Hanukkah Candles: Backwards, Forwards, Sideways and Why?

In a few weeks, the most well-known Jewish holiday in the world will grace us with lots of oily latkes and sufagniot as well as a whole lot of fire. Yeah, Hanukkah is around the corner (for all the Jews, the month of Kislev started last week) and we can expect numerous renditions of Adam Sandler’s three Hanukkah Songs in the future as well as his “8 crazy nights” of presents.

While we can expect lots of presents and probably a drinking game or two based around spinning a dreidel, we must not lose sight of what we’re celebrating. What is that? That the Maccabees, with the backing of most of the Jews living in Israel, staged a Leonidas style coup on Antiochus and his Greek pals and drove them out for a couple hundred years. That and we were finally able to start studying the Torah and doing all of them commandments the way we had been before the Greeks showed up and tried to squash us. And of course, that we were able continue to the Temple service, including lighting candles.

Jumping to the candles, aside for being a pyromaniac’s dream, there are a bunch of laws regarding them, such as the fact that you cannot use them as a flashlight to see in the dark like you do when searching the house for bread before Pesach. Or the fact that we light the candles near a window in order to publicize the fact that we gave the Greeks a whooping. But the really interesting discussion is about the order of lighting the candles. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat relates a dispute regarding how to light the Hanukkah Candles. A dispute is no surprise – in every argument between 2 Jews there are usually three opinions – but this one was between the Houses of Study of Hillel and Shammai, the leaders of their generation.

Shammai and his students thought that the candles should be lit backwards from 8 to 1, similar to the sacrifices brought during Sukkot. Hillel said the opposite, invoking the statement that in regards to holiness one must increase, not decrease. The winning side was Hillel, which is why we light 1 on the first night until we reach the pyromaniac’s dream (and Jewish mother’s nightmare) of 8 candles plus the Shamash. Shammai will have his day though, as the Talmud says elsewhere that Shammai’s rulings will be followed when the Messiah comes.