The goal of Why? is to help enrich each person’s practice of Judaism by learning more about the reasons behind common Jewish practices, prayers, rituals, and traditions. Please send your own questions by filling out the reply section below, by email to [email protected], or submit them in writing to the synagogue office
Hanukkah begins with the first candle on the evening of Tuesday, December 12.
Question: Why do we light more Hanukkah candles on each night of Hanukkah rather than less?
Answer: Lighting the Hanukkah candles commemorates the miracle that happened when the Jews’ First Temple was destroyed—one day’s portion of the holy oil for the Eternal Light continued to burn for a full eight days until a new supply of oil could be found.
Whether to light more candles each night with 8 on the last night OR 8 on the first night and just 1 on the last night was hotly debated by the famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai in ancient Israel. Hillel and Shammai were the heads of the two academies of Jewish learning at the end of the first century BCE and into the first century of the Common Era. Shammai thought the number of candles on the Hanukkiyah should be reduced each day to show the number of days left of the miracle of the oil. But Hillel thought the number should increase to show that the miracle became greater with each day the oil continued to burn. His reasoning was that we should always strive to do more when doing mitzvot. The Talmud says that the argument was decided in Hillel’s favor so we do it this way today.
A few bonus questions:
Q. Even though we add the candles from right to left, why do we light the candles from left to right?
A. To highlight the newest candle as we celebrate the increase in the miracle.
Q. Why do we light the Hanukkah candles BEFORE the Shabbat candles on the Sabbath?
A. By lighting them just before the Sabbath begins, we avoid lighting a flame on the Sabbath. On Saturday night, we wait till Shabbat ends before lighting the Hanukkah candles.
About Lecha Dodi
Q. Why does the congregation stand and face the door during part of Lecha Dodi?
A. The Friday eve Kabbalat Shabbat service opens with the beautiful hymn, Lecha Dodi. It welcomes Shabbat, using the metaphor of a bride and groom to bring us closer to God and the Sabbath. Written in the 16th century in the Jewish mystical tradition by Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, Lecha Dodi refers to the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of God, as the Sabbath bride welcomed by us as if the congregation were the groom. When singing Lecha Dodi, the congregation stands and faces the door for the last verse which begins with Bo-i v’shalom… and includes bo-i “kalah,” the Hebrew word for “bride,” just as guests at a wedding rise and turn as the bride enters the room. Because the singing of Lecha Dodi is so joyful, anyone who is sitting shivah following the death of a loved one may choose to enter the sanctuary only after Lecha Dodi is completed, just as a mourner would not attend a wedding during shivah.