Not Everyone is Beit Hillel

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Emor 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


It is fashionable amongst Rabbis to present themselves as following in the path of “Beit Hillel”, the School of Hillel the Elder, which is described as being easy going, lenient, going with the flow, lending an ear, facilitating, and not like Beit Shammai, which is stricter, makes life hard, renders life unrealistic, etc. There are also international student organizations that have adopted this name for themselves, as well as organizations of the Reform Movement. One must be very careful regarding this practice, which involves a three-fold insult: an insult to other Torah scholars, an insult to Shammai, and an insult to Hillel.

1. As far as the insult to Torah scholars, it is as though the Rabbis who say they are like “Beit Hillel” are implying that the other Rabbis are the opposite: they do understand, do not strive to be as helpful as they can, are harsh and unbending, etc. It is as if those who associate themselves with Beit Hillel, claim an exclusive monopoly on his path. As is well-known, we follow the rulings of Beit Hillel. Hence, a collective accusation is implied here: an entire array of Rabbis does not follow the path of Jewish law, the path of the Torah, and deny the divine voice that proclaimed that the law follows Beit Hillel.

2. As far as the insult to Shammai, it is true that the Talmud states, “One should always be gentle like Hillel and not severe like Shammai” (Shabbat 30b), but Maran Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Cohain Kook explained that this does not constitute criticism of that spiritual giant. Rather, the point is that his approach is appropriate only for the very greatest Rabbis. If a simple person tries to be like Shammai, he won’t succeed.

Instead, he should be like Hillel. As a rule, in order to build our Nation, there is a need for both approaches (Ein Aya on Shabbat Chapter 2, 112).

“Shammai’s severity threatens to banish us from the world, whereas Hillel’s gentleness brings us under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Shabbat 31a). Here, as well, Rav Kook explained that it unimaginable that Shammai’s trait has no place or need in reality. Rather, it involves a highly developed approach deriving from a sober mindset.

In practice, both approaches are needed together, and which is to be used at a given moment depends on context. If there is a need to fight against those who want to destroy the good things we have, and to preserve that which has already been achieved by individuals and by the Nation, then the severity and productive anger of Shammai can be called upon to distance any looming threats. If, however, we as individuals or as the collective, wish to cover new spiritual ground, or to restore what was lost or weakened, then we must operate like Hillel, gradually drawing others nearer to the divine presence” (Ein Aya, Shabbat, Chapter 2, 152).

This recalls the words of Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Tzvi Schechter, who once said that Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was more like Shammai than like Hillel: exacting and conservative regarding every halachah in the Torah. We have to understand his words in the sense of a war against all those who set out to destroy the Torah.

3. The sort of comment quoted at the start of this article is likewise an affront to Hillel, as though he does not understand that sometimes the reality is complex, and there is a need to be strict. I am not talking about Tractate Eduyot, which relates that on thirty occasions, Beit Hillel was strict where Beit Shammai was lenient, for those are exceptions to the rule. Rather, I am referring to the eighteen decrees in which Beit Shammai forced their view on Beit Hillel (Mishnah Shabbat 1:14). What were those eighteen decrees? Rav Kook explains that their theme was to curtail unbridled expressions of joy that were the accepted cultural channels of the non-Jews. Shammai feared that this type of joy would draw one in negative directions, hence “Rejoice not, O Israel to exultation, like the peoples” (Hoshea 9:10). Beit Shammai was thus pulling Israel in the direction of rejoicing over Mitzvot.

By contrast, Hillel, saw all of life positively. He saw the pure human spirit and held that expanded joy would do no harm (Ein Aya, Shabbat Chapter 1, 76-81). This controversy resembles one in our day regarding whether we should taste Western culture, taking the good from it without fear, or whether we should distance ourselves greatly from it. In any event, despite Beit Hillel’s usually authoritative position, in this exceptional situation Beit Shammai enforced their rulings: they did not allow Beit Hillel enter the room in which they were learning (Shabbat 17a), and according to the Jerusalem Talmud, they even threatened them with weapons (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 1:4; and see the Korban Eda). Another account tells that the wise men of Beit Shammai convinced the wise men of Beit Hillel not to enter (see Chatam Sofer on Shabbat 12a).

In any event, these rulings were passed in accordance with Beit Shammai, and were seen as crucial decisions bearing on the fate of the Nation.  They therefore used sharp measures, without parallel: “They struck a sword in the floor of the house of study!” (Shabbat ibid.). As for Hillel himself, “that day Hillel sat before Shammai, subject to him like one of the students” (ibid.). In other words, according to Rav Kook, they surrendered that day to Shammai, and that one time agreed with his approach that we must be exceedingly cautious regarding the evil inside a person that is liable to burst forth and to cause ruin, if there are no severe limitations amongst the Jews on the culture of joy (Ein Aya, ibid., 80).

“That day was as hard for Israel as the day that the Golden Calf was fashioned” (Shabbat, ibid.). What was the connection to the Golden Calf? The sin of the Golden Calf proved that even after the high level we had merited at Sinai, we still had not been purified in the depths of our souls. We were liable to behave frivolously (Shemot 32:6), to behave wildly (ibid., v. 25), to fall prey to idolatry, sexual sin and bloodshed, as our Sages said (Shemot Rabba 42a). Just as then, so too now we must maintain our vigilance, since we have not reached the ideal level of inner purity. Even Hillel accepted that and agreed to it (Ein Aya, ibid., 80).

Thus, one mustn’t insult the honor of Hillel as though he did not understand that sometimes one has to operate like Shammai.

Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook was once asked by his students: how is it that sometimes he is all softness, gentleness, patience and smiles, while other times he is very harsh and severe. He explained: “Hillel could allow himself to be Hillel because there was also a Shammai, and Shammai could allow himself to be Shammai because there was also a Hillel. But I have to be both Hillel and Shammai…”

We all remember the man who wagered that he could anger Hillel, calling out, “Who here is Hillel? Who here is Hillel?” (Shabbat 31a). In his wake we can say: Indeed, not everyone is Hillel, and not everyone who wants to claim the name Hillel for himself should claim it. Likewise, not everyone who wants to claim the name Shammai for himself should claim it.

Let us not forget that it was Shammai who said, “Greet everyone graciously” (Avot 1:15).