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I Will Write It In Their Hearts - Volume 1
Letters from the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel regarding the kindling of Chanukah lamps

Translated by: Rabbi Eli Touger

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No. 50

The following letter was written to Rabbi Chayim Dovber Ginsburg, an active Rabbi in Vancouver, B.C.
[Beginning of Shvat, 5703]
In the margins of your last letter, you cited the statements of the tractate Sofrim (2:5) that the custom is to continue to add Chanukah lights [each night]. Two reasons are given for this:

  1. one should always advance higher in holy matters and not regress,

  2. this parallels the days which have already passed.

In the tractate of Shabbos (21b), by contrast, these two rationales are cited by Amoraim as differing views. The Nachalas Yaakov, in his commentary to the tractate of Sofrim (which is printed in the Talmud), notes this and states - without adding an explanation: "Here the Gemara [i.e., in Sofrim] accepts both rationales given in the Talmud [i.e., in Shabbos]."

It is possible to explain that since we are not able to decide in favor of either of the opinions mentioned, neither contradicts the other, and there is no practical difference between them; they are both equal and both should be considered. We have found more inclusive statements in the Talmud, even in places where the matter involves [a difference in] practice, as it is said (Berachos 59a,b et al.) "Therefore we will recite [the blessing] according to both views."[1] See also the interpretation of the Rashbam (Bava Basra 75a) regarding the statement: "I will make them according to both opinions."

Since this subject has been mentioned, I would like to add something which applies to the rationales mentioned, [i.e., that the pattern parallels] the days which are coming or those which have already passed, or that one should continue and increase, or continue and decrease. [The difference between these opinions depends on the conception of whether] the Chanukah miracle grew greater each day or became less each day.

In the year the miracle took place, [the Jews] did not know for how many days the oil would last. Indeed, the commentaries have asked questions with regard to the opinions which explain that on the first day, they divided the oil into eight portions. Moreover, that thesis can be questioned based on the statements of Zevachim 88a which states that a sacred utensil consecrates its contents only when it is full. If its measure is lacking, it does not consecrate its contents.[2]

Similarly, a question can be raised based on Menachos 88b which states that when a lamp [of the Menorah] is extinguished [in the middle of the night], it is obvious [that it should be filled to capacity].[3]

Thus it is obvious that according to the perception of the observers, the greatness of the miracle increased every day. It was not until the following year, as our Sages (Shabbos, loc. cit.) state, that [the commemoration of the miracle] was established as the Chanukah festival. And at that time, it was already revealed that at the outset, on the first day, the oil that was found in the cruse had the potential to burn for eight days. On the second day, it had the potential to burn for seven days, and so on.

[On this basis, we can understand] the rationale of the School of Shammai which maintains that one should light as many lamps as the days which are coming. For by virtue of the miracle, the measure necessary for the lamps to shine for all the eight coming days was included in the quantity of oil. And from day to day, [the potential for] the miracle decreased.

The School of Hillel, in contrast, maintains that [the capacity for] a miracle present in the days which come is only a potential, and has not yet been expressed in actual fact. Therefore it is not appropriate to be stringent and require everyone to acknowledge a miracle [that is only on the level of potential]. For people at large [are affected] only by what they can actually see. To cite a parallel: Yoma 21a states: "The miracles that transpired outside [in the Beis HaMikdash] are mentioned; the miracles that transpired inside are not mentioned."

Accordingly, [the School of Hillel] rules that [the number of lamps depends] on the days which have passed, how the miracle was actually expressed. This is particularly appropriate with regard to lighting [the Chanukah] lamps, for they were instituted to publicize the miracle to the public at large. From this perspective, the miracle grows greater from day to day.

The above explanation also illustrates that, [as is generally its pattern throughout the Talmud,] the School of Shammai is taking a more stringent position,[4] while the School of Hillel is ruling leniently.

Using intellectual adroitness to expand the above, it can be explained that a difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel based on similar principles can be found in another source: In Uktzin (3:5), the Mishnah states: "When are fish susceptible to contract ritual impurity?[5] The School of Shammai states: 'Once they are caught.'" {At that time, in potential, it is as if they have already died. For they have already been separated from their source of life, and it is only a matter of time [until they die].} The School of Hillel, in contrast, maintains that [the fish do not become susceptible to ritual impurity] until they actually die.

To conclude: [These concepts can be applied within the context] of our ethical development and Divine service. Shabbos 31a states that the School of Shammai rules more stringently and the School of Hillel more leniently. Therefore when there is a person whose yetzer hara has contaminated his sanctuary,[6] but who desires to [return and] find shelter under the wings of the Shechinah, according to the School of Shammai, the first and most fundamental step in Divine service is for him to "turn away from evil,"[7] "And you shall obliterate evil from your midst."[8] And when a person begins his Divine service, the evil possesses its innate strength and much effort and light is necessary [to unseat it]. This effort is demanded from [each] person. Every day, however, the evil becomes less and the amount of light necessary on the first day is no longer required.

To cite an example of this: the bulls offered on the holiday of Sukkos. They were offered for the sake of the gentile nations of the world so that they will not cause the world to become desolate (Yalkut Shimoni, the conclusion of Parshas Pinchas), but instead will be transformed into positive [influences]. From day to day, the evil in them decreases and therefore, a lesser number of sacrifices are necessary.

{On this basis, it is understood that there is no contradiction between the rationale that the number of bulls offered on Sukkos continually decreases because they are being offered for the sake of the gentile nations (see Rashi, the conclusion of Parshas Pinchas, and the Chidushei Aggados [of the Maharsha on the passage] in Shabbos [21b], and our Sages' statements in Sukkah 55b that the bulls are intended to atone for the nations.}

The School of Hillel, in contrast, maintains that a person's first step must be to enter under the wings of the Shechinah even though evil still exists within him in its innate strength. He must begin his Divine service through "doing good,"[9] performing service in matters of actual holiness. And then, "one mitzvah will lead to another,"[10] as he advances higher in holy matters. Little by little, he will increase his strength as he continues to grow until he will acknowledge and give praise to His great name.[11] Through this, he will wipe out the descendants of Amalek and then G-d's Name will be great and complete (see Tosafos, entry ViOnim, Berachos 3a).

We would be happy to hear of your positive activities in the mission of Machne Israel and Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch. Certainly, you will write us of these from time to time; thanking you in advance, [and closing]

With the blessing "Immediately to teshuvah, immediately to Redemption,"

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson
Chairman of the Executive Committee



  1. (Back to text) [That passage relates that two Sages mention opinions with regard to the version of a blessing, and the final decision is to incorporate both versions into the text of the blessing.]

  2. (Back to text) [Thus if the lamps of the Menorah had not been filled with oil, the oil would not have been consecrated and would have been unfit for use for the mitzvah.]

  3. (Back to text) [And thus certainly whenever one begins kindling the Menorah, its lamps should be filled to capacity.]

  4. (Back to text) [For they are requiring a person to commemorate in practice something which existed only in potential.]

  5. (Back to text) [I.e., when they are shifted from the category of living entities which cannot contract ritual impurity to that of foods which can.]

  6. (Back to text) [The wording parallels the wording used by Shabbos 21a to describe the Greeks' defilement of the Beis HaMikdash.]

  7. (Back to text) [Cf. Tehillim 34:15.]

  8. (Back to text) [Cf. Devarim 13:6, et al.]

  9. (Back to text) [See above Letters No. 44 and 49.]

  10. (Back to text) [Avos 4:2.]

  11. (Back to text) [Cf. the VeAl HaNissim prayer recited on Chanukah (Siddur Tehillat HaShem, p. 59).]

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