Thursday, December 14, 2006

Illuminating a Machloketh

In Masechet Shabbat (21b), the Gemara discusses the laws of the Chanukah lights. In order to fulfill the minimum requirement of Chanukah, we need light only one candle each night. However, it is praiseworthy to light more. The Gemara quotes a disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding the extra candles. Beit Shammai holds that on the first eve of Chanukah we light eight candles, and then deduct one each subsequent night. According to Beit Hillel, however, we start out with one candle, and on each successive night of the holiday we add another candle. The Gemara explains that the view of Beit Shammai is that the number of lights on any given day corresponds to the days left to Chanukah ("yamim hanichnasim"), while Beit Hillel maintains that the number of lights reflects the days of the holiday that have passed ("yamim hayotzim"). Reading this Gemara, we ask: Why is the number of candles lit on a given day related to the number of days the holiday lasts?

R. Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zt"l, Rosh Yeshiva of Kerem B'Yavneh, addresses this issue in his sefer, Asufat Maarachot. He says that in order to understand this dispute, we must examine another machloket of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.

The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (52b) discusses the proper wording for the blessing on fire in havdalah. Beit Shammai says, "shebara me'or ha'esh" (Blessed is He ... who created the light of the fire), while Beit Hillel opts for "borei me'orei ha'esh" (Blessed is He ... who creates the lights of the fire). The reason given for this dispute is that Beit Shammai holds, "There is one light in fire," and Beit Hillel argues, "There are many lights in a fire." Rashi explains Beit Hillel by saying that "many lights" means that fire has red, white and yellow colored flames. Beit Shammai, on the other hand, would say that light does not consist of many parts; rather, it is one physical reality.

It seems from the Gemara and Rashi that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argue about the physical quality of fire. However, the Vilna Gaon explains that the argument is much more subtle. Both agree that that fire, as we see it, has many components and colors. They also agree that the initial spark that generates the flame is a single entity. The argument, rather, is about which part of the fire we use to bless G-d. Beit Shammai says that the essence of fire is that original spark which created the flame. Therefore, we bless Hashem on the spark, because it is the origin of fire. Since the spark is a single entity, the wording of the bracha is singular. Beit Hillel holds that since we benefit from fire because of the flame, not the spark, we must bless G-d on the flame. Since the flame has many parts, the wording of the bracha should be plural.

Understanding this machloket in further depth will shed light on the machloket about Chanukah lights.

Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (12:5) says that God created the world with an especially clear "super-light." With that light Adam could see to the ends of the earth. This light lasted the day of Adam's creation (Friday), that night, and Shabbat. However, because of Man's sin, God concealed that "super-light." On Motzei Shabbat, when darkness fell, Adam was paralyzed with fear. Hashem taught him to strike two flint stones together and create fire. Now, it is obvious that Adam did not create fire ex nihilo. He was simply taught how to actualize an already existing potential. When God created the "super-light," Adam could use it with no effort on his own part. It was a Divine gift from above. However, when God hid this light, Man was forced to work to benefit, and the fire he created was "by the sweat of his brow." Sefer Habahir (ch. 50) writes about the concealment of this super-light that, "G-d concealed it in the Oral Torah." What does this mean?

The Written Torah and the Oral Torah define two stages in Torah learning. The Written Torah represents the situation before the breaking of the luchot. All the laws and intricacies of God's teachings were unambiguously clear. Anyone interested would effortlessly understand Torah as clearly as the greatest sage. There was no need for toil and exertion in order to understand the precepts. However, once the luchot were broken, forgetfulness and confusion came to the world, and Man was forced to labor with his own intellect to understand the laws of God. We can understand Torah only to the extent that we labor in it. We actualize our potential for Torah in proportion to how hard we work on it.

Let us return to the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Whenever these two tanaim argue, there is a deeper level to their respective opinions. Beit Shammai is more interested in what was meant to be by God (hinted to by the Written Torah). They decide halacha based on a perfect, idealized world, the kind of world originally intended. Beit Shammai decides the lechatchila, the de jure, aspect of the law. On the other hand, Beit Hillel sees the present spiritual level of the word and rules a more practical, bediavad, de facto, halachah (corresponding to the idea of the Oral Torah). The ARI, z"l, writes that although in our times halacha is in accordance with Beit Hillel, in the Messianic age halacha will follow Beit Shammai. (This is the meaning of Pirkei Avot (5:20) that the machlokot between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are for the sake of Heaven and, therefore, both views will eventually be utilized.)

We now have a deeper understanding of the argument concerning the blessing of havdalah. The primary spark that ignites the fire is the original, Heavenly light, the intended illuminant for our world. It corresponds to the Written Torah -- God's word effortlessly understood. According to Beit Shammai, we bless God every motzei shabbat on this idealized light. The light that is radiated by the fire, however, is the light that Adam had to create with his own two hands. This is the Oral Torah, which hints at the exertion of the human mind. According to Beit Hillel, this earthly light (our present situation in the galut) is what must also be used to bless G-d.

The ideas we discussed explain the machloketh about the lights of Chanukah. The one candle that is required each night to fulfill the commandment of Chanukah hints at the Heavenly, beginning spark of fire. This is the concealed light of creation. The rest of the candles imply the earthly, manly light. Now we understand why Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argue.

Beit Shammai lights according to the incoming days (yamim hanichnasim) of Chanukah. Every day we deduct a light, until we reach our goal, the singular, Divine spark. Even after the concealment of this light by God, our goal is to reach it again. Beit Shammai follows their own reasoning, that we bless on the ideal, intended situation. Beit Hillel, however, holds that we light based on the outgoing days (yamim hayotzim). The addition of candles each night symbolizes the present, pragmatic, world situation. We look back at what God has given us, and use that, however distant from the ideal it may be, to thank Him.

May we continue to worship God for the present, while striving to reach an ideal future with the coming of the redemption.