The Kabbalah of Hillel and Shammai

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

In parashat Korach, the Torah recounts the eponymous leader’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korach’s rebellion was two-fold: both against the leadership of Moses, and against the priesthood of Aaron. Regarding the latter, Korach tried to bring the holy incense offering that only a kohen was allowed to do, and he failed miserably. The tremendous sin of Korach and his several hundred followers—along with the many Israelites that they had, at least temporarily, won over to their side—left a stain on the Jewish people for centuries afterwards. This stain was only rectified by another great dispute between two Jewish leaders and their schools: Hillel and Shammai. In fact, the Zohar says some incredible things about these disputes, which originate all the way back on the Second Day of Creation.

The Zohar (I, 17a) begins by citing the ancient Sages that when God divided up the waters on the Second Day, it was the birth of all divisions and disputes. This initial division was so intense that with the creation of the waters Above in Heaven, the result was the igniting of the flames below in Gehinnom. This is why God never stated that “it was good” on the Second Day. On the Third Day, with the Creation of the Earth in between “Heaven” and “Hell”, a balance was formed between the two realms—and between the two poles that they represent, Chessed and Gevurah. This is why the Third Day states twice that “it was good”.

It was on that Second Day of Creation that the Korach dispute was born. The Zohar says the Second Day was essentially replayed in the Wilderness: Korach was the Left side (Gevurah), and Aaron was the Right side (Chessed). Moses took the place of the balancing middle (Tiferet) that ultimately settled the dispute. This is the secret of why Korach’s punishment was specifically to descend down into the underworld (Numbers 16:33), the realm created by the primordial division on the Second Day. But all was not yet rectified.

The Zohar goes on to state that this was replayed once again in the dispute between Hillel and Shammai. Here, it was Hillel who represented the Right (Chessed) and Shammai was the Left (Gevurah). This time, though, the dispute was l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven”, and repaired the spiritual damage caused by Korach. This is the deeper meaning behind the famous statement in Pirkei Avot (5:17):

Any disagreement which is for the sake of Heaven will be fulfilled, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not be fulfilled. What is a disagreement that is for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement of Hillel and Shammai. And that is not for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement of Korach and his congregation.

With this, we can further understand the secret of Hillel’s famous advice in Pirkei Avot (1:12): “Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” Now that we know Hillel was the Aaron of his day, it makes sense why he modelled his conduct on Aaron and taught others to be like him! Specifically, he said the focus should be on preserving peace and settling dispute. Shammai, meanwhile, who was the (rectified) Korach of his day, would say: “Make your Torah study fixed; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance.” (Avot 1:15) In other words: you don’t know enough, so keep your mouth shut and be nice. Korach learned his lesson!

Now, how exactly was that ancient dispute finally rectified? In order to answer this question, we need to briefly take a look at who Hillel and Shammai actually were.

Understanding Hillel and Shammai

The Talmud tells us that Hillel was originally from Babylon and only moved to Israel later in life. Like Moses, Hillel is said to have lived 120 years (Sifre on Deuteronomy 34:7). He spent his first 40 years in Babylon, his next 40 years learning in Israel, and the last 40 years leading the Jewish people at the head of the Sanhedrin. The Talmud (Yoma 35b) records his extreme poverty, and that he worked just long enough each day to have money to feed his family and pay his tuition to learn at the academy of Shmayah and Avtalion, then the heads of the Sanhedrin. When they saw Hillel’s dedication to the Torah one winter night (when he didn’t have the tuition and froze outside in the cold while trying to listen in on a class), he was given a lifetime scholarship.

After Shmayah and Avtalion, the Sanhedrin was briefly helmed by the mysterious “Bnei Bateira”, likely referring to scholars from the school of the town of Bateira in the north of Israel. The Talmud (Pesachim 66a) relates how one year, Passover coincided with Shabbat and a big question arose regarding the Paschal sacrifice. The Bateirans could not answer the question, so Hillel stepped in to solve the problem in expert fashion. The humble Bateirans immediately resigned and appointed Hillel the new nasi, president of the Sanhedrin. His deputy, the av beit din, was originally a scholar named Menachem, sometimes referred to as “Menachem the Essene”. The Talmud (Chagigah 16b) states that when “Menachem departed, Shammai entered”.

Shammai’s origins are less known. In fact, we know nothing at all about him. What we do know is that he was punctilious in his observance of the law, and stringent to the extreme. For example, the Mishnah (Sukkah 2:8) teaches that an infant is not obligated to observe Sukkot, yet when Shammai’s grandchild was born on Sukkot, he literally broke the roof of the birthing chamber and set up a s’chach so that the newborn would fulfil the mitzvah of being in a sukkah! There is good evidence to suggest that it was from among Shammai’s disciples that came the Zealots (Kana’im)—famous for fighting the Romans to the point of martyrdom. So, like Korach, it seems Shammai was something of a rebel and revolutionary, too.

The difference is that what Shammai did was l’shem shamayim, for God’s sake. It was not about his own self-aggrandizement; it was about doing what’s right. In fact, we see that Shammai faithfully served in his role as av beit din, the deputy, and never became, or sought to become, the nasi. The most telling point is the famed debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai that lasted three long years (Eruvin 13b). At the end, a Bat Kol, a Heavenly Voice, emanated and said: “These and these are the words of the living God—but the halakhah is according to Beit Hillel.” Henceforth, the law (almost) always went by the rulings of Beit Hillel. We see is that Beit Shammai did not dispute the Heavenly Voice, and accepted it fully. Unlike Korach, Shammai (and his disciples) recognised his secondary position. Therein lies the rectification.

Korach was too unyielding. His name literally spells kerach, “ice”. Moshe, on the other hand, was named because min hamayim mashitihu, he was “drawn out of the water”. Moshe is flowing like water, Korach hard like ice. Korach’s punishment, therefore, was to descend to the “flames” below, to be melted back into water. We see this rectified in Shammai (שמאי), whose name spells “fiery water” (מי אש)! Shammai still retained the fiery character of Korach, but he was no longer ice.

Chopping Trees and Rebuilding the Cosmos

The Talmud (Shabbat 15a) tells us that Hillel and Shammai themselves only disagreed on five key points: First, how much dough necessitates challah to be taken (Shammai said one kav, equivalent to 24 eggs, Hillel said two). Second, how much drawn water invalidates a mikveh; and third, regarding the menstrual cycle of a woman. Fourth, about “laying hands” on sacrificial animals during festivals; and fifth, whether the juice that exudes from pressed grapes is susceptible to impurity. The fact that they disagreed on five points in particular is significant. The Zohar notes that the word rakia, the dividing “firmament”, is mentioned five times on the Second Day of Creation. This is an allusion to five spiritual divisions, and the five disputes of Hillel and Shammai—l’shem shamayim—correspond to those, rectifying the divisions.

Unfortunately, in the decades that followed, the schools of Hillel and Shammai began to disagree on a lot more. Altogether, there are over 300 points in the Talmud where Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai diverge. It got to its worst point when Beit Shammai actually took over the Sanhedrin by brute force (in the home of Chananiah ben Hezekiah ben Garon), and passed 18 strict laws of their own (Yerushalmi, Shabbat 9a). The Talmud goes so far as to describe them as having “killed” the scholars of Beit Hillel, and says that day was as bad for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf. (For context: this event took place during the Great Revolt against Rome. Interestingly, while we generally do not follow Beit Shammai, these laws were upheld, and include Pat Israel and gevinat akum. Some also include in the list non-Jewish wine, and netilat yadayim before eating bread.)

So, it seems like the later disciples of Beit Shammai unravelled what their teacher had rectified, and once more thrust Israel into a difficult state of machloket. This is made clear in Sanhedrin 88b, which says that “From the time that the scholars of Shammai and Hillel became numerous, machloket proliferated in Israel…” In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 580:2) notes that it is proper to fast on the 9th of Adar, which is when the split between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai initially occurred. Unfortunately, much of the divisions within Israel persist to this day. So, how do we finally put an end to them? We need to learn from Hillel, who taught that the most important thing is to love peace and pursue peace, to love all of God’s creations and bring them closer to Him. More specifically, we can learn from the conduct of Hillel, as recorded in a lengthy passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 30b-31b).

The Talmud starts by saying that “A person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.” It goes on to relate how a person once made a 400 zuz bet with his friend (a huge sum of money) that he will be able to get Hillel angry. He went to Hillel’s house on the eve of Shabbat, precisely when Hillel was bathing and preparing for the Sabbath. He called out, disrespectfully, “Is there a Hillel here? Is there a Hillel here?” Calmly, Hillel robed himself and stepped out saying, “My son, how can I help you?” The man went on to ask a silly question, but Hillel responded happily, saying “you have asked a great question!” The man left, and returned an hour later doing the same thing, asking another silly question. Again, Hillel responded calmly. The man left, and came back once more. Still, he could not get Hillel angry. Finally, he said: “I have many more questions, but I do not want to make you angry…” Hillel sat before him and said: “All the questions that you have to ask, ask away!” The man gave up and explained that he just lost 400 zuz. Hillel told him: “It is better that you lose 400 zuz, and even another 400 zuz, than I get angry!” The Talmud continues by relating the story of three converts to Judaism:

A gentile once came before Shammai and said: “How many Torahs do you have?” He replied: “Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.” The gentile said: “I believe you regarding the Written Torah, but not the Oral Torah. Convert me on the condition that you will only teach me the Written Torah.” [Shammai] scolded him and drove him away. He then came before Hillel and Hillel converted him. On the first day, [Hillel] taught him the alphabet: aleph, beit, gimel, dalet… The following day, he reversed the order [of the letters]. The gentile said: “But yesterday you said it differently!” [Hillel] replied: “Just as you rely on my oral teaching, so too must you rely on the Oral Torah!”

Hillel showed the convert that it is impossible to have a Written Torah alone, for it is impossible to understand anything without the Oral Tradition. Even the most basic knowledge needed for understanding the Torah, ie. the alphabet, is not itself explained anywhere in the Torah, and must be taught and learned orally. How much more so the Torah’s complex laws and narratives! The Talmud continues:

Another gentile came before Shammai and said: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah [quickly] while I stand on one foot.” [Shammai] drove him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. He came before Hillel, who converted him and said: “What is hateful to you do not do unto others—this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn!”

Hillel summarized the entire Torah into one statement, the “Golden Rule”. Of course, he did not mean that this alone is what a person needs to do to be a good Jew. Rather, while it may all come down to the Golden Rule, that’s a lot easier said than done. Every human being inherently understands this simple concept yet, of course, as we see in the world around us, very few actually fulfil it. This is what Hillel meant: you have to learn Torah and fulfil mitzvot in order to refine yourself so that you will be able to fulfil this Golden Rule. So go and learn! And finally:

Another gentile passed by the beit midrash and heard the teacher say: “And these are the garments that they shall make: a breastplate and ephod…” [Exodus 28:4] He asked: “Who are these for?” They told him: “For the high priest.” The gentile said to himself: “I will convert so that they will make me a high priest.” He came before Shammai and said: “Convert me on the condition that you make me the high priest.” [Shammai] drove him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. He came before Hillel, who converted him.

The convert started learning Torah and read that “the common man that draws near [to the Mishkan] shall be put to death.” (Numbers 1:51) He asked Hillel who this was referring to, and Hillel replied that it refers, as the Torah clearly says, to any non-Levite, even to King David! The convert realized that he has no chance of being a high priest. He returned to Shammai and confronted him, saying that Shammai should have just told him he could never become a high priest. He then told Hillel: “Hillel the patient, may blessings rest upon your head as you brought me under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

The Talmud concludes by saying those three people converted by Hillel eventually met up and agreed: “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.”

As always, the Talmud is encoding much deeper mysteries within the simple narrative, and we learn a number of profound things here. First, we find that Shammai drove away the prospective converts with amat habinyan, a builder’s cubit. From this, the Sages learn that Shammai was originally a builder by trade. On a mystical level, this is an allusion to Binah, which corresponds to the formation of the dividing rakia on the Second Day of Creation (ie. the Third Utterance of Creation to the third Sefirah, Binah). The root of Binah is the same as boneh, building, as well as distinguishing between things, bein ze l’ze. It is the form of intellect that recognizes divisions and distinctions, and builds upon raw information (which is Chokhmah). Binah is making connections between seemingly unconnected pieces of information. It is about bridging gaps, linking different bits of knowledge, and seeing the inherent unity in the cosmos. This is why Binah means “understanding”. It is the rectification for division.

Shammai drove away prospective students specifically with an amat habinyan. Hillel, on the other hand, was a lumberjack, a hotev etzim, literally a “splitter of trees”. This, too, signifies division, for Hillel was also rooted in Binah. However, he was all about drawing people closer to Torah. We always recite that the Torah is the “Tree of Life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18), and the Zohar says specifically that the Tree of Life is rooted in the Sefirah of Binah (Zohar III, 124b Ra’aya Mehemna). This is the mystical meaning behind Hillel being a lumberjack, a person who makes the Tree of Life accessible to everyone. Shammai only accepted those who were already serious scholars, ie. he built using the wood that Hillel produced!

And finally, the Talmud specifically told us about five people in relation to Hillel and Shammai: the two friends that made a bet, and the three converts. All five were brought under the wings of the Shekhinah through Hillel’s exemplary conduct. Once more, they relate to the five instances of rakia on the Second Day of Creation, and demonstrate how Hillel sought to rectify the primordial divisions of the cosmos. Judaism has a rule: we must always follow Hillel. Now we can understand why.