Houses of Hillel and Shammai

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The House of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and House of Shammai (Beit Shammai) were two schools of Jewish scholars during the period of tannaim, named after the sages Hillel and Shammai (of the last century BCE and the early 1st century CE) who founded them. These two schools had vigorous debates on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology which were critical for the shaping of the Oral Law and Judaism as it is today.

The Mishnah mentions the disagreement of Hillel and Shammai as one which had lasting positive value:

A disagreement which is for the sake of Heaven will be preserved, and one which is not for the same of Heaven will not be preserved. What is a disagreement that is for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement of Hillel and Shammai. That is not for the same of Heaven? The disagreement of Korah and his congregation.[1]

In most cases, though not always, Beit Hillel's opinion is the more lenient and tolerant of the two. In nearly all cases, Beit Hillel's opinion has been accepted as normative by halacha, and is the opinion followed by modern Jews.

Halachic disputes[edit]


Only three (or, according to some authorities, five) disputes are recorded between Hillel and Shammai themselves.[2] However, with time the differences between their respective schools multiplied, to the point that hundreds of disputes between them are recorded in the Talmud. The split between them was so deep that, according to the Talmud, "the Torah (Jewish law) became like two Torahs".[3]

The matters they debated included:

  • Admission to Torah study: Beit Shammai believed only worthy students should be admitted to study Torah. Beit Hillel believed that Torah may be taught to anyone, in the expectation that they will repent and become worthy.[4]
  • White lies: Whether one should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful. Beit Shammai said it was wrong to lie, and Beit Hillel said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day.[5]
  • Divorce: Beit Shammai held that a man may only divorce his wife for a serious transgression, but Beit Hillel allowed divorce for even trivial offenses, such as burning a meal.[6]
  • Hanukkah: Beit Shammai held that on the first night eight lights should be lit, and then they should decrease on each successive night, ending with one on the last night; while Beit Hillel held that one should start with one light and increase the number on each night, ending with eight. Beit Hillel's rationale is that as a general rule in halacha, one increases holiness, rather than decreasing. Beit Shammai's opinion was based on the halachic principle that allows one to derive law using similarities. The Sukkot Temple sacrifices involved 70 bullocks, reducing by one each day from 13 down to 7.[7]
  • Tu Bishvat: Beit Hillel holds that the new year for trees is on the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat. Beit Shammai says it is on the 1st on Shevat.[8] Beit Hillel's opinion is now accepted, so the new year is commonly called Tu Bishvat (literally "15th of Shevat").
  • Forgetting to say grace after meals: Beit Shammai says that one who forgot to say Birkat Hamazon, and had left the place where he ate, should return to that place to recite birkat hamazon. Beit Hillel says that one should recite birkat hamazon in the place where he realizes his omission.[9]

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are, respectively, the eighth and ninth most frequently mentioned halachic authorities in the Mishnah.[10]


In general, Beit Shammai's positions were stricter than those of Beit Hillel.[11] It was said that the school of Shammai binds; the school of Hillel looses,[12] On the few occasions when the opposite was true, Beit Hillel would sometimes later recant their position.[13] Similarly, though there are no records of Beit Shammai as a whole changing its stance, a few individuals from Beit Shammai are recorded as deserting a particular stringent opinion of their school, in favor of Beit Hillel's opinion.[14]

The final law almost always coincides with Beit Hillel because they constituted the majority, also because Beit Hillel studied the view of their opponents; indeed, sometimes it is considered improper, according to Jewish law, to follow the views of Beit Shammai. According to the Talmud, halakhah was decided according to Beit Hillel since they were calm and humble: not only did they teach Beit Shammai's teachings, but they said them first before their own.[15] Modern day Rabbinic Judaism almost invariably follows the teachings of Hillel, but there are several notable exceptions. The Mishna provides a list of 18 matters in which the halacha was decided in favor of Beit Shammai.[16]

According to one opinion in the Talmud, while halacha follows Beit Hillel, one may choose to follow either Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai as long as they do so consistently. However, if they follow the leniencies of both schools, they are considered evil; while if they follow the stringencies of both schools, the verse "The fool walks in darkness"[17] is applied to them.[18]

According to the Arizal, in the future messianic era halacha will follow Beit Shammai rather than Beit Hillel.[19]


The political principles of Beit Shammai were similar to those of the Zealots, among whom they therefore found support.[11] As public indignation against the Romans grew over the course of the 1st century, Beit Shammai gradually gained the upper hand, and the gentle and conciliatory Beit Hillel came to be ostracised from Beit Shammai's public acts of prayer.[20]

As the Jewish conflict with the Romans grew,[21] the nations surrounding Judea (then part of Roman Iudaea province) all sided with the Romans, causing Beit Shammai to propose that all commerce and communication between Jew and Gentile should be completely prohibited.[11] Beit Hillel disagreed, but when the Sanhedrin convened to discuss the matter, the Zealots sided with Beit Shammai.[11] Then Eleazar ben Hanania, the Temple captain and a leader of the militant Zealots, invited the students of both schools to meet at his house; Eleazar placed armed men at the door, and instructed them to let no-one leave the meeting. During the discussions Beit Shammai achieved a majority and were able to force all the remaining individuals to adopt a radically restrictive set of rules known as "Eighteen Articles"; later Jewish history came to look back on the occasion as a day of misfortune.[22] According to one source, Beit Shammai obtained their majority either by killing members of Beit Hillel, or by intimidating them into leaving the room.[23]

However, the fortunes of Beit Hillel improved after the First Jewish–Roman War, which had resulted in destruction of the Jewish Temple; Jewish leaders no longer had an appetite for war. Under Gamaliel II, the Sanhedrin, which was reconstituted in Yavne (see also Council of Jamnia), reviewed all the points disputed by Beit Hillel, and this time it was their opinions which won the Sanhedrin's support; on most issues,[24] it was said that whenever Beit Shammai had disputed the opinion of Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai's opinion was now null and void.[25]

Even though the two schools had vigorous arguments, they respected each other. The Talmud even records that the constituents of the two schools intermarried—despite their disagreements regarding the laws of marriage and divorce.[26]


  1. ^ Pirkei Avot 5:17
  2. ^ Shabbat 15a; Hagigah 2:2; Eduyot 1:2,3; Niddah 1:1
  3. ^ Tosefta Hagigah 2:9; Sanhedrin 88b; Sotah 47b
  4. ^ Avot of Rabbi Natan 2:9
  5. ^ Talmud, Ketubot 16b–17a
  6. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 90a
  7. ^ Shabbat 21b
  8. ^ Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:1
  9. ^ Mishnah Brachot 8:7
  10. ^ Drew Kaplan, "Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah VII: Top Ten Overall [Final Tally] Drew Kaplan's Blog (5 July 2011).
  11. ^ a b c d Jewish Encyclopedia, Bet Hillel and Bet-Shammai
  12. ^ This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "BINDING AND LOOSING", a publication now in the public domain.
  13. ^ Eduyot 1:12 etc; compare Weiss, "Dor," i. 179 et seq.
  14. ^ Beitzah 20a; Jerusalem Talmud Hagigah 2 (78a)
  15. ^ Eruvin 13b
  16. ^ Mishnah Shabbat 1:3
  17. ^ Ecclesiastes 2:14
  18. ^ Rosh Hashana 14b
  19. ^ לעתיד לבוא הלכה תהיה כבית שמאי
  20. ^ Jost, "Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten," i. 261; Tosefta Rosh Hashana, end
  21. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, The Crisis Under Gaius Caligula, pages 254-256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then — if one accepts Sejanus' heyday and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment — there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East."
  22. ^ Tosefta Shabbat 1:16 etc.; Shabbat 13a; 17a
  23. ^ Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4 (3c)
  24. ^ Tosefta Yebamot 1:13; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 1:3b
  25. ^ Berakhot 36b; Beitzah 11b; Yevamot 9a
  26. ^ Yevamot 1:4

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "BET HILLEL AND BET SHAMMAI". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

See also[edit]