The Enlightening Dispute Between Hillel and Shamai

This resource deals with the dispute between Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel the Elder)  and Beit Shamai (the school of Shamai the Elder)  over whether we should add or detract from the number of Chanukah candles that we light each night of the holiday. We will use their dispute to discuss the value of debate in Jewish tradition and the concept of “machloket l’shem shamayim” -“a dispute for the sake of heaven”.

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


Our Rabbis taught: 

The mitzvah of Chanukah […] 

Beit Shamai says: On the first night of Chanukah, light eight candles and detract one candle each remaining night of the holiday. 

And Beit Hillel says: On the first night of Chanukah, light one candle and add one candle each remaining night of the holiday. 

Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Shabbat, daf kaf aleph, amud bet

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן:

מִצְוַת חֲנֻכָּה […] 

בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן מַדְלִיק שְׁמֹנָה מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ פּוֹחֵת וְהוֹלֵךְ.

וּבֵית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן מַדְלִיק אַחַת מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ מוֹסִיף וְהוֹלֵךְ.

Any dispute that is for the sake of heaven will in the end endure. And that which is not for the sake of heaven will in the end not endure. 

Which is the dispute that is for the sake of heaven? Such was the dispute between Hillel and Shamai. And which is the dispute that is not for the sake of heaven? Such was the dispute of Korach and his people. 

Mishnah, Masechet Avot, chapter 5, verse 17

כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.

וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.

אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם? זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי.

וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם? זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • What would Jewish life look like if we truly followed the idea of machloket l’shem shamayim?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is a dispute and what is a dispute “for the sake of heaven”? 
  • What are the reasons and ideas behind the different methods of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai? 
  • What can we learn from the behavior of our Sages? 
  • To what extent is uniformity necessary in Jewish traditions?

Background for Teacher

On Chanukah we are commanded to light candles on each of the eight days of the holiday to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. It is customary to light the candles in a chanukiya  that has nine individual candle cups, the 9th candle being the...

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On Chanukah we are commanded to light candles on each of the eight days of the holiday to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. It is customary to light the candles in a chanukiya  that has nine individual candle cups, the 9th candle being the shamash used to light the other candles. Our Sages taught that is is sufficient for each member of the family to light one candle throughout all the days of the holiday, but the mehadrim (those who wished to deepen their observance of the ritual) lit an additional candle every day of the holiday until they reached eight candles on the eighth day (according to the Rambam, Hilchot Megillah and Chanukah, 4, 1). In modern times, the accepted custom is that of the mehadrim  – adding one candle each day. 

The Talmud cites the dispute between two groups of sages – Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai – regarding the question whether we should add or detract each day from the number of Chanukah candles. Beit Shamai suggests that we begin on the first day of the holiday with eight candles, and then detract one from that number each day until we light only one candle on the last day of the holiday. Beit Hillel suggests that we begin with one candle and add to it each day, ending the holiday with the lighting of eight candles. 

The halacha (Jewish law) was ruled according to Beit Hillel. One explanation for the difference between the approach of Beit Shamai and that of Beit Hillel is that Beit Shamai is marking the number of days remaining in the holiday, while Beit Hillel is marking the number of days that have passed. A second explanation is that Beit Shamai draws a parallel between lighting the candles on Chanukah and the ritual sacrifices on Sukkot, where the number of sacrifices is reduced in number each day. And Beit Hillel is acting according to the principle that “you go up in holiness, not down”. 

This dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai is one of many examples of disputes that appear in the Mishnah. Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai were two groups of students (the students of Hillel the Elder and the students of Shamai the Elder) who had different approaches to halacha. Beit Hillel usually ruled in a more lenient manner, while Beit Shamai tended to favor a more stringent approach. Following most of the disputes between them, the halacha for future generations was set according to Beit Hillel’s opinion. 

The second text brought, from the Mishna, says that disputes between the two schools are examples of  disputes “for the sake of heaven”, which are disputes argued with the goal of clarifying truth, rather than for the sake of honor or status, and thus “will endure”. Meaning, the value of the argument is not nullified for future generations, and the essential questions it raises and different approaches it presents continue to be relevant even after halacha has been determined. 

This is in contrast to the dispute that took place between Korach and his people and Moses, in which Korach and his people challenged Moses’ leadership for the sake of their own honor and status. A “dispute for the sake of heaven” can be interpreted both in terms of the purpose of the dispute, as well as the way in which it is conducted: while listening to one another, out of mutual respect, kindness, etc. We can see that Jewish tradition does not strive to create a singular concept of a truth which is binding, but has rather relied along the way on the existence of disputes, not attempting to dismiss them but rather using tools for dialogue without giving up on the value of truth.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Divide the students into pairs and have them respond to a list of 7-9 statements using the words “agree” or “disagree”. Each pair should formulate a uniform response for each statement. Afterwards, discuss the debate that took place. Is this assignment possible? Is it possible to agree about everything? What stands behind disagreements that we have with other people (whether for personal reasons or because of our worldviews)? Suggested statements: “Pistachio ice cream is better than vanilla”, “the best book in the Harry Potter series is book three”, “pools are better than the ocean”, etc. 
  • Set up candles in two chanukiyot, putting three candles in one and six in the other. Ask the students to tell you the day of the holiday to which each chanukiya corresponds. Afterwards, read the text from the Talmud and ask the students according to whose approach they responded – Hillel or Shamai? Now explain that the chanukiya with six candles is set up according to Beit Shamai’s approach, and then ask the students to tell you on which day of the holiday it would be lit.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai disagree regarding the way to light Chanukah candles. What do you think might be the reasoning behind each opinion? 
  2. Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai were two groups of sages that disagreed with one another about many matters of halacha. What do you think leads people to regularly disagree with each other? Can you think of other situations in which certain people disagree with each other about almost every topic? List at least two things that might be at the core of this behavior.  
  3. The Mishnah states that an argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai is “a dispute for the sake of heaven”. Use your own words to explain the meaning of this concept. How are disputes for the sake of heaven different from other disputes? What makes a dispute “a dispute for the sake of heaven”? (Consider the purpose of the dispute and the way in which it is conducted.) 
  4. How do you feel about disputes? Are you quick to enter into an argument or do you try to avoid them? Is it better to increase disputes in the world, or decrease them? Why? What is the disadvantage of a dispute and when might it be helpful? Give examples.  
  5. What can we learn about Judaism’s attitude towards disputes from the fact that Jewish tradition is filled with the contradicting disputes and opinions of commentators and people of halacha?
    For older students:  How does this approach help create a sense of belonging and acceptance of different paths in Judaism? How does it contribute to your own experience in Judaism? 
  6. Do you think it’s better to have uniformity in opinions and traditions, or multiplicity? Explain and suggest advantages and disadvantages for each approach.
  • Have the students travel back in time to a Talmudic beit midrash  (study house). You can add to the atmosphere with the use of scenery and costumes. Divide the students into two groups – Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai. Each group should argue their case and offer explanations for their opinion regarding the Chanukah candle debate. Hold a beit midrash discussion between the students when they are “in” character. 
  • Choose a real-life topic about which the class disagrees (it’s best to use a dispute that answers to the definition of “for the sake of heaven” – ethical, educational, social). Then, either divide the students into pairs (each student representing one of the opinions) or hold a plenary debate. The students should explain the reasoning behind their opinion, with each student speaking for a set amount of time while the listening students just listen without responding or interrupting their friend. You can also hold a debate using a “talking item”, like a stick, and allow only the person holding the stick to speak while the rest of the students listen. Compare a dispute that is done while listening and allowing space for each side to present its arguments, and a dispute in which each side tries to take over the discussion.
  • The Mishnah indicates that there are positive disputes and negative disputes. Try to create a list of rules for a positive dispute.
  • Discuss some of the other disputes between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel and teach the different aspects characterizing their respective outlooks. For example, you can focus on the dispute over the song that is sung when dancing before a bride, at the heart of which is a debate over the use of white lies. Enrichment on this text can be found here.
  • Further discuss Chanukah candle lighting using the resource about Chanukah candles (for ages 6-11).