Up to Hashem and Down to the World: Making Sense of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel

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Hannah Abrams


The two great schools of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel found themselves once again at odds.[1] Beit Shammai ruled that on each night of Hanukkah we should light the candles in descending order, while Beit Hillel ruled that they should be ascending. What is the motivation behind each opinion?

The Gemara in Shabbat 21b offers cryptic reasons behind Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel’s opinions. Hazal suggest that Beit Shammai compare the Hanukkah candles to the “parei he-hag,” the bulls brought as sacrifices on the holiday of Sukkot, which decreased in number each day; in contrast, Beit Hillel’s ruling is based on the principle of “ma’alin ba-kodesh ve’ein moridin,” that one should increase in holiness and not decrease.

However, there is a significant problem with these explanations. Beit Hillel’s reason that you should only increase in holiness seems so compelling that it is difficult to understand how Beit Shammai could reject it. Perhaps we could understand Beit Shammai’s reason for rejecting ma’alin ba-kodesh if they quoted a similarly important principle in defense of their ruling. However, Beit Shammai do not cite a principle; they merely compare the Hanukkah candles to one aspect of the parei he-hag. This is not an argument but an analogy, and it does not seem to be an adequate response to Beit Hillel’s argument.

The explanations of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are not comparable and seem to be operating on very different planes. Therefore, our first job in untangling these reasons is to understand how Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in fact operating on precisely the same plane.

What is Beit Shammai based on?

Beit Shammai maintains that we should compare the lighting of the Hanukkiah with the order of sacrifices listed in Parshat Pinhas for Sukkot. There we offer thirteen bulls the first day, twelve the next, and so on, all the way down to seven on the last day of the holiday. So too on Hanukkah, maintains Beit Shammai, we should start with eight and work down to one. However, the connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah remains unclear.

What actually happened on Hanukkah? The Beit ha-Mikdash had been desecrated by the Greeks; re-consecrating it was the first priority of the Hashmonaim when they won the war. They immediately returned to the Beit ha-Mikdash with the intention of bringing it back to its previous glory, re-purifying it, and re-dedicating it in service of God.

Hanukkah is about hanukkat ha-bayit, a dedication of the Beit ha-Mikdash. Beit Shammai invites us to look at the other times in our history when the Jewish people dedicated a Beit ha-Mikdash. For example, they always do so on Sukkot. In Melakhim I 8:1-4, we read about Shlomo ha-Melekh gathering Benei Yisrael (the Israelites) to Jerusalem to inaugurate the first Beit ha-Mikdash specifically on Sukkot. In Ezra 3:1-4, we see Ezra doing the same for the second Temple.

Beit Shammai is suggesting that on Hanukkah, the time when the Jews regained their Beit ha-Mikdash and re-sanctified it, we should be reminded strongly of Sukkot because when the Jews build a new Beit ha-Mikdash, they inaugurate it on Sukkot. In fact, Maccabees II 10:5-7 records that when the Hashmonaim retook the Beit ha-Mikdash on Hanukkah, they celebrated for eight days, explicitly stating that it was “in the manner of Sukkot.” Although they did not win the war at the time of Sukkot, they still chose to re-dedicate the Temple with a Sukkot-style holiday, which included bringing the parei he-hag.

We now know that throughout Tanakh, Sukkot is linked to the event of hanukkat ha-bayit. However, we still do not understand what specific element of Sukkot is being drawn on here. The answer to this will help us understand Beit Shammai’s reasoning, but let us leave it for a moment to gain a deeper perspective on the basis for Beit Hillel’s reasoning.

What is Beit Hillel based on?

Rashi on Shabbat 21b (s.v. ma’alin ba-kodesh) points to a gemara in Menahot 99a, which is the original source for the principle of ma’alin ba-kodesh. Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi teaches us that we learn this principle from the way that Moshe Rabbeinu built the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). Moshe built the Mishkan from the bottom up, starting with the sockets, then the planks, then the bars, and finally the tall pillars (Shemot 40:17-20). From Moshe’s example, we thus learn that in matters of holiness, one must start at the bottom and work one’s way up toward Hashem.

Beit Hillel apparently also understand that Hanukkah is a hanukkat ha-bayit; however, they connect it not to the Beit ha-Mikdash but to the original building of the Mishkan. Just as when Moshe first built the Mishkan he did so in a way that exemplified ma’alin ba-kodesh, so too on Hanukkah, we should recall the Mishkan by starting at the bottom and reaching up to Hashem. We emphasize this idea in the Torah reading throughout Hanukkah, which is taken from Parshat Naso (when Moshe and Benei Yisrael first dedicated the Mishkan).

It is thus clear that far from addressing one another’s opinions at cross purposes, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are in fact very much in conversation with one another. They agree that the dedication of a previous holy house serves as the prototype for Hanukkah. They only differ on which house. Beit Shammai think it should commemorate the Beit ha-Mikdash while Beit Hillel think it should commemorate the Mishkan.

But what makes the building of the Mishkan or the Beit ha-Mikdash a more appropriate model for Hanukkah?

Building the Mishkan and the Beit ha-Mikdash

What is the difference between these two construction projects? We have already noted that the Mishkan was built on the principle of ma’alin ba-kodesh, as Moshe built the Mishkan from its smallest parts at the bottom to the top. Is this not obvious? How else does one build, if not from the bottom up?

However, the way the verses describe the Beit ha-Mikdash subtly departs from the principle of ma’alin ba-kodesh. Granted, Shlomo followed the basic principle of building “from the floor of the house till the ceiling beams” (Melakhim I 6:15-16). However, in decorating the Beit ha-Mikdash, he inverted the pattern; the text first describes the intricate copper work on the tops of the pillars and then descends to describe the “molten sea,” working from brim to base (Melakhim I 7). The book of Melakhim apparently thought that it is more important to mention the top before the bottom. Is this to suggest that one should sometimes go down in holiness?

Another way of expressing the idea of bottom-to-top and vice versa is to frame it as building from within or building from without. The Mishkan was built purely out of materials found in the desert (Shemot 35:20-29). Benei Yisrael freely donated all the necessary materials, implying that they were all in the desert with them. They started with what was available to them within their own community and built up to Hashem. Shlomo, on the other hand, sourced his materials from far and wide, not only from within Eretz Yisrael but from other nations too (Melakhim I 5:27-32). He created his great house for Hashem with wood, stone, and precious metals from the entire world. He was working outside-in.[2]

These building techniques reflect the characters of each great house. Moshe built the Mishkan from the bottom up, demonstrating to Benei Yisrael that between us and God, we must start at the bottom of a long ladder where the only right direction is up. An important quality of the Mishkan was the way it encouraged intimacy between Hashem and Benei Yisrael, being alone in the desert. In this private relationship with Hashem, the only focus was on how to become closer to Hashem; to draw closer, one must take gradual steps up one’s personal ladder toward Hashem. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 35) tells us that Hashem showed Moshe exactly what the Mishkan looked like, with the result that the Mishkan was built precisely to the specifications of Hashem. Bnei Yisrael wanted to unify themselves entirely with Hashem’s wishes in building the Mishkan, an expression of intimacy between them.

Shlomo, however, was building God’s house as a grand statement to all of humanity. He knew that when introducing people to Hashem for the first time, he needed to dazzle them with magnificent ceilings and masterpieces of design. His Beit ha-Mikdash was built to showcase Hashem’s glory to other people, rather than being purely about Benei Yisrael’s relationship with Hashem. Shlomo stated this goal explicitly in his prayer at the dedication of the Beit ha-Mikdash: “Also the non-Jew, who is not of Your people Israel, but will come from a far country for the sake of Your Name. For they shall hear of Your great Name, and of Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm, and he will come and pray toward this house” (Melakhim I 7:41-42). In fact, this mission was accomplished in his lifetime. The Queen of Sheba came precisely because she heard of the name of Hashem which Shlomo had made famous (Melakhim I 10:1). Zekhariah (14:16) tells us that in the future, the nations of the world will come and celebrate Sukkot along with Benei Yisrael.

It is Sukkot which is the festival most representative of this purpose of the Beit ha-Mikdash; therefore, it is Sukkot which was chosen by Shlomo, Ezra, the Hashmonaim, and Beit Shammai to commemorate the inauguration and re-inauguration of the Beit ha-Mikdash. On Sukkot, we bring a different number of bulls each day (the parei he-hag), which adds up to seventy. Hazal teach (Sukkah 55b) that these bulls represent the seventy nations of the world. The Midrash (Tanhuma Pinhas 16) expands on this, suggesting that here Benei Yisrael bring the parei he-hag with the intention of inspiring the nations of the world to come to Jerusalem to love Hashem and the Jewish people. They don’t just represent the nations; they actively try to bring them closer.

For seven days of Sukkot, Benei Yisrael pour their national energy into inspiring others. They start with thirteen bulls, the largest number of the most expensive and impressive sacrifice that we are obligated to bring throughout the Jewish calendar. Why? When someone new walked into the Beit ha-Mikdash on Sukkot, she was mesmerized by magnificent ceilings and intricate copper work, blown away by the bountiful bull sacrifices offered in honor of the Creator. The first time is as impressive and exciting as possible. The following days are gradually less so as we try to transition them to a more normal and constant mode of worshipping Hashem.

Back to Hanukkah

We have explained how the ideas of parei he-hag and ma’alin ba-kodesh are closely related to the inauguration of the Mishkan and the Beit ha-Mikdash and are therefore suitable precedents to choose for Hanukkah, and we have explained Beit Shammai’s underlying logic. But now the tables are turned. Beit Shammai’s rationale seems to be more intuitive than Beit Hillel’s. Since the Hanukkah story is about the Beit ha-Mikdash, why go back to the Mishkan?

The Mishkan represents the intimate relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, while the Beit ha-Mikdash (particularly the element of parei he-hag) represents the way that the Jewish people take their existing relationship with Hashem and spread that message to the world.

I would like to suggest that Beit Hillel understand that Hanukkah is all about the relationship between Benei Yisrael and Hashem. The Greeks were fighting a fundamentally spiritual battle against the Jewish people, seeking to undermine the essential elements of our relationship with Hashem. We say in Al ha-Nissim that “the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to make them transgress the statutes (hukim) of your will.” The Greeks were attacking the Torah, which was given particularly to the Jewish people, directing their efforts against the statutes (hukim), the laws without logical explanation, which are based entirely on our trust and faith in Hashem.[3] And while Hashem helped Benei Yisrael win the war, He also gave them another miracle, separate from the national public victory. This was the miracle of the Menorah, which occurred in the intimacy of the Heikhal, a place that only the priests were allowed to go, showing Benei Yisrael that their relationship with Hashem had been redeemed. Of course the most appropriate symbol to choose for honoring our intimate relationship with Hashem is that of the Mishkan, not the Beit ha-Mikdash. And that, I suggest, is why Beit Hillel’s reason relied on the principle of ma’alin ba-kodesh.

Beit Shammai read the story differently. In their view, Hashem helped Benei Yisrael achieve their victory because the Beit ha-Mikdash had been desecrated and was no longer capable of spreading the name of Hashem to all the nations. Indeed, how could it so long as there were idols in the Heikhal? Hashem helped the Jews win the war and take back the Beit ha-Mikdash in order for them to once again fulfill their mission of spreading His name. As we say in Al ha-Nissim, “You made for Yourself a great and holy name in the world, and for Your people Israel, You performed a great salvation.” The miracle of the oil in the center of the Beit ha-Mikdash is a strong assertion of Hashem’s renewed presence there. He intends to reside in His house and, from there, spread His light far and wide. The ideal of the Beit ha-Mikdash, expressed by the parei he-hag, is the ultimate parsomei nissa (publicizing of the miracle). That, I suggest, is why Beit Shammai chooses to link the Hanukkah candles to the parei he-hag.[4]

Yet we rule in accordance with Beit Hillel that the essential element of the Hanukkah candles is the Jewish people’s personal relationship with Hashem. When we walk into the Beit ha-Mikdash, we aspire to have a different experience from that of many others. We will see not the beautiful trimmings but the basic structure, the work that went into building it. We know the effort it takes to grow close to Hashem, and we pray that the rest of the world will also come close to Hashem, working up from the nuts and bolts of the relationship to reach its magnificent heights.[5]

[1] My thanks to Rabbi J. J. Schacter for his invaluable assistance with this article and for his constant support and guidance.

[2] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Parshat Terumah – Mishkan Hashem, and Mikdash Shlomo, https://www.etzion.org.il/en/mishkan-god-and-mikdash-shlomo#_ftnref1.

[3] The idea that these words refer to a particular relationship that Benei Yisrael have with Hashem is based on a Hanukkah sihah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 5726 and 5734 (Likkutei Sihot (heb.) 25, Hanukkah), which I learned with my father, Tim Cowen. Thank you for all you have taught me and continue to teach me.

[4] Beit Shammai’s position is reflected in our choice of haftarah on Shabbat Hanukkah. On the first Shabbat we read Zekhariah 2:14-4:7, a vision of the rebuilding of the second Beit ha-Mikdash. On the second Shabbat we read Melakhim I 7:40-50, the completion of the work on the first Beit ha-Mikdash by Shlomo ha-Melekh.

[5] This mahloket between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel could be said to parallel their debate about the way that Hashem built the world. In Bereishit Rabbah 1:15 we read, “Beit Shammai said the heavens were created first and after that the earth was created. Beit Hillel said the earth was created first and afterward the heavens.” Here too, we see them arguing about the order or building – do we build up or down? Perhaps Beit Shammai are consistently of the opinion that our job in this world is to take inspiration from above and spread it outward, while Beit Hillel think that Hashem made the world with the primary desire that we humans learn to rise closer to Him. My thanks to my father for pointing out this parallel.

Hannah Abrams is currently learning in Hilkhata, a Halakhah program at MATAN in Jerusalem, and has an MA from the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies at Yeshiva University. Hannah lives in Jerusalem with her husband Yoni and son Akiva Simcha.