There is a dispute in the Mishnah regarding the order of the Chanukah lighting. According to the school of Shamai we start by lighting eight lights on the first night and decrease by one light each night until we are left with one light on the eighth night. According to the school of Hillel we start by lighting one light on the first night and increase by one light each night we light eight on the eighth night.
There are two ways to view the kindling of the Menorah; the creation of fire or light. Fire consumes and purifies. It is usually the drastic tool of “last resort” to cleanse and purify. For example, fire is used to make metal objects that were used with non-kosher foods, kosher. The pagans and ancient Christians used fire to purify the souls of those deemed impure. Once fire consumes its target, fulfilling its mission, it ceases to exist. Light spreads and gains strength as it illuminates the darkness.
According to Shamai the Chanukah lights represent the aggressive yet cleansing and purifying attributes of fire. In order to save the Jewish people from spiritual destruction the Maccabees had to destroy the Syrian-Greek armies, liberate the Temple by force, and destroy the vestiges of Hellenistic culture in Israel. According to Shamai, who almost always propagates a stringent view regarding Jewish law and customs, Chanukah represents that idea of cleansing and purifying ourselves from those things that take us away from Judaism. At the beginning of the holiday we need the full force of the fires and fervor of purification while at the end, having succeeded, we only require a single flame.
According to Hillel the Chanukah lights represent the growth and spreading of Torah despite the trials and tribulations thrust upon us by our oppressors and the exile. The Jews under the yoke of the Hellenists started off weak in their faith and commitment but with the encouragement and leadership of the Maccabees were able to grow strong both physically and spiritually until they were able to throw of the Hellenistic influences and return to Torah. The gradual increase of lights on Chanukah represents this growth and spreading of the light of Torah. By the eight day we are strong enough to continue growing spiritually to the light of our faith and belief.
We follow the opinion of Hillel.
(This posting is based on the writings of Rav Shlomo Y. Zevin. It can be found in my book, “Deep Waters”.