Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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We start our Chanukah lighting that solo light on Chanukah’s first night.

That solo then becomes a duet when we add a second flame on Chanukah’s second night.

We then continue adding lights – one additional light each night – until we climax in an eight-light symphony.

This continuous addition of lights in line with Hillel, who: “would add and continue to add [new flames every night].” [1] The Gemara explains why Hillel added lights. It was because Jews are mandated to “increase holiness” – we’re duty-bound to continually embellish mitzvos. Which we can do by continually adding new flames. [2]

Hillel’s counterpart, Shamai, took a different approach. Shamai – unlike Hillel – didn’t start Chanukah with one candle. Shamai, rather, began Chanukah by lighting the maximum number of lights – a full eight flames – on Chanukah’s very first night. On Chanukah’s second night, Shamai only lit seven flames. Shamai then continued gradually decreasing the number of flames – lighting one less light, each passing night – until he concluded Chanukah with just one flame on Chanukah’s last night.

Shamai doesn’t dispute the general principle that we “increase holiness. Shamai, though, – unlike Hillel – focuses on something that overrides the “increasing holiness” rule.

And that is the fact that – on Chanuka – Hashem began decreasing the power of our Greek enemies. We want to commemorate that decrease, so we gradually decrease our Chanukah flames. [3]

Shamai and Hillel don’t disagree about the facts. They both agree that we must commemorate that Hashem diminishes our enemies and challenges – which would have us decrease our flames. They also both agree that we must “increase holiness” – which would have us increase our flames

They just disagree about which of these two principles – the diminishment of enemies or the increase of holiness – our Chanukah candles should emphasize.

Should we remind ourselves that Hashem gradually diminishes our challenges? If so, then we’d follow Shamai and diminish the flames.

Or should we, rather, focus on the good – and on our ability to embellish the good? If so, then we’d follow Hilled and increase flames.

Hillel and Shamai’s different views – about which one of two motifs to emphasize – displays itself in many areas.

One such area, as we will now demonstrate, is that of conversion to Judaism.

Those differences exhibit themselves in discussions about potential converts who weren’t meeting conversions’ exacting standards. One person wanted to convert – but only if he’d be allowed to learn everything relevant for conversion “while standing on one foot.” Another person wanted to convert but would only accept the written – and not the oral – Torah. [4]

Hillel let these relatively uncommitted people start the conversion process. Why? Likely because he assumed that the conversion process – with its exposure to yiddishkeit’s beauty – would motivate a full embrace of mitzvos. [5]

No, Hillel wasn’t certain that there would be an eventual embrace of mitzvos. He, nonetheless, let the process start. And that was because Hillel didn’t focus on how mitzvos might not be fully embraced – on what can go wrong. He, rather, focused on what can go right.

Shamai, by way of contrast, didn’t let these people pursue conversion. These people’s noncommittal attitudes made him fear that they wouldn’t fully embrace mitzvos. Shamai didn’t focus on what can go right. He, rather, focused on what can go wrong.

Hillel’s and Shamai’s viewpoints resonate in so many life arenas.

And one such arena is the arena of chinuch.

Chinuch, more than most arenas, involves these two dimensions.

Chinuch is about shielding our children from the unhealthy values – about shielding them from wrong.

Chinuch is also about showing our children yiddishkeit’s beauty – showing them what is right.

We must, of course, do both. We must shield them from bad and we must inculcate them with good.

We wonder, though, about the ratio: how much energy should we expend shielding from bad? And how much energy should we expend inculcating good?

Shamai would, perhaps, suggest expending extra effort shielding from bad. Hillel would, perhaps, suggest expending extra effort inculcating good.

According to Hillel – whose voice generally prevails in halacha – we should focus our energies on showing our children yiddishkeit’s warmth and meaningfulness.

We should light candles that demonstrate all that yiddishkeit affords us. And not just in how Hashem rewards us in the next world. That’s too unquantifiable and too unseen for children to absorb. But, rather, in what yiddishkeit affords us in this world. In the warmth of a loving, joyous Shabbos seudah. In the power of passionate mitzvos. In all the other benefits of a yiddishkeit that affords family stability, community structure and generosities of soul that just can’t be found elsewhere.

Let’s show our children all that is right.

Once they see all that is right they’ll be much less challenged by all that is wrong.

Rabbi Weber is rav and founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. He gives local and zoom shiurim and is Rabbi Emeritus of Toronto’s Clanton Park Synagogue. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim.

[1] Shabbos 21b

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., as per Rashi on Bamidbar 29:18

[4] Shabbos, 31a

[5] Rashash ad loc.