Daf Yomi 11: Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel – Where is God?

Daf Yomi 11: Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel – Where is God?

The school of Shammai says: In the evening all people should recline and recite [Shema], and in the morning they should stand, since it says [in the verse (Deut. 6:7)], “and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” But the school of Hillel says: Each person may recite it in his usual way (posture), since it says (ibid.), “and when thou walkest by the way.” If so, why does it say “and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up”? – [It means:] at the time when people are lying down, and at the time when people are arising. Said Rabbi Tarfon: “I was once traveling on the road, and I reclined to recite [Shema] in accordance with the view of the school of Shammai, and [by doing so] I put myself in danger of [attack by] bandits.” They [the other Sages] said to him: “You would have deserved to be guilty for your own fate, since you went against the view of the school of Hillel.”

The school of Shammai concludes, based on the verse “and shalt talk of them… when thou liest down, and when thou risest up,” that the evening Shema should be recited in a state of reclining, while the morning Shema should be recited while standing up. What it is behind this demand, according to the school of Shammai? The verse beginning with Hear, “O Israel” contains two elements: the acceptance of the yoke of heaven (“the Lord our God”) and the unity of the divine (“the Lord is one”). The first section of Keriat Shema deals with the various ways in which these ideas can be instilled and embedded in all areas of life. One must internalize the word of God in thought (“upon your heart”), speech (“and shall talk of them”) and deed (“And you shall bind them… And you shall write them”). One must be aware in speech of God’s unity and His kingship everywhere and at every time – “when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Similarly, one should manifest physical actions that express God’s unity and kingship, so that they surround one’s body and home – “And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates.” Thanks to a variety of expressions in a range of areas, one’s entire existence is enveloped in Torah and mitzvot, and one’s day-to-day life shelters under the wings of the Divine Presence.

One’s day is divided into two periods – daytime and nighttime. Keriat Shema must apply to both periods, and is thus recited twice daily – in the morning and in the evening – and imbues the entire day with spiritual content. In light of this insight, the conclusion of the school of Shammai is clear: If one is to realize the essence of Keriat Shema not only on the temporal level, by reciting it in the two periods of the day, but also through the specific content that characterizes each period – lying down in the evening and rising in the morning – then one should recite it in a manner that is typical of the time when it is being recited.

In All Thy Ways Acknowledge Him

Although the school of Hillel does not require a specific style of recitation, and rules that “Each person may recite it in his usual way, but not because it is more lenient or does not want to impose. Rather, their ruling stems from a different worldview than that of the school of Shammai: They conclude that there is another way to inject life with spiritual content.

The school of Hillel relies on the words “and when thou walkest by the way” and concludes that “Each person may recite it in his usual way.” In other words, the culmination of accepting the yoke of heaven is a state in which that yoke becomes a natural part of one’s life, a part of one’s way. This, the school of Hillel says, is the overarching purpose of the first section of Keriat Shema, which deals with imbuing all of life and all of existence with spiritual content. Indeed, having a single prescribed manner manner for reciting the Shema would remove it from the natural flow of life. This is why the Talmud states that those who follow the opinion of the school of Shammai are committing are “worthless” action (Berakhot 11a). Although it seems at first that the opinion of the school of Shammai, which is more stringent, already encompasses that of the school of Hillel — that the manner in which one recites the Shema is inconsequential — this is not the case. According to the school of Hillel, there is an explicit commandment to recite Shema in one’s individual “way,” as an organic aspect of one’s life. Furthermore, according to the school of Hillel, one can recite the Shema even while one is walking or working (ibid), without interrupting the natural flow of life.

This approach, which embeds the yoke of heaven in one’s everyday life, is also apparent in a law cited by the Yerushalmi, according to which one can interrupt one’s recitation of the Shema even mid-verse: “‘and shalt talk of them’ — implying that one is permitted to speak while reciting them” (Y. Berakhot 4b). Keriat Shema blends into life so naturally that one is permitted to interrupt it with extraneous speech.

To sum up, at first glance it appears that following the opinion of the school of Shammai can elevate one to a state in which all of life is imbued with spiritual content. However, when we examine the issue in depth, we learn that the opinion of the school of Hillel can raise one to an even more exalted state, in which spirituality permeates not merely a formal representation of life, but natural life itself.

Arguments for the Sake of Heaven’s Name

Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Creation), an ancient kabbalistic tome, describes Creation as having three dimensions: world, year and soul, which can be thought of as place, time and the human. The argument between the two schools as to the proper way to accept the yoke of heaven echoes other differences between them regarding to the correct approach to those three dimensions

The school of Shammai says, “Flame, and [then] Grace after Meals, and [then] spices, and [then] Havdala.” The school of Hillel says, “Flame, and [then] spices, and [then] Grace after Meals, and [then] Havdala.” The school of Shammai says, “Who created the light of fire.” The school of Hillel says, “Creator of the lights of fire.” (Berakhot 8:5)

The school of Shammai’s formulation of Havdala blesses God in the past tense, “Who created.” As they see it, fire was created in the distant past, and the human being blesses the Creator for a historic event. For the school of Hillel, on the other hand, Creation is constantly renewing itself, so that God’s presence is still active in every moment within reality and should be blessed. Hence another difference between the two schools’ versions of the blessing: The School of Shammai blesses the creation of the original fire, and thus uses the singular – “the light of fire” – while the school of Hillel blesses the present, where there is a profusion of fire, and thus hails the “Creator of the lights of fire.” In this, too, we see how the school of Hillel acknowledges God’s presence in the material world, in day-to-day life, while the school of Shammai gives primacy to that which is inaccessible to humanity – the moment of creation.

Perhaps this is what underpins the famous argument between the schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding Hanukka candles (Shabbat 21b). The school of Hillel rules that on the first night one should light a single candle and add another one every evening, reaching a total of eight candles on the eighth night. The school of Shammai concludes that one starts with eight candles and removes one every evening, finally remaining with a single candle. The school of Hillel explains that “we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.” Perhaps the school of Shammai would agree that holiness should be increased, but even so, a multiplicity of lights would not indicate any special connection to holiness; rather, the movement toward holiness would be inverted – culminating in the single light that symbolizes the source.

The same pattern occurs in a story about the differences in the approaches of the schools of Shammai and Hillel, meaning that their argument was far from local or coincidental and reflected an ancient, fundamental difference of worldview:

They related concerning Shammai the Elder [that] all his life he ate in honor of Shabbat. [Thus] if he found a well-favored animal he said, Let this be for Shabbat. [If afterwards] he found one better favored he put aside the second [for Shabbat] and ate the first. But Hillel the Elder had a different trait, for all his works were for the sake of heaven, for it is said: “Blessed be the Lord, day by day” (Psalms 68). It was likewise taught: The school of Shammai says: From the first day of the week [prepare] for Shabbat; but the school of Hillel says: Blessed be the Lord, day by day. (Beitza 16a)

Shabbat is the holy day that disrupts the routine of the work week. That is why, according to the school of Shammai, one should direct one’s attention and deeds toward it. In contrast, the school of Hillel says that one can, and should, also worship God through “profane” actions, such as eating on a weekday, because people can also encounter their creator in the natural life of the present, not only in the moments when it is transcended.

Further evidence of Hillel’s outlook – that “all of your actions should be for the sake of heaven” – can be found in Avot D’Rabbi Natan (2:30):

All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven, like Hillel. When Hillel would go somewhere, people would ask him, “Where are you going?” [He would reply,] “I’m going to perform a mitzva.” “What mitzva, Hillel?” “I’m going to the bathroom.” “But is that a mitzva?” “Yes,” he replied, “to keep the body from deteriorating.” [Another time they asked,] “Where are you going, Hillel?” “I’m going to perform a mitzvah.” “What mitzva, Hillel?” “I’m going to the bathhouse.” “But is that a mitzva?” He said, “Yes, to cleanse the body. Know that this is indeed the case, for even the caretaker charged with scrubbing and polishing the statues in the courtyards of kings receives an annual salary. How much more so for us, who are created in the image and likeness [of God], as it is written, ‘for in the image of God made He man’ (Genesis. 9:6).”

According to Hillel’s outlook, ascribing concrete significance to the fact that humanity was created in God’s image plays up the immanence of holiness. Just as God permeates all of time and all of reality, so, too, He is present in each and every human being. If every person, body and soul, is holy, then even our basic – and base – bodily functions can become mitzvot. The following source also assigns religious significance to the consumption of food:

The school of Shammai says: The appearance offering is two silver [ma’ah], and the festival offering is a silver ma’ah. The school of Hillel says: The appearance offering is a silver ma’ah, and the festival offering is two silver [ma’ah]. (Mishna Hagiga 1:2)

The disagreement is over the minimal value of offerings that can be brought to the Temple during the festival pilgrimages. According to the school of Shammai, the appearance offering, a burnt offering that is fully consumed on the altar, is the more important of the two, because it requires a greater investment than the festival offering, which the believer shares with God, eating some of it and sacrificing the rest. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, holds that the sacrifice that the believer partakes in is the more important of the two, based on the idea that people can be elevated even through simple acts, such as eating meat.

The final argument that we will present is more “philosophical” in tone, but it too boils down to the same fundamental difference between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. Its subject is the order of Creation:

The school of Shammai say: Heaven was created first and afterwards the earth was created… The school of Hillel say: Earth was created first and afterwards heaven… The school of Hillel said to the school of Shammai: According to your view, a man builds the upper story [first] and afterwards builds the house! … Said the school of Shammai to the school of Hillel: According to your view, a man makes the footstool [first], and afterwards he makes the throne! (Hagiga 12a)

The Talmud’s reasoning makes clear that whatever is created first is also of primary importance. According to the school of Shammai, the earth, meaning physical reality, is of secondary importance to heaven. It compares the earth to a footstool, which is secondary to the throne. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, says the earth is the house itself, the essence and purpose of creation, while considering heaven a second (and secondary) story.

Both are the Words of the Living God

Rabbi Aviya Hacohen recently published a book titled “Appearing before the Lord: Essays on Tractate Hagiga.” Among other topics, he writes about the argument between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, and proposes a similar approach to the one I outline above. Hacohen makes a fascinating claim: The argument between the schools of Shammai and Hillel reflects two competing outlooks in the Torah – one that is espoused in the book of Deuteronomy and another that emerges from the other books of Moses. In his treatment of the mishna in Hagiga that asks whether the main offering is the appearance offering, which is fully consumed on the altar, or the festival offering, which is eaten by the believer, Hacohen writes, “The root of the journey to the House of the Lord in the Book of Exodus is the journey of the slave to his master, who must be appeased with gifts. The Book of Deuteronomy, despite stating that “they shall not appear before the Lord empty[-handed],” does not emphasize the offerings. The journey is not that of a slave to his master, but rather a pilgrimage of joy that is shared with all of the needy – stranger, orphan and widow.”

After analyzing the verses, he concludes: “The school of Hillel… emphasizes the individual’s happiness and preserves the spiritual outlook of the Book of Deuteronomy, while the school of Shammai…. preserves the spiritual outlook that underlies the rest of the portions of the Torah that deal with the festivals.”[1] To my mind, Hacohen’s idea injects new meaning into the Talmudic tale (Eiruvin 13b) of the bath kol that declares that both sides in the arguments of the schools of Hillel and Shammai are “the words of the living God” – both have their roots in the words of God as revealed by the Bible.

Hacohen takes his discussion of the arguments between the schools of Shammai and Hillel even further, linking it to aspects of modern Jewish thought. He cites Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, a student of the Baal Shem Tov who often comments, in his book Toledot Yaakov Yosef, on the connection between Hasidism and Hillel’s Torah, and between the Mitnagdim (the opponents of Hasidism) and Shammai’s Torah. He writes in summation:

The novelty of Hasidism lies in its revelation of the divinity of the human soul, which is why the works of the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism apply the Sefirot to the human soul. Thus, the focus of the Baal Shem Tov’s divine service is the human being, who is created in [God’s] image – elements that also under underlies Hillel’s Torah. The focus of Hillel’s divine service is the revelation of God in man, as we see time and again in the Mishna in Tractate Hagiga and elsewhere.

The Torah of the Land of Israel

There is no doubt that the Judaism associated with the school of Hillel has been resurgent in recent years. The individual experience, and especially joy and love, has take on an increasingly central role in religious life. The well-known Talmudic statement that “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakha alone” (Berakhot 8a) was evident of an exilic religiosity, which hews to the worldview of the school of Shammai. The return to the Land of Israel allows us to recognize God’s place in all of life’s expressions, and especially in humankind – its inner world and experience.

In the words of Rabbi Kook, the great poet of the school of Hillel’s take on life:

God’s radiant light, which permeates all of the worlds, animating them and saturating them with the sustenance of supernal bliss from the source of life, infuses all souls and angels, all creatures, with the strength to discern the inner aspect of the sense of life…. so that there is no need to say that one eats in order to learn [Torah], pray and perform mitzvot, for that is but a middling trait; rather, that eating itself, as well as speaking, and all of the processes and feelings of life are suffused with holiness and light. (Eight Chapters 2:62, 65)

The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man

The realization that the opinions of the school of Shammai are also “the words of the living God,” and that the roots of both schools have been present in the Jewish people’s religious life from the outset, lead me to believe that, in our generation, it is important that the emphasis on the school of Hillel not erase the school of Shammai. Alongside the great need to call attention to humanity and its divine nature, it is a Torah that comes with risks. It may lead people to think that their personal experience is the only legitimate criterion, and that they are not obligated to do anything that doesn’t “speak to them.” A focus on the self can inflate the ego to the point of solipsism: “I am, and there is none else beside me” (Zephaniah 2:15). The solution, to my mind, is to keep on tempering the approach of the school of Hillel with that of the school of Shammai.

For years I have been starting every day of study with my students by noting the date and reciting the verse “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalms 118:24). But before reciting the verse about rejoicing, and having acknowledged that experience must be wedded to awe and a strict observance of halakha, we recite this verse from Ecclesiastes (12:13): “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”

[1] Aviya Hacohen, לפני ה’ יראה: עיונים במסכת חגיגה, 42.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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