How many candles do we light each night?
Our sources respond to this question with a debate between two schools of thoughts:
The House of Shamai and the House of Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights. (BT Shabbat 21b)
The debate between the House of Shamai and the House of Hillel regarding the lighting of Hanukkah candles reflects a profound philosophical distinction. The argument can be seen as a metaphor for broader approaches to life and spirituality.
The House of Shamai emphasizes boundaries and containment, viewing the powerful force of fire as potentially destructive. It advocates for a controlled release of light, starting with a larger display that gradually diminishes. This perspective aligns with the idea of setting limits and regulations to prevent the unbridled expansion of potentially dangerous elements. The Hasidic scholar, Sfat Emet’s interpretation adds a spiritual dimension, suggesting that this ritual is an opportunity to metaphorically burn inner excess and focus on self-discipline.
On the other hand, the House of Hillel advocates for growth, symbolized by the increasing number of candles each day. This perspective emphasizes the positive aspects of fire, such as excitement, enthusiasm, and intention. The more light is generated, the greater its influence becomes. Sfat Emet highlights that these differing approaches represent two distinct ways of worship and engaging with the world—either through expansive growth or concentrated focus on a single flame.
The Yugoslavian poet Kapka Kassabova’s also relates to the essence of fire in her poem Calculations. Here is the first stanza:
The fire that lights a candle
cannot be shared between the wick
and the match, it has to be given
like a life.
Kassabova’s idea that all fire is connected adds another layer of complexity. It suggests an interdependence between the source of the fire, the means of its delivery (like the match), and the actual act of illumination. In the context of Hanukkah, where individual candles are lit, this interconnectedness might symbolize the unity of different perspectives and practices within the broader tradition.
In essence, the debate and its interpretations provide a rich tapestry of meanings, reflecting the complexities of human nature, spirituality, and the ways in which individuals engage with and understand the forces that shape their lives.
May the season of darkness be illuminated by the light within each of us, guiding us toward positive and meaningful directions. May we find strength, purpose, and joy in the midst of challenges, and may the light we discover within ourselves shine brightly to inspire and bring warmth to those around us.
Please join us this Sunday, December 10, for three impactful events that embody this spirit. Find more information below. Wishing you a season filled with peace, reflection, and the joy of shared light.
Rabbi Moriah SimonHazani