Excerpted from The Light That Unites by Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider
The great Talmudic sage Shammai was of the opinion that one lights the menorah with eight candles on the first night and subtracts one on each succeeding night.
His beloved opponent Hillel taught otherwise: that we light one candle the first night and add one additional candle on each of the following nights.
If Hillel’s opinion feels right to us, it is perhaps because, after all, this is the custom the Jewish people have adopted since Talmudic times, when the lighting of the menorah was first instituted.
How do we understand their debate? Was it just a difference in style, or is there something deeper behind the differing approaches of these two giants?
The great Jerusalem sage Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1888–1978) offered the following beautiful clarifying insight. He said that the debate revolves around an important distinction: whether Chanukah is a time to celebrate our ability to defeat evil, or whether it is about our ability to demonstrate how even a little bit of light can chase away a great deal of darkness.
Stated otherwise, do we view the Chanukah candles as fire or as light?
Shammai indicates that our celebration is one of fire. It demonstrates our capacity to powerfully burn and consume the foe until there is nothing left. We begin with eight candles and symbolically show the tenacious power of our fire to wipe out our aggressors and subdue evil.
Hillel, on the other hand, teaches that we light one additional candle each night, demonstrating the power of the light to grow and expand. In the words of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), mosif v’holech, “add and move forward.” We choose to live with kindness, wisdom, and spreading the light of the Torah.
Adding a new Chanukah candle every night tells us that we must endeavor to increase our light and spread it throughout the world. Thus we begin with one light on the first night and add holiness each day, elevating the spiritual level each time.
We have chosen the path of Hillel. We prefer to choose light and to ever increase it; our way is the way of pleasantness that promotes healing and wholeness to the world.