Making It Better and Better

Successive generations of Jews have created different ways of enhancing the observance of the Hanukkah lights.

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The Comments of the Amoraim, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b

"Ulla said: Two Amoraim in the West (the Land of Israel) disagreed [on how to explain this disagreement between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, namely] R. Yossi bar Abin and R. Yossi bar Zevida. One said: The reason for Bet Shammai was according to the number of days left and the reason for Bet Hillel was according to the number of days that have passed. And one said: The reason for Bet Shammai was according to the number of bulls offered up on Sukkot, and the reason for Bet Hillel was that we increase in holiness and we don't decrease."

The first Rabbi Yossi's opinion explains that Bet Shammai counted the number of days left (including the current day), so that at the beginning of the third night of Hanukkah, there would be six full days left, while Bet Hillel counted the days that had passed, again including the current day.

The second Rabbi Yossi, however, adds a second set of reasons. Bet Shammai applied the precedent of the number of bulls that were offered in the Temple on each successive day of the holiday of Sukkot, which decreased from thirteen on the first day to seven on the last day. Bet Hillel applied a much broader principle, namely that holiness should only increase and not decrease, even symbolically.

If two approaches exist in the Talmud, the anonymous editor of the Talmud usually asks, "How do they differ in practice?" In this instance, however, there is no effort made to indicate how the two different Rabbi Yossis might apply Bet Shammai’s and Bet Hillel's approaches differently.

So why is there a second set of reasons? Perhaps the second Rabbi Yossi was engaging in a third kind of enhancement that does not increase the number of people performing the mitzvah nor how it is performed, but rather, how it is understood. By associating Hanukkah with Sukkot and the candles with the burnt offerings of the latter festival, and by expressing the idea of increasing holiness as the candles increase, the act of lighting candles and Hanukkah as a whole are enhanced.

Really Enhancing or Enhancing the Enhancement

It is not clear what exactly is meant by the term mehadrin min hamehadrin. Are the approaches of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai just a different way of doing the lighting, or are they an extension of the first enhancement of extending who was to light the candles? The Tosafot, the Ashkenazic commentators on the Talmud, and specifically Rabbenu Isaac of Dampierre (near Troyes, France), a 12th-century commentator, maintained the former approach.

Tosafot Shabbat 21b s.v. Vehamehadrin min hamehadrin

"It appears to Rabbenu Isaac that Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel only apply

to [the case of] 'a candle for a man and his household', for that way there is more enhancement because there is visual recognition (hekera) when one continues to add on or subtract according to the days that are left or which have passed.  But if one does 'a candle for each person,' even if one increases from then on, there is no visual recognition because people would think that that is [due to] how many people there are in the house."

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.