Today we look at a classic argument that appears in the mishnah at the end of yesterday’s page and is hotly debated through much of today’s.
Beit Shammai says: In the evening every person must recline to recite Shema and in the morning each must stand to recite Shema, as it is stated: “Recite these words when you lie down, and when you rise up.” (Deut. 6:7)
Beit Hillel says: Every person recites Shema in whatever position they happen to be in, as it is stated: “…and when you are on the way.” (Deut. 11:19)
If so, why does Beit Hillel imagine the Torah states: “When you lie down, and when you rise up”? To denote the time at which people recite Shema — the time at which they ordinarily lie down and rise up.
Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were two of the earliest and greatest schools of Jewish legal thought and are found all over the Talmud. (The word “beit” literally means “house of” and refers here to the school each founded.) Hillel’s reputation was for being more fair-minded and also more lenient — making the law more manageable to follow. Shammai’s reputation was for being more stringent, aiming at a higher level of piety.
This mishnah offers a typical exchange between the two. Shammai employs a strict understanding that one should literally lie down to recite the evening Shema and stand upright to recite the morning Shema. Hillel gives a more lenient ruling: Shema can be recited in whatever physical position is convenient: lying, standing, sitting, or even walking.
Hillel doesn’t just assert this leniency — he finds justification for it in the Torah. Deuteronomy 11:19 says that these words can be recited “when you stay at home and when you are on the way.” Clearly, Hillel argues, someone who is in the midst of a journey cannot be lying down, so the expression “when you lie down and when you rise up” should be read as a temporal statement — one recites the Shema at about the times one lies down and rises up. Later, the reason for Hillel’s leniency becomes clear: lying down to recite Shema, if one is not home, can expose one to great danger.
In this short passage, we can see why Hillel was so beloved and ultimately rose to much greater fame than Shammai. Hillel evinces concern not only for the welfare of the Jews who follow his ruling (by making observance manageable for them), but also for his opponent (whose opinion he takes time to respectfully address). He is not satisfied until all are answered thoroughly. This makes him not only a scholar, but a mensch.
And this perhaps is the reason the rabbis of the Talmud so vigorously defend his ruling that one even goes so far as to offer this extreme pronouncement:
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: One who acted in accordance with the opinion of Beit Shammai has acted so egregiously that he is liable to receive the death penalty.