Increase or Reduce

There are two ways to light Chanukah candles. One is to start with the smallest amount of light and increase each day; the second is to start with the greatest amount of light and reduce the light each day. In fact, this was an argument between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel said to light one candle the first night and build up to eight. Shammai said to light eight candles the first night and work down to one.

The Talmud gives us the legal arguments behind their respective opinions. Shammai said we should celebrate the days that are left, while Hillel said we should celebrate the days that have passed because of how the Chanukah miracle occurred. After the Jews discovered one pure cruse of oil and lit it, the miracle was that the cruse of oil would burn for seven more nights. And so, on the second night, Shammai would have you light seven candles, reflecting the seven miracles to come. But Hillel reasoned that because that little cruse of oil started to burn into its second night, you light two candles on the second night.1

From another perspective, Hillel tells us to grow the light, to make it increase as the miracle unfolds. Shammai tells us to shrink the light, to reduce it as the miracle winds down.

Two Paths Toward Change

Hillel and Shammai’s debate applies to every area of growth in life. When you want to change a bad habit or a harmful addiction, when you want to break out of a rut or get out of a harmful relationship, there are always two tasks. One is to lessen the harmful behaviour, the other is to grow the positive behaviour.

Suppose you need to break out of the terrible habit of teasing. You are disgusted by your propensity for the caustic, sarcastic remarks that slip off your tongue without notice. You feel terrible every time you tease, and you know you need to stop. You don’t mean to be crude, but you almost can’t help yourself. You need be more conscientious. You need to think before you speak. But that feels like an overwhelming and nearly impossible task. How do you do it? There are two approaches: Shammai and Hillel.

Shammai says, stop cold turkey. Be your own cruelest dictator and show yourself no mercy. It will be excruciating at first; it will take everything you have and leave you depleted by the end of the day. But remember this: The beginnings are always hardest. If you stay with it, tomorrow will be a little easier. The first day will require your every waking thought. But the second day won’t require as much effort. Every day, your new pattern will be a little more comfortable, a little more familiar. With time, your new custom will become habit.

When you encounter the pains of today, Shammai would have you think about tomorrow. Yes, today is difficult, but tomorrow won’t be as hard. And the next day will be even easier, and it will get easier after that.

On the first night, Shammai says, light eight candles. When the dark settles in, use everything you’ve got. Hold nothing back; you will need every ounce of reserve to battle this darkness. Whether the darkness is in the night or in your soul, it will require much light to drive it away. But once you get used to the light, once you get into the groove of pushing darkness away, it becomes easier. You need less energy to continue the fight than to start the fight.

Therefore, the second night will need only seven candles. Keep reducing candles until such time that the light in your soul will be on automatic and won’t even need to be rekindled as night falls.

Hillel takes a different view. Hillel tells you to go easy on yourself and not worry too much if you slip up the first day despite your greatest effort. You can’t expect to be perfect from the get go. On the first night, you light only one candle. That is not a lot of light, but don’t fret, it is more light than you had yesterday. So, if despite your best efforts, a caustic comment or a teasing remark slipped out, don’t despair. This is just the beginning. Tomorrow you will light two lights, then three and four, until you reach eight.

Tomorrow Will Be Better

Shammai and Hillel agree that you need to look forward. Shammai tells you to think that tomorrow will be easier. Hillel tells you to think that tomorrow will be better. According to Shammai, the resistance will shrink each day as you go along, so the number of candles should be reduced. But the light, the amount of success, will increase each day, and so according to Hillel, the number of candles should be increased.2

A rabbi once looked out of his window to see some children playing a rather dangerous game. They leaned a beam up against the roof and had a contest to see who could climb all the way up to the top. Child after child made it only part way and fell, but as the rabbi watched, he saw his own child make it to the top. At a later point, he asked his child why he alone made it to the top. The child replied, they all looked down to see how far they had come. I looked up to see how little I had left to go.

The Critical Start

Shammai and Hillel disagree on how much pressure you should put on yourself that first day. Shammai says, go all the way; show no mercy. It will be hard, but don’t let that stop you. Hillel says, start with a little today and improve each day as you go along.

Shammai was an exacting teacher; he only accepted pupils of the highest caliber. Hillel was a populist, who took in any student who applied. Thus, Shammai developed an exacting approach and demanded a high standard from his students. Hillel developed a more welcoming approach, one that anyone can adopt.

Hillel’s approach is embedded in the way we light our Chanukah candles today. We keep growing, step by step, candle by candle, light by light and mitzvah by mitzvah. Before we know it, we will have built a huge edifice of mitzvahs, a conglomerate comprised of many little pieces, many individual lights.

When Moshiach comes, things will change. We will all be capable of living up to Shammai’s standards. This is why Jewish tradition teaches that when Moshiach comes, we will switch over to Shammai’s approach and light eight candles the first night and reduce from there. Until that time, we will be proud and effective Hillels—lighting up the world, candle by candle, little flame, by little flame.3