Why Do We Count Up on Chanukah, Instead of Down?

By Tzvi Freeman

Everyone knows that each day of Chanukah you add another candle to your menorah. Well, it wasn’t always that way. Originally, this was a matter of serious debate.

The Jewish sages who lived not long after the Chanukah miracle were divided between the disciples of Shammai (“Beit Shammai”) and the disciples of Hillel (“Beit Hillel”).

Beit Shammai said, “Look, on the first day of Chanukah you’ve got eight days of miracles ahead of you. That’s a lot of potential light. So it makes sense to light eight candles. The second day, there’s only seven days to go, so you should light seven. Until, on the last day, you light only one!”

But Beit Hillel said, “You don’t have any light until you’ve actually lit a candle. What you think you can do means nothing. It’s what you actually do that counts.”

Both sides had a strong point.

On the one hand, if you’re fighting darkness, you want to start by pulling out all the light you have. Then you’re left just cleaning up the leftovers, so less light is necessary.

On the other hand, in a time of darkness, you usually don’t have a lot of light to fight back with. So you start with what you’ve got, and you discover something amazing—that whereas a vast empire of darkness can’t extinguish a single light, one small light can chase away an entire army of darkness.

Indeed, this debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, of potential versus actual, extends throughout the entire Talmud, spilling over into every facet of Jewish law and life.

But in the end, the Jewish people decided unanimously to follow the disciples of Hillel. Indeed, the very word “Chanukah” in Hebrew (חנוכה) is an acronym: ח׳ נרות והלכה כבית הלל—which means “Eight candles and the halachah is like Beit Hillel.”

Why?

Because when you do a mitzvah, its light never goes out. It remains with you, protecting you, guiding you, and channeling blessings toward you. So that today you have the light you gained from yesterday. And tomorrow you will have the light from yesterday and today.

Darkness fades and disappears with time, but the light that shines from a mitzvah can only increase.

Reprinted with permission from chabad.org