Ra’anana Community Kollel
Hillel, Hallel and Chanukah
Rabbi Dovid Horwitz
The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) discusses a well-known dispute between the school of Shamai and the school of Hillel. The school of Shamai reasoned that the Chanukah candles should be lit in descending order. In other words, eight candles on the first night, seven on the second, until the eighth night when one would only light one candle. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, ruled that the opposite order was more appropriate - one candle on the first night and eight candles on the eighth night as we are accustomed to. The Gemara sites two explanations of this dispute. According to one explanation, Beit Shamai is focusing on how many nights of Chanukah remain and Beit Hillel is focusing on how many nights have elapsed. The second and perhaps deeper explanation that the Gemara offers is that Beit Shamai is patterning this mitzvah after the offerings that were performed on Succot. Just as we find that the offerings decreased in number as the days of Succot progressed, so too, the number of Chanukah candles decreases with every passing day. However, Beit Hillel applies the principle of ma’alin b’kodesh, that is, in holy matters it is appropriate to increase, not to decrease. Seemingly, this explanation is in need of its own explanation. What do the offerings of Succot and the principle of ma’alin b’kodesh have to with Chanukah?
The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) tells us that Shamai and Hillel had very diverse perspectives in life. The Gemara encourages us to be humble and soft-mannered like Hillel and not strict and harsh like Shamai. The Gemara then mentions three separate occasions on which non-Jews came to Shamai and Hillel asking to convert to Judaism under very unusual conditions. While Shamai pushed the men away, Hillel overcame the obstacles and converted them. Perhaps the diverse opinions of Hillel and Shamai with regard to the lighting of the Chanukah candles have relevance to their different approaches to the perspective converts.
Rashi explains the reason why the offerings of Succot decrease in number as the days go by. One can compare this phenomenon to a guest that comes to someone’s house to visit. On the first day, when the host’s enthusiasm is high; he feeds his guest the very best foods. However, as the days go on and the guest begins to wear out his welcome, the honor that he affords his guest decreases. As we know, our enthusiasm tends to wane as the days go by. This idea is reflected in the Succot offerings, which are at their greatest on the first day, when excitement runs high, only to lessen, as Succot goes on and our excitement for the chag lessens. Beit Shamai patterned the Chanukah lights after this reality, and therefore, we light eight lights on the first night as an expression of our enthusiasm, only to decrease as the holiday continues.
Beit Hillel’s approach is different. Although it is true that our enthusiasm and excitement towards the holiday wane as time goes on, a Jew must try to transcend physical trappings and limitations. Beit Shamai’s approach reflects the reality of the world. Beit Hillel feels that the Jew must reach beyond this! The Jew can muster excitement and burst forth in celebration when others are tiring. The Jew has to be forever optimistic, never giving in to cold realism. We are ma’alin b’kodesh - forever looking and reaching upward even when our physical limitations try to pull us down. Therefore, we light eight candles on the eighth night to show that a Jew can reach heights of spiritual intensity even after seven days of celebration.
Shamai is the harsh realist, carefully calculating whether something is feasible or not. Hillel is the sweet optimist, never facing down a challenge on the grounds of its seeming impossibility. This difference in attitude finds expression in the story of the converts. Shamai, always the realist, saw that their requests were not practical and therefore promptly pushed them away. Hillel saw the optimism in their requests and brought them to Judaism.
The Gemara sums up the beauty of Hillel’s optimism as follows: “The strictness of Shammai sought to uproot us from this world, whereas the humility of Hillel brought us close to the Divine service of G-d.”
Hillel’s approach to life offered the Chashmonaim the strength and fortitude they needed to defeat the mighty Greek army. The lessons that we can learn from Hillel and Chanukah are clear. The Jew must be the quintessential optimist, always striving, never despairing or giving up in the face of challenge. This indeed was the key to success in the battle against the Greek army, and this is the key to success in our own challenges.