The Hidden Wisdom in the Shammaite Tradition


Shammai gets a raw deal when it comes to his age old debate with Hillel. I don’t just mean on Hanukkah either. Across wide swaths of Rabbinic literature, they argue with each other over 300 times and in only a small number does Shammai ever “win” the arguement. With Hanukkah just around the corner, one of their more well-known debates come to the fore.

Regarding the number of candles for the menorah, the house of Shammai argues that we should start at eight and decrease each night so that the last night we have just one candle. For the house of Hillel, we start at one and work our way up to eight because of the principle that we increase in holiness instead of decrease. It’s a principle that makes a lot of sense and one can understand why it comes out on top.

Perhaps though, there’s hidden wisdom in the Shammaite tradition. Maybe it’s not so hidden at all, as the reason given for his framework is that we count down because of the bulls of the festival. He’s referencing the bulls that are brought for sacrifice on Sukkot begin with 13 and end with 7. One of the ways to think are brought for sacrifice on Sukkot begin with 13 and end with 7. One of the ways to think t, decreasing bulls allows us to understand how to ration our joy. The lesson being that once the holiday ends, we can still maintain joy even when we’re feeling depleted.

I offer that same paradigm for Hanukkah. Although Hillel’s method is the normative one, maybe we can capture a little Shammai as well. During the darkest time of the year, we have to remember how even one little light at the end can illuminate an empty space. I write this only two weeks after Pittsburgh and the day of the shooting in Thousand Oaks. There is an incredible amount of darkness in our world.

We know what it’s like to feel like a full menorah. Hillel teaches us that every year. But Shammai is helpful in especially dark places. In those moments when you feel like you’re running out of light, Shammai’s method of candle lighting reminds you that all it takes is one person’s light. Even when the numbers are dwindling, there is brightness in the smallest of sparks.


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