The Spiritual and the Tangible
The schools of Shammai and Hillel were intellectual and scholarly rivals for hundreds of years and were major influencers of the development of Torah. Between Hillel and Shammai there were only three (possibly five) disputes. But 3168 arguments between the schools they founded are recorded in the Talmud. Of these arguments, 221 revolve around various halachos, 66 are gezeiros (preventative laws), and 29 are discrepancies over Biblical and legislative interpretations. Despite Shammai’s tendency to be strict and Hillel to be lenient, in 55 of these disputes (fully one-sixth), the school of Shammai ruled on the side of leniency. Many theories have been proposed as to the central (or at least one of the central) differences between the schools. The theories as to the core conceptual difference between the schools range from psychological and hermeneutical, to socio-economic and analytical preferences. The Rogatchover Gaon’s key insight into the core difference between Hillel and Shammai is related to their differing perspectives on the degree to which spiritual versus tangible elements of reality should be taken into account in determining halachah.
The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) states: “The school of Shammai says, ‘The heavens were created first and then the earth.’ The school of Hillel says, ‘The earth was created first and then the heavens.’” What does this argument revolve around? Is there an underlying theme? Indeed there is. Shammai says the heavens were created first. By heavens, Shammai means spirituality and the intangible. In Shammai’s view, spirituality is the primary determinant in halachah and is the main barometer of reality. It was created first since it is the dominant reality.
[Spirituality in this context does not have any sort of otherworldly implication. It simply means something that exists in our universe yet is immaterial and lacks concrete substance.]
Hillel says, however, that in our physical world, material considerations are of primary importance, and one must use the physical spectrum as the dominant factor in deciding halachah. Therefore the earth, meaning physicality, was created first.
The Rogatchover proceeds to pinpoint this dispute as the epicenter of two Gemaras that seemingly have no connection to this. The Talmud in Shabbos 62b states the following (I paraphrase):
A woman may not go out on Shabbos carrying a spice bundle (an ornament worn around the neck in which women would place spices so as to create a fragrance) or a flask of balsam oil. If she did go out she has transgressed the Shabbos and is required to bring a korban chatas (an atoning sacrifice in the Temple). This is Rabbi Meir’s opinion. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees and says she has not transgressed the Sabbath and is exempt from a korban. The reason she is exempt is because a pendant containing spice or a small flask containing oil are considered to be in the category of tachshit (ornaments). Items that are categorized as a tachshit are Biblically permitted to be worn on Shabbos since it is not considered carrying when going out with them. Just as wearing a shirt on one’s back is not considered “carrying,” so, too, items that, while not being essential, have aesthetic or secondary uses and benefits are allowed to be worn on one’s person.
Rabbi Eliezer then qualifies his ruling and states that she is only exempt when the spice bundle contained spices inside and the flask contained oil inside. But if they did not have spice or oil inside them then she is obligated to bring a korban (meaning she has transgressed the Sabbath). Since it is not the norm to wear a pendant or a flask when they are empty, they are not considered ornaments when worn empty. Therefore, since they are not able to be classified as ornaments, they revert to masa (carrying) status.
[To facilitate a fluid, smooth understanding of the next part of the Gemara, it is necessary to preface the following principle about carrying on Shabbos. In order to transgress the Shabbos it is not enough to simply carry something outside in the public domain. One must carry a certain minimum quantity in order to be Biblically culpable. Each item has its own minimum requirement or shiur. For example, one carrying food must take out (generally) enough food equal to the size of a dried fig. The minimum amount for other objects may be less or more, depending upon the specific item in question. For example, one taking out a vessel such as a jar would be Biblically liable even for carrying out a tiny jar, since one has carried a whole, complete vessel. With food, however, it is not dependent on whether one has carried a complete item, but rather on the amount of food.]
The Talmud in Shabbos 93b discusses an intriguing case concerning one who takes out a jar containing food, where the food does not satisfy the minimum requirement yet the jar does satisfy the shiur (since it is a complete vessel). What is the din (law)? Seemingly, there should be no question as to their culpability. For the jar (which satisfies the shiur) they are liable, and for the food (which does not) they should not be liable. Yet it is more complex than that. Since the jar is being used as a receptacle for the food, it is viewed as not having its own independent existence and is merely an accessory of the food. Thus, one is not liable for carrying the jar, since it is not its own halachic entity. Rather, it is an extension of the food. Yet for the food one also cannot be liable since the amount of the food is less than the shiur. Thus, counter-intuitively, for carrying out more (the food as well as the jar) one ends up not being liable (as opposed to if one would have just carried out the jar without the food, in which case one would indeed have been liable). The Gemara attempts to deduce something from Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion. Rabbi Eliezer said that when the flask is empty one is liable since then it is not a tachshit (because it is not the normal custom to wear an empty flask). But what about the scent of the balsam oil that still emanates from the flask? Isn’t that comparable to the case brought before where one took out food less than the shiur in a vessel? Here too one is taking out two things: the scent that is wafting from the flask (which is less than the shiur, since scent has no substance to which we could pin a minimum shiur) and the flask itself (which satisfies the shiur since it is a complete vessel). Yet still Rabbi Eliezer holds that one is liable in this case! Is he not arguing on the Mishnah on 93b and forming his own opinion? According to the Mishnah on 93b, one should not be culpable for the scent since it lacks a minimum shiur, and also not for the flask, since the flask is carrying the scent, and is therefore merely an accessory and extension to the smell.
The Talmud answers that these two cases are not conceptually parallel. Smell has no tangibility (leis bei mamasha) since it has no substance, and the flask is considered empty and cannot be said to be an accessory to the scent.
What essentially is the discussion here in the Gemara? The Rogatchover sees it as being predicated upon the tension between the tangible and the intangible realms. Scent here is classified as belonging to the spiritual realm. It is not tangible or concrete at all, and halachically it is viewed as being the only sense that is a sensory tool of the soul, as opposed to being a sensory faculty of the body. (This is why on Saturday night, at the closing of Shabbos, we smell spices to comfort the soul as we head into the lesser holiness of the week.) This, then, is the point. Is smell part of our reality? Are nontangible items viewed as determinants in our decisions and perspectives? If they are, then the smell of the oil in the flask should be viewed as being “something,” albeit less than the shiur. If that is so, then the two cases are conceptually parallel and we can build a corollary from one case to the other. That would dictate that just as when one carries out food in a jar one is patur (exempt), since the jar is considered to be an accessory to the food and the food itself lacks the minimum requirement, so too when one carries out a scented flask without actually having scented oil inside, one should be patur, since again, one cannot be liable for the jar being that it is an accessory of the scent. If scent is not viewed as part of our considerations, and halachah only deals with tangible factors, then fragrance is not considered an entity and the flask is properly defined as being empty, thus ending any hopes of building a comparison between the two cases.
Another expression of this battle of perspectives is in a Mishnah in Uktzin 3:6. The Mishnah records a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding black cumin (katzach). Shammai says it is tahor (ritually pure) and not susceptible to tumah (ritual impurity) since it is not considered a food, as it is too harsh and bitter to eat. Hillel says it is susceptible to tumah since it is able to be eaten. On the surface they seem to be arguing about the physical existence of cumin and disputing a factual truth, which is not considered to be an optimal way of understanding halachah and Talmud (ein machlokes b’metziyus). However, our analysis will shed light on this strange, seemingly factual, dispute. In order to do so, we must first avail ourselves of another statement from the Talmud. The Talmud in Berachos 40a states: What is katzach? Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina said, one who eats a lot of cumin (katzach) will not experience illness or heart pains. Rabi Shimon ben Gamliel then asked, but katzach is recorded as being one of 60 plants that hasten death? The resolution in the Talmud is that one of the teachings (that katzach averts pain and illness) was stated regarding its taste, and the other (that katzach hastens death) was concerning its smell. The smell is harsh and hastens death, whereas the taste is healthy and wholesome. That being the case, Beis Shammai holds that black cumin is not susceptible to tumah since its smell is harsh and unhealthy and not fit for consumption; whereas Beis Hillel holds that we only consider tangible factors, and since smell is intangible it is not a factor. Thus we only consider the taste, and the taste is healthy and fit for consumption. Therefore it is susceptible to tumah since it is halachically considered a food.
This essential argument between these two schools is also reflected in the following Gemara in Berachos 43b: If one has wine (which he intends to drink) and scented oil (which he intends to smell) in front of him, he should take the oil in his right hand and the wine in his left hand. He should then make a blessing on the oil, smell it and then make a blessing on the wine and drink it. This is the opinion of Beis Shammai. Beis Hillel says the opposite: One should take the wine in his right hand and the oil in his left, make a blessing on the wine and then proceed to the oil. The explanation given by the commentaries is that Beis Shammai holds that the blessing on the oil takes precedence (and thus is held in the right hand) since the pleasure gained from it is immediate and does not require an action on one’s part, whereas the wine’s pleasure is only once one drinks it and digests it. Beis Hillel, however, reasons that wine, which is consumed by the body, is more significant than oil, which is merely smelled, therefore the blessing on the wine takes precedence. This does not explain, however, why Hillel holds that tangible intake of pleasure (consumption of the wine) is more significant than intangible intake of pleasure (smelling)? Additionally, what does Shammai say to Hillel’s point about consumption of pleasure versus merely smelling pleasure? According to our analysis it is clear. Hillel holds that tangible pleasure is more significant than intangible pleasure in accordance with his world view that tangible factors are the primary determinants, as opposed to intangible factors. Shammai retorts that quite the contrary, intangible and abstract factors are the primary determinants. Thus the oil (merely smelling) takes precedence.
The Solidity of the Sotah Water
There is a debate in the Talmud about how much of G-d’s name needs to be erased before we force the sotah to drink the sotah water. Beis Hillel says at least two letters (the first yud and the first hei) need to be erased. Beis Shammai says even one letter is enough to compel the drinking of the water (Yerushalmi Sotah 2:4). Elsewhere in the Gemara there is an inquiry concerning how many letters a Sefer Torah must possess in order to retain its status of sanctity. We know from the oral tradition that it needs 85 letters, but the Rabbis weren’t sure if the 85 letters needed to be together, or even if they are all from different parts of a Torah scroll (Shabbos 115b). In addition, there is an argument about how many extra letters invalidate a mezuzah—whether even just one or at least two extra letters are required to make it passul (Menachos 32b). What is the thread running through these questions? The commonality they all share is that they all revolve around the identity and character of a single letter. In the Hebrew language there are no one-letter words. A word can be composed of even two letters, but a single letter can never be a word. That being so, perhaps a letter does not have its own inherent identity? Maybe it can never be. Or perhaps there is some intrinsic meaning to a letter on its own and it is considered to be its own halachic entity, notwithstanding its deep-seated need to pair with another letter in order to form a word. Although seemingly disconnected, this is actually the same debate that we saw regarding the sotah waters.
Shammai says that even if only one letter of G-d’s name was erased, it is sufficient to activate the full status of sotah. Shammai says this because in his view a single letter is its own entity, and thus by erasing even one letter from G-d’s name, one has fragmented the name of G-d and the sanctity of the document has been destroyed. Hillel disagrees. One letter on its own is nothing, and is merely a part of the whole. Therefore, by erasing only one letter from G-d’s name you have not erased a significant entity and therefore the sanctity of G-d’s name is still there. Consequently, the sotah waters were not activated and the woman is not forced to drink and may still recant. Obviously, this is also the debate regarding a mezuzah. If one letter has intrinsic identity, then even one extra letter adds to the mezuzah scroll and invalidates it. This also applies to the “85-letters argument.” If a single letter stands on its own conceptually and halachically, then the 85-letter requirement can be satisfied from 85 single letters. If a letter is not its own entity, then the 85 must be comprised of paired letters.
What does all this have to do with the differing Weltanschauungs of Shammai and Hillel? Well, if tangibility is the primary determinant of halachah and reality, then a single letter would not stand on its own. This is because in concrete terms and from an empirical viewpoint, a single letter can never contain content or meaning. Thus, a single letter on its own is not considered its own entity. If, however, as Shammai asserts, intangibility and spiritual elements are factors to be reckoned with, then a single letter does stand on its own. This is because spiritually each letter of the Hebrew alphabet contains intrinsic and individualized holiness and metaphorical and symbolical meaning.
This whole subject is further amplified in light of how the Rogatchover understands the infusion of holiness into G-d’s name. The Yerushalmi in Berachos 5:1 states: If a scribe was writing a Sefer Torah and was in middle of writing the name of G-d, then even if the king himself asks him a question, he is not allowed to respond. Rambam codifies this in Hilchos Tefillin 1:15: If one was writing a Torah and did not have full intent when writing G-d’s name (kasav shelo lishmah), the entire Torah is invalid. Therefore, if a scribe is in middle of writing G-d’s name, he should not even respond to the king. Simply speaking, the reason is that by responding to the king the scribe is partially distracted and not able to have full concentration on writing G-d’s name. Yet, why can’t the scribe stop writing, respond and then continue writing G-d’s name? This way he could have full concentration while writing G-d’s name, with only a short intermission between starting to write and finishing the name. The reason the Rogatchover offers is that G-dliness is not able to be compartmentalized. What this means is that the name of G-d in a Torah is expressing and constitutes an actual embodiment of G-dliness. G-dliness is not an existence given to fragmentation and disparate parts. Thus, since it is absolute and not able to be partitioned, the physical letters of the name of G-d in which this G-dliness will be revealed and communicated to the world) must also be one and absolute.
We can ask, however, why can’t the tangible expression be dissimilar in its character from the idea and truth it carries and embodies? This is because from the perspective of Torah and halachah the physical must resonate and be a transparent conduit through which G-dliness will flow into the world. There can be no friction between the physical and the G-dly. Therefore the physical letters (that are the expressers of the Divine truth inherent in the name of G-d) must reflect in their physical character the G-dly characteristics of Divine truth. They therefore cannot be written in a fragmented manner. Thus we find that the authentic way of writing G-d’s name was by holding four quills in between the five fingers and writing all four letters of G-d’s name at the same time. The knowledge of how to perform this maneuver was known by one man who refused to share it with others, bringing down the condemnation of the Sages upon him. This explains an intriguing halachic discrepancy. The halachah is that one is not allowed to write on Shabbos. How much does one need to write in order to have transgressed this Biblical prohibition? The halachah is that writing two letters violates the Biblical directive not to write. Yet Yerushalmi Shabbos 13:1 states that “all agree that regarding writing G-d’s name, one has not transgressed until he writes the complete name of G-d (more than two letters).” What is the reason for this legislative inconsistency concerning writing G-d’s name? After writing a yud and hei (the first two letters of G-d’s name) one should be liable to the full extent of the law!
Our analysis on the nature of the relationship between G-dliness and the letters of G-d’s name, however, sheds light on this enigma. Since the letters of G-d’s name are not given to fragmentation and disparateness, therefore, by only writing two letters of G-d’s name one has not written anything. The letters existentially do not stand on their own and are viewed as an entity only in their complete state of all four letters of G-d’s name together.
This distinction remains valid in another important controversy, regarding the relationship between two women who were both married to a man who died childless. Generally, the deceased’s brother would have a mitzvah to marry one of his brother’s widows. There are situations, however, where a brother may be exempt from yibum (marrying his brother’s widow) or chalitzah (performing the ritual that releases his brother’s widow). One such case is if the brother is related to the widow in a way such that yibum would constitute a Biblically forbidden relationship — an “issur ervah” (see Yevamos 3b). The first Mishnah in Yevamos lists those cases where the widow would be forbidden to the brother but was not forbidden to the deceased. What about the other wives? If only one of the deceased’s wives is forbidden to the brother, does that automatically exempt all the other wives? There is a disagreement. Shammai permits the nonrelated widows to marry the brother, and Beis Hillel forbids it (Mishnah Yevamos 1:4). According to Beis Shammai, from a legal point of view there is no point in linking the fate of the widows together. The widow who is his wife’s sister cannot enter into a Levirate marriage with him because it is a prohibited marriage, while the other widows are autonomous and can marry the brother of the deceased. Beis Hillel holds the opposite: the two women are not autonomous; their status is conditional on their being the ex-wives of the same deceased man and their destinies continue to be interconnected. What is the core matter being debated? Beis Shammai holds that even though one of the wives is forbidden to the brother, this does not affect the other wife. Why is this, though? The Talmud in Yevamos 3b states that the other widows are released from any obligation to the brother if any one of them is forbidden to the brother. Shammai, however, doesn’t view the prohibited wife as even existent (ervah abrai kayma), that we would then be able to say that due to her unavailability she exempts the other wives. Since she is assur (forbidden) she is not even considered to be in front of the court. This is because the issur is not peripheral or secondary, but rather, an issur is laid onto the very essence of the forbidden item or person. This is, of course, a more abstract and intangible “take” on the nature of an issur. Hillel, on the other hand, views the related and forbidden widow as being here and existent in the case, just that the issur prevents her from marrying the deceased’s brother. This is in keeping with Hillel’s tangible and grounded worldview.
The Gemara in Chullin 136b brings a machlokes (dispute) between Shammai and Hillel regarding different colored figs. The halachah is that one cannot take terumah (one of five different types of tithes a Jew had to take from his produce) from one species of produce for another. So, for example, one could not take a tithe of oranges to permit apples, etc. Each plant, vegetable or fruit had to have the tithe separated from it to make the rest of that species of produce permitted for consumption. Here the Gemara asks, what about taking terumah from black figs in order to exempt and de-sanctify white figs? Is that permissible? Beis Shammai says no and Beis Hillel says yes. This is a dispute revolving around the tangible versus intangible question. What is color? Is it merely an accessory part of an item, or is it an absolute existence? Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 1:73 discusses the nature of color. He brings the opinions of the Mutakallemim that color is intrinsic to physical matter. They say that if one takes snow, for example, the white color is there in every piece of snow and is part of its very existence. Rambam, however, rejects their opinion and says that one sees that when things are ground down into tiny flecks and turn into powder the color is gone. Therefore, color is only part of the whole and not existent in the individual parts. At any rate, we see that there are differing perspectives on the nature of color. According to some it is merely a superficial layer of existence while others view it as being firmly part of the item that it is coloring. This, then, is the debate about black and white figs. According to Hillel, we permit the taking of terumah from black to white, because the different colors are not important and significant enough to make us consider the black and white figs as different species of produce. This is because the colors are only skin deep and not reflective of the essence of the figs. This, in turn, is because Hillel is grounded in concrete reality, which allows Hillel to see that different colors are simply just that, and not existential divides. Shammai, however, considers the differently colored figs to be different types of fruit. Therefore, one cannot take terumah from one to the other. This is the result of Shammai’s abstract perspective that different colors actually create a different category.
Sinai and Harim/Quixotic Quality
Another instance of the Talmud’s preference can be seen in Horayos 14a: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and the Rabbis debated. One said that sinai is a superior quality in learning, while the other side said oker harim is a finer trait. Who is a man embodying sinai qualities? Rav Yosef. Who is a man embodying oker harim abilities? Rabbah. They sent the debate to the east (Eretz Yisrael) for a resolution and the answer sent back was, sinai (vast knowledge) is superior. Sinai verus oker harim is essentially a debate on quality versus quantity. Sinai, which is broad global knowledge, is equivalent to quantity of knowledge. Oker harim, which is localized sharp thinking, is equivalent to quality of thought. With this in mind, we can uncover a further layer of depth, which is that quantity versus quality is, at its core, a debate about tangibility versus intangibility. Quantity is a tangible and quantifiable (the very word implies concrete objective data) factor. It is a physical reality of having more. For example, the concept that majority rules, since there are more people who hold a certain view, is a concept predicated upon tangible, readily observed phenomena. Quality, on the other hand, is a whole different beast. It is nonconcrete and intangible. Although the majority wants a certain approach, if the minority is smarter and more experienced, follow them, says quality. We now come back to sinai versus harim. This is yet another place where the Talmud makes clear its position that tangible factors must outweigh (for the time being; see later) intangible elements. Hence sinai is superior, hence quantity is superior (i.e., majority rules in halachic decision-making), and hence tangible and physical phenomena must be of primary consideration to us, while spiritual factors are of secondary importance.
What does this have to do with Shammai and Hillel? The Talmud in Yevamos 14a records that Beis Shammai held the high ground in terms of superior thinkers and scholars, while Beis Hillel had a larger number of scholars and Torah legislators. Beis Hillel, however, followed its own opinions l’halachah (practically). This was an astonishing phenomenon, when one considers that Beis Hillel knew and acknowledged Beis Shammai’s superior caliber of scholars and legislators! Yet according to our analysis, it was a phenomenon that makes perfect sense. Since Hillel held the view that tangible factors must always trump intangible ones, they concluded that their quantity of scholars outweighed the quality of Shammai’s.
The Sin of Following Shammai’s Rulings
The Talmud in Berachos 58b relates the following: Rav Pappa and Rav Huna were walking along a road and they met Rabbi Chanina. Rabbi Chanina proceeded to make the blessing of chacham harazim, telling them that they are as wise as and equal to 600,000 people in his eyes. They then rebuked him, saying, “Are you indeed this smart and knowledgeable [to make such a character judgment]?” A short time later, Rabbi Chanina died. What is the deeper meaning of this enigmatic story? Rabbi Chanina was a follower of Shammai. He subscribed to their worldview. He therefore felt that since they were as wise as 600,000 people, he could make a blessing. Even though the required number of people to make the blessing was not gathered together, qualitatively there was the requisite amount of wisdom.
Whom does halachah follow? Who has the final say? It turns out that it’s not so simple. Although intangible and spiritual factors are considered to be a stronger reality, as we will see in a discussion about the era of Moshiach, tangibility is closer to the human experience, and as such is the primary determinant in the decisionmaking processes of Torah. Since Torah is a system for dealing with our physical world and since physicality is a stronger reality to us, therefore it is the main factor in halachah. In light of this, consider the following halachah (Yerushalmi Yuma 6:1). If one has two animals he can use for a korban, but one is stronger and of superior stock while the other simply looks better aesthetically, which one is he to bring? The one that is stronger physically is the preferred animal and is used as the korban. The requirement regarding korbanos is to bring the best animal. Here we are faced with a decision in which one animal is superior physically while the other is superior in matters that are not as concrete. Take the tangibly superior one, says the Torah, thus informing us that when we need to make a decision, we should use tangibility as our main measuring stick of reality.
The Rogatchover’s pinpointing of the fundamentally different approaches related to spirituality versus tangibility can be applied to the well-known and fascinating assertion that in the times of the Moshiach the halachah will switch to be in accordance with Beis Shammai (Mikdash Melech to Zohar, Vol. I, 17b). In day-to-day life we grant supremacy to the tangible and material while intangible factors are only accorded secondary status. However, when Moshiach comes it will be a time of, as the Rambam says (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:5): “The Jews will be great sages, and know the hidden matters;” (Mishneh Torah, loc. cit. 11:4): “Moshiach will perfect the entire world;” and (Isaiah 11:9): “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea [bed].” When Moshiach comes, our spectrum of reality will be elevated to a more refined and subtler level. Spiritual and intangible truths will resonate even within our physical spectrum. The halachic switch to Shammai will be an instinctive natural gravitation instead of a conscious legislative effort. The fragrance of the small vessel being carried on Shabbos will seem real and practical, the intrinsic independent identity of a single letter will be clear, and the validity of subscribing to a spiritual-based worldview will seem compelling and precise