The Talmud (Yevamos 14b) informs us that though Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were in disagreement in many key areas of Jewish law (“What one forbade, the other permitted”), they nevertheless maintained peaceful, amicable relationships with each other, practicing the injunction “Love truth, but also peace” (Zechariah 8:19). They did not abstain from marrying women of each other’s families, nor did they abstain from using the other’s potentially impure utensils, despite the fundamental differences that separated the two groups in these pivotal areas.
For three years there was a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, each one stating that “The law is in accordance with our views.” Then a divine voice announced, “The words of each are the expressions of the living God, but the law is according to Beis Hillel.” Since both are the expressions of the living God, what entitled Beis Hillel to have the law determined according to its rulings? They were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings as well as those of Beis Shammai. Even more, they taught the rulings of Beis Shammai before their own. [Talmud, Eruvin 13b]
Most of the debates between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were decided in favor of the former. Numerous factors contributed to Beis Hillel’s “favored” status over its Talmudic counterpart:
• Nasi at its head – The nasi led Beis Hillel; the av beis din led Beis Shammai. After Shammai’s passing, they would join together in one house of study, under the nasi’s direction.
• Majority – Beis Hillel comprised most of the scholars of the time. Only a minority studied under Shammai. When the disputed matters were put up to a vote, Beis Hillel possessed the necessary majority to confirm its position.
• Final Editing – The primary editor and codifier of the Mishnah’s text was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, a descendent and student of Hillel.
Still, Beis Shammai is mentioned first in every debate. Since that yeshiva was founded earlier, Shammai’s opinions had already made their way into the Talmudic discussions. “The original Mishnah did not move from its place” (Talmud, Yevamos 30a). Statements and rulings issued by Beis Hillel were only added to those already present.
Following Shammai’s death, significant structural changes occurred affecting the leadership of the Sanhedrin. The position of av beis din was terminated. All scholars now sat in one assembly, under the leadership of Hillel. In addition, the position of nasi now became a hereditary position, beginning with Hillel’s son Shimon. It would remain within the family for over 400 years until the position was ended by the Romans in 425 CE.
This latter amendment was brought about to ensure the chain of strong Torah leadership in those troubled times and in subsequent generations. (They would remain in that position well after the Temple’s destruction and the banishment of countless Jews from the Holy Land, proving yet again the great endurance of the Torah and its representatives.) Hillel’s descendants were automatically elevated to the position, effectively taking the decision out of the ruler’s hands, thus minimizing outside interference.
As noted above, there are two kinds of machlokes, one that is for the sake of Heaven and one that isn’t. Let us always strive to be in the former camp, to ensure that we are not driven by selfish motives but from a true desire to advance our collective purpose in this world.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.