The Flame and the Light
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander
Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel offer differing views on the kindling of the Chanukah lights.
Beit Shammai’s reason for requiring a continual decrease from eight (Chanukah) lights to one is so that the various kindlings correspond to the bull (sacrifices) of the Sukkot festival, and Beit Hillel’s reason for the continual increase from one light to eight is the principle that in sacred matters we elevate, and do not lower, the degree of sanctity. (Shabbat 21b)
The above explanation, that the decreasing number of Chanukah lights is in some way connected to the sacrifices of Sukkot, seems perplexing. After all, what is the connection between the lights of Chanukah and the sacrifices of Sukkot?
In order to explore this issue, we must recognize that this disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel is not limited to the fires of Chanukah but also emerges when discussing the bracha recited over the lighting of the Havdalah candle.
Beit Shammai says: the text of the (Havdalah) blessing over the flame is “Blessed are You … King of the Universe who created illumination on the (original) fire,” bara ma’or ha’esh. Beit Hillel says: “Blessed are You… who creates the illuminations of the many fires” – borei me’orei ha’esh.”
Fire is a unique creation. Adam and Eve were shown by God how to extract fire from nature (Bereishit Rabba: 12). It was the first piece of matter to be created in partnership between God and humankind. The Talmud’s explanation that Beit Shammai compares the candles to the sacrifices on Sukkot while Beit Hillel explains that one increases in holiness serves to connect these two issues, Chanukah and the Shabbat Havdalah experience, are one conceptual argument between the two schools of thought.
When we recite Havdalah after Shabbat, we are celebrating our re-entry into the creative role we play in society. Havdalah is a call to all of our senses to re-engage, reminding us of the responsibility we have as God’s junior partners in completing the creative process. Both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel recognize that the fire of Chanukah and Havdalah represents humankind’s ability to affect society, to dispel the darkness in the world around us.
For Beit Shammai, the concern of what can occur to humankind as the social player is frightening. Perhaps he/she will not effect change but will rather become part of the darkness. Therefore, Beit Shammai suggests that any time fire, the original creative act of humankind and God, is used as a paradigmatic example of our engagement into society — there is concern. For Beit Shammai, when lighting the Chanukah lights, the model must be the sacrifices of Sukkot, for on Sukkot we offer sacrifices for the seventy nations of the world, decreasing the amount daily, concluding with sacrifices only celebrating the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. Similarly, with Havdalah, the key concern is to remind us that our creativity must always be rooted in our engagement with God. Therefore, Beit Shammai suggests that on Saturday night we recite a blessing that heralds back to that original creative experience, to remind us of the original rendezvous between God and humankind. Hence, according to Beit Shammai, the blessing celebrates fire in the singular past tense, retreating to this original experience.
Beit Hillel does not disagree with the concerns of Beit Shammai but suggests that when eish is used as part of the ma’seh mitzvah, we must use it to focus on the potential of humankind in our various creative endeavors. On Chanukah, we ascend in holiness, recognizing that we are never to retreat but must continue to add light in all our efforts to impact society and dispel the darkness. On Motzei Shabbat, at the moment that we reengage with our creative talents, our focus must not be to withdraw to that original creative experience but rather, me’orei ha’esh – our capacity to create new lights and new energy in the world.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone