Sunday 25 February 2018



King Herod - Friend of Hillel, foe of Shamai.

Recently, shocking headlines in the Israeli news read: “Police called to intervene as mass brawl breaks out between factions at haredi Ponovezh Yeshiva.[1] Could it be that this is mild compared to what may have occurred in a House of Study two thousand years ago?
There are two Talmudic accounts[2] describing an event which took place in the Study Hall where it seems that the House of Shamai attacked and possibly murdered some of the students of the House of Hillel!
Obviously, many say that this is a purely figurative description of a ‘robust debate’.
However, there are a number of commentators who believe the description of ‘murder in the Beit Midrash’ to have been devastatingly real and quite literal.[3]

Here is a description of the event in the Babylonian Talmud:

Leaving the technicalities for the footnote[4], Shamai became frustrated with Hillel in a debate concerning grapes - and then violence erupted. 
The Talmud records that immediately Shamai:          
thrust a sword into the House of Study and declared:
Whoever wants to enter may enter, but no one may leave!’
And on that day Hillel was made to sit in submission before Shamai, like one of his disciples.
And it was as terrible for Israel as the day on which the (golden) calf was made.”[5]
This reference to a sword is even more surprising considering the prohibition against bringing a sword into a House of Study.[6]
And we know that the day on which the golden calf was made was the day a civil war erupted when brother killed brother:
The Torah states:
Put every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion.”[7]
Some interpret this event at the House of Study as a description of a real battle - while others simply interpret this as being a metaphor and that there was no real physical conflict.

However, according to the Jerusalem Talmud:

In the Talmud Yerushalmi it is recorded that the rabbis went to visit Chananya ben Garon in his attic. There they counted the rabbis and ascertained that Beit Shamai was in the majority, so they voted in eighteen new laws that day.
That seems like quite a routine description of a typical voting session, until the Yerushalmi continues:

The students of Beit Shamai stood below them and began to kill[8] the students of Beit Hillel.
It was taught: Six of them ascended and the others stood over them with swords and lances.”[9]

This description by the Jerusalem Talmud is very difficult to interpret figuratively and it seems as if some violent conflict ensued.
Interestingly, the two major commentaries on both sides of the page are at complete variance with each other over the issue of whether or not murder took place:
According to the Pnei Moshe[10] commentary, Hillel had to sit subjugated before Shamai while Beit Shamai literally killed the students of Hillel. This was how Shamai was able to win the majority vote.
However, the Korban haEidah[11] commentary refuses to accept the violent account of real murders taking place in the study house. According to him, Beit Shamai only threatened Beit Hillel if they tried to climb up the stairs. They stood with spears and lances preventing Beit Hillel from ascending, so that Beit Shamai could have the majority vote - but ‘G-d forbid that they actually killed them’:

Thus we see that the main commentators on the page are fundamentally divided over the issue as to whether or not murders took place in the House of Study.
The Meiri[12]  takes the story as being the literal killing of the students of Beit Hillel. He says that the eighteen laws enacted that day will never be withdrawn because lives were lost that day. He further says that it was not just Beit Hillel who were the victims of murder, implying that the murders were quite widespread.   
Rav Saadiah Gaon[13], on the other hand, interprets it figuratively. We know this from the fact that he was attacked by the Karaite, Shlomo ben Yerucham, regarding this issue of alleged carnage in the Talmud. Rav Saadia denied any record of murders taking place.
ונ"ל סעד לדבריו מדברי רס"ג שכתב ע"ד הקראים שכתבו שהיה הריגה בין בית שמאי ובית הלל, ורב סעדיה כתב שלא נמצא כן בתלמוד, וע"ז השיבו הקראים דמבואר כן בירושלמי
Interestingly, historical evidence points in the direction of those who believe the Talmudic description was indeed one of violence and murder:
A fragment found in the Cairo Geniza (See KOTZK BLOG 91) which describes the same battle, records that a mourning period was actually instituted during Tannaic times:
On the forth of Adar, a dispute erupted between the students of Shamai and Hillel and many were killed.”[14]
This evidence is in contradistinction to many other rabbinic statements that the debates between Shamai and Hillel were well-intended, peaceful, and ‘for the sake of Heaven[15].
The Babylonian Talmud relates:
Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love truth and peace.” (Zech. 8:16)[16]
The Shulchan Aruch[17] records the ninth[18] of Adar as a fast day because Hillel and Shamai disagreed, but does not go into the details. R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, incidentally, adds that he had never known of anyone fasting on that day.
The Eliyah Rabbah[19], a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, writes that on the ninth of Adar, real violence erupted resulting in three thousand people dead.[20] (The same number were said to also have died during the episode of the golden calf.)
Apparently, some mournful piyuttim or dirges were composed commemorating the disaster (although I have not been able to locate them).
Perhaps an understanding of some historical perspective can give us some degree of clarity:
These events took place around the time of the Jewish[21] King Herod (173BCE- 4BCE) who maintained good relations with Rome, sent his children to be educated there, and who was dubbed by the Romans as the ‘friend and ally of Rome’.
This gave Herod a period of tranquillity in which he had time to build great structures including renovating the Second Temple. According to R. Avraham Zacuto (1452-1515), who writes in one of the first Jewish books on history, Sefer Yochasin:
Herod built the Temple of a beauty that exceeded that of Solomon.[22]
But this expansion into the aesthetics brought with it some mixed feelings amongst the rabbis because they were fearful of this new secular Greek influence.
It appears, however, that Hillel was quite supportive of Herod while Shamai felt threatened by the secular cosmopolitanism. 
R. Zacuto continues: 
Indeed, Herod greatly respected Hillel, for they supported his rule...The disciples of the School of Shamai were killing the disciples of the School of Hillel and threatened their lives.”[23]
According to R. Binyamin Lau:
At this stage the Jewish forces were split and turned against each other in a civil war between the supporters of Herod and the supporters of the Hasmoneans.”[24]
Besides their political differences, Shamai was always stricter than Hillel.  Shamai, for example, taught that children should not eat on a Fast Day, as apparently, the custom had always been. Hillel’s leniency and innovation was that fasting should only be observed after puberty.[25]
Another example is that Shamai only believed in teaching ‘respectable people’ while Hillel believed in teaching all people. [26] When Hillel first arrived in Israel, he found the Torah world to closed and elitist and we all know the story of him having to climb onto the roof in the freezing snow to listen to Torah because he could not afford the entrance fee to the Beit Midrash.
Hillel and Shamai were the last of the five Zugot (Pairs of leaders), who led Jewish people for two hundred years (170 BCE-30 CE). The Zugot filled the positions of Nasi (President) and Av Beit Din (Head of the Court) respectively. Hillel was the Nasi, while Shamai was the Av Beit Din.
Under the leadership of Hillel and Shamai, the Sages “became immersed in halachik matters” more than in previous generations, and this sparked “the emergence of the phenomenon of dispute”.
Hillel and Shamai became symbols for characteristic Talmudik and Halachik dispute and debate.
However, “Our sources indicate that their disputes were filled with tension, and at times even danger:[27]
This was the background against which one has to interpret the events in the Study Hall.
It is significant that a historical event concerning an incident in the Study Hall, obviously witnessed by many and recorded in strong words and for which we even have a date (- as opposed to a theoretical Halachik dispute) was subjected to such divergent interpretation by the later Sages. Obviously, it touched a nerve.
If the account was indeed a metaphor for a robust debate[28], then long may such debates continue.
However, if the account was factual, it is a scourge on the history of Talmudic debate.
It is generally understood that the period of Shamai and Hillel was the first ‘peaceful era of debate’ following rabbinic involvement in the Hasmonean civil wars that had dogged the previous few generations.
This is how the history of that period is usually depicted.  –That with the advent of Hillel and Shamai, rabbinical Judaism moved from a period of political conflict to a focus on a scholarly debate within a framework of respect and tranquillity.
However, it is possible, as we have seen, that some aspects of the previous political upheaval - in which rabbinic leadership played active roles - were indeed perpetuated well into the so-called ‘tranquil period of scholarly debate’.
The only difference was that instead of the violence remaining within the political and transactional arena, it may sadly have regressed to encroach on the boundaries of Halachik discourse.
Observing some of the ugliness which often takes place within the zealous factions of the Torah community to this day, sometimes it seems that it would be safer to lean more towards the metaphorical reading than to think we have precedent in the more historic or literal view.
A respected colleague of mine suggested a possible motivation (although not a justification) for the killing:
Beit Shamai may have thought that they were acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’ out of a conviction that they were protecting future Judaism from corruption by foreign and secular influences which they perceived to be emanating from Hillel through his connection to Herod and Greek culture.[29]
Could it be that, based on the many commentators who take the literal interpretation, we can re-read the well-known statement from Pirkei Avot:
Any controversy ‘for the sake of Heaven’ will abide forever... And what is an example of such a controversy – that between Hillel and Shamai! [30]
When people think they are acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’, there is no way to stop or prevent whatever they deem necessary to do. And this righteous indignation that stems from being on G-d’s side is so dangerously ingrained in the psyche, that it remains intergenerational.[31]

[1] See here.
[2] One reference is from the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 17a. And the other is from the Talmud Yerushalmi 1:4. According to some the two incidents (regarding the ‘wine’ and the ‘attic’) are related, according to others they are separate incidents.
[3] I thank the Honourable Mr Jack Bloom for sparking my interest in this matter and for pointing out some of the sources to me.
[4] Wine is one of seven liquids (wine, honey, olive oil, milk, dew, blood and water) which are susceptible to becoming contaminated. If these liquids come into contact with an unclean object, they retain the contamination and pass it on to whatever other objects they come into contact with.
According to the Mishna, solid foods only transmit impurity to other foods, while liquids contaminate even the vessels.
Furthermore, with solid foods, the severity of contamination reduces with each successive contact – while liquids do not diminish their ability to contaminate other objects with each successive contact.
Now, the question arises as to what is the status of grapes (a solid food) that are harvested for the express purpose of being converted to a wine (a liquid)? Would they be regarded as a solid or a liquid?
Shamai, who typically renders strict rulings, maintains that those grapes are ‘liquid’ and susceptible to contamination immediately upon being harvested. Therefore, they need to be harvested by persons in a state of purity.
Hillel, on the other hand, is typically more lenient and maintains that the grapes are not susceptible to contamination until they are actually turned into a liquid and therefore the harvesters need not be in a state of purity.
Hillel then points out an inconsistency with Shamai’s ruling and asks why it is that only grapes need to be harvested in a state of purity - whereas olives (which are to be turned into olive oil, also a liquid) need not also be harvested in purity?
Shamai was easily annoyed and provoked by this question and responded sharply: “If you continue to provoke me, I will also decree impurity for the olive harvesting.”  
At this point, swords came out and that day was described as calamitous as the day of the Biblical golden calf, where many were killed in a brother versus brother battle.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 17a.                                                                                                            
[6] Sanhedrin 82a. (It is possible, though, that this ruling came about later, as a result of the violence that had erupted in the House of Study.)
[7] Shemot 32:26-28.
[8] I noticed that some English translations use the word ‘slaughter’ instead of ‘kill’. The reader can decide what the word ’horgin’ means.
[9] Jerusalem Talmud 4:1.
[10] R. Moshe Margalit (1710–1780).
[11] R. David ben Naftali Hirsch Frankel (1707–1762)
[12] Avodah Zara 35b.
[13] Amudei Yerushalayim on the Yerushalmi.
[14] Mordechai Margaliot, Hilchot Eretz Yisrael min Hageniza, 142.
[15] Avot 5:17
[16] Eruvin 13b.                  
[17] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Hilchot Taanit 580.
[18] The Cairo Geniza records the date as the forth of Adar.
[19] R. Eliyahu Shapiro (1660-1712).
[20] Eliyah Rabba, Orach Chayim 580:7
[21] There is much debate as to the actual Halachik status of Herod. He was raised as a Jew but his father was descendent from the Edomites, many of whom had converted to Judaism.
[22] Sefer Yochasin, translated by Israel Shamir and edited by Prof. Joseph Kaplan, p. 18. (I thank Mendy Rosin for pointing this source out to me.)
[23] Ibid. Sefer Yochasin.
[24] The Sages – Character, Context and Creativity Vol 1, by Binyamin Lau. Part Three : Hillel and Shamai and their Students, p. 180.
[25]Tosefta, Yom Kippurim 5:2                                            
[26] Avot de Rabbi Natan, ch. 4.
[27] Ibid. The Sages, R. Binyamin Lau.
[28] Although many who purport this view acknowledge that real swords were drawn and people were prevented from voting.
[29] I thank Rosh Yeshiva R. Chaim Finkelstein for this innovative suggestion.
[30] Pirkei Avot 5:17
[31] I thank Mr Bloom for this fascination interpretation.


  1. The history of jew killing Jew is regrettably not unique. While reading the blog, and particularly the comment from rabbi Lau, I was reminded of the incident between the Pharisees and Alexander Jannai. The Pharisees objected to Jannai's form of water libation conducted in the Sukkot service and pelted him with etrogrim. His response was not pretty but everyone is quite clear what he did. May be he was from a closet of beit Shamai. In this incident the followers of Hillel (and therefore Herod?) certainly rose in revolt against the Hasmonean king

  2. The last explanation doesn't really answer the contradiction. Because the mishna in avos states the antonym a machlokes not lsheim shamayim is korach and Moshe. And the Pshat everyone says is hillel and shamai machlokes was only Torah, outside Torah they loved each other. So your still left with how to explain this contridiction?