The preeminent rabbi of first century Palestine.

Print this page Print this page

We are told nowhere, in fact, why two separate schools should have emerged at all and we are largely left in ignorance both of their composition and of the principles by which they operated.

In an oft-quoted Talmudic passage (Eruvin 13b), dating not earlier than the third century CE and obviously containing strong elements of pure legend, it is said that for three years the two houses debated whether the law should be decided in accordance with the House of Hillel or the House of Shammai and there was a danger that the Torah would become two Torahs; in other words, there was a danger of schism in which the religious practices and the laws of one group of Jews were quite different from those of another group of Jews.

The issue was finally decided by a Bat Kol, a voice from heaven, which declared: 'Both these and these are the words of the living God but the law (the Halakhah) is in accordance with the rulings of the House of Hillel.'

All this has left modern scholarship with the extremely difficult and purely conjectural task of discovering the guiding principles behind the decisions and debates between the two houses.

Some modern scholars suggest that the two houses operated by different exegetical methods, interpreting Scripture in ways which led to different practical conclusions. In one version of this theory, the House of Shammai favored a more literal meaning of Scripture, while the House of Hillel tended to interpret Scripture in a less than literal manner.

Possible Class Differences

Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) advanced the ingenious thesis that the two houses really represented two social classes: the House of Shammai legislating for the wealthy landowners, the 'patricians', the House of Hillel for the working classes, the 'plebeians', as these are called by Ginzberg's disciple, Louis Finkelstein.

To give one example among many, the Mishnah (Gittin 9:10) states: 'The House of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found her to be unfaithful, for it is written (Deuteronomy 24:1), "because he has found some indecency in her." But the House of Hillel say: Even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written: "because he has found some (i.e. 'any'] indecency in her."

On the theory of difference in exegetical principles, the different rulings of the two houses are based solely on how literally the verse is to be interpreted. But on the

Ginzberg-Finkelstein hypothesis, the scriptural exegesis is secondary and derives from the different needs and attitudes of two different social classes. The two houses, each legislating for a different social class, are bound to interpret Scripture in the way they do, since the position of women among the aristocracy is far better than among the lower social classes.

The trouble with all the theories, is that they can only be made to work by selective quotations and are far too neat. And what is one to make of the purely theological debates between the two houses upon which neither the exegetical nor the sociological theory has any bearing? Why, for example, did the House of Shammai say (Eruvin 13b) that it were better for a man not to have been created than to have been created and the House of Hillel say it were better for man to have been created than not to have been created, and why did the House of Hillel eventually agree with the House of Shammai on this matter?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.