In discussing the laws of lighting Chaunkah candles, the Gemarra (Tractate Shabbat 31b), gives us three options. The minimum requirement to fulfill the obligation, is to have one person per household light one candle each night. To make it “Mehadrin”, every person in the household should light one candle, each night. To make it “Mehadrin Min Hamehadrin” every person should light eight candles, but there is a debate as to how to light them. According to Beit Shammai (a center of Halacha–Jewish Law, which existed approximately 30 BCE) we are to light eight candles on the first night and then decrease the number as we go forward (seven candles on the second night, six on the third, etc.) However, according to Beit Hillel (another center of Halacha) we are to light one candle the first night and then increase the number as we go along, until we reach eight candles on the last night. (Today, we go according to Beit Hillel.) But why is there any discrepancy at all in how to light?
Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are known to have looked at Halacha very differently. When trying to describe their different viewpoints, R. Natan Lopes Cardozo once pointed out that most people describe Shammai’s rulings as being “Machmir–stringent” while Hillel’s rulings are considered to be more “Makel–lenient”. R. Cardozo suggested that being “Machmir” is associated with “Din–strict justice”, while being “Makel” is associated with “Rachamim–mercy”. The difference between Din and Rachamim is that Din looks at a person’s deeds and judges that person according to where he or she stands now. Rachamim looks at a person’s deeds, but says that a person can change and so his deeds right now do not really reflect who he can (or should) be. As a result, Rachamim judges a person more favorably than his deeds warrant currently. Said a different way, Din judges a person based on the reality of who he is NOW, while Rachamim judges a person based on who he SHOULD be.
Hillel and Shammai saw the lighting of Chanukah candles as being representative of how we feel about the holiday of Chanukah. Both agreed that we should experience increased excitement as Chanukah goes on. However Shammai (coming from his “Din” standpoint) said that in reality, most people do not feel increased excitement as Chanukah goes on. According to Shammai, a person’s excitement diminishes the more he becomes accustomed to something. Thus when it comes to Chanukah, a person’s excitement diminishes each day because as he gets more and more used to it. Therefore, Shammai said that our lighting candles should reflect the REALITY of how we feel and so we should light eight candles on the first day of Chanukah (when our excitement is at its peak) and then gradually decrease the number to reflect our diminishing excitement. On the other hand Hillel, coming from his Rachamim standpoint, said that we should light candles according to how we are SUPPOSED to feel. Given that our excitement is SUPPOSED to increase as Chanukah goes on, we should start out lighting one candle and then increase the number until we get to eight–i.e. the peak of our excitement. It seems that the bottom-line to the debate between Hillel and Shammai was essentially a difference in in how they “saw” things.
Speaking about “seeing”, the Gemarra in Tractate Shabbat (32a) says that the Chanukah candles cannot be put higher than 20 amot above eye-level. Immediately after saying this, the Gemarra seems to change the topic completely by quoting Rashi from a verse in this week’s parsha–Vayeshev. When Yosef’s brothers decide to kill Yosef, Reuven tries to save him by throwing him into a pit. In describing the pit, the Torah says (37:24) “The pit was empty, there was no water in it”. The Gemarra in Shabbat 32a quotes Rashi as saying “If the Torah tells us that the pit was empty, don’t we know that there was no water in it?” But then Rashi answers his own question by saying that the Torah is informing us that the pit had no water in it, but that it was not totally empty because it contained something else–snakes and scorpions.
If that’s true, how are we supposed to understand what Reuven did? How exactly did Reuven think that he was saving Yosef by throwing him into a pit full of snakes and scorpions? The Rabbis answer this by saying that Reuven did not SEE that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, because they were too far away from him. As to how the Rabbis know this, the “Torah Temmima” makes a connection between this episode and a Gemarra in the Tractate of Tamid. When discussing how the Kohain (priest) threw the blood of a sacrifice onto the altar, the Hebrew word used for “throwing” is “L’Zrok”. But there is also another Hebrew word for “throwing”, namely “L’Hashlich”. The Rabbis deduce a difference between these two words, by noting that the Kohain had to be within 20 amot of the altar when he threw the blood, so that he could see clearly and thus be accurate in his throwing. Thus, the Rabbis conclude that “L’Zrok” refers to throwing within 20 amot (a distance in which a person can see well), and “L’Hashlich” refers to throwing beyond a distance of 20 amot, in which case a person does not see as well.
When the Torah describes Yosef being thrown into the pit, it says (ibid) “V’yashlichu”, which comes from the verb “L’Hashlich”. Thus, the Rabbis in the Gemarra deduce that Reuven did not see the snakes and scorpions in the pit, because they were too far away for him to see. And how much is “too far away” for a person to see? Twenty amot. This, is why the Gemarra follows the law about where to place the Chanukah candles with the pasuk from Parshat Vayeshev. In doing so, the Gemarra is explaining why the Chanukah candles, which are supposed to be SEEN by everyone, cannot be more than twenty amot above a person’s eye-level.
Perhaps there is a deeper message here as well. Sometimes it is not the distance that prevents us from seeing, but rather the barriers which we create ourselves. Those barriers obstruct our vision and thus prevent us from seeing things in the correct “light”. Some people can’t get more and more excited about Chanukah as the days go on, because to them the miracle of Chanukah is too far away–it happened to other people in another time-period. Perhaps another reason for putting the Chanukah candles within 20 amot is to remind us to clear our vision so that we can “see” these days for the incredible miracle that they are
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,