A Light that Gradually Diminishes; a Light that Gradually Intensifies
Rabbanit Bili Rabenstein
The Sages taught in a beraita: The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is to have a light kindled each day by a person, the head of the household, for himself and his household.
And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every member of the household.
And as for the mehadrin min hamehadrin, Beit Shammai says: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from then on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Chanukah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel says: 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. (Babylonian Talmud, 21b)
Various explanations were given for the dispute between the disciples of Hillel and those of Shammai, tying it to their other disputes that have each stemmed from their polarizing viewpoints. In this essay, I suggest associating this dispute with a beraita that appears in Tractate Avoda Zarah, describing the two seasons of the year that were instituted by Adam. It reads as follows:
[With regard to the dates of these festivals], the Sages taught: When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing [as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice] he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. This is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven. He arose and spent eight days in fasting and prayer. Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. He, Adam, established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they, the gentiles of later generations, established them for the sake of idol worship. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a)
According to this beraita, Adam was horror-struck when he encountered the natural phenomenon of diminishing daylight. He feared that the darkness would ultimately prevail, resulting in a world that was pitch-black. This anxiety led him to impose on himself a regime of prayer and fasting. When the days grew longer, Adam decided to declare a festival.
Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun highlighted the connection between this bereita and the festival of Chanukah. He noted that Chanukah always falls on the shortest days of the year, immediately before the trend reverses, and the days become increasingly longer. He also mentioned the linguistic connections between this beraita and the “mai chanukah” (“what is Chanukah”) beraita in Tractate Shabbat (page 21b) of the Babylonian Talmud, which ends with the words “the next year (after the Chanukah miracle), the Sages instituted those days as holidays…”
I’d like to point out the connection between the story about Adam and the dispute between the disciples of Hillel and Shammai regarding the way the Chanukah candles are supposed to be kindled. Linguistically, the expressions “gradually diminish” and “gradually intensify”, which were said in relation to the number of candles kindled on Chanukah, resemble the expressions used in the beraita cited above regarding the extension and contraction of daylight hours throughout the year. Semantically, the two sources project a similar image: in both cases, the light (either sunlight or candlelight) is not static. It is dynamic. It waxes and wanes.
I would suggest that the dispute between the two Talmudic schools of thought actually concerns the question of which of the holidays instituted by Adam was set as the holiday of Chanukah. Was it the first, characterized by prayer and fasting (as Beit Shammai would have it), or is it the second, such as the festival that Adam observed once he realized that he had been spared (as Beit Hillel would have it).
This leads to the divergent natures of the holiday itself: according to Beit Shammai, this is a time for praying and fasting, while Beit Hillel claims that it should be about praising Hashem and giving thanks. This second approach sees Chanukah as a historical, one-time event that should be observed with festivities, while the first approach understands it as a recurring experience that will renew itself each and every year. At all times, the days of Chanukah are a time of testing, one that carries the potential of making amends while calling us to prayer.
May it be the will of Hashem that we merit to celebrate a holiday that embraces all of these aspects: amends, prayers, praise to Hashem and thanksgiving.
Rabbanit Bili Rabenstein is rosh beit midrash of the Israeli programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum