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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Fire or Light?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 22, 1998)
Topics: Chanuka, Ethics, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Moadim/Holidays, Moed, Shabbat, Talmud

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The miracle of Chanukah is commemorated and publicized by the lighting of the candles. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) tells us that the exact practice of how to light the Chanukah candles was disputed by the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. The School of Hillel stated that on the first night we light one candle, and on each subsequent night we light an additional candle so that by the last night we are lighting eight candles. This increasing approach follows the general rule that we always increase levels of holiness. The School of Shammai disagreed. They stated that we start with eight candles on the first night and decrease one each night, so that by the last night we are lighting only one candle. This decreasing approach can be seen in the number of bull sacrifices brought on the holiday of Sukkot. The Torah prescribes 13 bull sacrifices on the first day of Sukkot, 12 on the second, and so on. Thus, by analogy, we should start with a larger number of candles and decrease them.

Hillel’s argument is straightforward. The candles represent the miracle of the flask of oil lasting eight days. Each additional day that the oil burned was an increase in the miracle, an increase in holiness. This increase should be reflected by our candle lighting. Shammai’s reasoning, however, is unclear. What relevance do Sukkot sacrifices have to Chanuka?

R. Shlomo Zeven explains that Shammai and Hillel are really debating a much more profound issue: what does one see when one looks at a candle? Light or fire? Light is the first creation of God. It is necessary for all creative, constructive acts. It metaphorically symbolizes wisdom and understanding and joy. An idea can shed light on something, we become enlightened, a spouse or a child is the light of our life. On the other hand, fire, while a powerful force and a provider of heat, is primarily a destructive force. Shammai and Hillel are really debating how we approach the world. Do we see it as our job to bring light into the world, to increase the love and goodness; or do we see it as our responsibility to first destroy the evil, to decrease what is bad and rotten before good can flourish? If the candles are light, we must increase them – we increase holiness. But if the candles are fire, they, like the bulls of the burnt offering on Sukkot, must be decreased to represent the success of fire – the destruction of bad. There are undoubtedly times where evil must be conquered before good can grow. In the time of the Maccabees the oppressive Greeks had to be conquered before Jews could be free to worship and practice according to their religion. But is this to be our general approach? To this Shammai answers yes, while Hillel answers no.


This debate of Shammai and Hillel has not gone away. Many Jews focus their energies on the destruction of bad – on focusing on sins – their own and those of others. Halakha, however, sides with Hillel. Rachamim, love and compassion, has to predominate over din, justice and exactitude. When we look at the world we must ask not “What evil needs to be destroyed?” but rather “What good needs to be done?” When we look at ourselves or others we should not, as a rule, ask “Where have I gone wrong?” “Where has he or she gone wrong?” we should rather ask “What is good about me? What is good about him or her? What can we do to increase this good?”


It is only through the holiness of light, and not the destructiveness of fire, that we can all become more enlightened and our souls begin to glow.