Revisiting a Classic Talmudic Debate

Posted on December 16, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

One of my favorite discussions to have with students at this time of year is the rehashing of the Hillel-Shammai debate on how to light the Chanukiah (or as you might call it, Chanukah menorah). If you are unfamiliar with this grand argument between these two sages of the Talmud, a quick summary: 

First, Rabbis Hillel and Shammai argued about a great many things (Hillel won most of the time!). When debating the proper way to light the Chanukiah, Shammai believed you begin with a full set of eight candles, removing a candle each night until there is only one remaining, which more accurately simulates the diminishing light of the miraculous cruse of oil in the Temple. Hillel believed that one should never diminish the light, and so we start with a single candle and build up to the eighth night with a full, glowing, brilliant chanukiah. (Like I said, Hillel usually won these Talmudic arguments, and so we follow Beit Hillel to this very day). 

But I often wonder whether Shammai might have actually had the correct idea, but not necessarily for the reasons we think. Indeed, the cruse of oil lasted for eight days, when there was only enough for one day (or so goes the story), and the flame would have dimmed over the miraculous, but lengthy, time. So, the Shammai method seems to work for historical authenticity. But there’s more. 

As we approach the eighth night of Chanukah this evening, our Chanukiot are blazing, spreading light and warmth throughout the family, throughout the home. But then tomorrow comes. Nothing. Gone like a flash are the brilliant, dancing candle flames atop colorful candles or tiny bowls of oil and gleaming, festive chanukiot. The brilliance of light one night, brighter than on all the other nights, and then suddenly, we are plunged into darkness. And this, during the moonless, dark night of the darkest time of the year. 

So, back to Shammai. In his method, as the eight candles become seven, the six, then five, etc. we adjust to the dark a little at a time, slowly by the day, until there is only the light of the last candle, dimmed like the fading cruse of oil in the Temple, and by now we are accustomed to the dark; it’s neither scary nor strange. Instead it’s natural. A progression. 

Additionally, and perhaps more interesting, what if as the light diminishes flame by flame, it really doesn’t disappear at all, but becomes internalized within us. We take in the brightness of eight candles on the first night, and then the seven in the chanukiah with the eighth not really gone, but taken in, creating a spark of joy, of light, from within. By the end of Chanukah, the light isn’t gone at all, but reflected in the warmth of memory, the glow of a smile, the flame of Chanukah “ruach” (spirit) and the lingering aroma of simmering, shimmering latkes. 

Where did the light go? It’s not gone, but in us all, our children, grandchildren, where it remains to brighten these darkest days and into the year ahead. 

Wishing you a Chag Urim Sameach (A joyous festival of lights) from our family to yours.