Hillel and Shammai: How to Disagree

Dear Friends,

The Ninth of Av arrives tomorrow evening, and with it the remembrance of Jerusalem’s destruction almost 2,000 years ago. Our Sages, searching for the causes of this catastrophe, taught that one of the reasons was that Jews at the time treated each other with sin’at chinam – baseless and gratuitous hatred and disdain. For the Sages, this was an inescapable tendency of human nature that needed to be countered with practiced thoughtfulness, civil behavior, and empathy.

The piece I share with you from Rosh Hashanah 2 years ago describes how our tradition tried to illustrate these qualities through the stories of Hillel and Shammai and their disciples. The piece is rather long, but if you have the time I trust you will find it worthwhile.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Hillel and Shammai

You may have heard stories about the ancient sages Hillel and Shammai. During the 1st Century B.C.E. Hillel and Shammai shared leadership of the Sanhedrin, the deliberative body and high court that determined all matters of Jewish practice and behavior. Hillel was a poor immigrant from Babylonia who came to the Land of Israel to study in the academy. Shammai was a successful builder and wealthy patrician.

In the stories the Talmud tells about Hillel and Shammai, Shammai is stern and irascible, while Hillel is patient and embracing. Here is perhaps the most famous story about the two men:

It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “take me as a student for conversion, but on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while standing on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod he happened to have in his hand. When the heathen came before Hillel with the same request, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Later when the heathen had become a Jew, he met two other converts who had experienced similar treatment at the hands of the two sages. They said to one another, “Shammai’s severity drove us away, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.” Hence the sages say: A person should always be as flexible as Hillel, not as inflexible as Shammai. (BT Shabbat 31a)

Clearly, our tradition favors Hillel’s point of view, to our great benefit. Hillel’s disciples and descendants, known as the House of Hillel, became the leaders of the Jewish community in the centuries that followed. Hillel’s most famous teachings became the foundation of Jewish wisdom and life:

Do not withdraw from the community;

Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death;

Do not judge another human being until you have stood in his place;

Do not say, “It is impossible to understand this,” for ultimately it will be understood;

Do not say, “When I have the free time, I will study,” for you may never find that free time.

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