D’var Torah: Hanukkah Debate for the Sake of Heaven

The most famous miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted for eight days. Two schools of Jewish thought, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, debated whether we should light starting with one candle and add a candle each day until there are eight, or start with eight and reduce by one candle until there is one. It seems logical, as Bet Shammai argues, that we should reduce each day. Didn’t the oil decrease by one eighth? Yet our practice follows Bet Hillel, who advocates adding a candle each night to symbolize our increasing joy as represented by increased light.

The two arguments revolve around two totally different views of the world. Shammai is very concrete in his thinking and is trying to commemorate accurately the miracle that happened. Hillel is arguing about meaning. As the oil should be diminishing each day, the miracle grows to keep the flame burning. The halacha (Jewish law) follows Hillel, as it commonly does.

The lesson for our day is that both of these great explanations teach us something. Hillel and Shammai aren’t arguing to rack up wins on the scorecard of who is correct in legal rulings. They are arguing to deepen our understanding and meaning. It says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 5:17: “every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.” When we argue, we need to argue to make things better, not just to win or tear the other side down. The passage continues: “Which is a controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.”

Hillel and Shammai are trying to build a tradition that leads us to do right and make good decisions. Korah was trying to destroy Moshe for his own benefit. The Mishna presents both Hillel’s and Shammai’s views with great respect, even though the vast majority of the time we follow Hillel’s ruling. I think a lesson for this Hanukkah is that we should light with determination to honor Hillel and Shammai and respect everyone who is arguing for the sake of Heaven.

Hanukkah Sameach – wishing your family a happy and joyous Hanukkah!