Cubs-Cardinals, Michigan-Ohio State, Republican-Democrat — if you love a good rivalry between legends, perhaps you’ve been enjoying the series of Hillel-Shammai debates that have so far formed the backbone of Tractate Beitzah.
On today’s daf, we’re reminded that while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai represent different schools of thought and are often at odds, they do not disagree about everything:
Everyone (i.e., both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel) agrees that one may not immerse a vessel on Shabbat.
While one might think that the complete agreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is a noteworthy event, the Gemara does not comment further on it, asking instead for an explanation. And it turns out that while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree about the law, the Amoraim (later rabbis) have different opinions about why immersing a vessel on Shabbat is forbidden, including:
Rabba: It is a decree issued by the sages as a preventive measure, lest one come to pick up the vessel in his hand and carry it four cubits in the public domain to a mikveh (carrying in a public domain is prohibited on Shabbat).
Rav Yosef: It is prohibited to immerse a vessel on Shabbat for a different reason: It is a decree issued by the sages as a preventive measure due to the prohibition against wringing. (After immersing certain items, such as clothes, one might come to wring them, and this is prohibited on Shabbat and festivals.)
Rava: It is prohibited to immerse a vessel on Shabbat because it looks as if he is repairing the vessel.
Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree that immersing a vessel on Shabbat is forbidden, even though it is not an obvious prohibited labor. So the Amoraim offer different explanations. Rabba thinks that immersing a vessel is not a problem in and of itself, but it will lead someone to carry in the public domain (which is the real forbidden labor). Rav Yosef thinks that one will be tempted to then wring out the wet vessel* (and wringing is forbidden labor). Rava is worried about appearances — it will appear that the person doing the immersion is violating a different Shabbat prohibition of repairing a vessel. So, either immersing the vessel will accidentally lead one into violation of Shabbat (carrying in the public domain or wringing), or it will cause one to appear to violate Shabbat (repairing).
Like we have seen before, each of these statements, in turn, are challenged and the challenges are rebutted, and so on and so forth, until the conversation moves on to a new but related topic.
But Hillel and Shammai’s view is not challenged, nor do they disagree. It’s a reminder that most likely these two great schools of Jewish thought actually agreed on a lot. We don’t hear much about it because, well, there isn’t much to say in those cases. The rabbis focus on disagreement because it merits discussion, but in fact there likely was far more consensus in the rabbinic world than there was disagreement. In fact, we probably only hear of this agreement between Hillel and Shammai because later interpreters, the Amoraim, disagreed about their reasoning.
Today’s daf reminds us that the Talmud is not just enjoying a good old rivalry between these towering schools, it is actually more focused on exploring halakhic requirements and spiritual meaning (among other things).
So next time we encounter a legal debate between the Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, remember that, despite their differences, the two schools of thought may not be as far apart from each other as they seem to be. I wonder if that might be true for bears and birds, wolverines and buckeyes, and elephants and donkeys as well.
Read all of Beitzah 18 on Sefaria.
*The Hebrew word kli, which we’ve translated as “vessel” encompasses a wide array of meanings. Usually, it means some kind of receptacle, but it can also be used to refer to clothing (which is why it could possibly be wrung out), tools both large and small, weapons, a mattress. It carries connotations of physicality and utility, and it is difficult to find the exact word to use for it in English.