How Hanukkah Teaches Us to Cast the World in Positive Light

The “Festival of Lights” builds from darkness into bright beauty.

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Hanukkah candles

There’s a story told of two 1st-century Jewish sages, Hillel and Shamai, who disagreed about how Hanukkah candles should be lit. According to the Talmud, the detailed record of Jewish law, Hillel advocated that on the first of Hanukkah’s eight nights, one candle should be lit. The next night, two candles should be lit, and the pattern should continue until on the final night, all eight candles blaze.

Shamai disagreed. Citing a biblical tradition of offering sacrifices in decreasing numbers on successive days, he advocated lighting eight candles the first night of Hanukkah, seven on the second and a single candle on the final night.

Shamai’s justification for his approach was based on the historical event in which the Hanukkah story is set—the defeat of the Assyrian Greeks by a group of Jews known as the Maccabees. He argued that we should mark the memory of how the Greeks were defeated and forced to leave the holy Temple in Jerusalem by gradually taming the flames just as the invading army was diminished.

Hillel’s approach was different. To him, increasing the lights each night represents the spark that ignited and then grew within the Maccabees, inspiring them to confront the Greeks and recover their holy space (the word “Hanukkah” means “rededication” in Hebrew). Through their strength and courage, Hillel’s argument went, the Jewish people created and rededicated their Temple. We should celebrate their growth, not the vanquishing of their enemy.

Hillel won the argument, and his ascending candle-lighting remains traditional for Jews who celebrate Hanukkah to this day. To me, his reasoning is profoundly moving. Light should build, not diminish. We should look within ourselves and to each other for the strength and courage to create the lives we want, to be the kind of people we want to be.

And the only way to see ourselves and others clearly, in my view, is in the light. When we have more light, our positive paths are better illuminated. We can see where we’ve been, and move forward together. We can literally, cast the world in a positive light, building and growing within the flickering brightness of each new day.

What does a lit candle mean to you?

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