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Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai


BEIT HILLEL AND BEIT SHAMMAI were two early Jewish schools of thought, or "houses" (beit, from Hebrew bayit, means "house of"), named after Hillel and Shammai, leading sages of Jerusalem in the latter half of the first century bce and in the early first century ce. The schools actually represented two distinct approaches to the study of the oral law that were prevalent from the time of Hillel and Shammai until the beginning of the second century. While very few adherents of either school are known by name, it appears that the Shammaites managed to achieve dominance sometime before the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce. According to some scholars, the "Eighteen Matters" that Beit Shammai is said to have decreed despite the objections of Beit Hillel (J.T., Shab. 1.4, 3c, and parallels) refer to measures instituted during the first revolt against Rome (6670 ce) in order to assure the separation of Jews and Gentiles. In any event, Beit Hillel clearly emerges as the more influential school at Yavneh, where the sages of Israel convened after 70 ce. The Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud (Ber. 1.7, 3b) relates that a "heavenly echo" went forth at Yavneh and declared that the halakhah ("law") would henceforth be in accordance with Beit Hillel. Actually, the more than three hundred controversies between the two schools that have been preserved in Talmudic literature, many of which date to the Yavnean period, attest to what must have been a protracted struggle for ascendance before Beit Hillel prevailed in the early second century.

Though the Hillelites and Shammaites are said to have practiced love and friendship toward each other and even intermarried despite differences over marital law (B.T., Yev. 14b), it is clear that the rabbis regarded the schools as distinct factions. Thus the many controversies between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are attributed to the increase in the number of students of Hillel and Shammai "who did not wait upon [their masters]" sufficiently, which in turn led to the creation of two Torahs (Tosefta ag. 2.9 [MS Vienna] and parallels), or, according to another version, two "parties," or kittot (J.T., ag. 2.2, 77d). The tannaim generally considered Beit Shammai to be the school with the stricter viewpoint, calling attention to the few instances where this was not so (ʿEduy. 4, 5).

Modern scholars have tried to clarify further the differences between the schools. The usual explanation is that the schools assumed the characteristics of Hillel and Shammai themselves, with Hillel representing the ideals of kindness, forbearance, and conciliation and Shammai, their opposites. Unfortunately, too few direct controversies between the two sages have been recorded to discern whether these characteristics played any major role in their differences.

Another theory is that there were socioeconomic differences between the schools; that is, that Beit Shammai expressed the attitudes of the upper classes and Beit Hillel, those of the lower. For example, when Beit Shammai maintained that on the eve of the Sabbath or a festival one should first recite the benediction over the day and then that over the wine and Beit Hillel contended that the wine should be blessed first (Ber. 8.8), each school's position may reflect its socioeconomic background. The wealthy commonly used wine at their meals, and so its use in no way indicated the festive nature of the Sabbath or festival. For the poor, however, the presence of wine at the table suggested the specialness of the day, so Beit Hillel decided that the benediction over it had to be recited first.

Some writers have maintained that the two schools had distinct hermeneutical approaches. For example, Beit Shammai tended to be more literal in its exegesis, explaining the verse "when thou liest down and when thou risest up" (Dt. 6:7) to mean that the Shemaʿ should be recited in the evening while reclining and in the morning while standing. Beit Hillel understood the intention to be that the Shemaʿ is said at the time when people are accustomed to lie down and when they arise (Ber. 1.3).

Still others have suggested that Beit Hillel insisted that a valid act had to be accompanied by intention, whereas Beit Shammai emphasized the deed itself. A common example pertains to the law that foods consumed on a festival must be prepared the day before. The question arose as to whether an egg laid on the festival day could be eaten (Beits. 1.1). Beit Shammai permitted its consumption because it viewed the egg as having been readied, albeit by the hen, the day before. Beit Hillel however, regarded this preparation as inadequate since no one could have anticipated that the egg would actually be laid on the festival day.

Finally, it has been suggested that Beit Hillel analyzed texts and concepts and broke them down into smaller components in order to understand them, while Beit Shammai emphasized the context and the whole. This understanding is actually an elaboration of the hermeneutical and intention-versus-deed explanations.

No one theory accounts for all or even most of the disputes between the two schools, so it must be concluded that aside from the generally strict perspective of Beit Shammai and the leniency of Beit Hillel, no general underlying principle can be discerned.

See Also



The disputes between the houses are presented and evaluated in volume 2 of Jacob Neusner's The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70, 3 vols. (Leiden, 1971). See also the "Bibliographical Reflections" in volume 3 (pp. 320368) of Neusner's work. Alexander Guttmann considers the relation of Hillel and Shammai to the schools and discusses the different approaches of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in his Rabbinic Judaism in the Making: A Chapter in the History of the Halakhah from Ezra to Judah I (Detroit, 1970), pp. 59124. The socioeconomic understanding of the controversies is presented in Louis Ginzberg's "The Significance of the Halakhah for Jewish History," in his On Jewish Law and Lore (1955; reprint, New York, 1979), pp. 77124. For the claim that the Hillelites had an "atomic-nominalistic" tendency, see Isaiah Sonne's "The Schools of Shammai and Hillel Seen from Within," in Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (New York, 1945), pp. 275291. The "Eighteen Matters" are discussed in Solomon Zeitlin's "Les 'dix-huit mesures,'" reprinted in his Studies in the Early History of Judaism, vol. 4 (New York, 1978), pp. 412426.

Stuart S. Miller (1987)

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