By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
In the classic 18th century Chassidic text, Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev makes an interesting observation about the name of our upcoming festival of lights. The Berditchever Rebbe points out that the name Chanukkah (meaning dedication) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for education: Chinukh. Both words share the 3 letter shoresh of Chet-Nun-Khaf.
In the Sefat Emet, the 19th century Chassidic Torah commentary by R’ Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur, he shares the following similar observation:
Chanukkah is an expression of education [Chinukh] in the way one educates a child to walk on their own, just as it said: “Educate a youth according to their own way” (Proverbs 22:6).
Chanukkah gives each and every Jew the opportunity to increase our knowledge, to enlighten ourselves, young and old alike, each and every day.
Now, we know that our people are known for having multiple opinions on all sorts of topics regarding our traditions, hence the frequently used expression, “two Jews, three opinions.”
For our sake, I will focus on two rabbis with two very different opinions. We recall the great 1st century debate, for the sake of heaven, between Hillel and Shammai regarding how one should light Chanukiot (menorahs) throughout the week of Chanukkah:
Beit Shammai held that on the first night eight lights should be lit, and then they should decrease on each successive night, ending with one on the last night; while Beit Hillel held that one should start with one light and increase the number on each night, ending with eight.
Beit Hillel’s rationale is that as a general rule in halakha (Jewish law), one increases holiness, rather than decreasing it. Beit Hillel has on its side the general rule followed in many areas of the Torah, that “Ma’alin Ba’Kodesh ve’ayn Moridin,” One increases in matters of holiness, and does not diminish.
Beit Shammai’s opinion was based on the halachic principle that allows one to derive law using similarities. Beit Shammai has the model of the offering of bulls during the Festival of Sukkot, which begins with thirteen on the first day and, decreasing by one each day, finishes with seven on the seventh day (for a total of seventy, corresponding to the “seventy nations of the world,” for whose benefit the offering is made.). And decrements yet again to just one bull, on the “eighth day” of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, which corresponds to the singular People of Israel.
As is often the case with this rabbinic duo, Hillel’s opinion is the predominantly observed one throughout the wider Jewish community.
In the case of the common root of the words Chanukkah and Chinukh, this further deepens my understanding of Hillel’s opinion. With each consecutive day, our opportunity to increase in holiness and knowledge grows with each additional candle. Our potential for enlightenment is reinforced as our lights increase, especially in this darkest season of the winter months.
As we prepare to kindle our first candle of Chanukkah this coming Sunday night, I share the following wish for all of us: While our natural lights decrease outside during this season, may the divine spark within each of us grow with every opportunity we find for educating ourselves, for learning from one another, increasing our holiness both as individuals and as part of the wider Jewish community.
Chag Urim Sameach!!