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 observance of Hanukkah began as a holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple. By the first century, the Jewish historian Josephus calls it the Festival of Lights (photos in Greek), but he does not mention any particular observances having to do with lights. Nonetheless, the Babylonian Talmud includes a baraita, a tradition attributed to the rabbinic sages from the first and second centuries CE, which describes different ways of lighting the Hanukkah lights. Spitzer’s analysis of the history of this ritual demonstrates how successive generations sought innovations and enhancements in their observance, as well as the way these successive generations reused and reinterpreted earlier traditions.chanukiyot menorahs

The Baraita from Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b

"Our sages taught:  The mitzvah of Hanukkah is a candle for a man and his household, and those who enhance (mehadrin): a candle for each person. And those who really enhance (mehadrin min hamehadrin):  Bet Shammai says:  On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease, and Bet Hillel says: On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase."


This baraita lays out four different ways of observing the lighting of Hanukkah candles. The basic obligation is for an individual to light one candle on each night on behalf of the household. The baraita then introduces the term mehadrin; one who performs an enhancement, an act of hiddur, extends the obligation to each individual in the household, so that on each night of Hanukkah, a family with four people would light four candles.

The highest level of enhancement envisioned by the baraita is the mehadrin min hamehadrin, those who really enhance (or "who enhance upon the enhancement of") the mitzvah, light a different number of candles each night, either decreasing from eight to one, according to Bet Shammai (the school of Shammai), or increasing from one to eight, according to Bet Hillel (the school of Hillel).

It is tempting to see the different ways of lighting as historical developments, especially since now everyone lights according to Bet Hillel's understanding of the most enhanced opinion. Nevertheless, although enhancements to this observance were added by later generations, it is not necessary to assume that the baraita itself reflects such a development. It is enough to note the two different ways in which enhancement was envisioned: (1) by extending the number of people who participated in the lighting, and (2) by extending the number of candles that were lit.

The Talmud, as is its wont, does not let the controversy between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel stand unanalyzed. Indeed, two different Amoraim (rabbinic sages from the third-sixth centuries) each present an interpretation of the conflict.

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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.