It is customary to light eight candles during the Jewish festival of Hanukah, one per night. The question is this: In which order should they be lit? On this issue two famous rabbinic schools of the first century CE disagreed. We read in the Talmud: “Beth Shammai maintains: On the first night eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced. However, Beth Hillel says: On the first night one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased” (BT Shab. 21b).
What is Shammai’s justification? They argue that the candle lighting should correspond to the sacrifices offered during the festival of Sukkot with one less each day (cf. Num. 29). The school of Hillel, however, argues that in matters of holiness we must increase and not reduce.
The difference between the two schools has to do with the way in which each views the festival. Shammai considers the whole picture, whereas Hillel wants to emphasize the potential, the ever-increasing power of the mind, of the human will, of God’s blessings. Today, Jewish communities around the world follow the pattern of Hillel. We, therefore, add one more candle each night to the Hanukah Menorah, called, Hanukiyah.
Hillel’s message makes sense to me. When it comes to questions of religion and spirituality, we need to take things one step at a time. Ultimately faith, which is certainty of one’s convictions, requires a leap of faith. For, we are all fallible. However, as we absorb more knowledge about the universe and as we engage in a variety of spiritual exercises, our sensitivity increases, and with that comes a deepening sense of sanctity and wonder for all existence.
The adding of the candles reminds us that religious conscientiousness is broadened slowly. We build one block upon the other. At times, we stumble, we are burdened with questions, we struggle with doubts and with answers that do not satisfy the mind. But, with faith based on a positive attitude, we plug along, and discover glimpses of lights here and there, finding deeper meaning and purpose in our existential condition that we never knew existed before. And that spells human growth.