After the passing of Antigonus of Socho (c. 250 BCE), the leading disciple of Shimon HaTzaddik, his students, Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, assumed control of the Sanhedrin. They were appointed nasi (president) and av beis din (dean), respectively, of that great body. These two men formed the first of five zugos, or pairs of Torah scholars, who would oversee the transmission of the oral law for the next four centuries, up until the destruction of the Second Temple.
In general they steered the nation in a unified manner. However, they sometimes disagreed in areas of halacha. In fact, the earliest argument recorded in the Talmud, regarding whether to perform semicha, or leaning on an animal sacrifice brought on a festival, took place between the members of the first zug (Chagiga 2:2). Additional arguments between the zugos are recorded in Tractate Avos, as well as in other tractates.
But when the disciples of Shammai and Hillel, who had not studied sufficiently [due to volatile conditions], increased in number, there were so many differences of opinion in Israel that the Torah became as two Torahs. [Sanhedrin 88b]
In 33 BCE, Hillel the Elder established a yeshiva that attracted many of the finest scholars of the time. Its members became known as Beis Hillel, or the house of Hillel. Previously, Hillel’s colleague Shammai had organized his own yeshiva. It was smaller and was called Beis Shammai.
Two primary factors contributed to this new, multi-yeshiva arrangement. The first was the great esteem in which the Torah community held Shammai. Out of deference to him, an independent yeshiva was maintained. Following his death, the two “houses” would come together under one roof, with each maintaining its own unique, scholarly approach.
A basic disagreement existed in terms of how to best formulate halachic decisions. Beis Shammai maintained that superior acumen and rigorous attention to detail were more important than whether it did or did not enjoy the numerical edge. Beis Hillel, on the other hand, continued to insist upon the Torah’s directive, “the verdict should always follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2).
The founding of these two great houses of Torah study ushered in a new era in Jewish history, the Tannaitic Period. For the next two and a half centuries these great scholars would clarify the immense body of the oral law. Eventually, during the days of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the final codifications would occur, resulting in what became known as the Mishnah.
He who wishes to be stringent with himself and follows both the stringencies of Beis Shammai and those of Beis Hillel, to him apply the words “The fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). On the other hand, he who adopts the leniencies of Beis Shammai as well as those of Beis Hillel is a wicked man. Rather, one must follow completely either the opinions of Beis Shammai, with its leniencies and its stringencies; or the opinions of the school of Hillel, with its leniencies and its stringencies. [Tosefta, Yevamos 1:13]
The Era of the Second Commonwealth was one of the most tumultuous periods in our long history. In a relatively short period spanning but 420 years, the Jews experienced the warring and outside control of three world superpowers (Persia, Greece and Rome), not to mention a century of stormy Hasmonean rule. In those four centuries, the Temple was initiated, built, defiled, renovated and greatly enlarged. At the end it would be destroyed. Turmoil was a constant, in the forms of burdensome taxation, intense Hellenization, Pharisee-Sadducee conflicts, civil war, rebellion, intense persecution of the sages, the rise of Christianity, the Temple’s destruction and exile.
The impact of this turmoil was felt keenly in the Torah community, leading to much disagreement and confusion relating to numerous details of our oral tradition. As we noted above, the first four zugos argued on only one point, relating to the performance of semicha on Jewish festivals. Hillel and Shammai themselves had disagreed in only four additional areas of halacha (Talmud, Shabbos 15a). However, the number of controversies would increase exponentially in the period that followed, eventually exceeding three hundred disputes.
The rulings of each house of study reflected the personality, views and approach to Torah study of their respective founders. Beis Hillel became known for its leniency, Beis Shammai for its strict interpretation and application of the law. (In all cases Beis Hillel adopted the more lenient opinion, with the exception of the twenty-three disputes enumerated in Eduyos 4.)
Every argument that is undertaken for the sake of Heaven shall endure. However, one that is not for the sake of Heaven shall not endure. What is an example of a disagreement that is performed for the sake of Heaven? The dissension between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a disagreement that is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy begun by Korach and his followers. [Avos 5:17]