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The Music of Halacha – Chanukah: Unifying Creation

The previous Music of Halacha mentioned the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel regarding the number of candles we light each night of the holiday. Shammai taught that we should light eight candles on the first night, seven on the second, and continue until we light a single candle on the eighth night. Hillel taught that we should increase the candles by one each night of the holiday, one on the first night, two on the second, and so on, until we light eight candles on the final night of Chanukah.



The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) explains that the House of Shammai based their opinion on the Additional Offerings of Succot: We offered thirteen animals on the first day, twelve on the second, and continued to decrease the offerings until we offered only seven animals on the final day of Succot. There were a total of seventy animals offered and they corresponded to the seventy nations of the world. (See the Stone Chumash page 47 for a chart of the seventy nations.) We made an offering for each nation, but decreased their number as if to say that we wanted their influence to wane. The Talmud continues and explains the opinion of the House of Hillel for increasing the number of candles each night of Chanukah: There is a principle in Judaism that we strive to constantly ascend in sanctity. We increase the number of candles each night to state our commitment to constantly strive to grow spiritually.


Perhaps we can delve deeper into this debate between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel. Rabbeinu Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, at the end of his Openings to Wisdom and Awareness discusses the purpose of creation. The third and highest level of understanding (alluded to in the third major prayer of Shabbat; Mincha) is the Holy One, Blessed is He, desired to reveal His Unity to existence. He wanted us to understand, “I am First, and I am Last.” God wanted to manifest that all that is broken can be healed and that all curses will be transformed into blessing. All evil will ultimately be restored to good.


The world emanated from God, who is a Unity. All is One. Creation involved the process of the world being broken into parts, individual creations. That which was unified broke apart. Each detail of creation has its own, seemingly independent identity. However, ultimately the unity of creation will be restored. All will reconnect and unify. That which began as One, and was broken into many, will eventually reconnect and unite. God uses the Torah, His “Instructions for Living”, and His Divine Providence to lead to the ultimate unification of existence. (See The Knowing Heart, translated by Shraga Silverstein, Feldheim Publishers, page 157) What was once a Unity, and is now broken, will be One.


The debate between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai seems to be based on which Unity is observed on Chanukah. The House of Hillel begins with the Unity of the beginning of creation, the unity that was broken into many parts. The House of Shammai begins with the diversity of the world we live in and takes us to the Ultimate Unification for which we strive.


The Houses of Shammai and Hillel are debating the basic message of Chanukah. Shammai taught that Chanukah and its candles are to remind us of the Ultimate purpose of creation, the vision of a perfected world. The Chashmonaim of the Chanukah story fought for their vision of the perfection of the world. It was that vision which inspired and empowered them. It is a vision of a world without numerous nations pulling all apart into pieces with their different ideologies and faiths. It is a world in which the seventy nations disappear and all humanity joins together on the day, “God will be One, and His name will be One.”


Hillel cannot disagree with Shammai about the motivation of the Chashmonaim. However, the House of Hillel appreciates Chanukah as the final historical holiday before our long exile. It is the holiday that teaches us and enables Israel to survive the long exile. Chanukah reminds us of the original Unity that was lost, and how we must now learn to live and thrive in a world that is still searching to reconnect.


We follow the House of Hillel. We increase the number of candles we light each night of the holiday. We acknowledge what the world once was and is yet to be. Chanukah reminds us how to live in a broken world, that only by increasing the light of wisdom, goodness and God in the world will we eventually witness its reunifcation.

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