Beitzah 20

Facing down bullies.

Over the course of our Daf Yomi study, we’ve seen a lot of disputes between Hillel and Shammai. Usually, they issue opposing opinions in the academy. Today, they rumble in the street.

A mishnah on yesterday’s daf gives the context for today’s story, a dispute about which offerings can be brought on festivals:

Beit Shammai say: One may bring peace offerings, but one may not place his hands on them. However, one may not bring burnt offerings.

Beit Hillel say: One may bring both peace offerings and burnt offerings, and one may even place his hands on them.

Shammai says only peace offerings, no burnt offerings, may be brought on a festival — and absolutely no laying one’s hands on the sacrifice. Beit Hillel, however, is characteristically more permissive, allowing both peace offerings and burnt offerings — and the laying on of hands.

Today’s daf then continues: 

There was an incident involving Hillel the Elder, who brought his burnt offering to the Temple courtyard on a festival in order to place his hands on it.

The students of Shammai the Elder gathered around him and said to him: What is the nature of this animal?

He said to them: It is a female, and I have brought it as a peace offering.

The Torah requires that specific sacrifices be either a male or female animal — a burnt offering must be male and a peace offering must be female. Remember, Hillel’s position is that it is permitted to bring a (male) burnt offering on the holiday, while Shammai disagreed. But when surrounded by disciples of the rival school, instead of admitting to what he was doing, Hillel told them it was a female animal and, for good measure:

He swung its tail (obscuring its genitals) and they departed.

Perhaps recognizing that he was vastly outnumbered — one elder surrounded by many students of the opposing school — Hillel obscured his animal’s sex and the truth.  

Hillel’s choice highlights the kinds of pressure that being a lone voice in a crowd can put on people — even people of great repute — and the physical danger that could be a part of these kinds of halakhic debates. 

Every choice, of course, comes with consequences. Hillel’s deception worked and so, it now appeared to all the observers that Hillel was agreeing withShammai’s position:

On that day, Beit Shammai gained the upper hand over Beit Hillel, and they sought to establish the halakhah in this regard in accordance with their opinion.

And yet, although Hillel was intimidated into publicly conceding to Shammai, the halakhah still ultimately follows Hillel, thanks to an unexpected hero:

A certain elder of the disciples of Shammai the Elder was there — Bava ben Buta was his name — who knew that the halakhah was in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel in this matter. And he sent for and brought all the sheep of Kedar that were in Jerusalem, and he stood them in the Temple courtyard and said: Anyone who wishes to place his hands on the head of an animal should come and place his hands there.

And on that day Beit Hillel gained the upper hand over Beit Shammai, and they established the halakhah in this case in accordance with their opinion, and there was no one there who disputed the matter in any way.

Shammai’s students wield enormous power in this story — both as a mob, and Bava ben Buta as an individual. It was a crowd of Shammai’s students that forced Hillel into pretending to comply with his ruling. But it was just one of Shammai’s students who defended Hillel and effectively fought off the mob.

I’ve never bought a sheep, but an internet search tells me that I should expect to pay about $300 for one. In antiquity, they were far more valuable, and Bava ben Buta apparently chose to buy all the sheep of Kedar to make this matter right! As a student of Shammai, he is not generally someone who agrees with Hillel. Yet to uphold the integrity of the halakhic system, and counter his fellow disciples’ tactics of intimidation, he takes a public stand in defense of the man with whom he usually disagrees — and spends a significant amount of money to do so. 

Bava ben Buta models the moral courage of an individual who chooses to take a stand against bullies, even bullies with whom he ordinarily agrees (which makes it much harder). Little mattered more to the rabbis than halakhah — but they knew it had to be decided the right way, without intimidation.

Read all of Beitzah 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 20th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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