These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What I Learned at Pardes This Week #5: Hillel, Shammai and Uncle Vanya

Posted on November 6, 2010 by Pious Antic

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This entry is a cross-post from my personal blog.

This week, in my Talmud class, we looked at a couple of classic sugyot in the Gemara, one of of which, in the first chapter of Tractate Eruvin, discusses some conflicts between the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai.

Before the Montagues and the Capulets, before the Disestablishmentarians and the Antidisestablishmentarians, there were Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. As every student of Talmud knows, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed about almost everything. There are 316 machlokot (disputes) between the rival schools recorded in the Talmud; in all but six cases, Beit Hillel ultimately prevails.

According to Eruvin 13b, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were disputing for three years, each claiming that the law followed their school. Finally, at the end of three years a heavenly voice proclaimed “Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the law goes according to Beit Hillel.” The Stama, the anonymous redactor of the Gemara, immediately raises the obvious question: if both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai represent “the words of the living God,” why did Beit Hillel become the normative opinion? The Stama answers its own question by telling us that it was because Beit Hillel were pleasant and humble, and used to teach both their own opinions and those of Beit Shammai, and not only that but they would teach the opinions of Beit Shammai before they taught their own opinions. In other words, nice guys finish first, at least in the Talmud.

However, after affirming the general principle that the law follows Beit Hillel, the Gemara provides a counter-example.

For two and a half years, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai had a debate in which Beit Shammai argued that mankind would have been better off had they never been created, while Beit Hillel argued that on balance, it was better for mankind that they had been created. In the end, after two and a half years of debate, the Sanhedrin put the issue to a vote and decided, surprisingly, in favor of Beit Shammai. They ruled that indeed mankind would have been better off had they not been created in the first place, but now that we have been created, one should “examine one’s actions”. There’s an ambiguity in the text (at least as the medieval commentator Rashi reads it) whether this means to examine the deeds of the past with the aim of achieving repentance or whether one should carefully consider all one’s present actions in order to make the best possible choices here and now.

The Sanhedrin, in upholding the opinion of Beit Shammai, while offering their caveat, seem to be saying that while it is undeniable that life is nasty, brutish and short, that human beings are on the whole disappointing creatures, morally bankrupt, making a mess of every opportunity that is handed them, nonetheless one must not sink into nihilism or despair. We must make the best of what we are given, and strive to rise above our own limitations and the inevitable disappointments that life hands us.

The resolution of this machloket reminds me of the end of Uncle Vanya. At the end of Chekhov’s play, Vanya and his niece Sonya, are left alone together, both of them disappointed in love and in life. Vanya sees no point in going on living, but throws himself into trivial, mundane work in order to distract himself from the despair he feels at the prospect of the long, empty, hopeless years ahead of him. Sonya comforts him with the thought that even if they have no hope for themselves in this life, they can work hard, make the best of the disappointing lot that has fallen to them, and console themselves with the hope of a reward in the hereafter.