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Our Sages taught1:

The mitzvah of Chanukah [entails lighting] one candle [each night] for a person and his household.

Mehadrin (those who perform the mitzvah in a conscientious and splendid manner) [light] one candle [each night] for every member of the household.

[What is the practice of the] mehadrin min hamehadrin (those whose performance of the mitzvah is considered as conscientious and splendid even when compared to the mehadrin)?

The School of Shammai maintain that on the first night, eight candles should be lit, and [each night] the number should be reduced.

The School of Hillel maintain that on the first night, one candle should be lit, and [each] night the number should be increased...

With regard to [the rationale motivating the opinions of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel], there is a difference of opinion among two Amoraim... One states that the rationale of the School of Shammai focuses on the days which are yet to be celebrated, while the School of Hillel focuses on the days which have already been celebrated.

The other states that the School of Shammai [draws a] parallel to the bulls offered on the holiday of Sukkos [which are reduced in number each day], while the School of Hillel's rationale follows the maxim: "One should always ascend with regard to holy matters and not descend."

The Aramaic term for the expression translated as, “There is a difference of opinion among two Amoraim...,” ‘plugu bah’2 , implies that the disagreement between the two Sages concerns not only a point of theory, the rationale motivating the different perspectives of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, but also a difference in practice.

Indeed, we find that certain authorities3 associate the difference of opinion mentioned in the Talmud, with a difference of opinion between the Rambam and Tosafos regarding the amount of candles lit by those who are mehadrin min hamehadrin.

Tosafos4 maintains that the mehadrin min hamehadrin light only one additional candle each night. They do not follow the practice of the mehadrin who add a separate candle for every member of the household.

The Rambam, by contrast, maintains5 that every night the mehadrin min hamehadrin add a new candle for every member of the household.

It is possible to explain that Tosafos considers the first opinion of primary importance. Accordingly, the amount of candles lit must reflect the amount of days in the holiday. If every member of the household would light a new candle, confusion might ensue, because an onlooker would not be able to determine how many days of the festival had passed6. To forewarn the possibility of such a quandary arising, a new light is not added every night for each member of the household.

The Rambam, by contrast, places greater emphasis on the principle: “One should always ascend with regard to holy matters....” Accordingly, every night, each member of the household should follow that principle and increase the amount of lights he kindles.

In practice, as well as in theory

In the Ashkenazic community, the common custom, as recorded by the Ramah7, is to follow the Rambam’s view.

It is possible to explain, however, that this determination does not reflect a preference for either of the perspectives mentioned above8 . Even according to the custom which the Ramah mentions, there are several differences in practice resulting from the views of the two Amoraim.

To cite an example:

If for whatever reason, on the second night of Chanukah, a person kindled only one candle.

According to the opinion that the candles commemorate the number of nights celebrated, on the third night, he should light three candles.

According to the opinion that the motivating principle is, “One should always ascend...,” one might presume that on the third night, it is sufficient to light just two candles, for this also marks an increase of light.

A second possibility:

A person who does not have enough oil or candles to light more than six lights on the eighth night of Chanukah. He cannot kindle as many lights as required. Indeed, he cannot even kindle as many lights as he did the previous night. Therefore, according to the opinion that the motivating principle is, “One should always ascend...,” there is reason to presume that he should kindle only one light. For he is unable to adhere to this principle at all.

Not only can he not add light, he is actually forced to reduce the number of lights he kindles. Therefore, it would appear that it is appropriate for him to light only one candle, observing the mitzvah according to the minimum requirement.

According to the opinion which focuses on the number of nights of the holiday which were celebrated, by contrast, each night possesses a certain degree of importance. Therefore, even though one is unable to light the full number of candles that the conscientious commitment of mehadrin min hamehadrin would require, it is preferable to light the maximum number of candles one can, and thus accentuate the importance of more of the days of the holiday.

An abstract distinction

When viewing the difference of opinion between the two amoraim in the abstract, the variance between their views can be seen as a reflection of a question of a greater scope:

Is the custom of the mehadrin min hamehadrin related to Chanukah per se, or is it a reflection of a general thrust of refinement relevant to our Divine service as a whole?

Or to use terminology prevalent in Jewish study circles, is it a function of the cheftza (the article, in this instance, the days of Chanukah) or the gavra ( the person observing the mitzvah)?

To explain:

According to the opinion which explains that the difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel revolves upon “on the days which are yet to be - or which have already been - celebrated,” it is the days of the holiday (the cheftza) which warrant the addition (or subtraction) of lights.

As such, all the candles lit each night are of equal status.

There is no differences between the candles lit to mark the additional nights, and those lit to fulfill the fundamental requirement of the mitzvah.

According to the opinion that the difference between the two schools relates to the number of bulls offered on the holiday of Sukkos or the maxim, “One should always ascend with regard to holy matters...,” by contrast, there is no direct connection between the need to add (or subtract) candles and the holiday of Chanukah.

Adding the candles is an obligation incumbent on the person (gavra) which reflects a comprehensive pattern9, applicable in other aspects of observance as well10.

For that reason, the additional candles do not have the same status as the one candle required to fulfill one’s obligation.

Indeed, our Rabbis11 refer to them as reshus, “optional.”

In the personal sphere

In the present era, the halachah follows the School of Hillel, and thus each night of Chanukah is marked by an increase in light.

And as the Ramah writes, it is the common custom for everyone to observe this mitzvah on the level of mehadrin min hamehadrin. These concepts should inspire our Divine service throughout the year to come. We must constantly seek to increase light, and we should aspire to observe all the mitzvos on the level of mehadrin min hamehadrin.

This, in turn, will motivate G‑d to respond in kind, increasing the revelation of G‑dly light within the world, and leading to the age of consummate revelation when we will again kindle the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash, celebrating our Redemption.12

Footnotes
1.
Shabbos 21b.
2.
Significantly, in the tractate Sofrim 20:5, and in the Sheiltos d'Rav Achai Gaon (Sheilta 26) one of the earliest post-Talmudic texts of Jewish law, the expression 'plugu bah' does not appear. Similarly, the two opinions are not quoted as contradictory in the halachic works of Rabbeinu Yitzchak Alfasi and Rabbeinu Asher.
3.
See HaNosain Imri Shefer as quoted by the Birchei Yosef, the Pri Chadash, and the Gra, in their glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 671:1.
4.
Shabbos, loc. cit., entry vihamehadrin.
5.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Chanukah 4:1-2.
6.
E.g., if four candles were lit in a household, it would be unclear whether one person was lighting four candles because it was the fourth night of the holiday, or two people were lighting two candles, because it was the second night of the holiday.
7.
Shulchan Aruch, loc. cit.:2.
8.
At present, in the Ashkenazic community, the custom is to light the Chanukah candles inside the home, and not in the public domain, as was the custom in the Talmudic era. The concept of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the Chanukah miracle, thus applies primarily to the members of the household, and not to the passersby in the public domain. Accordingly, since the members of the household are aware of the number of people who lit candles, the number of candles kindled makes known the number of nights the festival has been celebrated (Encyclopedia Talmudis, entry Chanukah).
9.
Perhaps this serves as an explanation for the details Rashi adds in his commentary to Shabbos, loc. cit. Rashi states: " 'the bulls offered on the holiday of Sukkos': which are progressively reduced as stated in the passage concerning the sacrifices in Parshas Pinchas," and " 'One should always ascend...': This is derived from a verse in the tractate Menachos, in the chapter Shtei HaLechem." Rashi cites these sources to indicate that the emphasis is on comprehensive Torah principles, and not on concepts relevant to Chanukah alone.
10.
In this context, one can note the distinction between the terms mehadrin min hamehadrin used in this context, and an expression frequently used in other contexts, mitzvah min hamuvchar, the observance of a mitzvah in a most preferred manner possible. Mehadrin min hamehadrin refers to the conscientious and splendid manner in which the person observes a mitzvah. Mitzvah min hamuvchar, by contrast, places the emphasis on the mitzvah, and not on the person observing it.
11.
Darchei Moshe, Orach Chayim 674:1.
12.
Likkutei Sichot, Vol. XX, p. 207ff
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