Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai disagree about how you light the Menorah on Chanukah. Bait Hillel says the first night you light one candle and each night you add one more. Bait Shamai says the first night you light all eight candles and each night you light one less. (Gemara Shabbat 21b).
In order to understand this dispute we need to look at another argument between Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai that is recorded in Gemara Berachot (51b). They argue whether on Friday night you first recite the Beracha on the wine or the Beracha sanctifying Shabbat. Bait Hillel states that first you bless the wine then sanctify the Shabbat. However, Bait Shamai rules that you first sanctify the Shabbat then say the Beracha over the wine. Bait Shamai argues that since Shabbat is the reason for the drinking of the wine then the Beracha on Shabbat should come first. Bait Hillel argues that since you need wine in order to make Kiddush and drinking wine is done more often then sanctifying the Shabbat the Beracha on wine enjoys precedence (Gemara Berachot 51b).
Rav Amiel from looking at this argument says we can see that Bait Shamai says that praising Hashem comes before indulging in pleasure. Bait Hillel says that in order to praise Hashem correctly, one’s own pleasure has to come first.
From this we can understand the dispute regarding the lighting of the Chanukah lights. Bait Shamai believes that we follow the precedent of the sacrifices of bulls on Sukkot. On the first day we offer thirteen bulls, and then each day we offer one less until we end with seven on the last day. If we start with eight lights, we begin at the highest possible level of Kedusha we can reach. According to Bait Hillel, we must start with one because the holiness was restored to the Bait Hamikdash over a period of time. Similarly, each time we light another candle we raise a level in Kedusha. As Chanukah progresses, we are able to better ourselves and come closer to Hashem. Now that we understand the dispute we can discover why Bait Hillel’s opinion is accepted as Halacha.
The Gemara (Eruvin 13b) relates that for three years the two schools argued and one day a heavenly voice said that they are both correct but to keep Bnai Yisrael united the Halacha will follow Bait Hillel. The reason we follow Bait Hillel is that Bait Hillel always argued with modesty and quoted the other school first. We see this from a story that happened in Mishna Sukkah (28a). The two schools were arguing and in the Mishna it says, “A person who has his head and most of his body inside the Sukkah (that is Bait Shamai’s opinion) is not good, and Bait Hillel says that it is Kosher. Bait Hillel said to Bait Shamai, that it is not so.” Then there is a story told about the elders of each school that went to Reb Yochanan Ben Hachoranis and the elder of Bait Hillel said that it was okay and the elder of Bait Shamai said that if that was the way Reb Yochanan sat in the Sukkah his whole life he had never fulfilled the Mitzvah of Sukkah. That is where we see the humbleness, of bait Hillel.
From this Mishna we can understand the answer of the Gemara. Here Bait Hillel was trying to be humble while Bait Shamai tried to make itself great. We still have a problem because as the Ritva asked, “Bait Hillel did not write the Mishna, it was Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. How can we prove from this Mishna that Bait Hillel always quoted Bait Shamai first, if Bait Hillel was not the one who wrote the Mishna?” He answers that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was a direct descendant of the head of Bait Hillel and continued in his ways.
Special thanks to my brother Yitzchak for helping me with this article.