Hanukkah Part 4: We Came to Banish the Darkness

One of my favorite debates in the Talmud is about how to light Hanukkah candles. (Yes, the Rabbis of the Talmud really did debate everything.

The House of Shammai teaches: “On the first night of Hanukkah, a person kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last night of Hanukkah, they kindle one light.” 

The House of Hillel teaches: “On the first night of Hanukkah, a person kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last night, they kindle eight lights.”

Do you know who wins the argument? 

It’s not a spoiler to share that Hillel’s view is the one that the Talmud accepts. He typically beats Shammai in talmudic arguments. But even if you didn’t know this piece of Talmud trivia, you might’ve guessed the outcome of this argument based upon our contemporary candle lighting ritual. When we light Hanukkah candles, we follow the instructions of Hillel, not of Shammai. We add candles each night, we don’t take them away. 

Hillel’s reasoning, so simple and inspiring, is this: “We elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity, we don’t downgrade.” In other words, we should never diminish the light that we bring into the world. Instead, we should keep adding more, until the whole world shimmers with sparks of holiness. The days might be short, the sky might be dark, but we never lose hope. Each time we light those candles, we make the world a brighter, holier place. 

My favorite Hanukkah song, Banu Choshech, captures this sentiment. It’s less well-known here in the U.S., but very popular in Israel. In English, the words are: 

We came to banish the dark, 

Each of us bearing a spark.  

Alone, every person is just a small light 

But together, we truly shine bright!  

Go away darkness, fear and fright! 

Make way for light! 

May each additional candle in our menorah remind us to embrace our unique sparks of holiness and share them with the world. 

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Hanukkah,