Chanukah: Increasing the Light
Why do we start Chanukah with one candle on the first night and increase one candle per night until we light eight on the eighth night? Why not just each night or do a “countdown” from eight to one?
Great question! One per night, as you suggest, is in fact the most “basic” way of fulfilling the mitzvah. But this practice was designed so that everyone could fulfill the mitzvah – even the poor who could afford only one candle. However, nowadays, either people are wealthier than they were some 2,200 years ago, or candles are less expensive — and the universal practice is to light an extra candle each night. Why not start with eight and work downwards, as you ask? This question in fact is the subject of debate in the Talmud between the scholars of the Yeshivas of Hillel and Shammai (Shabbat 21b).
The Yeshiva of Hillel’s position is to increase a candle nightly. This is how the Code of Jewish Law rules and this is the universal custom. Two reasons are offered for increasing. One is that we are counting the days as they are passing, to show the increase in the extent in the miracle. The second reason is that there is a principle, “We increase in holiness and do not decrease.”
The Maharal of Prague explains in his book called “The Mitzvah Candle” (Ner Mitzvah) that these reasons are actually one and the same concept according to their truest meaning. We begin lighting according to the smallest number (day one of Chanukah) and then increase each day, because of the principle of increasing in holiness. And we should realize that the need to increase in holiness is not just an “axiom”, but is really the way we should approach holiness and our incorporating holiness into our daily lives.
This is an important part of human nature and growth. When a person begins a pursuit of holiness, the first step should be a small measure. That’s a start and all that can be absorbed to begin with. After this first building-block of holiness, a person can increase to grow in holiness, step by step, day by day, night after night. In Chanukah terms this means that at the beginning of Chanukah we light one candle to show that Chanukah has begun. On this first day we show that we have begun the process of awareness that “In those days in this time” there was a great miracle from Above. A miracle that led to defeat of the ancient Greeks who tried to force us to abandon our heritage and follow their pagan ways. A miracle that concluded with the renewal of the pure Temple services as a nation faithful to our God.
This process continues each day and night. As we add another candle we are showing outwardly that we have internalized even more the greatness of the miracle and its meaning to us. A day at a time. As we celebrate the days, lighting the candles, adding the Psalms of praise and prayers of thanksgiving, eating the special customary foods and keeping the widespread customs of the holiday, we further internalize the meaning of Chanukah. We are able to increase in holiness day by day, and are greater able to show the significance of this holiness by adding an extra candle each night. Each candle dispels the “darkness” in this world in every sense — not only in a physical way but more importantly increases our individual and collective sense of holiness and spirituality.
The Maharal adds that our conclusion with a maximum of eight candles (just as the Chanukah miracle lasted eight days) is not a coincidence. Seven is the number that represents the natural and physical world as we know it. The seven days of Creation set the pattern for the seven day week that we follow in our everyday lives of this and that. But eight is a number that surpasses the natural order. It represents the “supernatural”. Chanukah expresses that in those days events that were clearly beyond the laws of nature have their place in our “natural” world, if only we would realize it.
When we look at the Chanukah candles giving their pure light this year, perhaps we will also “see” the “miracles” — big and small — in our everyday lives. Even in our “real” world, that seems far from ideal and difficult to understand, perhaps if we are able to increase in our appreciation from the holiness in our world and in us — we will see the world and each other in a different and better light. Happy Chanukah!