On Religion

By Jay Rosenbaum

When I was a young child, I used to spend a lot of time picking out the Hanukkah candles for each night. It was important to me that each of the candles be a different color. Two yellows or two oranges in a row would have diminished the beauty of the Chanukiyah -- the Hanukkah menorah -- I felt.

I didn't realize it then, but I was inadvertently responding to a key message of Hanukkah. There is a debate in the Talmud between Beit Hillel -- one school of Jewish thought -- and Beit Shammai -- another school --about the proper way to light a Chanukiyah. Beit Shammai says on the first night we light eight candles, the second night we light seven, and so on until we get to one. That would seem to make sense. It follows the progression of the oil, which presumably diminished a little bit each day.

But Beit Hillel's view prevailed. Beit Hillel says we light one candle on the first night and increase in number until we light eight candles on the last night. Why? Psychologically, it makes more sense to build to a climax of great light, rather than to see the light diminish each night. In the words of Beit Hillel: maalin ba-kodesh v'lo moridin/ ``We go up in sanctity and not down.''

What does this mean? The Hebrew word kidesh means to ``make holy.'' It also means to draw a boundary around something, someone, or a moment in time and designate whatever is within the boundary for a unique purpose. These meanings are very much connected. For example, we are not permitted to use the light of the Chanukiyah to read by. Why not? Because these lights have been kindled specifically to commemorate the miracle of Hanukkah. They are not like ordinary candles. That is what it means to call them holy.

For the same reason, we may not use any of the eight candles on the Chanukiyah to light the other candles. To assign them the task of ordinary candles diminishes their unique status.

So, to ``increase in holiness'' always means to increase the uniqueness, the specialness of a person, an object or a moment in time. Beit Hillel taught us that in life it is always better to move in the direction of seeing unique beauty where we might not have noticed it before. By contrast, the definition of slavery in rabbinic tradition is to treat people generically. If we give a talented and gifted adult the work a child can manage, we diminish his dignity because we are not seeing him for the unique gifts he has to offer.

The more we love someone, the more they are set apart from the crowd for us. That is why marriage is called kiddushin. It's in our most loving relationships that we recognize and take joy in what it most truly unique about each other.

Like the candles on my Chanukiyah, each of us wants to have our own color. We each deserve to be seen as having our own unique glow -- to be not just one light among many. This is the message of the increasing light of the Chanukiyah. Life is more beautiful when we can increase the unique quality of each moment in time, and learn to recognize special qualities in each other we did not see before. None of us wants to be seen as predictable and ordinary. When we learn to find delightful surprise in each other, each of our days can be filled with miracles.

Jay Rosenbaum is the senior rabbi at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation. He can be reached at 232-8555 or at

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