Raising Up

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, November 29, 2018

As the darkness of winter increases, communities around the world welcome the increasing darkness with festivals of light. Jews around the world observe the festival of Hanukkah with the lighting of the Hannukiah, or Hanukah Menorah. Although the lighting of the Hannukiah is a well-known ritual, back in the time of the Talmud, there were four different traditions as to how it was supposed to be done.

The first method was for a household to light one light on each night of the festival, only one light each night. The second method was a variation of the first, but each individual was to light one light each night. The third and fourth methods are better known to us, they are the customs of the houses of Hillel and Shammai.

The custom of Bet Hillel is the one that we follow to this day; while Bet Shammai practiced that custom but in reverse. “Bet Shammai says: ‘On the first day light eight; from then on continue to decrease.’ Bet Hillel says: ‘On the first day light one; from then on continue to add.’” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b)

The sages cite two explanations for the different practices of the schools. The custom of Bet Shammai gradually decreasing the number of lights reminds us of how many days remain in the festival. The custom of gradually adding to the lights reminds us of which day we are observing. In addition, Bet Hillel has a philosophical reason for his custom: “the reason of Bet Hillel is that we raise up in matters of holiness, not bring down.” Thus, in matters relating to God and religion it is important to “raise up” rather than bring down”.

The custom of Bet Hillel was adopted by the rabbis because they understood the human tendency to feel more excited about Hanukah on the first night than on the last. As our natural excitement and enthusiasm would decrease, we would be renewed by looking forward to a Hannukiah filled with more lights at the end of the festival.

The word “Hanukkah” means “rededication”. It refers to the Maccabbees, who returned to restore the Temple and to rededicate themselves to all that the Temple stood for. Thus, the message of “we raise up in matters of holiness…” is that we must rededicate ourselves to the things in our lives that are of ultimate importance. As we welcome in the festival of lights this year, let us rededicate ourselves to what is of ultimate importance and make a commitment to raise ourselves up in matters of holiness.

Chag Hannukah Sameach!

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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