For the past six weeks I have been attending a course from The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute called Great Debates in Jewish History. (Link is a fascinating YouTube video.) The debates about Jewish rituals and philosophies span centuries: from the Second Temple era and the Roman occupation of Israel; through the Middle Ages, Spanish Inquisition and Renaissance; up to the 21st century.
The course concludes with the debate on whether or not to hold public menorah lightings because in doing so Jews may only observe the ceremony passively rather than actively participating in the sacred ritual at home. The solution in this case would be to do both—attend the public ceremony AND conduct the ritual at home.
This leads me to another debate that is not covered in the course: do we light the candles from right to left or left to right? Before we can answer that question, we need to decide whether to put the candles in the menorah from the right side or the left side.
I know. You may be saying to yourself, “Really! There’s a debate about that! What difference does it make?” I agree that we have more important things in the world to debate than how to put the candles in the menorah and then how to light them, but in Judaism small things carry great weight. There are lessons to be found in even the smallest details.
For example, in Talmudic times two great sages—Rabbis Hillel and Shammai—debated whether to light one more candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah until the menorah was full, or to start with all eight candles and then light one less each night until the menorah was empty. Shammai argued that we should light one less until the end of Hanukkah because that is what would have happened with the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights: the light would have become smaller each night until it went out.
Hillel argued that by lighting one candle for each day of Hanukkah, we express the miracle of the lights that burned for eight days. By extension, when we follow Hillel’s opinion we add more light to our world each day on both a physical and spiritual level. Light brings hope, and reminds us to continue shining hope, faith, and good deeds into the darkest corners of our world.
Hillel’s ruling won the day, and I have yet to meet someone who lights the candles according to Shammai; however, the debate about which side we put the candles in first, and which direction we light from first, causes me to question my choices and seek instructions every year. Most sources agree that we put the candles in from the right side, then light the newest candle first which means that we light from left to right. In this way, our hand never crosses over or casts a shadow on the lights of the candles, but only if we are using our right hand to light the candles.
What should you do if you use your left hand? And if the menorah is in the centre of a room, which side is which? These issues were debated, too and can be found in the Halachipedia page on Lighting Chanukah candles.
Yes, you read that correctly and might rightly ask which is the correct spelling: Hanukkah or Chanukah. The answer for this debate is also not definitive. As the picture shows, however you decide to spell it, have a happy one!
Fiona Prince, MA is a coach, facilitator and teacher who provides fundamental communication and writing skills to help people succeed in their professional and academic lives. She worships at the Chabad Family Shul where she volunteers teaching children and adults how to read Hebrew. Sign-up for weekly communication tips at princeheron.com
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the TImes Colonist on Saturday, December 16 2017