When one thinks about the words “mehadrin” or “mehadrin min hamehadrin” they may immediately think of a hashgacha on food or a restaurant. What they will or won’t eat. Yet, this term traces back to the Gemara in reference to those who light the Chanukah candles.
Shabbat (21b) teaches that there are three distinct levels when it comes to the minimum amount of candles/oils that must be lit for one to fulfill the mitzvah: 1) One light for a person and their entire household; 2) One light for each night for each member of their household (The Mehadrin view); and 3) One light for each member of the household. Beit Shammai records that on the first night, each menorah would have eight lights and light would be diminished from the menorah until the final night. Beit Hillel records, and what is ultimately ruled as the Halacha, that each night we begin with one light, and increase the lights in our chanukiot through the final day of Chanukah. This final presentation is that of the Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin.
Yet, if one were to look inside the Halachic literature on how to conduct the lighting of the chanukiah, the Shulchan Aruch does not list the first two opinions as viable options as part of the protocol. The Halacha, as recorded by Rav Yosef Karo, is that one must light in the way explained as the view of the Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin. Even one who is extremely destitute must get the money to procure acceptable accoutrements for lighting the Chanukah licht.
This idea is perplexing. There are many mitzvos we are commanded to keep that have added ways in which they can be embellished. The idea of hiddur mitzvah, to beautify the mitzvah that we are about to do, is a wonderful way to provide a deeper connection and meaning to the commandment. But nowhere else do we find this extra level of hiddur as part and parcel to the performance of the mitzvah itself. Rabbi Aharon Ziegler explains in The Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that, such as finding an esrog, the idea of an item or act being mehudar is left to the discretion of the financial ability of the one doing the act or securing the item for use. We do not find any sort of mandatory stringency in regard to any other mitzvah. What is the meaning behind this forced acceptance of hiddur mitzvah?
The answer, one cited by both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Avraham Schorr, is that this extra hiddur in regard to ner Chanukah is because of the very nature of how the holiday itself unfolded. When the Beis HaMikdash was sacked by the Greek oppressors, the Jews who entered the carnage found many jugs of oil strewn about. Yet, in their scrupulousness to get the menorah lit, they would not settle for lighting with oil that was contaminated by the Yevanim. Miraculously, as we know, there was one jug of oil that still maintained the seal of the Kohen Gadol, not made impure by the Greeks in their siege. Therefore, it is precisely because of the zeal of the Chashmonaim and their stringent quest to only light the menorah with pure oil that we light our own menorahs with that same approach in mind. Because the Jews would only use the purest oil that they could find, an embellishment on the avodah itself, we also continue that trend in our homes every Chanukah.