May 26, 2024
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Acting Like Beit Shammai And Beit Hillel

Must we be consistent in our religious practices? May we pick and choose for convenience, so long as it has been endorsed by some religious authority? If we want to play it safe, can we adopt the stringent position in every halachic dispute? A braita on Rosh Hashanah 14a addresses the issue:

“Ultimately (le’olam), the halacha is like Beit Hillel. But if one wishes to act like Beit Shammai’s words, one may; like Beit Hillel’s words, one may. Of Beit Shammai’s leniencies and Beit Hillel’s leniencies, he is a wicked person. Of Beit Shammai’s stringencies and Beit Hillel’s stringencies, upon him the verse states (Kohelet 2:14) ‘and the fool walks in darkness.’ Rather, if like Beit Shammai, as their leniencies and stringencies; if like Beit Hillel, as their leniencies and stringencies.”

In Rosh Hashanah 14a this guidance is contrasted with the actions of Rabbi Akiva (fourth-generation Tanna, 50-135 CE), who picked an etrog between the arboreal new year of Beit Shammai (Shevat 1) and Beit Hillel (Shevat 15). He tithed for both the prior and current year, to fulfill both schools’ positions. The Talmudic Narrator resolves the difficulty, explaining that Rabbi Akiva held like Beit Hillel, but was uncertain whether Beit Hillel maintained 1 Shevat or 15 Shevat. With effort, we can read this into the original language about the two tithes, אֶחָד כְּדִבְרֵי בֵּית שַׁמַּאי, וְאֶחָד כְּדִבְרֵי בֵּית הִלֵּל, that it corresponds to what we know as Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel’s positions.

Does this braita’s guidance extend to other positions and schools? The braita offers another account of Rabbi Akiva’s actions, that it was to fulfill both positions of Rabban Gamliel II (of Yavneh, third-generation Tanna, d. 114 CE) and Rabbi Eliezer (b. Hyrcanus, third generation, d. somewhat later), who argued about an etrog tree in particular, as to whether the tithe cutoff for an etrog is based on the picking or the fruit formation. We also might place the incident on 15 Shevat, so that it isn’t subject to the Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai dispute at all. (Not necessarily relevant, but Rabban Gamliel II was a nasi, the great-great-grandson of Hillel, and as Yevamot 15a points out, certainly followed Beit Hillel. Meanwhile, Rabbi Eliezer is described as שמותי (Niddah 7b), either as placed under the ban (shamta) after the incident of the Oven of Achnai (Bava Metzia 59) or, more likely, that he was a member of Beit Shammai.) Yet our sugya seems to have no issue of Rabbi Akiva simultaneously taking two contrary positions of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer.

This braita offering guidance is further analyzed in Eruvin 6b-7a, which discusses a crooked L-shaped alleyway in Nehardea. (Also, see Eruvin 13b.) Rabbi Sheila (transitional Tanna/Amora) first presided over the yeshiva in Nehardea. Rav and Shmuel (first-generation Amoraim) were under him. After Rav Shela’s death, Rav established the academy in Sura while Shmuel became head of Nehardea. Rav deemed a crooked alleyway to be open (though he held an open alleyway requires no doors). Shmuel deemed a crooked alleyway to be closed (though if it were open, it would require doors). Presumably some later generation after Rav and Shmuel, the Nehardea leadership placed doors on this alleyway, taking the open status from Rav and the door requirement from Shmuel. This seems contrary to the braita’s guidance. An Amora explains how this was all actually in accordance with Rav.

In that sugya, the Talmudic Narrator, bothered by the contrast of לְעוֹלָם הֲלָכָה כְּדִבְרֵי בֵּית הִלֵּל with וְהָרוֹצֶה לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּדִבְרֵי בֵּית שַׁמַּאי, gives three possible analyses that could date the braita. Perhaps “Beit Shammai” and “Beit Hillel” refer to those schools specifically. Then, this could be prior to the Bat Kol (Divine Echo) that “these and these are the words of the Living God, but the halacha is like Beit Hillel.” Then, rabbis could still choose. Alternatively, it was after the Bat Kol, but he held like Rabbi Yehoshua b. Chananya (Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus’ vocal opponent in the Oven of Achnai incident) who maintains we ignore Bat Kol. (Rabbi Yochanan says, in Yerushalmi Brachot 9a, that the Bat Kol was in Yavneh, so maybe this divine “echo” is simply implicitly manifest as rabbinic consensus when they voted.) Finally, the Narrator suggests what I find most compelling, that any two Tannaim or Amoraim who argue, in the same manner as the Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, are the braita’s intended subjects. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are prototypical. They argue frequently, and are the paradigm of dispute for the sake of Heaven.

From the discussed examples (tithes, alleys), the discouraged behavior appears to be taking inconsistent stringent positions in a single issue, rather than always selecting the stringent position across multiple issues. However, Beit Shammai/Beit Hillel develop systems of interpreting verses and resulting law, so stringency would require a consistent leniency there.

I’d explain the braita as decrying hesitancy. Take a position and know where you’re going. The verse in Kohelet begins, “The wise man, his eyes are in his head.” Such a person sees where he’s going and can circumnavigate pitfalls. The fool doesn’t know enough to choose a path and walks gingerly so as not to stumble, but being in that situation isn’t praiseworthy. Rabbi Eliezer can be a Shammaite, and he’s picked a side, even though I disagree with him and declare the halacha is like Beit Hillel.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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