We count the days of Chanukah by lighting one candle on the first day and progressing to eight candles on the eighth day. But, Beit Shamai’s opinion is that we should light them in descending order. What does the way we count the days of Chanukah come to teach us about living in the present?
Chanukah is one of the best times of the year to relate to the passage of time. On Chanukah, in addition to the time-oriented Shehechiyanu blessing said on the first day of every festival, as we light the candles on each of the eight days we say the additional blessing, “He who performed miracles for our forefathers, in those days, at this time.” Chanukah is the longest festival of the entire year (Pesach and Sukot are essentially only seven days long, with an additional day of Shmini Atzeret directly following Sukot), and each day we add another candle to the previous day, illustrating the passage of time in a visual display of radiant light.
Another element of Chanukah that relates in particular to the transition of time can be seen from the fact that Chanukah celebrates the Jewish victory over Hellenist culture. One of the most pertinent points of dispute between the Torah and Hellenist philosophy is the question of whether the world is static (re: the law of energy conservation), or if it is capable of renewal, or of producing a novelty (re: the infinite potential of an omnipotent Creator). Hellenist philosophy held that “There is nothing new under the sun” (nor above it, as a matter of fact), therefore Creation, for example, or God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai are totally irrational concepts by their standards. By contrast, one of the foremost principles of Judaism in general and of Chassidut in particular, stated that the universe is in a constant state of renewal.
Chassidic teachings explain that this renewal occurs continuously in each of its three dimensions, space, time and consciousness. Zooming in on the time plane, we see that the renewal of time is particularly apparent in the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month. This mitzvah was the first that God gave to the Jewish People while they were still enslaved in Egypt—even before the Giving of the Torah. Not surprisingly, this was one of the primary mitzvot that the Hellenists attempted to prevent the Jewish People from observing. Clearly, the fact that Chanukah is the only festival in the entire year that includes the additional celebration of Rosh Chodesh (the New Month) within its framework, is not by chance (although Rosh Hashanah also falls on Rosh Chodesh, to a certain extent it overrides the celebration of the new month).
Add or Subtract?
Another element of Chanukah that emphasizes the time dimension is lighting the candles in ascending order, one for each day that has past. However, although this is the custom that we all follow, Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai were in dispute regarding whether the candles should be lit in ascending order (beginning with one candle on the first day and lighting eight candles on the eighth day—Beit Hillel), or descending order (beginning with eight candles on the first day and lighting one candle on the eighth day—Beit Shamai). This dispute invites us to take a closer look at the broader significance of each opinion.
The Talmud states, “Beit Shamai reasons according to the days that have yet to come, and Beit Hillel reasons according to the days that have passed.”
The root of this dispute is explained by the distinction between Beit Hillel’s perspective of considering reality as is, and Beit Shamai who consider its state of potential. In the case of Chanukah, too we see that these differing perspectives also come to the fore. Beit Hillel consider the miracle of the candles in the Temple as happening for one day, and another day and another… gradually increasing, while Beit Shamai take into consideration the fact that on the first day there was already enough oil to miraculously enable the Menorah to remain alight for eight days, on the second day there was enough for seven more days, on the next day, for six, etc., gradually decreasing.
But, What about the Present?
Delving even deeper into the issue, we see that the crux of the dispute becomes apparent when we relate to the present moment, which is apparently related to the same question of whether we perceive the “actual” or the “potential.” Whereas Beit Hillel takes a pragmatic view—in which the past is perceived as something tangible that continues to exist now (i.e., the present accumulates together with the past), Beit Shamai takes the other view of seeing the potential future that is hidden in the present moment (i.e., the here and now as part of the approaching future). In short, as opposed to the Greek philosophy of a static universe that can never know real change or innovation, from a Jewish perspective, renewal on the time-plane can either emanate from the past or beam into our world from the future.
We are always standing in the present, between the history of exile and destruction and the future of the complete redemption and the Days of Mashiach. The question is: How can we make the necessary transition from the present to the future? According to Beit Hillel, we are stepping out towards the future, but when all is said and done, for the meantime, we are still part of the imperfect past. Beit Shamai makes the transition by leaping directly into the future and sensing the future right now.
Although the halachic (Jewish legal) ruling is currently according to Beit Hillel, Kabbalah teaches us that in the future the halachic ruling will follow Beit Shamai’s opinion. So for the time being, it is up to us to practice looking at time from Beit Shamai’s perspective, bringing the glowing future into our lives, right now. This is the meaning of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s instruction to his chassidim and to us all, to “live with Mashiach” right now. Look around and see Mashiach in the world.
From a Chanukah farbrengen with Rabbi Ginsburgh, 29th Kislev 5770