light on our right, rather than the right as seen outside.

The explanation I offered in my book Spirals Of The Soul to which you kindly refer is that right symbolises conserving tradition (right wing is used this way politically) while left (left-wing) denotes radical shift. We are encouraged to find new ways in every generation to ensure our Judaism remains dynamic including even slightly radical innovation – hence one more candle is added on the left each night – provided only that it is within the framework of our masora, our tradition, of which we must never lose sight – hence we proceed to light towards the right.

This conservation of our dynamic tradition, this stepping-out of our comfort zone to the outside world but with extreme caution as to what we allow back in, knowing in which zone we really belong: this is a message that it is vitally important for us to process!

Hence we follow the procedure of placing candles on the right and lighting from left to right from our perspective.

Wishing all my readers a lichtig rest-of-Chanuka and may we merit together to welcome soon the radiant, supernal light of Mashiach!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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