As I reflect back on the month of Kislev at The Toronto Heschel School, my thoughts immediately turn to the great debate between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai (Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) that is reflected in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) about how to light the Chanukkiah. Shammai says that on the first day of Chanukkah, one kindles eight lights, and from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights so that on the last day of Chanukkah, they kindle one light. The reason for Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the incoming days, i.e., the future. On the first day, eight days remain in Chanukkah, therefore one kindles eight lights, and on the second day seven days remain, whereby one kindles seven lights, etc. Beit Shammai bases his reasoning on the number of bulls which were sacrificed on the festival of Sukkot on each successive day: Thirteen bulls were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed. Thus, by the seventh day of Sukkot, seven bulls were sacrificed. Then, on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth and final day of Sukkot, only one bull was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). (For more information on the connection between Sukkot and Chanukkah, please read: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-first-hanukkah/).
On the other hand, Beit Hillel argues that on the first day of Chanukkah a person kindles one light, and from then on gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he/she kindles eight lights. The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the outgoing days. Each day, the number of lights corresponds to the number of the days of Chanukkah that were already observed. Beit Hillel bases his reasoning on the principle that one elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade – Ma’alin BaKodesh VeAiyn Moredin – מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין.
Throughout the month of Kislev, the students at The Toronto Heschel School have been preparing for the holiday of Chanukkah, as well as preparing for the school’s annual “Chanukkah! Festival of the Arts!”, which was held in person for the first time this year since the pandemic. One may ask, why so much preparation for the holiday of Chanukkah? We know that Chanukkah is not nearly as important as Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, or Pesach. Why all the fuss?
The answer to me is clear: we are following the principle of Beit Hillel that one elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity – Ma’alin BaKodesh. The Chanukkah! Festival of the Arts! is not just a Chanukkah performance…it is a performance for understanding. As such, the songs that are chosen relate directly to the integrated material that the students are learning in the classroom. By demonstrating their understanding, they are rising in holiness because they begin to see the awe and wonder of Chanukkah. Not only am I referring to the story of the oil exclusively, but I am also referring to the other ideas associated with Chanukkah that are sometimes overshadowed by the “miracle” of the oil, because Chanukkah truly means so much more! For example, Chanukkah is also a story of religious freedom, where the small were able to defeat the many. Additionally, the “light” of the Chanukkiah is a metaphor for education, Torah learning, and all that is good in the world. Consider that the word “Chanukkah,” which means “dedication” shares the same Hebrew word as “Chinuch,” which means “education.” Finally, during Chanukkah we acknowledge the role that G-d plays in each of our lives, reminding us of the many blessings that we share, and that through our actions we have the ability to make the ordinary holy, and therefore enable us to rise in holiness.
May you have a Chanukkah full of awe and wonder, and may you and your loved ones rise in holiness at this special time of year!
Chag Urim Sameach! Have a joyous Chanukkah!