The Curious Hanukkah Tradition of Removing One Candle a Night


If you’ve been lighting the menorah this Hanukkah, you’ve likely asked wondered: Do we light the candles right to left or left to right? That’s because you, dear reader, follow Hillel’s ancient rabbinic school of thought. If, however, you went the way of Shammai, Hillel’s rival, you would be asking a very different question: Do we remove the candles right to left or left to right?

That’s right: According to Shammai and those who followed him, as reported in the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, “On the first day he lights eight, from here going [forward], he goes on reducing.” The House of Hillel, on the other hand, maintained that: “The first day he lights one, from here going [forward], he goes on adding.”

So how did we get from there to here? Several centuries later, one Rabbi Yossi offered a symbolic reading, saying that the House of Hillel believed that “holiness should only increase and not decrease.” But another Rabbi Yossi argued that Shammai counted the number of days left, while Hillel counted the days that had passed.

In other words: Is your menorah half-full or half-empty?

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