Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Great Hillel/Shammai Chanukah Candle Debate

**Due to the arrival of Chanukah this evening, my regular feature Almost Wordless Wednesday will be presented as an Almost Wordless Thursday tomorrow. 

Last year on Chanukah we tried an experiment in our home. We lit two Chanukiot on each of the eight nights of Chanukah. Now that exercise isn't terribly unusual in and of itself. Many families will light several special Chanukah menorahs each night that may have sentimental value or familial or historical significance. The result is a substantial illumination that is befitting the holiday. But as a kibbitz last year, The Husband and I decided to light one chanukiah in the tradition of the Beyt Hillel and one in the tradition of the Beyt Shammai. It wasn't long before we began to really talk about the ritual and about the meaning behind it. And within the confines of those eight days, our little joke took on some significant meaning. But first, some Judaic perspective.

Two of the Talmud's most learned sages were Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Their disputes are detailed and legendary. The schools of disciples which they headed often debated on matters of ritual and theology, always with honour and reverence, and in most cases the ideas of Hillel won out. Those arguments are meticulously recorded in the Talmud. Yet, the school of Shammai didn't just disappear into the ether and his students continued to follow his teachings. The Talmud tells us Elu V'Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim; that both sides are "for the sake of heaven" and therefore are the words of the living God and should be respected.

One of Hillel and Shammai's most famous debates concerned the lighting of Chanukah candles. It was the determination of Shammai that one begins lighting with the days remaining, while Hillel taught that one begins with the days completed. Thus it was that Shammai would light eight candles on the first day and decrease the number by one on each successive day. Hillel followed the opposite path of lighting one candle on the first day and increasing the number by one on each successive day. Thereby Shammai celebrated the days to come and Hillel the days that had already passed.

Of course there was Halachic rationale for both philosophies. Shammai's comes from the holiday of Sukkot where it was tradition to bring bulls for the sacrifice. On each of the days of the holiday, that number would be steadily decreased by one. Thus the candles of Chanukah should follow the same counting. (There is some thought that the first Chanukah was actually a delayed celebration of our fall festival of Sukkot. The postponement was brought on by the Maccabees battle and subsequent victory over the Hellenists, thus making a rededication of the temple necessary.) 

Hillel's reasoning was that when it comes to matters of holiness we should always attempt to increase our commitment. The Chanukah candles remind us of our continual striving for a greater level of holiness in our lives. 

As was usually the case, Hillel's arguments won the day and thus it is our practice to light the candles in increasing rather than decreasing order. As The Husband and I began our little experiment last year, it occurred to me that even though Hillel's practice is followed today, Shammai's point of view is neither deleted nor dismissed. This is an inclusive brand of Judaism that I find very appealing. While law has become codified, it is neither static nor without counter-arguments. Majority and minority opinions both carry weight within our tradition. We continue to discuss, to change, to include, and to move progressively forward so that Judaism can remain relevant today. 

So tonight on this first night of Chanukah I will again light two Chanukiot. One to honour the mitzvah of the holiness of the lights in the tradition of the accepted practice of Hillel, and one to honour the inclusiveness of the minority in the tradition of Shammai.

I wish all who celebrate a Chag Urim Sameach. To my American Jewish friends who are observing a once in a cosmos converging of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, I wish you double blessings. To everybody else Happy Thanksgiving or Happy Wednesday/Thursday. 

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