History Crash Course #32: Hillel and Shammai

In a time when many things were going wrong for the Jews, the sages Hillel and Shammai defined what was going right.

We have discussed the rift between the Pharisees (the mainstream Jews) and the Sadducees (the Jews who only followed the Written Torah, making up their own interpretations). We also explained how Herod’s massacres of rabbis and interference with the Temple hierarchy (not to mention his efforts at further Hellenizing the Jews) contributed to widespread corruption within the priesthood.

But we didn’t cover what was right with Judaism.

For one thing, the normative institutions, like the yeshivas, were all run by the mainstream Jews and were functioning. There was still a Sanhedrin (a Jewish Supreme Court), though its powers had been severely curtailed.

Most importantly, the teachings of the rabbis and the chain of transmission remained undisturbed.

The very opening of Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) records how the chain of transmission was maintained — starting with Moses, going on to Joshua, the prophets, the Men of the Great Assembly and so forth.

When Shimon HaTzaddik, the last member of the Great Assembly died in 273 BCE, a period began known as the period of the Zugot, meaning “pairs.”

From that time on, for almost 300 years, there were always two rabbis at the helm of the Jewish tradition. One was called the Nasi (the president), the other was called the Av Beit Din (the head of the Sanhedrin). These pairs are all listed in the “Ethics of the Fathers.”

The last pair was perhaps the most famous — Hillel and Shammai.

Hillel, who came to Israel from Babylon, was very poor. The Talmud tells some interesting stories about how poor he was and how much he loved learning Torah. For example, he was so poor that he couldn’t even afford the couple of grushim that it cost to enter the Beit HaMidrash, “the House of Study.” So in order to learn, he would sit up on the roof and listen through the skylight. One day, he was doing this in terrible cold and became so frozen he passed out. The students down below were suddenly aware that something was blocking the light, went up onto the roof, found him and revived him.[1]see Talmud, Yoma 35:b

Despite his poverty, which had no impact in how much people respected his wisdom, Hillel achieved the position of Nasi; at that time, Shammai held the position of Av Beis Din.

The schools of Hillel and Shammai are famous for their disputes in Jewish law. One of these concerned whether one should tell a bride on her wedding day that she is beautiful even if this is not true. The school of Shammai held that in this situation it would be wrong to lie. The school of Hillel held that a bride is always beautiful on her wedding day. (Talmud, Ketubot 16b-17a) The school of Hillel won the dispute. Indeed, Jewish law today almost always agrees with the school of Hillel. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) explains why:

A heavenly voice declared: “The words of both schools are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel.”

So why does the law follow the rulings of the school of Hillel? The Talmud explains that the disciples of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own.


We might recall that in the days of the First Temple, while the rabbis debated points of Jewish law, they did not engage in lengthy disputes. So why were things different in the days of Herod’s Temple?

By this time around 1,300 years had passed since Sinai. The Jewish people had been exiled from the land of Israel, and upon their return faced many struggles. The influence of the Greeks, the fight against Greek domination, and the corruption of the Hasmonean rulers, all left their wounds. More recently, there was the Roman occupation and the corruption that came with Herod.

As a result of this unrest, scholarship declined among the Jewish people resulting in an increasing lack of clarity. Indeed, the oral transmission process was starting to fray around the edges as it became harder for the rabbis to reach a consensus on certain legal issues.[2]see: Talmud, Eruvin 53a; Shabbes 112:b; Sanhedrin 11:a; Brachos 20:a (The Talmud has not yet been written, but the time is coming soon when the rabbis will decide that the Oral Torah must be written down because it might become lost.)

Of course, if you read these disputes in the Talmud today – and the Talmud contains thousands of them – you see that the rabbis were not arguing about anything big, like “can Jews eat pork?” The disputes were usually more localized and dealt with the details of how to apply the law. A small number of these disputes had no actual ramifications in the practical application of Jewish law. They were arguments about theoretical cases which would never apply in any real situation, but nonetheless dealt with important principles that needed to be understood.

A very important point to understand here is that although there were disputes, there were also red lines beyond which no mainstream, traditional, orthodox Jew ever went beyond. All the disputes were on small details, which meant that on the major issues everyone agreed. [3]see: Rashi on Talmud, Kesubos 57a; Talmud, Chagiga 3b


But even if these disputes were small, we have to see them as bad news, because they signified not just a decline in scholarship, but even more importantly, a decline in the spiritual state of the Jewish people. This is called yeridot hadorot, “decline of the generations.” The closer Jews were to Mount Sinai, chronologically speaking, the clearer things were.

It’s very important to understand how the Jewish people traditionally look at the transmission process. Modern man thinks that the later we get in history the more technology we have, therefore the better we are. This is not a Jewish idea in either history or spirituality or Jewish law. According to Jewish thought, ancient man was spiritually more sophisticated. And in the realm of the transmission process the closer we were to Mount Sinai, chronologically speaking, the clearer things were.

The entire transmission process of the Jewish people is one of the most amazing aspects of Jewish history. The fact that the Oral Torah has been passed down for thousands of years and has been applied to all kinds of new scenarios, yet the basic body of what is Jewish law has not changed, is amazing.

But the closer the Jews were to Sinai, the more spiritual they were, and the more clearly they understood the will of God. Today, we are the furthest and for us it is a great deal fuzzier. This is why we do not have the authority to uproot Jewish law laid down by the sages who came before us. That’s fundamental to the whole transmission process.

The disputes marked the beginning of a process that’s going to make Judaism that much more complicated. More and more arguments and debates are coming.

This period of time manifests a symptom of a significant problem plaguing the Jewish people – that of discord.

Originally, there were not many disputes …However with the increase in the number of students of Hillel and Shamai who did not serve their teachers adequately-unresolved disputes increased and the Torah became like two Torahs. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b)

The discord among the Sadducees, Pharisees and the Zealots created an atmosphere of “senseless hatred” which undermined the unity of the Jewish people just as they had decided to revolt against Rome.


1 see Talmud, Yoma 35:b
2 see: Talmud, Eruvin 53a; Shabbes 112:b; Sanhedrin 11:a; Brachos 20:a
3 see: Rashi on Talmud, Kesubos 57a; Talmud, Chagiga 3b
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