by Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein
There is a well known machlokes between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel when it comes to the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles. Beis Shammai holds that we begin with eight candles on the first night and proceed throughout the rest of Chanukah in a descending order. Each subsequent night, one less candle is lit until on the final night of Chanukah, according to Beis Shammai, a single candle is lit. Beis Hillel maintains that we do the opposite, lighting in an ascending order night by night. Of course, this is our practice and BE”H we will be lighting one candle on the first night of Chanukah this coming Motzei Shabbat. The Gemara discusses the rationale behind these two opinions.
One explanation of the machlokes is presented as follows: Beis Shammai looks to the Karbanos of Succos as a source for why we would light the candles in a descending order each night. Just like the “Parei HaChag,” the special Korban brought only on Succos, which followed a descending order. With thirteen brought on the first day, twelve on the second, etc. the number of cows sacrificed each day decreases by one. Over the course of Succos we count down from thirteen cows down to seven on the last day of Succos (before Shmini Atzeres). Based on this, Beis Shammai says that on Chanukah too we should decrease a candle each night. Beis Hillel responds with a famous dictum from Chazal, “maalin bakodesh vi aim moridin” – when it comes to matters of kedusha, we only move in an ascending order.
There seem to be several difficulties with this understanding of the machlokes. For starters, while it is true that we see that the sacrificial cows on Succos proceeded in a descending order, what does that have to do with Chanukah? Why would that override the standard “maalin bakodesh” that Beis Hillel points out? Furthermore, it would seem that Beis Hillel does not really address the main point raised by Beis Shammai – if there is some connection between Chanukah and Parei HaChag, so then we see that “maalin bakodesh” does not necessarily always hold true – so why would it “override” the example of the karbanos that Beis Shammai put forward? In short, neither side appears to be addressing the central point raised by the other.
We could try to understand the machlokes in the following manner. Meforshim explain that at least one element of the Avodah of the Parei HaChag in the Beis HaMikdash was to “wean” Klal Yisroel off of the high level of spirituality we had attained through the avodah of Rosh HaShana, the Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur. Following Succos, there are six long months of waiting until the next Yom Tov of Pesach comes around. While we reached great heights during the Yamim Noraim, we have to be able to take what we gained with us into the winter. So the Avodah of Succos was in part to have us internalize the inspiration and lessons of those powerful days and do less avodah on the outside – signified by the bringing of one less korban each day. [Why the numbers go from thirteen down to seven on the last day is certainly of great significance, but not for right now.] This procedure continues until, following Succos, we have Shmini Atzeres, with its single korban to signify our last time spent alone with Hashem in his palace. Right after Yom Tov, hopefully after we have built ourselves sufficiently, we are sent off to try keep what we gained, use it to grow more and make it through the winter. This avodah is to guide us from our high spiritual level through re-entry back into “regular life,” when inspiration is not so apparent and easy to come by. Keep this in mind for a moment as we talk about miracles.
There is a fascinating discussion in the Gemara (Shabbos 53b) about a man for whom a true, nature-changing miracle was performed by Hashem. The Gemara records a disagreement about this event. There were those who maintained that this illustrated what a great man this person must have been, seeing as Hashem Himself made a miracle occur on his behalf. Strange as it may sound at first, the other opinion held that on the contrary – this exhibited a detriment in the man’s character, seeing as in order to save him, Hashem had to change the normal order of nature. How can we understand this? The Acharonim explain that an open miracle from Hashem really has two sides to it. On the one hand, as the Ramban explains at the end of Parshas Bo, when Hashem makes open miracles, He shows in an incontrovertible way His command over all of nature. When a person feels he or she has experienced an open miracle, it is certainly a wonderful thing that can give tremendous chizuk to a person’s emunah. On the other hand, there is an element of a deficiency in emunah exhibited here as well. The fact that Hashem “had to” make an open miracle and change the laws of nature in order to strengthen our emunah means that we were not seeing Hashem’s Hand in nature enough before that! As the Ramban explains, the “big” miracles are only to help us recognize all the “little” ones; the ones that surround us day in day out throughout our experience of life. With this in mind, we can appreciate why the Gemara would be critical of a person who was saved by Hashem changing nature. Ultimately, a person should not “need” miracles to believe in God and His Providence over everything that happens.
Just like the numbers of the Parei HaChag are set up to help wean us from a high level of spirituality, the Chanukah candles are representative of this same concept as well. While we thank Hashem and celebrate the open miracle of the Menorah burning for eight days, at the same time, according to Beis Shammai, we should not have “needed” it, and the fact that Hashem “had” to do it shows that there was some element of emunah lacking. According to Beis Shammai, we appreciate the miracle and the boost it gave to our emunah, but our avodah of Chanuah is to wean ourselves off the need for open miracles and to work on internalizing the message of seeing Hashem’s Hand in everything that happens. So we light one candle less each night until by the last night we barely need to remember the open miracle of the Menorah. We have internalized the message.
(As is often explained in their disagreements,) Beis Hillel can agree with Beis Shammai in principal but in practice argue that we are not ready for that yet. The fact of the matter is, we are still at the point that we need to be building up our emunah, and if a miracle comes our way and we can use it to be michazek ourselves, we will maximize the opportunity. Maalin bakodesh vi ain moridin! If we can grow in our emunah by focusing on the miracle of the Menorah, we want to increase our appreciation of the neis as much as we can. Each day we light another candle, building up our appreciation the miracle of Chanukah. Each day we say a full Hallel to try and focus on thanking Hashem for interceding on our behalf and giving us the opportunity to openly see His involvement in our lives.
Our practice follows Beis Hillel. Part of our avodah during this time is to strengthen our emunah in Hashem’s nissim. We should be thinking about the miracles that we are familiar with that have shaped the world and our lives. The nitzchiyus of Klal Yisroel, the wars fought by Israel, the fact that after so many thousands of years, with all of our problems past and present, we are still thriving! And the miracles that we know of in our own lives, or the lives of our friends. Those clear messages that Hashem sends to show us He is involved. We have to draw emunah from those experiences. And then work hard to take that clarity and spread it to all areas of our lives.
It is true that ultimately we have to see Hashem in everything, all the time – but the essence of Chanukah is building up our appreciation of Hashem’s interest in our lives and His ability to directly involve Himself in everything we experience. His ability and interest to change the world as He sees fit, to move us all towards the ultimate miracle of the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding and rededicating of the Beis HaMikdash for the final time, bimheira biyameinu, amen!