Every year in day school, we were taught about the opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, who argue about the best way to light Channukah candles. Beit Shammai writes that each day the number of candles lit should decrease, from eight on the first day to one on the last, while Beit Hillel writes that they should increase, starting with one candle and eight on the last day. Dr. Devora Steinmetz pointed out that we tend to ignore the opinion of Beit Shammai. This isn’t that surprising; after all, not only do we not practice according to Beit Shammai in this case, Beit Shammai also tends to be the one with the weird opinions, and it’s relatively easy to just think of this opinion as just another one of the weird ones. This position also happens to be particularly depressing; rather than going out of the holiday with a bang, the light decreases each day until it disappears.
But Dr. Steinmetz pointed out something fascinating about Beit Shammai’s opinion. As the holiday of Channukah continues, the days begin to get longer—there is more light in the world on the last day of Channukah than there is on the first day. On the one hand, we could use the Channukah candles to complement the increase in light, as the opinion of Beit Hillel does. But in Beit Shammai’s world, when we decrease the amount of candles we light each night, we are responding to what is happening in the larger world. On the first night, when the nights are long and the world desperately needs light, that is exactly what we provide when we light all eight candles. When we get to the last day of Channukah, and the world is not so totally lacking in light, we light one candle, in recognition of the fact that this is not what the world needs from us right now. Beit Shammai is making a statement about how we should involve ourselves in the world and how, as we celebrate our own particular holiday, we should understand how we can provide something to the larger world.