Talmudic pages

Yevamot 14

When Hillelites married Shammaites.

The mishnah on yesterday’s daf testified to a pluralist attitude among the schools of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:

Although Beit Hillel prohibit (particular cases of yibbum) and Beit Shammai permit them, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai.

The simplest reading of this mishnah is unequivocal: Beit Hillel accepted Beit Shammai’s assessment of the status of their own people. A child could be born who would be ruled a mamzer by Beit Hillel, but if the yibbum took place under the auspices of Beit Shammai, then Beit Hillel would forgo their stringency.

Today’s daf complicates our understanding of the mishnah. First we learn that among the early amoraim (rabbis of the immediate post-Mishnah era), Reish Lakish and Rav could not imagine Beit Hillel being so tolerant towards Beit Shammai’s position. Instead, they find a more forced reading of the mishnah, according to which Beit Shammai didn’t act in accordance with their own opinion. In other words, they only arranged yibbum according to the rules of Beit Hillel and not their own. This reading is a stretch: If there were no ramifications of the disagreement then it wouldn’t need stating that the schools “did not refrain” from marrying one another.

But the stammaim (late unnamed redactors of the Talmud, who come after the amoraim) propose another version of history, one which is even more at odds with the plain reading of the mishnah. The stammaim suggest:

Beit Shammai did act in accordance with their opinion. But they would inform Beit Hillel and Beit Hillel would withdraw from the match.

The stammaim are prepared to imagine each school sticking to its principles, but it is now a core assumption in the logic of the sugya that any difference in practice would have severely limited marriages between them. Since mamzerut is inherited from either parent, this proposed understanding of the mishnah essentially abandons the idea that marriages between the communities were able to continue as normal.

In a thought-provoking essay, Rabbi Ethan Tucker demonstrates that each voice in the sugya is attempting to strike a balance between three objectives which can be summarized as pluralism, integrity and community. I would add that the chronology along which the different approaches appear reflects a familiar trend in this balancing act. As the lived and experienced argument transitions to a recorded one from the distant past, its readers struggle more and more to imagine that such a high-stakes disagreement could have been tolerated within a united community. It became difficult to imagine that Beit Hillel would strongly disapprove of Beit Shammai’s matches — to the point that they themselves would consider the products of such matches mamzerim — and yet marry those children anyway.

We, like the rabbis before us, are also inclined to imagine that historical society was much cleaner and neater, much more consistent, than it likely was — even in the face of documentary evidence to the contrary. For the mishnah, however, this disagreement was live, and the authenticity and commitment of each school was apparent to the other. Tolerance for each other’s rulings followed. 

Centuries later, the influence of Beit Hillel dominated the rabbinic tradition, and the amoraim struggled to believe that their forebears had shown deference to an alternative position that was absent from the post-mishnaic world. Just as modern readers might be surprised to read that “In the town of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, they would eat poultry meat in milk” (also today’s page), Rav and Reish Lakish seem uneasy with the thought that Beit Shammai’s position used to be a common practice —- and that, in all likelihood, this meant that every Jew had in their lineage a case of mamzerut, according to Beit Hillel. Generations after them, late Babylonian sages could not even imagine that Beit Shammai might have deferred to Beit Hillel. By this point, the disagreement felt so fundamental that the easiest scenario to imagine was one in which the communities drifted apart rather than compromise — which is precisely the opposite of what the mishnah, which pointedly tells us they married each other’s daughters, is saying.

We often default to interpretations of history that bring it closer in line with our reality, but history is full of diversity and debate, and we have as much to learn from Beit Shammai’s opinions as our ancestors in Beit Hillel did when they engaged with those opinions directly. The Tosefta’s parallel to our mishnah, which also appears on today’s daf, adds that: 

They practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love, truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)

Read all of Yevamot 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 21th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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