Publicizing the Miracle

The home ceremonies followed today were the conscious creation of the Talmudic rabbis.

Print this page Print this page

The rabbis, therefore, required that another light be lit in the room where the Hanukkah lights are lit, so that its light would be used and not that of the hanukkiyah. This additional light was eventually called the shamash, or helper light, which is the extra, ninth light in every hanukkiyah. Whereas the other eight lights fulfill the commandment, or mitzvah, of kindling the Hanukkah lights, the shamash provides light for other activities, including the kindling of the other lights.

Olive Oil

Another observation made by the rabbis may also be tied to their goal of publicizing the miracle. Although any type of oil is allowed for the Hanukkah lights, the rabbis considered olive oil to be the choicest. Why? Because, they said, it produces “a clearer and brighter light.” Although not explicitly stated, one might guess that a brighter light would be more effective in broadcasting the miracle.

Perhaps the rabbis also thought that stronger lights would make a deeper impression on the individuals kindling the lights. In fact, the impulse for the rabbis’ entire discussion about the procedure for kindling the Hanukkah lights seems to be their concern with how individuals experience holiness through ritual. Although the commandment to kindle the Hanukkah lights could theoretically be fulfilled by having the head of the family kindle one light each night for the entire household, the rabbis suggest that individuals will be more involved if they each light their own hanukkiyot--one for each member of the family. It is interesting that the rabbis also state specifically that women are obligated to kindle Hanukkah lights because they also experienced the miracle of God’s salvation.

Shammai vs. Hillel

The rabbis felt that simply kindling one light every night would not sufficiently reflect the power of the Hanukkah miracle. The schools of Shammai and of Hillel had different ideas about how to better connect the ritual act to the miracle. The school of Shammai prescribed that on the first day of Chanukah each person should light eight lights and then decrease the lights by one on each succeeding night. Their reasoning, as explained in the Talmud, is that the number of lights kindled on a particular night would thereby correspond to the numbers of days that remain in the miracle (including the day following the night on which the candles are being lit). Further, during the course of the actual miracle in the Temple, the oil available for the miracle decreased during each of the eight days.

The school of Hillel, on the other hand, suggested kindling a single light on the first night and moving up to eight on the last night. The rabbis explain that the school of Hillel was focusing on enumerating the days of the miracle that had already passed rather than those yet to come. But the clincher, the reason that the school of Hillel won out (as they did in most disputes with the school of Shammai), is that they seemed to better understand the human experience of the miraculous. Their reason for increasing the number of lights each night was that “in sacred matters we elevate, and do not lower [the degree of holiness].” Personal meaning is created in the details of the ritual act, and the rabbis’ goal seemed to be to develop the most intense connection possible between ritual act and spiritual intention.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.