A burning issue: A new order for Hanukkah?

How many lights on the first night of Chanukah, one or eight? Difficult economic times bring new light to an old debate.

By Edmon J. Rodman

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Are you ready for a new Jewish order this Hanukkah?

Considering our economic times, are we faced with a gradual cutback in the way we light the menorah?

Someone once proposed that we light the whole thing on the first night, then cut back one candle each night. Has the time come for that change?

As I think I heard in the famous Hanukkah song:

“On first night — let us light, eight little Hanukkah candle fires ‘tis a sight, left and right — eight little Hanukkah candle fires.”

What with many Jewish households experiencing layoffs or furloughs, or having a recent college graduate who cannot find work, the full menorah glow coming on the eighth day seems so far off in an uncertain future.

Hanukkah comes when the days are short, and this year when money is short, too, maybe we need some extra light on the first night — a flash of burning wax to wake us from our doldrums.

For Jewish households once employed in hard-hit industries like finance, health care, real estate, education and publishing, the promise of the menorah’s light can shed new meaning.

There’s a Hanukkah menorah concept of “pirsum ha’nes,” of publicizing the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. But isn’t that a kind of economic miracle?

Lighting the menorah the way we do now wasn’t always a given. As recorded in the Bablyonian Talmud, there was a debate (about the time of the first century CE) between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel about how to light the menorah.

Beit Shammai says, “On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease.” Bet Hillel contends, “On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase.”

The Talmud also recounts their reasoning: “The reason for Beit Shammai was according to the number of bulls offered up on Sukkot,” a number which decreases each day.

And the Hillel rationale, the one we follow today: “We increase in holiness and we don’t decrease.”

Certainly no one lights the candles the Shammai way — or do they?

I have always loved the way Hanukkah builds to a crescendo of light. It’s gradual, subtle, so very unlike its forced calendar soul mate, Christmas. The song goes “one more candle for the Maccabee children.” Right? Not “one less.”

But with the crescendo comes a price.

In our house, by the eighth night of Hanukkah, you can feel the heat. Since the candles burn in the windows, we need to move them back from the drapes. The big glow comes at the end, and there’s no song for this — at the end I sometimes feel burnt out.

So why not go with Shammai? What if he had it right? This year, Jewish households would find the immediate full first night glow of their menorahs a Hanukkah stimulus package. The festival would begin with a blaze of glory.

Think of it as a Big Bang theory of Hanukkah: Begin with one inspirational burst that just keeps spreading. Hold that image in mind as you light one fewer candle each night. And perhaps try to fill the candle void with something else, like giving tzedakah or recycling.

The change shouldn’t come as much of a shock.

Reviewing my household finances recently, I came to the conclusion that I have been a Team Shammai guy for years and didn’t even know it. How about you?

We wanted the immediate gratification of the big glow: bigger houses and bigger synagogues, giant simchas, better college educations. Easy credit made it happen in a flash.

Just offer up the most bulls we could possibly afford and don’t sweat it. After all, the next day we only need to come up with one fewer.

And that’s when the trouble starts: night two, when we start taking away light. Like politicians haggling over budgets, we find it’s hard to cut back.

“But mommy or daddy, last night we lit eight candles,” the child in us might ask, “why tonight only seven?”

At the moment we feel compelled to explain our Hanukkah deficits, the bills for the Shammai plan begin to come due.

This year especially, organizations that heavily employ Jews — the Jewish federations in San Francisco and Phoenix, The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, even the Council of Jewish Poverty in Metropolitan Chicago, to name a few — may have to look at many days with less light.

As reported in the Phoenix Jewish News, the Phoenix Jewish Federation recently announced that it would be laying off more than half of its staff.

“As difficult as it may be, sometimes scaling down is what you have to do,” said the Phoenix federation board chairman, Steve Gubin.

“This is the time, more than ever, that we need the volunteers to step up to the plate,” he said, suggesting gamely a way to fill the void.

Taking away the light is tough.

I’m changing my Shammai ways and putting up a lawn sign: Vote Team Hillel!

Even the moon supports my change. It waxes and wanes, and Jews celebrate the new month when there is just a sliver in the sky. We watch it grow, adding light. Our natural inclination, one would think in terms of candle lighting, would be to follow the moon.

But in the midst of a period of financial and political tumult, when the economy dreidel has landed on nun, or at best, hay, as followers of Hillel, we may be stuck in the aftermath of the order of Shammai.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)