Dear Hebrew Academy Community:
How many candles should each of us light this coming Thursday evening, the first night of Chanukah? The answer, of course, is based on the famous dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai argue that one should light eight candles the first night and decrease one candle for each of the next seven, while Beit Hillel argue that we begin with one candle the first night and increase each evening until we reach eight on the eighth night. The Halacha, as we all know, follows the opinion of Beit Hillel. We will light one candle next Thursday night and will light eight the Thursday after that.
What is the basis of this dispute? Many explanations have been offered. I find an opinion offered by Rabbi Norman Lamm most instructive. When the victorious Hasmoneans prepared to kindle the menorah, they knew that it would be a whole week before they would be able to have additional pure oil. So, as Beit Shammai understood the situation, the miracle was greatest on the first night when the little bit of oil was needed to last for eight days. By the second night it was less miraculous because it would need to last only seven more nights. By the end of the week, on the eighth night, they only needed that little bit of oil to last one more day. So, argued Beit Shammai, as the magnitude of the miracle deceased each evening we should celebrate and publicize the miracle with one fewer candle each succeeding night.
Beit Hillel, however, were less concerned with the actual magnitude of the miracle. They focused on the perception of the Mitzvah as the week progressed. The first day didn’t seem all that miraculous. There was every reason to expect that the oil would burn for a full day. When the light continued to burn on the second night there was quite a reaction: “Wow! There was only enough oil for one day and it continues to burn for a second day!” Each evening the Wow!-factor increased as the light continued to burn for yet another night and the perception of a significant miracle intensified. It, therefore, makes sense, argued Beit Hillel, for us to celebrate the miracle in the ascending pattern of the growing perception and awe that increased from day to day.
What a wonderful message Beit Hillel’s reasoning contains for all of us. Throughout our lives we as individuals and all of Klal Yisrael are surrounded by miracles, small and large. Miracles are God’s business. Hashem performs those miracles in his own way, when and as He wishes; we humans play no part in creating the miraculous events. Whether we perceive those miracles, on the other hand, is completely up to us. As we continue to gather with our families to light the Chanukah candles in a pattern which commemorates how our predecessors recognized and appreciated the miracle that took place in the Beit HaMikdash more than two thousand years ago, let us all pause for a moment to perceive and thank Hashem for all of the miracles which He does for us and to pray for the miracles we need so that we can celebrate next year’s Chanukah without the sadness we all carry with us this year.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Samai’ach,
Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School