Jeremy Benstein
Jeremy Benstein
Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes

All Is Illuminated

(Yair Aronshtam,Wikimedia)
(Yair Aronshtam,Wikimedia)

How many candles do we light on the first night of Hanukah?

I light three. One regular candle for the chag, and two yahrtzeit candles. 28 years ago, on the first night of Hanukah, my beloved grandmother, Goldie Adler, known to all of us simply as Baba, passed away. 5 years later to the day, also on the first night of Hanukah, her daughter, my mother, Shulamith, known to all as Nami (Benstein), died.

So the first night of Hanukah is a night of light and darkness, fraught with mixed memories of fond family celebrations, along with losing the matriarchs who shaped so much of our experiences, who contributed so much light to our families and communities.

The holiday of Hanukah, often called Chag Urim, the Festival of Lights, is shot through with symbolism connected to light. Hanukah is the one significant Jewish holiday that is not in the Tanakh, and it is mentioned only briefly in the Talmud. That discussion opens on the topic of light – specifically the candles, and even more specifically, how many should be lit.

Elsewhere they go into what type, when, where they should be put, etc. – but it starts with the basic mitzvah: lighting a candle. And indeed, you may be surprised to find out that the basic mitzvah is just that: lighting a candle. One candle per household, every night. I. e., one the first night, one the second, one the third. One candle each night.

Now if you want to “invest” and glorify the mitzvah, become one of the mehadrin, those who add hiddur, beauty or honor to the observance, then you can light one candle each night per person in your household. Two parents, three kids, say, light 5 candles the first night, 5 the second, and so on.

Ah, but if you want to the be the crème de la crème, the mehadrin min hamehadrin, those who glorify this particular mitzvah to the max, as it were, you have to invest a lot more than wax or oil – you have to really pay attention, and light a certain number of candles depending on which night it is. How many? On this there was a machloket, a holy dispute. Here’s the text, from Talmud Shabbat 21b:

“The Sages taught: the mitzvah of Chanukah (is fulfilled) for a person and his entire house with a single candle; those who enhance it (mehadrin) light a candle for every member of the house; regarding those who are extremely diligent about enhancing it (mehadrin min hamehadrin).
Beit Shammai say to light eight candles on the first night and to remove one each following day, and Beit Hillel say to light one candle on the first night and to add one on each following day.”

Before we explicate this seemingly pedantic difference of opinion, let us note two things. First of all, this is one of the few mitzvoth in our tradition where the simple fulfillment of it has become almost unthinkable. In other words, the most lax, irreligious, rebellious, or apathetic Jew, if they light Hanukah candles at all (and the vast majority, at least in Israel, do) take for granted what is essentially the most demanding, punctilious and even righteous method, that of hamehadrin min hamehadrin , lighting a different number of candles corresponding to the night. The second thing to note is that this makes Hanukah unique in that it turns it into a dynamic holiday, where we have to fulfill the mitzvah differently on each day of the chag. Our behavior and therefore our consciousness change as the holiday progresses.

This is not a built-in feature in either of the other, longer holidays, Pesach and Sukkot. Pesach may be the beginning of the long journey from slavery into freedom, and we eat matza, the combined bread of affliction / freedom—there is complexity – but there is no movement represented in the ritual observances themselves. (Just imagine if we had to eat one matza the first day, two the next, etc. Oy!) And Sukkot is the opposite of movement: it is a respite in a transient dwelling, time out from our wanderings, or from our harvests.

So the principle is that the candles you light correspond to the night of the holiday. But where do you begin? How many candles do we light on the first night of Hanukah? This is where Hillel and Shammai differ. Shammai says you start with all eight, and work your way down, ending with one on the last night. And Hillel says the opposite: begin with one, and work your way up, ending with the luminescent crescendo of all eight on the last night.

As we all know: like in most of the three hundred and some disputes between Hillel and Shammai in Talmudic literature, we go according to Hillel. Indeed, some have interpreted the name of the holiday to signify just that: “Chanukah” being an acronym for CHet Nerot VHalacha K‘bait Hillel – eight candles and the law is in accordance with the school of Hillel.

That’s the what. But what about the why? Why does it matter? What are the underlying values behind this abstruse disagreement? I have heard a number of fascinating interpretations. The Gemara itself gives us two attempted explanations (there):

“Rabbi Yossi bar Abin and Rabbi Yossi bar Zvida (differed on explaining the motivations behind these rulings). One said Beit Shammai decided their rules according to the days that are yet to come; and Beit Hillel decided their rules according to the days that have passed. The other said Beit Shammai decided their rule according to the decreasing number of sacrifices offered at the Temple each day of Sukkot (the biblical model for the post-biblical holiday of Chanukah) and Beit Hillel (decided their rule according to the dictum): one increases things of holiness, and does not decrease them.”

The first explanation, of Rabbi Yossi bar Abin, lays out the very prosaic reason that Shammai goes according to how many days left (you light 8 candles at the beginning because there are 8 days left), and Hillel, how many have passed (when you light 8 candles, at the end, you are saying how many days have gone by). Straightforward, to be sure, and the reasons are nice mirror images of one another, but somehow, one feels there must be more to it than that, some more spiritual message.

The second explanation is indeed richer. Here Rabbi Yossi bar Zvida suggests that Shammai is connecting to the roots of the Hanukah holiday in the holiday of Sukkot. This is no rabbinic fantasy. In the major source we have for the Hanukah story, the apocryphal Book of Maccabees, the original Hanukah is described as a compensation and replacement for the Sukkot celebrations that they could not observe three months earlier, because of the ongoing fighting and the impure state of the Temple (cf. II Maccabees, 1:9; they even celebrated with lulavim  – 10:5-8.). The eight days of the holiday is tied to the eight days of the entire Sukkot (+ Shmini Atzeret) pilgrimage. Here Shammai notes that the prescribed sacrifices for Sukkot, begin with 13, and decrease by one each day down to 7 (giving a grand total of 70 bullocks – one for each of the nations of the world – see Numbers, chap. 29). This is both a connection to a major Biblical holiday, as well as a precedent for ‘descending’ in a ritual frame. It does however still sound a little far-fetched (bullocks and candles!?), and doesn’t at all connect to his interpretation of the approach of Hillel. For Hillel’s dictum, according to Rabbi Yossi Bar Zvida, is on an entirely different plane. His explanation has become a classic line, in regard to Hanukah, and in general: ma’alin bekodesh, ve’ein moridin, we ascend, we increase in matters of holiness, we never go down…

I have always felt that Hillel captures something fundamental here, a sort of spiritual dynamic or progression. At first I just couldn’t succeed in imagining Shammai’s approach: how could you start with a full hanukiyah, and actually take away light? End with one lonely candle—what kind of holiday of lights is that!? Hillel not only captured a spiritual or even emotional dynamic, of the expectant buildup, the gradual climax, the increase in light, but also even connected to the natural basis of the holiday, for both the sun, and the quantity of daylight, which reaches its nadir at the nearby winter solstice, the shortest day, then begins to return; and also, since the holiday straddles the new moon of Tevet, the moon disappears and then reappears during the course of the festival. So all in all it’s about the return of the light, and the Light. A clear ascent in matters holy.

What can we say for Shammai? Here we need to explicate a little more about Hillel and Shammai, and their approaches. Hillel is known for being warmer, friendlier, more patient, and more flexible with “absolute” values, such as truth, when confronted with conflicting human needs. Shammai was strict, exacting, uncompromising, more loyal to abstract principles than the vagaries of human psychology. Their names tell all: Hillel comes from hallel, praise, and a shammai is someone who judges and evaluates, like a land appraiser. Hillel and Shammai, praise and appraise, open heart and critical eye. So here’s another explanation of the difference, related to these characteristics (from Shprintzee Rappaport):

“Beit Shammai is known for his “Machmir” — stringent — rulings, whereas Beit Hillel is known for a more “Makel” — lenient — approach… “Machmir” is associated with “Din” — strict justice, while “Makel” is associated with “Rachamim” — mercy. The difference between Din and Rachamim is that Din looks at a person’s deeds and judges that person according to where he or she stands now. Rachamim looks at a person’s deeds, but says that a person can change and so his deeds right now do not really reflect who he can (or should) be. As a result, Rachamim judges a person more favorably than his deeds warrant currently. Said a different way, Din judges a person based on the reality of who he is now, while Rachamim judges a person based on who he should be…

Hillel and Shammai saw the lighting of Chanukah candles as representing how we feel about the holiday of Chanukah. Both agreed that we should experience increased excitement as Chanukah goes on. However Shammai said that in reality, most people do not feel increased excitement as Chanukah goes on. A person’s excitement diminishes as he becomes accustomed to something. Chanukah is no different; a person’s excitement diminishes each day as he gets more and more used to it. Therefore, Shammai said that our lighting candles should reflect the reality of how we feel and so we should light eight candles on the first day of Chanukah (when our excitement is at its peak) and then gradually decrease the number to reflect our diminishing excitement.

On the other hand Hillel said that we should light candles according to how we are SUPPOSED to feel. Given that our excitement is supposed to increase as Chanukah goes on, we should start out lighting one candle and then increase the number until we get to eight – the peak of our excitement.”

If this is indeed a valid underlying reason, then each of the approaches essentially become a self-fulfilling prophesy: By lowering our expectations, Shammai insures that our mood will decrease with the candles, and Hillel helps us build the necessary anticipation and excitement towards the climax of the eighth night.

But I want to say a word in favor of Shammai here: it is Hillel who insures that we will have a big let-down after the 8th night. The post-holiday blues may have started two thousand years ago with the end of Hanukah – according to Hillel’s approach. If the criterion is anticipation and excitement, Hillel gives us a Hollywood-style build up and send off that can be hard to recover from: from 8 we “descend” overnight (better, crash) to 0. Shammai however is arguably more sane. He clearly incorporates the ‘light motif’ with his impressive opening, and then by decreasing day by day brings us down to earth, and leaves us with the image of one small candle glowing in the darkness, which has its own unique spiritual force. His is the veritable Farewell Symphony of Jewish ritual. Indeed, were the law according to Shammai, some darshan would certainly make the claim that Hillel gives in to his consumer cravings, and gives us what we might want— more and ever more, a veritable populistic sound and light show—but not what we need, a strong message of spiritual simplicity and humility, of the strength of a single candle, still shining against all odds, returning us seamlessly back to the real world.

I’ve been saving the interpretation that strikes me as the most sensible, the most explanatory, for last. Back to the characterizations: Shammai the Realist connects to the actual, the tangible, and appraises what is; while Hillel the Idealist focuses on potential, the hidden or intangible, and ‘praises’, seeks to elicit, what might be. Shammai’s approach can be understood as reflecting physical, historical truth: lighting the candles is meant to be reminiscent of the miracle of the cruze of oil. Our candles mimic the oil, and let’s face it, miracles notwithstanding, the oil diminished over the eight days. According to legend, it may have burned with 800% greater efficiency, lasting 8 days instead of one, but it still burned down.

Hillel, on the other hand, makes the spiritual truth the central guiding one: as the oil decreased, the miracle grew. The longer it lasted, the more miraculous the event. The candles don’t represent something so base as actual oil. What is essential here is invisible to the eye. The candles represent the spiritual goal of the triumph of good, the purification of the impure, the return of physical and spiritual light to our lives and all Creation, the miraculous ability to imagine and strive for a redeemed world. The fact that we light according to Hillel means that we privilege the spiritual vision over the historical reality. That means that we don’t begin bombastically and then fizzle out, but rather the tough spiritual work has to start slow and work its way up, candle by candle, ma’alin bakodesh.

Hanukah is an invitation to do our part in increasing the light, the kodesh, and so we need to go back to the world ‘fully charged’ with a complete candelabrum, the maximal vision of Light, as the end goal towards which to strive.

My mother and her mother were very different: one very public, one very private; one the rebbetzin par excellence, the other the loving wife, mother and homemaker. However both, in their love and their lives, embodied that spiritual vision, that sense of kodesh in home and shul, which nourished families, friends and communities.

And left us all more illuminated for it.

About the Author
Dr. Jeremy Benstein is a linguist, author and teacher. He is the English editor of 929 (, and is the author of "Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World" (Behrman House, 2019). Jeremy is also one of the founders and part of the senior staff of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, and the author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights, 2006).
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