The gemara in Shabbat 31a states "A person should always be a humble one such as Hillel, and not strict one such as Shammai." From there, the gemara cites a case demonstrating Hillelís extreme patience, and them cites three other cases of gentiles who sought to convert to Judaism, only to be chased away by Shammai due to the seemingly preposterous nature of their requests. We are then told that Hillel converted all three, and the gemara blames Shammaiís strictness for trying to deny them the eternal benefits of Judaism. There is a problem that arises from this page. Shammai was of the great leaders of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period. He was the Av Beit Din (head of the Sanhedrin) and is listed in Avot as being, along with Hillel, part of the fifth and final of the "pairs," a succession of princes and heads of the Sanhedrin that formed a vital link in the chain of tradition during that time. Given this, how does the gemara reflect on him in such a negative light, to the point where it admonishes us not to follow his ways when conducting our daily lives? Furthermore, this is seemingly not an isolated text. Avot 2:4-5 states in the name of Hillel that "ein ha-kapdan lamed," a strict one cannot teach. Shammai is the lone Talmudic personality ever referred to as a "kapdan," and as such this statement, perhaps even more so since it is uttered by Hillel, may perhaps be yet another strike at him. Why is this so?

There is more to this picture. The gemara in Eruvin 13b states that the Schools of Hillel and Shammai fought for three years, each claiming the law to be like them. Finally, a "bat kol" (heavenly voice) came out and said "these and these are the words of the Living God, and the law is according to the view of the School of Hillel." Why did this school merit that the law should always follow their view? The gemara explains that they were pleasant and always explained both their view and the view of the School of Shammai when they presented a law, and that they always placed the words of the School of Shammai before their own. This sets the general principle that is followed throughout most of the rest of the Talmud - when there is a debate between these two schools, the law follows the view of the School of Hillel.

There are several places throughout the Talmud that seem to strengthen the idea that a slant exists against Shammai and his followers. Tosefta Shevi'it discusses the law of a field that was improved during the seventh year. While any sort of agricultural labor is forbidden in this year, the Tosefta seals with the situation where the work was done illegally and wants to know if the field may be sown at the end of the year. Shammai states that were the time favorable he would declare that the field not be sown, and in fact the court that came after him established the law according to this view of Shammai. The fact that Shammai himself, despite his position at the head of the court, was unable to make such a ruling, reveals the fact that for some reason he lacked the power necessary to properly execute his duties. How did such a situation evolve? A look at several sources will show how Shammai came to be isolated from both his adversaries in the School of Hillel and from his own students as well.


There are several cases in the Talmud where Shammai demonstrated a level of strictness that went above and beyond what was called for by the law. The mishna in Succah 2:8 states that women, children, and slaves are exempt from sitting in a succah. Despite this fact, the mishna relates that when Shammai's daughter gave birth on the holiday, he opened up the roof of the house and replaced it with the thatch-like roof necessary to fulfill the requirements of a succah, thus ensuring that the newborn would be able to fulfill this commandment. In a similar vein, Yoma 77b states that Shammai was so careful in adhering to the prohibition of washing oneís hands on Yom HaKippurim that he would not even hand food to a child on that day (handling food implied that one had first washed his hands). To counter this stringency, the Rabbis decreed that one should hand food to a child with both hands, and thus wash both hands, to show that one would not be in violation of any prohibition by doing so. Even further, Shammai was known to hold views that diverged from those held by his own students. Mishna Orlah 2:4-5 deals with the prohibition of eating anything that had impure ingredients. The School of Shammai adhered to the view that any quantity of the impure additive renders the dish impure, while the School of Hillel required an amount equal to one egg of the impure substance. Dostai claims to have heard Shammai himself state that an egg's amount is required to make the entire mixture impure.

Bava Batra 133b relates an encounter between Shammai and Yonatan ben Uziel, the top student of Hillel (see Succah 28b). While the encounter itself concerned merely a halachic issue, it is described in such a way as to make Yonatan emerge victorious over his mentor's chief rival. Finally, there is the gemara in Beitzah 16a. There it states that Shammai would prepare all week for Shabbat, yet Hillel would do everything for the sake of Heaven. Taken separately, these two statements are completely unrelated and each one praises one of these sages for different commendable traits. However, their juxtaposition results in a diminution of the greatness of Shammai by implication. All of these instances, and several other throughout the Talmud, create a less-than-positive image of Shammai (and his school). Why is this done? Why is one of the greatest Jewish leaders of the time seemingly shoved to the side? Logically, this should not to be the case, as the continuation of our study will now seek to demonstrate.


There are several instances in the gemara where Shammai is held up as a paradigm, contrary to the image that we have created of him thus far. The mishna in Yevamot 1:4 discusses some of the arguments between the schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding the laws of levirate marriage (yibum) - which relatives can marry each other and under what circumstances. Any marriage that is ruled to be forbidden can produce severely adverse results, such as children who are bastards. The mishna tells us that despite the fact that these two schools frequently disagreed with regard to these issues, they still married women from each other's houses. No animosity existed between the two, to the point that the side that did not have the law established according to their view would still enter into a marriage that they considered to be forbidden. As the gemara states "This is to teach us that they conducted themselves with love and friendship so as to keep the verse 'truth and peace you shall love.'" Underscoring that point is the mishna in Avot 5:17, where Hillel and Shammai are presented as the epitome of "machloket l'shem shamayim" - argument for the sake of Heaven. Clearly, the Talmud regards Shammai in manner befitting his position and stature. Why, then, do many examples to the contrary exist?

Our first answer to this problem is rooted in the separate roles held by Shammai and Hillel. As already noted, Shammai was the Av Beit Din, the legal leader of Judaism during his time. Hillel served in the complement role, occupying the position of Nasi, or prince, essentially the political leader of the nation. The difference between the two jobs is more than a titular one, and it has several implications. Tosefta Sanhedrin 7:5 discusses the various forms of honor given to men of great scholarship. There it states that when the Nasi would enter a room, everyone would rise and would remain standing until he specifically instructed them to return to their seats. By contrast, when the Av Beit Din would enter, two rows were made by the people for him to pass through, after which point everyone would return to his seat. Even without this law, it would seem logical for the people to accord greater honor to their political head than to their legal one. While both were expected to be giants in Torah, it would seem that the Nasi would be in more constant contact with the people than would the courtroom-bound Av Beit Din.

Viewing Hillel and Shammai through the scope of their respective jobs, the splits in their characters become more easily explainable. Perhaps no set of statements highlights this point more than Avot 1:12-15. First, Hillel issues his famous statement to "love peace, pursue peace, love all creatures, and bring them closer to Torah." Hillelís concern and advice is of a popular nature. While Torah was the ultimate goal of harmony, brotherhood was of paramount importance. Shammai, meanwhile, declares the following: "Make your Torah a set thing, say a little and do a lot, and receive every man with a cheerful face." While the gist of this statement seems to be very similar to that of Hillel, there are two main differences. The first is the order. For Shammai, the great legal figure, Torah study is first and foremost. It is to be a constant endeavor. Interpersonal relationships are not ignored by Shammai, but they are of a lesser importance. The second difference is in the particular phraseology of the two statements. In Hillel's words, peace is something to be "pursued" - it is to be an active and aggressive endeavor. Shammai focused on those who were already close to Torah, and was concerned mainly that such people do not slacken in their study. Friendship exists as a character trait of one who is truly immersed in Torah study. Each man spoke to the people that he was familiar with.

Thus, we come to one understanding of the line in Shabbat that we began with. Shammai's stringency was not wrong. Most likely, Shammai did what was correct according to a strict, legal view of the law. However, he was not a man of the people. His conduct was geared towards the intellectual milieu in which he was steeped, a mode of conduct that was not necessarily applicable to the world at large. Thus, when instructing us how to act, the Talmud endorses the nature of Hillel over that of Shammai.


Our second answer revolves not only on what Hillel and Shammai say, but also on the deeper basis behind their statements and the methodologies involved. Returning to Tosefta Sanhedrin 7:5, we are told about an encounter between Hillel and the Bnei Beteira, his predecessors in the role of Nasi. In an exchange believed to be crucial to his assuming power, he divulges his seven hermeneutic principles that are to serve as a basic means through which to approach Torah study. Shammai is never recorded as listing any such principles, and they do not seem to play a role in his and his schoolís approach to learning.

To illustrate this point, let us focus on a particular case. The gemara in Nazir discusses the various verbal formulations that will produce a valid pledge that will render one a nazir, obligated to separate himself from the community for a period of time. According to the School of Shammai, any formulation is binding, while the School of Hillel accepts only phrasings that are specific enough to reveal a real desire by the individual to accept this pledge of asceticism upon himself. This view of the School of Hillel is rooted in their particular approach. Only a statement that clearly has a connotation of a desire to be a nazir is halachically binding. The School of Shammai, on the other hand, is guided by the doctrine of reason. They invoke the clause that "no man speaks in vain," and thus any statement revealing any sort of desire to separate oneself is binding, and thus an individual becomes a nazir. A second example comes from mishna Nedarim 2:3. The case there is of a person who saw others eating his dates, and placed a ban on them if they were to eat anymore. Subsequently, he discovered his father and brother to be among the group. The School of Shammai reasons that he logically would not place a ban on his relatives, and thus only those not related to him are affected by the ban. Conversely, the School of Hillel adopts the position of Rabi Akiva (mishna Nedarim 9:6), which states that any ban that is partially rescinded is completely rescinded, and thus the ban falls off completely. Once again, we see the followers of Shammai governing by reason, while those of Hillel seek to intellectualize the law.

This insight into the varying styles is crucial to understanding one of the major anomalies presented in the Talmud. In almost every halachic situation, the School of Shammai adopts a view that is stricter than that of the School of Hillel. However, mishna Eduyot presents fourteen cases where the reverse is true. While this seems to be out of place at first glance, a closer inspection reveals that neither side deviates from their respective approaches. In these cases, the rule of reason, used by Shammaiís followers, happens to produce a more lenient decision, while Hillelís dialectics and other exegetical tools result in more stringent views. Furthermore, reason only extended so far for Shammai. A Canaanite slave becomes a Jew when he is freed by his master. In the case of a slave who was owned by two Jews and freed by one, the question arises as to the legal status of this person and what should be practically done. The School of Hillel arrives at what seems to be a logical conclusion - the slave works for his remaining master for one day and for himself the next. The School of Shammai is unable to accept such an approach. While the master gets exactly what is owed to him, the slave is still in a quandary - he is unable to marry a Jewish girl, as he is still partially a Canaanite slave, yet he may not marry a Canaanite girl, as he is partially a Jew. Thus, they state that we force the second master to let the slave free. This ruling, conceded to by the followers of Hillel, is listed as one of the rulings made for "tikkun ha-olam," literally the fixing the of the world. For Shammai and his followers, intellectualization of the law had its limits, and reason had to prevail in situations where such theoretical approaches would be detrimental to the forward progress of human society.

Given all of this, how do we now explain the gemara in Shabbat? The answer lies in history. Before 70 C.E., the date of the destruction of the Second Temple, the word of Shammai was law. After the destruction, Hillel's approach become the accepted way of deciding the law, a trend affirmed by the heavenly voice. The key element in understanding this difference is the nature of the societies that existed at these times. Before the destruction of the Temple, there was a great amount of factionalism in Judaism. Of all of the sects that existed, no two were in closer contact or in greater conflict with each other than the Tzedukim (Sadducees) and the Perushim (Pharisees - the Sages). The main difference between these two groups was an interpretive one. The Tzedukim were strict textualists, and denied many concepts central to the beliefs of the Perushim because they were passed down but never written down (see Avot D'Rabi Natan 5:2). As such, their appeal was one of leniency with regard to the legal tradition of the Perushim. The Perushim, by contrast, operated on the rule of reason, and it was in this context that Shammai's system thrived. He saw things as being monolithic - things were either permitted or they were forbidden, and any details followed from the main law from which they were derived. Hillel's approach was one that was much more dangerous at this time. By seeking to create dialectics and divisions in the law wherever possible, he espoused a philosophy that Torah was open to many varying forms of interpretation, so long as a viable case could be made. Had his system prevailed, there would have been room for the Tzedukim to present their system as just one more interpretative approach. By insisting on minimizing such styles of interpretation, Shammai sought to quell the threat presented by the Tzedukim, and thus his system prevailed in that era.

What happened in 70? What events caused the shift of power from Shammai to Hillel? The destruction of the Temple resulted in major upheavals in Jewish society. Among the changes was the virtual disappearance of many of the sects that had previously existed. However, a new threat to Judaism was on the rise, namely the nascent religion of Christianity. Unlike the Tzedukim, the Christians did not present a threat to the Perushim from an intellectual standpoint. The main threat that was involved stemmed from the drive of the Christians to proselytize. They presented an agenda that included little stress on acts and much on belief, and an agenda that extolled love and tolerance as the traits most desirable in a good human being. In this setting, the School of Shammai was ineffective. Their doctrines of stringency were sufficient to keep Judaism hermetically sealed against the threat of intellectual assault, but those same doctrines had the reverse effect was pitted against Christianity. Their unwillingness to bend on points of law would not appeal to those who were wavering between the two religions.


Hillel's school, by contrast, followed two traditions vital in countering the new opponent. They had Hillel's doctrine imploring them to love everyone, but, more importantly, they gave their legal opinions based on an approach that was conditioned to be more lenient and to permit more detailed exceptions than the approach of Shammai did. As the key was no longer strengthening those who were within the fold, but rather bringing in those who were not there yet - uímekarvan la-Torah - the School of Hillel began to assume power.

Our puzzle is now complete. Shabbat 31a was likely written well after the schools had disappeared and the system of Hillel had become second nature throughout the Talmudic world. When the gemara exhorts its readers not to be strict like Shammai, it is speaking to the people of its generation. The stories that follow are the paradigm cases where Hillel prevails over Shammai. They highlight the main weakness of Shammai in the Christian era - his system and approach were too strict His principles were not wrong, but were anachronistic in the post-70 world (as such, we are told that in the future, we will once again return to abiding by the views of Shammai and his school).


There is a strong focus on appropriateness in the world of halacha. There is an idea that recurs throughout the Talmud that a decree may not be made unless a majority of the people are able to practically abide by it. A particular ruling may be correct, but if it is not pertinent or if it is too much of an imposition on the particular generation, then such a decree may not be enacted. Eruvin 13b tells us that Rav Meir was far and away the greatest scholar of his time, yet the law never follows his ruling. Why is this so? His logic and powers of reasoning were so profound, to the point where he was capable of convincingly arguing both sides of a debate, and thus his colleagues were unable to draw any practical conclusion from his words. On a related note, Horayot 14a deals with the question of what type of person is to be appointed as head of a community - a "Sinai," who has an expansive knowledge of many disciplines, or an "oker harim," who is able to delve into an issue and "uproot mountains" i.e. ask questions that can logically undermine any position. The gemara concludes that a Sinai must be given the position, as the masses require someone who can supply them with answers and not one who will increase their questions and confusion. It is in this tradition that Shammai and Hillel lived. Both men (and their schools) were undoubtedly giants in Torah and were clearly the leaders of their generation. However, they differed in their natures and in their entire approach to halacha and Jewish life, and only one could serve as the guiding light of the nation at any given time. Such is the clear message of the Talmud in many places, and such is the implicit message in Shabbat 31a. Shammai is not a negative character, he is merely out of date. Nevertheless, the words of the Heavenly voice remain true - "eilu víeilu divrei Elokim chayim" - these are both equally the words of the Living God.

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