Tuesday, 24 December 2019

The Great Hillel/Shammai Throw Down of 5780

Several years ago, in order to teach my children about the Talmudic debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai over the order of the Chanukah candles and the proper way to light them, I took two separate Chanukiyot and decided to honour each rabbi that participated in the discussion.

Chanukah 5770
According to Reb Shammai, when lighting the menorah, one should begin with the days remaining in the holiday and ignite with maximum potential. On the other side of the argument, Reb Hillel declared that one should always begin with the days completed and ignite instead with realized potential. Thus it was deemed that the House of Shammai would begin with eight lights on the first night and count downward over the week while the House of Hillel would begin the holiday with a single candle on the first night and increase. There are Talmudic proof texts given for both theses; Shammai had some archaic ramblings about sacrificing bulls on Succot. But Hillel's general rule that we should always increase in matters of holiness rather than diminish ultimately won out. (The Talmud actually mentions a vote taken on the debate.) And so today, we Jews light our Chanukiyot as Rabbi Hillel dictated.

I have given some serious thought to this famous Talmudic argument. We Jews may not follow the teachings of the minority opinions but we give them great weight and we do not pretend that they don't exist. These opinions are still found written in the tractates of the Talmud right alongside the majority. (I like to think of them as the RBG decisions.) The dissents matter because they inform our practice and we can look to them with fresh eyes given whatever the period we live in and the societal norms that govern us.

So, even though it is considered halachically correct to light our Chanukah candles in a Hillelian manner, I wondered if Shammai's method might hold some weight today. What if we, alongside our regular practice, added some informed new ritual that gave credence to the teaching of the other side? 

We tend to believe that snuffing out a flame is negative. A fire is often synonymous with love, creativity, holiness, or blessing. Extinguishing that beauty is unthinkable. But, what if a fire isn't a good thing? What if, instead of contributing to all that we wish to celebrate, the flame is instead a destructive force? Fire can be deadly and it has the potential to destroy. Wouldn't we want to extinguish that which tears us down? Wouldn't Rabbi Shammai's observance then take on a different, yet still, dare I suggest, holy philosophy, for our celebration of the holiday?

And so, I offer an updated Chanukah practice. I am returning to my custom of lighting two separate Chanukiyot on each night of Chanukah this year; one for Rabbi Hillel and the hope of increasing the holiness in our lives, and one for Rabbi Shammai and the hope of eradicating the destructive forces that poison our world. Here is my rubric.

On Day 1: We light all eight candles for the wholeness that we wish and hope the world to be.

On Day 2: We extinguish the candle of racial, sexual, or religious intolerance.

On Day 3: We extinguish the candle of xenophobia.

On Day 4: We extinguish the candle of environmental destruction.

On Day 5: We extinguish the candle of the acceptance of poverty.

On Day 6: We extinguish the candle our own arrogance and narcissism.

On Day 7: We extinguish the candle of our indifference.

On Day 8: We extinguish the candle of willful ignorance.

May the coming days bring light to the darkness and may we extinguish the fires of apathy. May all who celebrate, look to both Hillel and Shammai for inspiration and may we all find peace.

Chag Urim Sameach.

Chanukah 5780

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