In ancient Israel, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai dominated Jewish thought. The two schools disagreed on and about even the smallest particulars of Jewish practice. The Mishnah documents their debates and their divergences. Not even the Happy Holiday of Hanukkah escaped their contrarian pronouncements.
Hillel and Shammai both agreed that Hanukkah should be an eight-day festival and that the miraculous oil of Maccabeean rededication should be recalled with the kindling of lights. But there the agreement ended.
The School of Shammai ordered that eight lights be used on the first night of Hanukkah and then reduced by one on each successive night - seven lights on day 2, six on day 3 and so on. The School of Hillel took exactly the opposite view mandating one light on day 1, two lights on day 2, etc. Because, said Hillel, “In matters of holiness one should never decrease but always increase.” The decision on menorah lighting eventually went with Hillel, and that is the practice we generally follow to this day.
But the truth is that both approaches do make some sense.
Shammai’s practice of progressively reducing the number of lights might have been prompted by a recognition of the ever-diminishing quantity of oil in the original container. So Shammai’s menorah starts off in a blazing array of light and then slowly fades into a diminishing brilliance.
Hillel’s practice, on the other hand, of progressively increasing the number of lights might have been prompted by the ever-increasing wonder experienced by the Maccabees with their realization that something profoundly out of the ordinary was at hand. Hillel’s menorah begins with a single point of light and ultimately builds to an inspiration of illumination.
Elsewhere, the Talmud relates another major disagreement between the two houses. The question this time was: Given all the troubles in this life, the propensity for humans to act badly, would it have been better if humankind had not been created? Shammai said yes. Hillel said no.
This time Shammai argued that human beings were sinful beings, disasters waiting to happen. Hillel reasoned that on the contrary every moment in life was an opportunity to do good, to fulfill a mitzvah, to live in accordance with God’s dream for humanity. Their debate, the Talmud tells us, lasted for two and half years until finally the matter was brought to a vote.
These two disagreements actually have more in common than you might at first suspect. Just under the surface of both, there is a fundamental disagreement on the nature of the human condition. Are we human beings inescapably prone to wrongdoing and violence or are we good deeds waiting to happen? And consequently is the future essentially darkening into despair or progressively brightening with hope?
The decision to follow Hillel’s prescription for lighting the menorah, increasing the number of candles on each successive night, is a symbolic enactment, a statement of faith in a future that can be increasingly made brighter by our good deeds and loving actions.
And who won the dispute between the two houses on whether humanity should or should not have been created? Actually, surprisingly, it was Shammai. The vote of the rabbis indicated that it would have been better if humanity had NOT been created; but having said that, the Talmud adds: But we have been created, so best we get on with the business of living.
You and I have come into this world, and in matters of holiness we increase and do not decrease. So Judaism’s prescription at this season would be: Even when things seem their darkest, do the best you can do today and do a little bit better tomorrow. And - little by little, step by step, the world - your world and mine – will surely be made brighter.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukah.