Shabbat 17

The rabbis and the sword.

If you have heard of Hillel and Shammai, you likely know that when they debate, we always follow Hillel’s opinion. Well, almost always.

For pages already, the Gemara has been discussing a mishnah in which Hillel and Shammai disagreed about 18 things and Shammai won on all points! These pages have described debates about what belongs on the list and what might have been left off. On our daf today, things come to a head as the rabbis more fully imagine the day on which Shammai was victorious over Hillel.

Let’s set the scene: Hillel and Shammai are debating the purity or impurity of foods that seep juices in the process of being harvested. In this discussion they compare grapes and olives. Hillel asks: If your opinion is that the spilled juices make grapes susceptible to impurity, why don’t you feel the same way about the liquid from olives? The discussion doesn’t seem strikingly different than many other disputes between Hillel and Shammai. As in many cases, they clarify the legal status of one thing through comparison to something else similar. But then things turn darker:

Shammai said to him: If you provoke me (and insist that there is no difference between gathering olives and grapes), then I will decree impurity on the gathering of olives as well. Since the dispute was so intense, they stuck a sword in the study hall, and they said: One who seeks to enter the study hall, let him enter, and one who seeks to leave may not leave (so that all of the Sages will be assembled to determine the halacha.) That day Hillel was bowed and was sitting before Shammai like one of the students. And that day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made (as Hillel, who was the Nasi, was forced to sit in submission before Shammai, and the opinion of Beit Shammai prevailed in the vote conducted that day.) And Shammai and Hillel issued the decree, and the people did not accept it from them. And their students came and issued the decree, and the people accepted it from them.

Shammai’s thinking has clearly taken an ugly turn — he is ready to decree impurity just for the sake of spite (compare this to his reasons for declaring impurity of Samaritan women on yesterday’s page). The metaphorical violence of the beit midrash suddenly becomes concrete with the appearance of an actual sword, though unlike Chekov’s proverbial gun, it never hurts anyone. The role of the sword in this story is to keep everyone engaged and involved. People are invited into the room, but not permitted to leave.

This kind of moment, when an accepted and beloved leader is forced to give in can be painful. The text calls it kasheh meaning “hard.” It is so painful, in fact, that it reminds the rabbis of the golden calf — the day on which Israel sinned against God by creating an idol and 3,000 people paid with their lives.

Hillel gives in, and Shammai wins his 18 points. But the scholars in the room do not accept this outcome. An entire generation passes before the decree is finally accepted, at this time from the students.

What harsh debates are live today in our communities? What conversations would we rather avoid, if we aren’t fenced in with a sword? And what issues are so painful, we might need to wait for another generation to fully accept?

Read all of Shabbat 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 23, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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