Now that we’re well into the third tractate of the Talmud, we’ve repeatedly encountered Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, two schools of thought that frequently disagreed about Jewish law. Beit Hillel generally held more lenient positions, while Beit Shammai generally held stricter ones. With a few rare exceptions, the law follows Beit Hillel.
On today’s daf, we encounter a famous passage that explains why. According to a teaching from Rabbi Abba in the name of Shmuel, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were arguing over a point of Jewish law for years. Eventually a voice emerged from heaven and declared that both viewpoints are “the words of the living God,” yet the law is nevertheless according to the teaching of Beit Hillel.
Naturally, the Gemara wants to know: If both positions are the word of God, why do we rule according to Beit Hillel?
The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.
This well-known passage teaches the profoundly significant lesson that the manner in which one disagrees is as important as one’s argument. Beit Shammai’s legal rulings are just as valid as Beit Hillel’s, but we follow the latter because of the civility and deference they demonstrated.
In our climate of ever-increasing polarization, this passage is often cited as a plea for intellectual and political discourse that is respectful and intellectually humble: Like Beit Hillel, we should seek to understand opposing arguments and relate to them with respectful disagreement.Yet earlier on today’s daf, there is another passage that can be seen as cautioning against taking such a stance too far:
Rabbi Aḥa bar Ḥanina said: It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was no one of the Sages who is his equal. Why then didn’t the Sages establish the halakha in accordance with his opinion? It is because his colleagues were unable to ascertain the profundity of his opinion. He was so brilliant that he could present a cogent argument for any position, even if it was not consistent with the prevalent halakha. As he would state with regard to a ritually impure item that it is pure, and display justification for that ruling, and likewise he would state with regard to a ritually pure item that it is impure, and display justification for that ruling. The Sages were unable to distinguish between the statements that were halakha and those that were not.
Though he doesn’t seem to be motivated by humility, in a certain sense Rabbi Meir is like Beit Hillel, teaching the arguments both for and against a given ruling. But ultimately, his insistence on giving both positions equal credence leads his students to become confused, unable to understand the path they should follow.
The difference between Beit Hillel and Rabbi Meir, therefore, is that the former clearly articulates the conclusion they believe is right, while the latter does not.
Taken together, the talmudic assessments of these towering intellectual figures suggest that respect and deference in debate need not mean abandoning our commitments. We need to seek both understanding of the other side and make our views clear. Today’s daf is an argument for what we might call humble conviction — something our world could use more of right now.