A Light in the Darkness: A Self-less Chanuka

Every year for Chanuka we review the machloket in the Gemara in Shabbat between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as for how we should light the candles. There we read:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Hanukkah [demands] one light for a man and his household; and those who will beautify the mitzvah [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and those who really will go all out and beautify the mitzvah,-Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

We follow Hillel to increase candles because we should elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.  Amidst this dark time it is hard to understand the rationale for Beit Shammai?

Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). On simple level the Maccabees missed Sukkot during their war and rebooted the holiday when they could. This left us with a holiday with Sukkot‘s footprint in the middle of winter. But I think that there is a deeper level still to this.

Too often we choose to remember Chanuka as a story of the small Jewish soldiers defeating the much larger Greek army. It seems closer to the facts that the unrest was actually a civil war between Jews who were aligned to the Temple tradition and Jews who had aligned to the Greeks. The miracle of the Chanuka lights is not just that the small army beat the larger one, or that a small amount of oil lasted for 8 days, but that we could reconcile a civil war. In light of this reading of history I think that Beit Shammai’s tradition makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, Beit Hillel is right that it is dark out, but as the holiday moves on we move from 8 groups or factions to one group. By the end of Beit Shammai’s Chanuka we are left with a real vision of unity.

I think about the significance of Beit Shammai’s message at this moment in history while we find ourselves embroiled in fierce political discord and irreconcilable cultural difference in our Jewish and American communities. If by the end of Beit Shammai’s celebration we reunified our community, surely even Beit Hillel would agree that we would have elevated to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.

This year amidst Covid- 19 restrictions this holiday amidst the darkness takes on additional meaning. Being socially distant reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Franz Kafka. Once questioned about his Jewish identity he said, ” What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.” How do we make meaning for ourselves during this Chanuka?

This Chanuka makes me rethink the great story about out philtrum, or medial cleft, under the nose. As the story goes:


Rabbi Simlai expounded: What does an embryo resemble when it is in its mother’s uterus? A folded writing scroll….A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other(Niddah 30b)

Long before civil wars, we could see the world without us or our needs in it. The wisdom is that amidst the darkness we can be selfless. Can we recall a time before we got hit in the face? Imagine a time when we just saw the world as it was without us in it. This is the foundation for building back better.

The Light Shines in the Darkness – Friends of Justice

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