Channukah - A Talmudic Analysis

Moshe Ben-Chaim


Talmud Shabbos 21a:

“The Rabbis learned: the command of Channukah is “a single light for a man and his household” (i.e., one light each night - regardless of the number of household members). A greater beautification of the command is each house member lights one light each night. And a beautification of even greater quantity; Bais Shammai says; the first day one lights eight lights, and then progressively decreases one light each day. And Bais Hillel says; on the first day one light is lit, and from here forward, one progressively increases one light each day. (Note: This is our custom, that all household members light one candle on day one, two candles on day two, etc.)

Ulah said, two Amoraim (Rabbis) in the West argued on this dispute between Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel. They were Rabbi Yosef son of Avin, and Rabbi Yosef son of Zveyda. One Rabbi said, Bais Shammai’s reasoning is to correspond to the number of days of Channukah yet to come about, and a reason for Bais Hillel, corresponding to the number of days that have passed. The other Rabbi gave a reason for Bais Shammai, that we correspond to the number of sacrifices (there commenced 8 oxen, and they decreased one ox each day) and a reason for Bais Hillel, that we ascend in sanctity, and do not descend.”


A number of questions must be addressed:

1) What is it that demands that one person, the house head, may achieve the fulfillment of Channukah lights for the entire household? Tefillin, prayers, and other commands are obligated equally upon each Jew. And generally speaking, one does not satisfy his obligation by another person’s performance. Why then is the command of Channukah lights different, that it was formulated that one person’s lighting satisfies the entire household? Is this merely another example of the principle, “Shomayah K’Oneh”, that is, “One who hears is equivalent to one who answers” (i.e., “performs”)? For example, all must recite the Sabbath Kiddush (sanctification over wine). However, one person may recite it on behalf of all present, and everyone thereby equally fulfills their obligation. The principle of “One who hears is equivalent to one who answers” renders all present as if they in fact recited Kiddush. Is this how the Channukah lights by the one house head renders all as if they performed? Or, perhaps, this principle is inapplicable with regards to Channukah. Is Channukah formulated - by its very design - as a ‘group’ performance? If so, what demands such a formulation?

2) What is the definition of the command of Channukah lights, that more lights creates a “greater beautification” of the command?

3) What is the dispute between Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel, whether we count down, or up?

4) Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel appear to agree on one point; that one may not light eight candles each night. (Or any identical number each night.) There must be a difference in the number of lights each night. What is their one theory of mutual agreement, which demands this to be so?

To answer these questions, we must first understand the basic command and purpose of lighting Channukah lights: The Rabbis teach that our goal is to proclaim the miracles of God’s salvation during the Greek empire. The Greeks defiled the Temple, intent on forcing the Jews to abandon Judaism, and accept their Greek religion. The five sons of Mattisyahu did not tolerate this possibility and immediately commenced a revolt to salvage Judaism and the Jews. They were successful. Upon their triumph, they entered the Temple to sanctify it, and found but one canister of pure olive oil, bearing the High Priest’s seal. This meant it was not defiled. However, this canister would not last the eight day duration required to press new oil - it contained a quantity of oil for just one day’s burning. Miraculously, this one day’s supply endured for the entire eight days. This was significant not only of God’s providence over the oil, but of the military victory. The Channukah holiday was thereby declared. The purpose in our lights during this holiday is to proclaim God’s miraculous salvation, throughout all generations. The original miracle was through lights, so we commemorate God’s miracle with lights.

We now understand the basic reason for lights. But why is there a dispute as to whether we ascend or descend in the number of lights each night? And why must there be eight days of lights? Well, we can say that ‘eight’ days signifies the number of days, which the miracle lasted. But why not light eight candles on ‘one’ day, as the entire fulfillment? We must keep the purpose of the law in mind; to proclaim the miracle. What was the miracle? It was a duration of eight days that the oil lasted. Each day included a new miracle - it was not simply one miracle for eight days. Evidently, we must display this miracle’s duration through the medium of “days”. So Channukah was defined by the Rabbis to be a celebration lasting eight days. But if this is so, where is there room for the Rabbis to say that we may ‘add’ to the basic law, and allow an increase or decrease of lights each night? Understanding that the basic law is to ‘proclaim the miracle’, we may answer as follows.

Since the miracle was not a one day affair, the Rabbis decreed that by lighting a “different number of lights” each day, those who see our lights realize a new concept each day: that there was a new miracle each day. The same number of lights each day does not impart the next day’s miracle. But when we see a different number of lights each day, the lights thereby imbue the onlooker with the realization of a new element of miracle, which did in fact take place each day. Seeing a new number of lights each day, the onlooker learns of a new miracle, unseen in the previous day’s lights. Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel agree that an additional proclamation of the original miracle may be gained by differentiating each night’s number of lights.

Why does Bais Shammai light eight lights on day one, and decrease one light each day? The Talmud said it was done so as to count the days yet to enter. Bais Hillel said we start at one light and ascend to eight on the eighth day. He counts the days of Channukah that have passed. What is the theory of each side? Again, we keep in mind that the lights are to remind us of God’s providence and salvation. Using this information, think about each Rabbi’s view before reading further. The purpose of learning is to delve into an analysis of theories, so do so before continuing.

It appears that Bais Shammai’s theory is that we are to count the days of God’s providence, yet to occur. The lights are to make us mindful of God’s “continual” providence, which is the providence yet to happen. This is why, I believe, Bais Shammai says we count the days yet to come. On day 3, we light six lights, as we have this day, plus five more yet to come, which is six total. We count down, and become mindful of God’s providence yet to come. Conversely, Bais Hillel says we count the days of providence that God has already enacted for us. This he feels is what we are to be mindful of through the Channukah lights. God “has” performed miracles for us, and we are to be thankful for His already enacted kindness. The dispute between these two Rabbis is whether we are to focus on God’s “continual providence”, or on His “performed providence”. My friend Howard suggested that the number of eight lights is to demarcate the day when the temple was back in order, to the degree that the oil’s miracle was no longer required. The Jew’s perfection depends on the functioning Temple, which took place in part by the eighth day. This is the focus of the eighth day, and why we have eight lights. (It took eight days to press new oil.)

Let us address our first question - the formulation “a single light for a man and his household”. We asked, “Is this yet another case where, ‘One who hears is equivalent to one who performs’, similar to the Sabbath Kiddush?” Is this how the Channukah lights by the one house head renders all as if they performed? As I suggested in the question, I believe Channukah is formulated - by its very design - as a ‘group’ performance. Let us consider: the Jews were spared through God’s miracles. Thereby, they were enabled to retain, and sustain their Judaism, of which the Greeks wished to strip them. How is Judaism transmitted? Through each family, the father - the house head – one transmits his learning to his children. Perhaps for the purpose of focusing on this factor, the Rabbis ordained that Channukah be celebrated by the household, i.e., via the unit through which Judaism is transmitted. Judaism was spared, and the Jews resumed to transmit our Torah system through new families, all due to God’s miracles. The very unit through which Judaism was proliferated - the family - was defined as the vehicle through which God’s miracles are to be conveyed. Judaism as a religion was threatened, so the holiday, which celebrates the salvaged, continuance of Judaism, is embodied in Jewish law, by this very unit - the household. We then conclude that Channukah lights performed by one for the many is not a case of “One who hears is equivalent to one who performs”. Truthfully, Channukah’s very design was formulated - from the outset - as a group (family) performance.

This reasoning also answers why there is a “beautification” of the miracle, when all household members are represented through additional lights. Not only is the “family” represented, but each individual’s representative light proclaims a greater effect of the miracle: all these family members benefited from God’s miracles. However, this is not the highest degree of miracle proclamation. The highest level is when there is an increase of one candle each night. Why is this most preferred? It is because in this manner, the number of days of God’s miracle are now displayed. Lighting four candles each night, when there are four household members, only tells the onlooker that there were four people who benefited. But adding a candle each night displays a new element: God’s degree of miraculous salvation, i.e., the miracles lasted eight days.

We learn that the greater fulfillment in these lights is the greater praise of God. When recounting - through additional lights - that God’s miracles were so extensive, greater appreciation of God is thereby achieved. Praise of God’s actions far outweighs the effect that more people were saved. This sounds like it degrades Jewish life. However, when studying Talmud, we are intent on defining the phenomenon at hand. We see a clear distinction between a medium level of fulfillment, and the highest level. Since the highest level depicts God’s miracles more clearly, we understand that this element - praise of God’s acts - outweighs how many were saved as a result. The Talmud is to impart ideas based on truths, and is not contingent on our subjective, moral estimations. We must learn the Talmud and change ourselves based on the Rabbis teachings. Not the opposite. When our personal feelings conflict with our studies, we do not prioritize our subjective preferences. We change to be in line with the truths of the Talmud - the Torah’s Oral Law.

This Channukah, do not simply light the lights, but understand what they represent. Let us deepen our true appreciation for our lot, that we have the freedom and ability to study Torah, the most enjoyable and meaningful pursuit. We must be appreciative, and thankful to God, enabling mankind to possess intellect, the only tool for understanding truths. In contrast to what many assume, we are not given intelligent life to immerse in physical pleasures. Our intellect is proof that man was gifted with a distinct and superior role over all Earthly creation. Time flies quickly. Do not forfeit your one opportunity here on Earth, to use your minds and arrive at the numerous, profound insights enclosed in God’s creations, and His Torah. Dedicate the majority of your day to study, and minimize your work, as Rabbi Mayer said in Ethics, “Minimize your involvement in worldly pursuits, and indulge in Torah”. (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:10) God has many messengers through which He can assist us financially. He desires that we pursue Torah study over all else, even over other commandments. (Talmud Moade Katan 9b) Therefore, He will surely give a satisfactory lot to those who truly “remove from their necks the yoke of monetary calculations which the masses follow”, engaging in Torah study as their primary pursuit. (Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shmita and Yovale, 13:13)

Comprehend the majesty of God’s creation displayed in the universe, composed of billions of galaxies. He can easily provide sustenance for us, on but one, small planet. God desires Torah as our life’s choice, for our own good. We can arrive at this conviction with study. If however, our conviction lacks, then we must study until convinced of God’s abilities. God controls all. Let these truths guide your beliefs and actions.

A joyful Channukah to everyone.