Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 3 21 ff.; Vol. IV, p. 1121; Vol. VI, p. 69ff.; Vol. XVI, p. 312ff.; Vol. XXI, p.115ff.; Vol. XXII, p. 47ff.; Toras Menachem Hadranim, p. 375; Sefer HaSichos 5751, Vol. II, p. 566ff.; Sichos Shabbos Parshas Bamidbar, 5734

The Talmud1 states:

It is written:2 “The words of the wise are like spurs, and like nails well driven in are [the words of] the masters of collections; they are given from one Shepherd….”

“The masters of collections” — these are the students of the Sages who sit in different groups and engage themselves in Torah study. Some will rule [that an object is] impure, and others will rule [that it is pure]. Some will declare [an object] unacceptable, and others will declare [it] acceptable.

If a person will ask: “How is it possible for me to study the Torah under such circumstances?” — the verse continues: “[These words] were given from one Shepherd.” One G‑d gave them, and one master3 communicated them.

The concept of variety and difference within the Torah is also reflected in our Sages’ account of the very source of our Torah heritage, the communication of the Oral Law to Moshe on Mount Sinai. Our Sages relate:4

On each law, [the Holy One, blessed be He,] would teach [Moshe] 49 perspectives [leading to the ruling that an object is] impure, and 49 perspectives [leading to the ruling that it is] pure.

Moshe exclaimed: “Master of the World, when will I be able to reach the clarification of these matters?”

The Holy One, blessed be He, told him: “Follow the majority.5 If the majority rules that it is impure, it is impure. If the majority rules that it is pure, it is pure.”

The Torah is spiritual truth, existing on a level above worldly existence.6 And yet, it is not intended to remain on that lofty plane, but rather to descend and relate to our experience in this world. Nevertheless, because it is lofty and abstract, this process of descent leads to a variety of conceptions. As pure light takes on many colors when filtered through a prism, so too, as the Torah’s truth comes in contact with material existence, different perspectives arise. For the same principle can motivate two opposite conclusions.

To cite an example: Before the Flood,7 “G‑d saw that… every impulse of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only for evil… And G‑d said, 'I will obliterate mankind.’ ” After the Flood, when Noach offered sacrifices, G‑d said:8 “I will not continue to curse the earth, because of man, for the impulse of man’s heart is evil.” One factor, the yetzer hara’s constant temptation of man, serves as the rationale calling for both the Flood, and for G‑d’s promise never to repeat such disasters.

In a similar way, each of the Tannaim and Amoraim would view the Torah’s laws as they exist in their spiritual source. Nevertheless, to determine a ruling regarding a particular situation, a Sage would have to sift through the relevant legal principles and apply them to the circumstances at hand. And for every Sage, this process of analysis was guided by the thrust of his spiritual personality. As his awareness of the spiritual motivation for the law became intertwined with his appreciation of the germane factors, the Sage’s decision would shape and form.

Often the decisions reached by the Sages would differ, for the processes of determination that characterized one would vary from that of the other. And with regard to these differences, it is said:9 “These and these are the words of the living G‑d.” For the truth of Torah contains the potential for manifold expressions. This dictum was applied, however, only in the realm of theory. With regard to practice, the Torah tradition has always sought uniformity,10 and when differences of opinion arise, the halachah is established according to the majority.11

Introspection and Outreach

The above concepts apply not only with regard to the Oral Tradition as a whole, but with regard to particular phases in its transmission. For example, Hillel and Shammai received the Oral Tradition from the same masters, Shemayah and Avtalyon.12 Nevertheless, they — and to a greater extent, their students — developed these thoughts in different directions. And thus throughout the Talmud, we find differences of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel.

In most instances, the School of Hillel would rule more leniently and the School of Shammai more stringently. What was the source for these differences?13 Hillel’s approach was characterized by the attribute of Chesed, kindness, while Shammai’s was distinguished by the attribute of Gevurah, might, which tends toward severity.

Gevurah has an inward thrust, as reflected in our Sages’ statement:14 “Who is a gibbor (mighty man)? One who conquers his inclination.” And according to the Kabbalah, the attribute of Gevurah is identified with din, judgment. A person who tends toward Gevurah has unalterable standards of truth to which he personally endeavors to conform and which he desires to see reflected in the world at large. This is implied by the name Shammai, which relates to the Hebrew phrase:15 hasham orchosov, “He evaluates his ways,”16 i.e., he is constantly subjecting his conduct to rigorous introspection.

Chesed, by contrast, reflects an outward orientation. Others are one’s primary concern. A person motivated by chesed extends himself and gives, following the path Hillel outlines,17 “Loving peace and pursuing peace; loving the created beings18 and drawing them close to the Torah.” This approach also relates to Hillel’s name which is associated with the phrase behilo neiro, “When His candle shined forth.”19 For this approach emphasizes disseminating light, with the expectation that it will effortlessly cause darkness to shrink. And as light diffuses into wider peripheries, it attracts people and motivates them to change.

"The Rest is Commentary

These character thrusts are reflected in the classic story20 of the potential convert who approached Shammai and asked him to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai “drove him away with a measuring rod.” When, however, the person came to Hillel with the same request, Hillel told him to stand, and taught him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your colleague. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

Shammai was demanding of himself, and to the same degree, he was demanding of others. This is implied by the phrase: “he drove him away with a measuring rod.” As he stood before Shammai, the potential convert did not measure up to the expectations which Shammai had of his students.

Hillel, by contrast, was willing to patiently extend himself. He appreciated the potential convert’s spiritual state as Shammai had, but he also saw a possibility for growth. Therefore, he communicated a fundamental Torah concept to the potential convert on a level to which he could relate. And it had an effect; the man converted and began proceeding on the Torah’s unending path of personal development.

"To Draw Close With The Right Hand And Rebuff With The Left"

A similar pattern is reflected in the general thrust of the halachic rulings of these Sages and their disciples. Because Hillel’s spiritual thrust was characterized by kindness, he would take a patient look at every situation, seeing whether there was a way it could serve the purpose of holiness. If he could discover such a possibility, he would rule leniently.

Shammai, by contrast, guarded the standards of holiness with meticulous rigor, and if it appeared that an object did not meet those standards, he ruled stringently. Rather than risk the possibility of spiritual decline, he forbade contact with such objects, and thus forestalled any negative repercussions.

It must, however, be emphasized that neither Hillel nor Shammai — nor any of the other Sages of the Talmud — solely followed their own personal tendencies when delivering halachic rulings. On the contrary, our Sages described21 the differences of opinion between Hillel and Shammai as being maintained “for the sake of Heaven.” In a desire to ascertain G‑d’s law, they sought to rise above their personal tendencies, and to be objective. Accordingly, Hillel would sometimes arrive at a more stringent ruling and Shammai would occasionally rule more leniently.

Nevertheless, by and large, the Sages would perceive the truth as filtered through their natural spiritual thrust. And therefore, Hillel and his students would predominantly rule more leniently, and Shammai and his students, more stringently.

Towards A More Comprehensive Understanding

The above concepts are reflected, not only in the overall thrusts toward leniency and stringency evident in the rulings of the Schools of Shammai and Hillel, but also in theoretical constructs of a middle range, i.e., motifs that connect seemingly unrelated rulings throughout the Talmud. A particular difference of opinion mentioned in one source appears not as an isolated phenomenon but as part of a paradigm of a more general scope. To use the terminology employed by the Talmud in certain instances, azlinan lishitoso, “we follow his pattern of logic.”

The following are several examples of such patterns: With regard to the blessing recited over the candle during the havdalah ceremony:22 The School of Shammai rules that the conclusion of the blessing should be: borei maor haeish, praising G‑d as “the Creator of the light of fire.” The School of Hillel, by contrast, rules that the text of the blessing should be: borei meorei haeish, “the Creator of the lights of fire,” employing a plural form.

We cannot say that the difference of opinion focuses on a point of actual fact: whether there are several lights in a flame or just one light, for it is obvious that there are several colors in a flame. There is no way that the School of Shammai can dispute this.23 Instead, the difference of opinion is: which aspect of the flame is of primary concern?

To explain: When one sees a flame, one immediately sees light. Afterwards, as one looks more closely, one sees that this light is comprised of several different colors. The School of Shammai puts the emphasis on one’s initial perception, while the School of Hillel, by contrast, highlights the conception that one would reach after a more patient look.

Appreciating A Bride's Beauty

A similar motif is reflected in the praise which is traditionally given a bride.24 The School of Shammai maintains that a bride should be praised according to the positive qualities which she personally possesses,25 while the School of Hillel states that all brides should be praised as being “beautiful and gracious.”

The School of Shammai asked the School of Hillel: “If a bride limps or is blind, should one praise her as being 'beautiful and gracious’? Has not the Torah told us,26 'Keep your distance from falsehood’?”

The School of Hillel responded: “When a person buys an inferior article in the market, should one praise it in his presence, or should one find fault with it in his presence? It appears to us that one should praise it for him.” As the Talmud concludes, the thrust of the School of Hillel was to be considerate of others and their feelings.

The School of Hillel was not stating that one should lie and praise a bride with qualities which she did not possess. Their perspective is that every groom surely considers his bride as “beautiful and gracious.” And if a person wants to make a friend feel gratified by praising his bride, the person offering the praise should be patient enough to think over the matter carefully until he appreciates the qualities which cause her groom to see her as “beautiful and gracious.”

The School of Shammai, by contrast, does not require a person to make such an involved and careful analysis. A person should endeavor to make a groom feel happy, and emphasize the positive qualities which a bride possesses that are overtly obvious. One should not, however, make statements which do not appear to be true.

As in the previous instance, the School of Shammai gives priority to a person’s initial perception. The School of Hillel, by contrast, underscores the need for extending oneself, and taking a more involved and more detailed look at the situation at hand.

Appreciating A Bride's Beauty

A third example of this pattern can be seen in the Rogachover Gaon’s interpretation27 of the difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel with regard to whether or not the covers of sacred scrolls are susceptible to the contraction of ritual impurity.28 The School of Shammai maintains that regardless of whether the cover of a scroll is embroidered with ornamental patterns or not, the cover is susceptible to ritual impurity.

The ruling of the School of Hillel is based on the principle that it is functional articles, not ornaments, which are susceptible to ritual impurity. As such, an ordinary cover is considered as an article which serves a purpose, and therefore is susceptible to ritual impurity. The primary purpose of an embroidered cover, however, is considered its aesthetic dimension, and not the function it serves. Hence, such a cover is not susceptible to ritual impurity.

The Rogatchover Gaon explains29 why the School of Shammai does not make a distinction between one type of cover and the other. Since at first glance, both types of covers appear the same, no differentiation is made between the rulings that apply to them. The School of Hillel, by contrast, accentuates the particular characteristics of each type of cover, and accordingly, places them in different categories. In this instance as well, the School of Hillel’s approach is characterized by a patient process of distinction that focuses on the particulars, while the approach of the School of Shammai focuses on the general impression30 that immediately arises.31

The Potential For Light

Another general pattern which characterizes several of the differences of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel can be seen in their rulings regarding the order of the kindling of Chanukah lights.32 The School of Shammai rules that on the first night, eight candles should be lit, on the second night seven, each night reducing the number. The School of Hillel, by contrast, maintains that on the first night, one candle should be lit, on the second night, two, and it is only on the last night that eight candles are lit.

What is the rationale which motivates their different rulings?33 The School of Shammai focuses on the potential (the ko’ach, in yeshivah terminology). On the first night of Chanukah, there is a potential for eight days; every night, the potential is reduced. The School of Hillel, by contrast, focuses on the actual (the poel, in yeshivah terminology). On the first night, there is only one day of Chanukah which is actually being celebrated. Each day, another day is added, until on the eighth day, the full potential of the holiday has been expressed in actual practice. Accordingly, eight candles are lit.

The Time Of The Redemption

To cite another example of this pattern: The School of Shammai maintains34 that during the recitation of the Hallel at the Pesach Seder, we should recite only the first psalm, Hallelu avdei HaShem, before partaking of the meal. The School of Hillel, by contrast, maintains that we should also recite the second psalm, B’tzeis Yisrael MiMitzrayim, “When Israel left Egypt,” before partaking of the meal.

In explanation of their difference of opinion, the Jerusalem Talmud relates:35

The School of Shammai said to them: “Why mention the exodus from Egypt [at this point]? Did the children of Israel leave Egypt [before partaking of the Paschal sacrifice]?”

The School of Hillel responded to them: “Even if you were to wait until the rooster’s crow, you would not reach halfway to [the time of] the Redemption…. For they did not leave until noon.”

The School of Shammai maintains that the potential for the Redemption came with the eating of the Paschal sacrifice. Hence, after partaking of that sacrifice, it is fit to recite “When Israel left Egypt.” The School of Hillel, by contrast, maintains that since the actual exodus did not take place until midday, there is no point in delaying recitation of the psalm, and it should be recited even before partaking of the Paschal sacrifice.

The Conclusion Of The Talmud

Another example of this difference in approach can be seen in the laws which conclude the entire Talmud. The Mishnah36 states:

Fish: when do they become susceptible to the contraction of ritual impurity?37 The School of Shammai states: “When they are caught.” The School of Hillel states: “When they die.”…

Honeycombs: when do they become considered as liquids [which make other foods] fit to contract ritual impurity?38 The School of Shammai states: “When one thinks about [removing the honey].”39 The School of Hillel states: “When one crushes [the honeycomb].”

Since fish will die shortly after they are caught and removed from the water, the School of Shammai maintains that they are susceptible to ritual impurity as soon as they are caught. From this time onward, there is the potential to use them as food, and this makes them susceptible to impurity. The School of Hillel, by contrast, maintains that until the fish actually die, they are not considered as food, nor are they susceptible to impurity.

Similarly, with regard to honeycombs, since the potential exists for the honey to be removed from them, the School of Shammai maintains that as soon as one decides to take this step,40 the honey is considered as a liquid. The School of Hillel, by contrast, maintains that until one actually crushes the honeycomb to remove the honey, it is not considered as a liquid.

Heaven Or Earth

The fact that this difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel was chosen as the subject for the final laws to be discussed by the Mishnah41 indicates that it is of general importance. And indeed, we find the same thrust motivating two passages which quote differences of opinion between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai that relate to the purpose of the creation and the purpose of man.

With regard to the purpose of creation, it is stated:42

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.”

The Alter Rebbe explains43 that with regard to the order of creation, the heavens — the spiritual worlds — were created before this material world, and indeed, it is the spiritual realms that convey the life energy which brings this world into being. Nevertheless, the purpose of creation is our material world; to borrow a phrase,44 “Last in deed, first in [G‑d’s] thought.” Or, to refer to an analogy, when one constructs a building, it is the ultimate product which reflects the builder’s original intent.

This resolution requires further explanation, for it implies that the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai are speaking about different aspects of the creation — the School of Shammai, the order of creation, and the School of Hillel, the intent — and there is no difference of opinion between them. The form of the quotation: “The School of Shammai says:…. The School of Hillel says:….”, however, implies that they do not accept each other’s positions.

Upon what does their difference of opinion revolve? Not on their opinions with regard to chronological precedence, but rather upon their conception of what is of primary importance. According to the School of Hillel, the earth is of paramount importance — it is in this material realm that G‑d’s intent for creation is expressed. The School of Shammai maintains that, although G‑d’s intent is expressed in this material world, the intent is first manifest in the heavens — in spiritual reality. And the entire thrust of our Divine service is to elevate material existence to the point that it can reflect this spiritual reality. The School of Hillel is thus putting the emphasis on the actual expression of the intent for creation (the poel), while the School of Shammai is highlighting the spiritual truths that enable this intent to be expressed (the ko’ach).45

This concept also enables us to understand why in all matters, the School of Shammai places the emphasis on the ko’ach. Since they conceive of the purpose of creation as elevating the material to the spiritual, it is the spiritual conception — the ko’ach — which receives priority. The School of Hillel, by contrast, conceives of the intent of creation as having spiritual truth made manifest in our material world. Hence, their emphasis is on actual expression — the poel.46

To Be, Or Not To Be

Similar concepts apply with regard to the purpose of the creation of man. Our Sages state:47

For two and a half years, there was a difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. These (the School of Shammai)48 would say: “It is better for a person not to have been born than to have been born.” And these (the School of Hillel) would say: “It is better for a person to have been born than not to have been born.”

The School of Shammai, who highlights the potential, says that it is better for a person not to have been born, because the potential for personal fulfillment already exists in the spiritual realms. A person’s existence in this world is — at its best — merely an expression of his spiritual potential. This is essential to fulfill G‑d’s purpose in creation, but “for a person,” i.e., from his own individual standpoint, it is preferable that he not have been created.

The School of Hillel, who focuses on actual expression, maintains that it is through the descent into this world that a soul reaches the heights of fulfillment. For the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos on this material plane lifts a person to a level above its previous rung in the spiritual realms. Therefore, it is preferable for the person to have been born.

This leads to a further point. Since the School of Shammai puts the emphasis on G‑d’s desire, and not man’s, man’s Divine service is characterized by self-nullification, the negation of his own will. As such, it is “better for a person not to have been born.”

The School of Hillel, by contrast, sees man’s fulfillment as a personal goal. G‑d’s intent in creation, the establishment of a dwelling in this material world, is not merely an objective to which we should strive, but one which should be internalized within our own selves. And as this motive blossoms into fulfillment, every person can perceive its benefits; his existence is thus “better for him.”

Perceiving Truth Which Transcends Intellect

As mentioned at the outset, although the Torah leaves room for a variety of theoretical approaches, with regard to actual practice, our halachic tradition has always striven toward uniformity. In this vein, our Sages teach:49

From three years, there was a difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. These would say, “The halachah follows our perspective,” and these would say, “The halachah follows our perspective.”

A heavenly voice issued forth: “These and these are the words of the living G‑d; the halachah follows the School of Hillel.”

The passage continues:

Why did the School of Hillel merit to have the halachah follow their perspective? Because they were patient and humble, and would cite the statements of the School of Shammai before their own.

The latter passage is difficult to understand. Our Sages state that the students of the School of Shammai were more astute and discriminating50 than the students of the School of Hillel. Since the comprehension of Torah law depends on intellectual understanding, seemingly it would be appropriate for the halachah to follow their perspective. Moreover, the rationale given by the Talmud, that the students of the School of Hillel were “patient and humble” is problematic. What connection do these virtues have with the determination of law?

These difficulties can, however, be resolved by differentiating between Torah study and other fields of wisdom. The Torah is not merely knowledge; the Torah is unbounded G‑dly truth. Its intellectual dimension is merely a garb that enables man to internalize his connection with this truth.

Wisdom can be grasped through intellect. To develop a connection with the Torah’s unbounded truth, however, intellect is not sufficient: bittul, self-transcending commitment, is necessary. The patience and humility of the School of Hillel reflects such bittul. And for this reason, it is their perspective which determines the halachah.

Determining Halachah

To offer an explanation of the above passage which relates more closely to the principles of Torah law:51 The halachah follows the School of Hillel, because except for several isolated instances, a majority of Sages followed their understanding. Nevertheless, since the School of Shammai were more astute, the Sages doubted whether they should rely on the majority vote. And it was not until the proclamation of the heavenly voice that these doubts were silenced.52

One might ask: If the Sages of the School of Shammai were more astute, why didn’t the majority of Sages accept their rulings? Because a ruling of Torah law must be understood thoroughly by the Sage delivering it. Although the Sages of the School of Shammai were more astute, the majority of the Sages could not thoroughly comprehend their logic, and therefore they could not rule accordingly. To cite a parallel example — extending the wording slightly beyond its literal context, our Sages state:53

There was no one in Rabbi Meir’s generation of his stature. Why then was the halachah not established according to his perspective? Because his colleagues could not comprehend the full breadth of his knowledge.

Because the logic advanced by Rabbi Meir and the School of Shammai could not be grasped fully by their colleagues, the rulings they rendered were not accepted as law.

Also, from a spiritual perspective, the approach of the School of Hillel — spreading light — is vital in the present age to elevate mankind and the world at large. It is true that this endeavor presents challenges. The words of caution of the School of Shammai must be, therefore, included within our spiritual consciousness, but our overriding attitude should be one of positive activity.

Looking Toward The Horizon

Although in the present age, the halachah follows the School of Hillel, in the Era of the Redemption, the halachah will follow the School of Shammai.54 In that era, “the Jews will be great sages, and know the hidden matters.”55 The majority of the Sages will thus comprehend the perspective of the School of Shammai, and therefore, the halachah will change.56 Moreover, since Mashiach will “perfect the entire world,”57 the task of refinement given the Jewish people will be different in that era, and the more elevated standard required by the School of Shammai will be accessible to people at large.

At the present time, short moments before the dawning of that future era, we should yearn to be able to apply the lofty standards of refinement taught by the School of Shammai. Simultaneously, however, we must realize that the means to hasten the coming of that era is the warm and humble outreach exemplified by the School of Hillel.