By Mick Weinstein
The hag of Hannuka has come to be associated with a whole variety of celebration throughout the Jewish world – the gathering together of families, additional expressions of gratitude in prayer (including Hallel), the eating of latkes, dreydles and gelt. A spirit of joy and thanksgiving infuses these eight days at the end of Kislev. But from a halachic perspective, we have essentially only one unique mitzvah on Hanukah – the lighting of candles.
We are probably all familiar with the explanation of the Hannukah candles stated succinctly in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):
What is Hannukah? The Sages taught: …when the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oil in the Temple. When the kingdom of the Chasmonai dynasty arose and defeated them, they searched but could only find one flask of oil that was set aside with the seal of the high priest. However, it contained only enough to burn for one day. A miracle took place and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established them as festival days with praise and thanks.
Let’s rethink this source: while our insertion to prayer and birchat hamazon – al hanissim – addresses solely the successful campaign of the tiny Jewish army to overthrow its Greco-Syrian cultural oppressors, the Hannukah candles focus upon a miracle that occurred after that all-important event. A political and cultural conflict took place that threatened to assimmilate the Jewish people into the dominant Hellenistic society; the obstinate, separatist Macabees won a victory for particularist Judaism against the hegemony of Hellenistic cosmopolitanism. So why does our chief halachic act on Hannukah draw attention to a subsequent supernatural event that, despite its ritual significance, had no apparent bearing upon the actual victory against the Hellenistic army at this crucial moment in Jewish history?
Toward answering this question, let us examine the adjacent Talmudic discussion regarding the execution of the mitzvah of Hannukah candles:
The Sages taught: the mitzvah of Hanukah (is fulfilled) for a man and his entire house with a single candle; those who enhance it (mehadrin) light a candle for every member of the house; regarding those who are extremely diligent about enhancing it (mehadrin min hamehadrin), Beit Shammai say to light eight candles on the first night and to remove one each following day, and Beit Hillel say to light one candle on the first night and to add one on each following day.
What is at the heart of the disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel? One possibility is that Beit Shammai seek a literal recreation of the original miracle in the Temple – the Macabees expected that the intensity of the menorah’s fire would lessen gradually within one day’s time, but instead it lessened only over eight days’ time; hence Beit Shammai prescribe decreasing from eight candles to one in our practice. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, prefer a conceptual expression of the growing magnitude of the divine intervention over the course of the eight days.
An interesting disagreement among the rishonim (medieval commentators) exists regarding this machloket Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai. According to the Rambam, the machloket Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai concerns the enhancement of the mehadrin level – that is, the simple requirement for hanukah candles is one candle per house, mehadrin observance is one candle for each member of the house, and mehadrin min hamehadrin involves every one of those family members either a) gradually decreasing the lights in their personal hanukia (Beit Shammai), or b) gradually increasing until eight (Beit Hillel). Rav Yitzhak of Dampierre (in Tosefot on the daf) disagrees with this understanding of Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai, and with compelling logic: if every member of the family lights a personal hanukia in this manner, then the average passerby on the street over the course of Hannukah would have no way of knowing that anything beyond mehadrin is occurring, for he will simply assume that the number of candles burning equals the number of individuals staying in the house that night! Where’s the mehadrin min ha mehadrin there?! Rav Yitzhak therefore submits that the machloket Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai expands upon the basic mitzvah of lighting just one Hannukah candle – that is, the simple requirement is one candle per house, mehadrin observance is one candle for each member of the house, and mehadrin min hamehadrin observance is one hanukia for the whole house, either decreasing in lights (Beit Shammai), or gradually increasing until eight (Beit Hillel).
While the halacha clearly follows the position of Beit Hillel with regard to the number of candles lit each night, the Jewish world remains divided in practice between the approach of the Rambam and Rav Yitzhak. The most common practice in the Sepharadi world follows Rav Yitzhak – lighting just one menorah for the entire family, while Ashkenazi practice tends to follow the Rambam – multiple hanukiot under one roof (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Haim 571:2 and the Rama there).
Now let’s return to our question – why light candles at all? Perhaps the Hashmonian rededication of the Temple represented something no less significant than the earlier military victory – a bold demonstration of spiritual renewal. The military victory held back the exterior floodgates of assimilation, but the rededication of the Temple and the relighting of the menorah marked the possibility of a renewed inner spiritual fire. This fire must contain two dimensions, the national and the personal.
In our yearly expression of this principle, we follow two customs. Those who light one hanukia per house place the center of attention outside, publicizing the miracle toward the outside world, announcing to all that we as a nation of the spirit can never be extinguished entirely. Our light returns, as represented by the single national menorah that stood in the Temple, and on Hannukah stands in our homes. Those who kindle multiple hanukiot under one roof add to this message the personal dimension – alongside our enduring potential for national spiritual revival stands the capacity for personal renewal. One’s inner “temple,” no matter how spiritually desolate it may become, always contains the potential for reignition. Both messages require the additional effort on our part that we call mehadrin.