Rabbi Larry Milder of Beth Emek recently sent this explanation to his congregation. It’s a useful, brief history telling us why we light an additional candle each night of Hanukkah instead of the reverse.
Increasing the Light in Dark Times
Most Jews are accustomed to lighting Hanukkah candles by adding one candle to the Menorah each night. We start with one candle on the first night of the holiday, and build toward 8 candles on the last night. [In addition, there is one “helper” candle, the Shamash, which is used every night to light the other candles; it is not, technically speaking, one of the Hanukkah lights.]
Judaism has never been a fixed tradition, though. It is always in flux, always growing.
Hillel and Shammai are recorded (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b) to have disagreed over the proper order in which to light the Hanukkah lights. Shammai followed a practice of beginning with 8 lights, and removing one light each night.
Shammai’s reasoning was grounded in text. Hanukkah was initially celebrated because the Jews were unable to celebrate Sukkot while the Temple was in the hands of the Syrian-Greeks. After reclaiming the Temple, the Maccabees observed the somewhat delayed holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot was celebrated with a decreasing number of sacrifices on each day of the week-long holiday (Numbers 29:12-34). Hanukkah, then, should be observed in like manner, counting down the days until the end of the holiday.
Hillel was somewhat more philosophical. The point should not be to replicate the ritual of Sukkot, but rather to emphasize a principle: In matters of sanctity, we increase, rather than diminish.
What a powerful image this is. These are, indeed, dark times. We cannot help but associate the diminished daylight of this season with the darkness of the current pandemic, and all the suffering that it has brought to those we love, and to all of humanity. None of us remains unaffected.
We need the light of hope. Adding one candle each night represents the deeds that we must undertake to restore healing to our world. In matters of sanctity, we do not diminish our efforts. We increase our commitment, we redouble our efforts, we do all that we can to keep ourselves and others safe, and to work toward a brighter day.
Chag urim sameach, may the lights of Hanukkah shine brightly, and may this Hanukkah mark the beginning of better days.
Rabbi Larry Milder