Hillel, Shammai, Certainty, and Hatred

Alex Braver
April 5, 2012
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When in grade school, I first learned of the famous debate between the ancient rabbinic sages about Hanukkah: The House of Shammai ruled that we should light eight candles on the first night, seven on the second, and continue descending until the last night had one lonely candle remaining, while the House of Hillel ruled that we increase in light and in joy until the eighth night, as is our custom today.  And, of course, I learned the even more famous story about how Shammai scolded a potential convert who asked to have the entire Torah explained to him while standing on one foot, while Hillel succeeded in converting him by saying, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow—the rest is commentary.”

Yet, as my classmate Amichai Lau-Lavie shared in a class at JTS this semester, the Talmud Yerushalmi recounts a tradition in which the debates between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai came to real violence.  In one account, when the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai convened to study and debate in the upper chamber of Chananiah b. Chezikiah b. Guron, the Shammaites outnumbered the Hillelites, and they exploited their majority to make eighteen legal decrees.  In another account, however, they achieved this majority when they “stood themselves below, and killed the students of the House of Hillel.” (Shabbat, Perek 1, Tur 3, Halacha 4).

What caused such polarization between the two traditions?  What are they really arguing about?  A few examples.

In the Talmud Bavli (Ketubot 17a), the Shammaites and Hillelites debate how one ought to praise a bride on her wedding day—Shammai says, praise her “as she is,” which might be read as anything from brutal honesty (“you know, that dress doesn’t really look so great on you”) to carefully selective praise (“my, what lovely…um….nail polish you have today!”).  Hillel, however, rules that one ought to say that she is “beautiful and pious,” regardless of how she might actually look.

Also in the Babylonian Talmud (Eiruvin 13b), the two Houses debate what counts as fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah.  The students of Hillel tell a story that once, their elders and the Shammaite elders were walking, and saw a fellow rabbi sitting with his body in his sukkah, but eating from a table that was in his house.  The elders of Hillel seemed to think this was fine, but the elders of Shammai disagreed, and said to him, “If you have behaved thus [every year], you have never fulfilled the commandment of the sukkah in [all] your days!”

These stories are about more than sukkahs and brides.  The easy answer might be to say that the Shammai was just a strict and abrasive man, unwilling to help a convert, unwilling to tell a white lie at a bride’s wedding, and unwilling to respect the religious practices of his fellows, and that he passed this tradition on to his disciples.  Yet Shammai is not rejected by our tradition.  In fact, Shammai is deliberately included by the students of Hillel, who compiled the rabbinic tradition, and it is for this reason that, according to the Talmud, a Heavenly Voice declared “these and these [Hillel and Shammai] are the words of the living God, but the rule is according to Hillel.”

So, if a heavenly voice approves of Shammai’s harsh, stringent legal approach, there must be something we can learn from it.

It is okay to be strict, okay to be brutally honest at times, okay to believe in objective truth, and okay to hold the line.  Haven’t we all taken a stand on some issue that feels incredibly important to us, but seems relatively minor to those around us?  The Hillelite tradition seems to think that complimenting an ugly and un-pious bride is okay, and that sitting in the sukkah but eating food from outside the sukkah is good enough.  But perhaps we can learn from Shammai, who puts more weight on Exodus 23:7 (distance yourself from a false matter), and who takes the details of the mitzvah of the sukkah incredibly seriously.

Of course, some of the followers of Shammai’s stark religious outlook  lost their way, and the result was the violence in the upper chamber of Chananiah b. Chezikiah b. Guron.  Far from being approved of by the Heavenly Voice, this violence and the eighteen decrees that the Shammaites forced through on that day, according to Talmud Yerushalmi, was “as hard for Israel as the day that the golden calf was made.”  Religious observance and religious strictness for its own sake can become idolatrous; halacha, Jewish law, can become its own form of false worship when not directed toward Godly ends.  We have seen this in the extremists of other religious traditions, just as we have seen it amongst our fellow Jews.

I love Hillel, as do most Jews, and I still gleefully tell the story of Hillel’s one-footed Judaism: “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”  Yet I strive to find my inner Shammai, the inner strength and certainty to assert my beliefs with conviction and intensity.  At the same time, I must reject my inner Shammaite extremists, and always know the difference between certainty in myself and hatred of others, between worship of the Living God and worship of the golden calf.

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1 Comment

  1. Shalom Alex,
    I was wondering if you can help me regarding “my Jewish life?” I am concerned that I am soon headed over a cliff to my “death” as an Orthodox Jew. I have been having issues accepting Torah transmission to this date. I am questioning the validity because I see too many congtradictions in observances and would like to see if you and I can email each other regarding positions I think are true but contradict our rabbis. I need someone well versed in learning. If you cannot help me, perhaps you know of someone?

    Kol tov, Mati

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