“Ma’alin bekodesh ve’eyn moridin; We ascend in holiness and do not diminish.”


It is recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) that the schools of Hillel and Shammai differed in their practice of lighting Chanukah lights. Beit Shammai would start with eight on the first night, light seven on the second, six on the third, etc.  Beit Hillel would light the way we do today; beginning with one, then two, then three, etc. until all eight lights are lit on the eighth night. 


The accepted reason for Beit Shammai is to reflect the musaf sacrifice of Sukkot, in which our ancestors began with thirteen on the first day, then twelve, and so on until there would be seven bulls sacrificed on the seventh day, and only one on Shmini Atzeret. While the rabbinic tradition does not record this fact, the Second Book of Maccabees (chapter 10) tells us that the twenty fifth of Kislev was the date on which the Greeks first defiled our Temple and the date when the Maccabees rededicated it to God. On that date, after defeating the Greeks, the Maccabees celebrated by observing Sukkot out of season. They instituted that date as a time for an eight-day celebration every year going forward.


The accepted reason for Beit Hillel to begin with one light and increase each night is that “we ascend in holiness and do not diminish.” 


This idea of ascending in holiness appears in other places in Torah literature. We find it invoked in regards to tefillin in the halachic literature. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (10:18) cites it as the reason why we put on the hand tefillin first before the head tefillin (in addition the fact that the verse in the Torah reads “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes,” mentioning the hand first). The head tefillin has the four-branched “shin” and four separate boxes, each with a different parchment scroll inside, instead of one scroll with all four paragraphs commanding tefillin together. Apparently, the head tefillin is “holier” than the hand tefillin. The Shulchan Aruch (OH 25:1) tells us to put on a tallit before putting on tefillin because we “ascend in holiness.” 


In Chassidic writings, we find the idea expounded upon in Kedushat Levi (Kedoshim 1). He writes that when we perform a mitzvah or pray with whole-hearted and honest desire to live with God and to serve God, we grow in humility. That humility drives us to serve God even more earnestly, and so we perform more mitzvot, and we pray even more single-mindedly and fervently. As the saying goes, mitzvah goreret mitzvah; one mitzvah leads to another. When we find ourselves lighting one more Chanukah candle each night, we remind ourselves of that fact. For some people, it can even feel like a manifestation of that. Each light is dependent on the previous one. Each mitzvah builds on the previous one. 

This is true in all areas of growth and learning. If we exercise every day, we are able to do run farther, or lift more, than we did before. If we try to learn a skill or study something, our new understanding or abilities build on what we learned before.  


This is very true of our spirituality. If we regularly do something that inspires our awareness of the holy, that committed practice increases, and so does our appreciation for the sacred. The more we make a practice of giving tzedakah, or avoiding lashon hara, or listening to people non-judgmentally, the easier it becomes, and the more those things become part of our way of living in the world.


Let this Shabbat Chanukah be an opportunity for the meaning of the candles inspire us to ascend in holiness, and not to diminish. Let us ascend in our awareness of the sacred, and in our care for the people in our lives.


Shabbat shalom!

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