Bet Shammai’s view was that on the first night, all eight lights were to be kindled and the number was to reduce until on the eighth night there was only one light. Bet Hillel took the opposite view; for them, the right method was to light one on the first night, two on the second, three on the third, and finally all eight on the last night.
The explanation of JL Landau, a former chief rabbi of Johannesburg, is that the Shammaites were pessimistic about Jewish survival with the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. “Gazing woefully at the Chanukah lights”, they said, “They will from now grow less and less, dimmer and dimmer”.
The House of Hillel, in contrast, were certain that nothing would prevent the ability of the Jewish people to “stand unshaken, and unbroken, ever proclaiming the words, ‘These lights we shall continue to kindle until the great day will dawn when the ideals of Judaism – love and justice – shall dominate human life throughout the inhabited world’.”
But there is a question to be asked. When Bet Shammai propound their theory in the Talmud they offer an analogy with the bullocks offered in the Temple on Sukkot. The number of bullocks was reduced each day: thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second, eleven on the third, and eventually seven on the seventh day (Num. 29:12). Is the analogy purely a co-incidence, or can we find something deeper in the link between Chanukah and the festival offerings?
One answer is to add up the total number of bullocks offered on Sukkot. The total is seventy, and our ancestors believed there were seventy nations in the world. There are times, Bet Shammai may be saying, when the whole world seems to be arrayed against Judaism, and in a hellenistic civilisation this may well have been the feeling of the Maccabees and their faithful followers. The struggle took time, but little by little the threat was reduced until Jewish monotheism prevailed. Hence, Bet Shammai may be saying, reducing the number of lights symbolises the lessening of the military threat.
Bet Hillel, on the other hand, are not concerned with the military victory. The sages are more interested in the spiritual than the military. For them, what is important is the discovery of the little jar of oil that somehow increased day by day until it lasted eight days and not one.
But there were two miracles, the military and the spiritual. And this fact may explain another interesting phenomenon. When we say the Chanukah prayers, what phraseology do we use? We do not praise God al ha-nes, for the miracle, but al ha-nissim, for the miracles, in the plural. Whoever formulated the wording may have had both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel in mind and recognised that without the military victory, itself unexpected unless the Divine hand had been involved, the miracle of the oil would never have come about.