There are two general reasons given in the Talmud1 for why we add a candle each night:

1) To indicate which night of Chanukah it is.

2) In matters of holiness, we always want to ascend rather than descend.

Many point out that there are fundamental differences between the two reasons, which have practical ramifications regarding the laws of lighting the menorah. But first, some background.

Three Levels of Performing the Mitzvah

The Talmud2 describes three levels in performing the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles:

a) The basic mitzvah is that each evening of Chanukah, a single light is kindled by the head of the household on behalf of the entire household.

b) For those who are mehadrin (meticulous in the performance of mitzvahs), a separate light is lit for each member of the household.3

c) The mehadrin min hamehadrin (those who are even more meticulous) increase4 the number of lights daily.

Meticulous vs. Extra Meticulous

There is one detail that still needs clarification. Is the third level (mehadrin min hamehadrin)a separate level, or does it include and extend the mehadrin level?

According to Tosafot, it is not viewed as an addition to the regular mehadrin way of lighting the menorah. As such, in the mehadrin min hamehadrin level, only one member of the household kindles and adds a light each night.5 However, according to Maimonides, it is viewed as an addition to the regular mehadrin way of lighting the menorah. Therefore, all members of the household who light the menorah kindle an additional light each night.6

The commentaries explain that this disagreement is dependent upon the reason for adding a light each night.7

If it is to indicate which night of Chanukah it is, then we can only have one person lighting an additional light each night. For if everyone in the household lights, it may be confusing as to which night of Chanukah it is.

However, if the reason is that we only increase in matters of holiness, then it makes no difference how many people are lighting, as long as we ourselves are increasing the number of lights. As such, mehadrin min hamehadrin would be in addition to the regular mehadrin way of lighting, and all would kindle an additional light each night.

In practice, the widespread custom in Ashkenazi communities is that each member of the household lights an additional light each night.8

Beyond the Call of Duty

Although, in theory, the mitzvah of lighting the menorah can be observed at different levels, in practice, this mitzvah is unique in that all have the custom to light in the best possible way, mehadrin min hamehadrin.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this reflects the uniqueness of the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. Unlike many other miracles, including the victory over the Syrian-Greeks, the miracle of the oil was seemingly unnecessary (and under the circumstances, they were anyway permitted to light with impure oil). Yet G‑d performed this miracle as an expression of His deep love for His people, who, with great self-sacrifice, had just fought a war in order to perform His mitzvahs.

Thus, in a way, the essence of the holiday is about going above and beyond mere requirements. It is for this reason that the universal custom is to light the menorah in the most meticulous fashion, mehadrin min hamehadrin, reflecting our great love for G‑d and His great love for us.9