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The Creator and His Creatures: Lighting Up the Public Sphere

Part of our mission as religious Zionists is to acknowledge that we cannot live on a desert island – we must engage in Israeli society

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander | December 23, 2019

There is a famous dispute between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai on the issue of lighting the Chanukah candles. The dispute focuses on a seemingly simple question: how many candles should we light on the first night of Chanukah, and how many on the eighth night? The House of Hillel maintains that one must consistently increase, meaning – light one candle on the first night, two candles on the second night, and so forth, until eight candles are lit on the eighth night. The House of Shammai argues the opposite – eight candles should be lit on the first night, and then each night the number of candles is decreased.

The Gemara in Shabbat 21b offers an explanation for this dispute. The House of Hillel holds that ‘one elevates on matters of sanctity and does not decrease’, meaning, in matters pertaining to holiness one always adds and elevates. However, the House of Shammai holds that the reason lies in the parallel between the lights of Chanukah and the bulls sacrificed throughout the holidays of Sukkot and Shmini Azeret, whose number is reduced daily until on the eighth day only ‘one bull and one ram’ are sacrificed.

There is another dispute of a similar nature between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, which together shine a spotlight on the essential difference between their disparate worldviews. According to Tractate Brachot t 51b, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagree on the blessing to be said over the havdala fire at the end of the Sabbath. While according to the House of Shammai, the blessing should be, “who created the light of the fire”, the House of Hillel say it should be, “who creates the lights of the fire”. According to the House of Shammai the blessing is in the past tense and refers to the first fire that the Creator taught humanity to light at the end of the first Sabbath after the creation of the world (see Tractate Pesachim 54a). However, according to the House of Hillel, the blessing is in the present tense and refers to the fire that is now being lit.

Is there a connection between the disputes, both of which deal with fire? Can we find a narrative that connects them? What is the idea behind them and how does it add to our understanding of our role as Jews, our connection with the greater world, and the dangers and challenges we face?

I think there is a connection. Fire is the first thing that was done jointly by the Creator and His creatures. Fire was not created ex nihilo, but by the Creator teaching humankind to generate a spark by rubbing two rocks. This is a partnership between divine creation and human creation, which raises the question of how to refer to the power of human creation, to mankind’s ability to create new things.

The House of Shammai finds the thought of what might happen to a person as a social creature frightening, as the concern is that the person will not influence but be influenced, and become part of the darkness. Therefore the House of Shammai suggests that every time fire (which is the original creative act of the Creator in collaboration with humanity) serves as a paradigm for our involvement in society, there is reason for concern. For this reason, the House of Shammai posits, when we light the Chanukah candles the model must parallel the sacrifices of Sukkot, which we offer to the seventy nations of the world. However, we reduce the number each day, remaining in the end with only the sacrifices that celebrate the unique relationship between the Creator and the Jewish people.

Similarly, during havdala (the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath), our main concern is to remind ourselves that our creativity must always be rooted in our involvement with the Creator. Therefore the House of Shammai suggests that at the end of the Sabbath we recite a blessing that proclaims the original experience of joint creation, to remind us of the original encounter between the Creator and humanity. This is why the House of Shammai contends that the creation of fire is mentioned in the singular past tense, a retreat to this original experience.

The House of Hillel replies – there is truth in the House of Shammai’s claim! There is danger in contending with the external world, in leaving our personal space. However, one must elevate in matters of sanctity! We add light to the world, and we refuse to give in to the darkness. We recite the blessing of, “who creates the lights of the fire” – we turn to the present and to the future that stems from the present, in which lighting the darkness is indeed a challenge – but it is our responsibility.

In the past weeks it has been my privilege to visit students of our Midreshet Lindenbaum who are now serving in the IDF at various army bases. These young women have dedicated one to two years of their lives to intensive Torah study before enlisting, and they receive full spiritual guidance to help them navigate the challenges they face in the IDF. Just like the Chanukah lights and the havdala candle, these heroic young women light up the darkness by defending our country and our people. However, at the same time, we must not ignore the challenges they face, as women committed to the Torah and its commandments. They are now lighting candles in the public sphere, a place in which the ruling culture is often opposed to the culture of their private sphere, the homes in which they were nurtured and raised, and to which they will, please God, return.

Part of our mission as religious Zionists is to acknowledge that we are unable to live a Robinson Crusoe existence, but we must engage in Israeli society. Our oils and wicks must be of the finest, are rooted in the private spiritual spheres of our homes, in the blessed experience of Jewish family life, in the beit midrash and the synagogue. Yet at the same time, we are also responsible to shape the public sphere.

This is the reason why the laws of Chanukah can be found in the Tractate of Sabbath. Together we learn about the ‘‘yin and the yang’ between the public and private spheres, and the need to balance both paradigms. This engagement between Shabbat and Chanukah is worth celebrating, representing our destiny 365 days a year.

The author is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world.

Read the article on the Jerusalem Post website


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