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Points of View
The Spirit and the Letter
My Point of View, Nov 26, 2004
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Among the famous disputes of the schools of Hillel and Shammai is the discussion of lighting the Chanukkiyah. Shammai, ever practical, suggested beginning with eight candles on the first night and diminishing by one candle each night. His rationale was simple: there was a little less oil in the original menorah each night of the rededication, so we should symbolically recreate what our ancestors saw. Hillel took a different approach. Light an additional candle each night, he suggested, because the miracle of the oil increased in its marvelousness as each day progressed.

The difference between Hillel and Shammai is significant. For Shammai, the actual event itself still holds the key to devotion and commitment. In this small way, he seeks to place us back in the original historical moment to experience the power of God's presence that our predecessors felt. That connection to them and to God seems to Shammai to best ensure a continuing attachment to doing God's will.

For Hillel, it is not the past that holds the key to the present, but the present that holds the key to the past. Living less than 200 years after the actual event, Hillel nonetheless understood that the power of God's presence was felt by differently and distinctly in each generation. By emphasizing the similarity of the many manifestations of God in human experience, Hillel was able to connect the past to the present.

The goal of both sages was the same – to do God's will and ensure continuity of the covenant. But Hillel captured the imagination of the people (and the other rabbis) with a light that increased in modem times, rather than a light that was diminished by the progress of history.

This now-ancient dispute reminds me of different approaches to values in our society. The Shammaites look back to a time when those values seemed clearer and seek to return us to an imitation of what came before. For them, the light has diminished with the passage of time. The Hillelites look to attach our contemporary experience to the experiences of those who came before. Drawing from their legacy, our light can increase with the fleeting years.

Though the goals of both are the same, the direction in which each approach points is very different. As you kindle the lights of CChanukkkah, give some thought to what our tradition commends as the direction of choice.


Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech Ha-olam A-sher Ki-de-sha-nu Be-mitz-va-tav Ve-tzi-va-nu Le-had-lik Ner Shel Cha-nu-kkah.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Whose mitzvot add holiness to our lives, and Who gave us the mitzvah to kindle lights for Chanukkah.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech Ha-olam She-a-sa Ni-sim La-avo-te-nu Ba-ya-mim Ha-hem Bi-z'man Ha-zeh.
Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in other days and in our times.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech Ha-olam She-heche-ya-nu Ve-ki yi-ma-nu Ve-higi-a-nu Liz-man Ha-zeh. (1st night only)
Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for helping us to reach this occasion.

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