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Learning from Lighting the Menorah

By Avi Lazerson

We are accustomed today that each evening of Chanukah we add an additional candle. But this was not always the custom. The Talmud teaches us that each household would have only one single candle lit in only one window each night for the entire household. That was the basic custom, but there were those that added to this custom by placing one candle for each person in the household. If there were four persons residing in the house, then for the eight days of Chanukah there would be four candles in only one window each of the eight nights.

The Talmud continues to relate that there were those who wanted to perform the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles in an even more evident manner. On this there was a dispute: The academy of Shamai said that we should begin with eight candles and on each successive night, light one less. The first night eight candles, the second night seven candles, on the third night six candles until on the last night, only one candle. The Academy of Hillel disagreed. They taught that on the first night we should light one candle, on the second night two candles, increasing each night until the last night when eight candles will be lit – which, by the way, is the accepted custom throughout the entire Jewish world.

A later generation came that wanted to understand the basis of the argument between the two academies. There were two rabbis (both by the name of Yosi) who gave different explanations for the differences. One was Rabbi Yosi ben Abin and the other, Rabbi Yosi ben Zevida. One taught that the difference between the academies of Shamai and Hillel were that the academy of Shamai said that the lighting should reflect the days which are coming in and that the academy of Hillel said that the lighting should reflect on the days which are going out.

The other Rabbi Yosi explained differently. He said that the academy of Shamai based its decision on the cows that were offered in the Temple during the Succoth holiday. One the first day of Succoth, thirteen cows were offered, on the second day, twelve, on the third day, eleven and each day the number decreased until the final day only seven were sacrificed. From this the academy of Shamai deduced that also on Chanukah the lighting should be in a descending order. The academy of Hillel held the view that one should always rise in holiness and never descend; therefore they taught that the proper method of lighting is to show an increase in the number of candles and never a decrease.

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