Details of the obligation to light Hanukkah candles are outlined in the Talmud, Masekhet Shabbat. On 21b we are taught:
Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Hanukkah requires one light for a person and his entire household; the mehadrin, the zealous, a light for each member of the household; and the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, the extremely zealous: Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.
Now, why is it that the enhancement of the mitzvah is a function of the number of family members? Wouldn’t a greater number of candles and a greater amount of light be more mehudar? A small family will always have a dimmer commemoration. And what does the number of family members have to do with this mitzvah altogether?
Consider: the enhancement of the mitzvah has nothing to do with the amount of light at all. The basic obligation requires only one family member to light only one candle on behalf of everyone. It must be that those who are mehader- who are eager to perform mitzvot and desire to enhance their own personal observance—understand that their own fulfillment is insufficient.
For those who are mehader, the love of shemirat ha-mitzvot inspires them to inspire others. Their desire to light a ner mitzvah stimulates them to encourage others to light as well (madlikin mi-ner le-ner!). And when a family empowers each of its members, as a unified group and also as individuals, to express their own commitments to Torah and mitzvot¸ each with the distinctive expression that is uniquely their own, all within the context of the traditions and commitments of their family, there is no great hiddur than that!
This, then, is the antidote to the desire of our enemies “le-hashkikham torateka u-le-ha’aviram mi-hukkei retzonekha”, to cause us to forget Torah and abandon observance. As Rav Huna taught (Shabbat 23a), “One who is careful in the observance of Hanukkah candles will have children who are Torah scholars.” There is nothing magic about this. Success in inspiring children to light their own candles sparks in them a desire to observe more mitzvot and to study Torah.
As a result of the ner mitzvah which we and our family light, may we merit the warmth, inspiration and illumination of Torah ohr, the Torah’s light.
Rabbi Mark Dratch is the executive vice president of the Rabbinal Council of America (RCA) and the founder and director of Jsafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment.