Highlighting Our Joy
Hanukkah 5781

Dena Weiss

When we light the Hanukkah candles in our homes, we do so according to the approach of Beit Hillel. On the first night of Hanukkah, we light just a single candle, adding a candle each day until we reach the full eight lights. This practice, however, is disputed by Beit Shammai. Instead of increasing the number of candles as the holiday progresses, Beit Shammai advocate for a countdown of sorts. According to them, on the first night of Hanukkah we light the full set of eight candles and, as each day passes, we subtract one light. But what is the dispute behind the dispute? Why does it matter in which order we light? What are we trying to experience?

The Talmud doesn’t usually provide us with the “why” behind differing opinions, but, in this case, the Talmud does address the question of what is motivating each of these positions, why we would either light in increasing numbers or in decreasing order:

Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b
Ulla said: Two Amoraim in Israel argue about this: R. Yosi bar Avin and R. Yosi bar Zevida. One of them says that the reason for Beit Shammai is to correspond to the days that are coming and the reason of Beit Hillel is to correspond to the days that are departing. One of them says that the reason of Beit Shammai is to correspond to the sacrificial cows that are brought during Sukkot and the reason of Beit Hillel is because we increase in holiness and do not decrease.

The first opinion is more intuitive and is intrinsic to the holiday itself. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel light in accordance with either how many days we have experienced or how many days we have left to experience. However, the second explanation, which seems to be favored by the Gemara, is that the reasoning of these two schools of law is more complex and reaches beyond Hanukkah itself. Beit Hillel’s practice is based on a larger, more universal principle of how we interact with the holy—we increase the level rather than decrease it and, therefore, we start with one single light and build up to a total of eight.

Beit Shammai is modeling itself on a parallel practice, one connected with Sukkot, a separate holiday. Sukkot is the only holiday where the number of sacrificial animals offered changes based on which day of the holiday it is and, in the paradigm of Sukkot, the number of cows brought daily decreases with each passing day. So too, Beit Shammai concludes, when we light the Hanukkah candles, we should do so in decreasing order from eight to seven and so on.

Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתינו, the time of our joy. The comparison between Hanukkah and the most joyous time on the Jewish calendar encourages us to think a little more deeply about the emotional experience that lighting the candles is supposed to reflect and evoke, specifically in the realm of happiness and joy. This is the approach of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, author of the Kedushat Levi, who sees in the dispute about lighting candles a more fundamental conversation about different types of joy, excitement, and celebration. He reads beyond the technical question about numbers and sees a discussion about which kind of joy we should be highlighting on this holiday.

In order to understand the type of happiness that Beit Shammai’s position is designed to reflect, the Kedushat Levi invites us to imagine a person who is wandering in the wilderness and is afraid that they won’t find nourishment:

Kedushat Levi on Hanukkah, Fourth Holiness
And behold when a person doesn’t have what they need, like a wanderer in the wilderness, this is what they long for. Since they don’t have any bread in their basket and they don’t know how their needs will be satisfied. And when Blessed God brings someone to the thing that will satisfy their need and makes it available to them, then, at the first moment that the need-filling object comes, the happiness is extremely great. But by the next hour, once they’ve already seen it and have become accustomed to the happiness, then the happiness diminishes. And by the third hour, the happiness is even further diminished, and subsequently each time the happiness is less and less...

In this analogy, the Kedushat Levi compares the Jewish people looking for kosher oil with which to light the menorah to a person who is wandering in the unknown looking for food, drink, and shelter. The miraculous moment when that person finds what they need is one of unique joy. Finding that bottle of fresh water, finding that cruse of usable oil, makes us incredibly joyful. The elements of insecurity and surprise as well as the drama of the hunt increase the intensity of our emotions. We aren’t just experiencing the happiness of having food or having light, we are also experiencing the contrast between how we feel now and how we felt just moments before when we thought we might forever be in uncertainty, darkness, and need.

Of course, food is no more essential when we are in the desert than it is when we are in our kitchens, but the intense emotional experience of relief when one finds sustenance that they weren’t expecting creates a unique type of joy. The joy of the first day of the historical Hanukkah, when the excitement and euphoria were at their highest, can’t be compared to the joy of the subsequent nights. We simply don’t feel the same way as the holiday continues. The decreasing number of candles is a reflection of the reality of that decreasing joy. The first night of Hanukkah we were on a high, but, by the seventh or eighth night, the miracle had lost its novelty and we felt less happiness as a result.

Beit Hillel, on the other hand, does not factor this subjective experience of surprise and novelty in their analysis of the joy of the holiday. According to them, the miracle of the first day of Hanukkah was no more significant, no more worthy of celebration than any of the subsequent days. And, more to the point, what we are celebrating is not the fact that God provided for our needs but that we can now perform the mitzvah. That is, we are rejoicing in our ability to do the lighting and, with each day of additional lighting, we light a larger number of candles because we have more of an accomplishment to celebrate: On the second night we experience the cumulative joy of having successfully done the mitzvah twice. The menorah acts as a score-card where we can keep track of our accomplishments. The Kedushat Levi explains:

And the reasoning of Beit Hillel is according to the way that Israel in that generation had enjoyment and happiness from fulfilling the mitzvah of the menorah on its own… and each day there was more enjoyment and happiness from the fulfillment of yet another mitzvah… because with each mitzvah a person adds more holiness to themselves. And with each and every day more holiness and happiness is added due to the lighting of the lamps, therefore Beit Hillel holds that on the first night you light one, and from then on you continue to increase and that is “we increase in holiness.”

Understood through the lens of the Kedushat Levi, the conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is about much more than candles: it’s about the nature of joy and appreciation. We tend to get more excited about the unexpected and the irregular bursts of goodness in our lives. We feel more grateful for a surprise gift that comes only on occasion and tend to overlook the everyday goodness that we experience and the way in which we benefit from God and from each other, day in and day out. Beit Shammai’s approach to the candles is designed to reflect this natural human tendency. Beit Hillel’s approach, on the other hand, is designed to turn our attention away from the fleeting emotional experience of occasional joy to a more sustained, cumulative appreciation of what we contribute and what we receive from God every day. The longer we live, the more of God’s goodness we have received, even as the amount of gratitude and excitement we feel about that goodness actually diminishes.

The approaches of the schools of Hillel and Shammai to lighting the candles on Hanukkah are mirrored by the approaches of Hillel and Shammai themselves to honoring Shabbat:

Talmud Bavli Beitzah 15b-16a
It was taught: They said about Shammai the elder that all of his days he was eating in honor of Shabbat. When he found a nice animal, he would say, “this is for Shabbat.” If he found another that was even nicer than it, he would set aside the second [for Shabbat] and eat the first. But Hillel the elder had a different approach; everything he did was for the sake of heaven, as it says, “Blessed is God every day” (Tehillim 68:20).

Shammai’s approach is to constantly build anticipation for Shabbat. Whenever he finds something special, he saves it for Shabbat. Shammai’s Shabbat is the peak experience of his week and he invests in it accordingly. He looks for reasons to make it more exciting and something to look forward to. However, that approach has its downside on the other six days of the week. All of the “ordinary” weekdays end up somewhat neglected and relegated to the leftovers of the food that would have been for Shabbat. Hillel, on the other hand, doesn’t plan to have a special experience on Shabbat and doesn’t orient his week towards that one day, he adopts the orientation of appreciating and enjoying each day equally. However, his approach is not without its drawbacks. Hillel deprives himself of the special enjoyment that emphasizing Shabbat and its pleasures would enable.

Their divergent approaches invite us to ask ourselves how we want to structure and experience the joy in our lives, both in the realm of the holy simhat mitzvah, and in the realm of the everyday. Do we want to—and should we be designing for—peak experiences, or is it better for us to emphasize everyday joy? Do we want to sacrifice now so that we can have an amazing moment in the future, or do we want to have a balanced approach of keeping our happiness consistent and level? Should we be reflecting our tendency to focus on unique experiences or should we be pushing ourselves to appreciate life more evenly and to appreciate the slow and steady accrual of positive experiences and the happiness of the combined, more modest reasons for joy?

Ultimately, we can only light candles one way, and, by default, Jewish law favors the positions of Beit Hillel. Yet it is important for us to understand that both of these approaches have value and we can choose to employ them in different circumstances. They teach us that the type of joy and enjoyment that we have in our lives is not only a product of good or bad things that happen to us, but is also dependent on how we arrange our lives. There is space for the daily, mundane, simple pleasures and a space for the daily rituals that structure our lives and relationship with God. So we light the candles one at a time reflecting our steadily increasing store of mitzvot and life experiences. It is necessary and it is joyful to serve God every day and take pleasure and pride in the regularity of our service. But we also need to attune ourselves to the possibilities of creating and noticing truly inspiring peak, spiritual experiences. Not every day is the same or feels the same to us. It is good for us to have something to look forward to, something to invest in, a fireworks display of eight lights that have a great impact before they slowly fade back to darkness.

Wishing you a Hanukkah Sameah, full of brightness and joy, steadiness and surprises.

Highlighting Our Joy
(audio/mpeg, 7.07MB)

Learn more about