Sermon – When Shammai and Hillel disagreed

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 9 February 2019

One of the building blocks of religious life, the scaffolding on which tradition hangs, is the calendar – the dates, anniversaries, festival days, mourning days, which give shape to our year.
Some of these days are well known and widely commemorated, others have fallen out of favour.  Some give shape to everyone’s year, and some are observed by only a few for whom the day continues to resonate; some have come in and out of fashion, and some have drifted until they are nearly completely forgotten.

So, for example, Christmas and Easter set the calendar of even non-Christian lives; the Feast of the Transfiguration, rather less so.  Saint Patrick’s Day seems to have a special, let’s call it, ‘resonance’ – even in England – while the Saint Day of George has come to be associated with a particular world view.  Valentine’s Day has been utterly transformed from the minor Western Christian Feast day that is once was.

Within Judaism we see this phenomenon, too.  Many communities, of all denominations, nowadays mark the fast of Tisha B’Av in high summer – commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem, and other tragedies.  But 20 years ago that was largely unknown in our part of the Jewish world; and very few outside of a strictly Orthodox community will also observe the fast days of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, say, or the fast of Gedaliah.

Over the next couple of months, we will definitely keep Purim, but few who don’t daven every day will even know that this year there is a Purim Katan – a mini Purim.  (Because this is a leap year with an additional month of Adar, and Purim takes place on 14 Adar of the second month, 14 Adar of the first month has a special flavour.)

Meanwhile, commemoration of the Seventh of Adar – the day on which, according to tradition, Moses died – has come back into the life of Reform Judaism, but not as a fast day, rather as a special day to celebrate the Chevra Kaddisha – the group of special volunteers who prepare bodies for burial.  When there are two months of Adar, as this year, the Seventh of Adar is – like Purim – also marked in the second month of Adar, so this year will be on 14 March.

There is one other Adar commemoration which has almost completely disappeared.

It is another fast day – first found described in a ninth century text written in Babylonia, called Hilchot G’dolot, and later codified by Yosef Caro in the Shulchan Aruch, his code of Jewish Law from the fifteenth century.  Caro presents a list of days on which eir’u ba’hem tzarot la-avoteinu – ‘on them tragedies befell our ancestors’:  On the ninth of Adar – equivalent to this coming Wednesday night/Thursday – the Shulchan Aruch tells us: nechl’ku beit shammai u’veit hillel – the Houses of the Sages Shammai and Hillel – disagreed.

To give a bit of background.  Hillel and Shammai were a pair of sages who lived in the last Century BCE/first CE, and they are often described as disagreeing.  Those who have counted, have identified 316 different matters on which the Talmud records a dispute between them.  Their disagreements are identified in the Mishnah as being the exemplar of controversy l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.
So what does it mean to describe their conflict as a tragedy, worthy of fasting?

One explanation might be that this just speaks about disagreement – that there is something challenging about the possibility of diverse opinions on religious matters, even when these are disputes for the sake of heaven.  With disagreement this view posits, comes doubt.  Thus – according to this view – this was the introduction of doubt into our tradition, and that in itself was a source of tragedy.

But this view is quite counter cultural.  Most textual voices – including that of the Mishnah – seem to relish disagreement as a creative force.  Indeed Rabbinic Judaism is by its very nature was a dialectic tradition.  So the idea of this as tragedy sits uneasily in Jewish tradition.

Rather, the majority of sources do not identify this tragedy with the simple existence of diverse voices – but about the way in which the disagreement took place.  And they do so in seriously hyperbolic language.  That earliest source, Hilchot G’dolot, states nechl’ku beit shammai u’veit hillel zeh im zeh, the Houses of Shammai and Hillel disputed, one with the other… and then, in some variants continues “and some of them killed some of them”.  One widespread tradition states that three thousand students were killed on that day.

Another tradition identifies 9 Adar with a short story in the Mishnah in which a series of regulations were made in the attic of a man called Hananiah ben Chizkiyah ben Guryon.  On that day, it is said that the members of the House of Shammai outnumbered those of the House of Hillel and they took advantage of that moment to declare decrees – made for all time.  In our texts we find the suggestion that they used force or underhand tactics to keep the balance of numbers to their advantage – against the view of the majority.  Indeed, both Talmuds state that ‘that day was as wretched for Israel as the day that they made the Golden Calf’.

Underlying these explanations is the understanding that disagreement in itself is not wrong; It is not a tragedy that we disagree – but it can be when we move out of a model of respectful dialogue – when we no longer listen to each other, but become conflictual, or abuse power, abuse our voice in speaking about one another.  It is this that makes the ninth of Adar a day of fasting.

Because of this, led by the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, the ninth of Adar has been nominated as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict, a focus point for this important message.  Central to this work has been a Rabbi called Daniel Roth who directs the Centre for Judaism and Conflict Resolution at Pardes.

Roth also makes a link to this week’s Torah portion.  At the beginning of Parashat Terumah we read about the creation of the cherubim – made, “with their faces one to another”.  This can be seen as the model of constructive relationship – facing one another, engaging with each other.  There are classical commentaries comparing the cherubim to Torah scholars – friends in chavruta grappling over Torah; a more modern comparison is to different parts of the community facing one another, supporting each other.  But there is also a Talmudic tradition that the cherubim only faced one another when the people “did the will of God” but turned away from each other in protest when they did not.  There is a clear link between our facing one another, seeing each other, hearing each other, and acting for the sake of heaven.

One of the building blocks of religious life, the scaffolding on which tradition hangs, is the calendar – the dates, anniversaries, festival days, mourning days, which give shape to our year.  Some of these days are well known, and others are almost completely forgotten.

The ninth of Adar is an anniversary that needs to be rediscovered.  Its message for us for today is more important than ever.

In our religious lives, in our communal lives, in our national political lives, we need to reassert the importance of how we speak with one another.  To emphasise the fundamental ideals, ideals at the heart of Jewish tradition, of constructive, respectful disagreement; recognise that it is not that we disagree but how we disagree that defines us.

Nechl’ku beit shammai u’veit hillel – On the ninth of Adar, the Houses of the Sages Hillel and Shammai – disagreed.
That is not the tragedy.
It is when we no longer listen to each other, become conflictual, or abuse power, when our disputes are no longer for the common good, no longer l’shem shamayim – it is then that we have cause for mourning and for fasting.