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Hillel and Shammai were two leading sages of the last century BCE and the early 1st century CE who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought, known as the House of Hillel and House of Shammai. The debate between these schools on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology was critical for the shaping of the Oral Law and Judaism as it is today.

Houses of Shammai and HillelEdit

Despite the many disputes that later developed between their respective Houses, only five differences are recorded between Hillel and Shammai themselves. In the record of the Talmud alone, there are 316 issues on which they debated;[1] the large number of their disputations led to the saying the one law has become two.[2][3][4] The matters they debated included:

  • Admission to Torah study: The House of Shammai believed only worthy students should be admitted to study Torah. The House of Hillel believed that Torah may be taught to anyone, in the expectation that they will repent and become worthy.[5]
  • White lies: Whether one should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful. Shammai said it was wrong to lie, and Hillel said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day.[6]
  • Divorce. The House of Shammai held that a man may only divorce his wife for a serious transgression, but the House of Hillel allowed divorce for even trivial offenses, such as burning a meal.[7]
  • Hanukkah: The House of 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 the House of Hillel held that one should start with one light and increase the number on each night, ending with eight.[8]

In general, the House of Shammai's positions were stricter than those of the House of Hillel.[1] On the few occasions when the opposite was true, the House of Hillel would sometimes later recant their position;[1][9] similarly, though there are no records of the House of Shammai as a whole changing its stance, a few individuals from it are recorded as deserting a small number of the more stringent opinions of their school, in favour of the viewpoint of the House of Hillel.[10][11]

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

As the Jewish conflict with the Romans grew,[12] the nations surrounding Judea (then part of Roman Iudaea province) all sided with the Romans, causing the House of Shammai to propose that all commerce and communication between Jew and Gentile should be completely prohibited.[1] The House of Hillel disagreed, but when the Sanhedrin convened to discuss the matter, the Zealots sided with the House of Shammai.[1]

Subsequently Eleazar ben Ananias, 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 many of the House of Hillel were killed, meaning that those present from the House of Shammai were able to force all the remaining individuals to adopt a radically restrictive set of rules known as The Eighteen Articles; later Jewish history came to look back on the occasion as a day of misfortune.[13][14][15][16]

However, the fortunes of the House of 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 the House of Hillel, and this time it was their opinions which won the Sanhedrin's support; on most issues,[17][18] it was said that whenever the House of Shammai had disputed the opinion of the House of Hillel, the House of Shammai's opinion was now null and void.[19][20][21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Jewish Encyclopedia, 'House of Hillel and House of Shammai'.
  2. ^ Hagigah (Tosefta) 2:9
  3. ^ Sanhedrin 88b
  4. ^ Sotah 47b
  5. ^ Avot of Rabbi Natan 2:9.
  6. ^ (Talmud, Ketubot 16b–17a)
  7. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), tractate Gittin, 90a.
  8. ^ Shabbat 21b.
  9. ^ 'Eduyot 1:12+
  10. ^ Betzah 20a
  11. ^ Hagigah (Jerusalem Talmud) 2:78a
  12. ^ 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."
  13. ^ Shabbat (Tosefta) 1:16+
  14. ^ Shabbat 13a
  15. ^ Shabbat 17a
  16. ^ Shabbat (Jerusalem Talmud) 1:3c
  17. ^ Yebamot (Tosefta) 1:13.
  18. ^ Berakot (Jerusalem Talmud) 1:3b
  19. ^ Berakot 36b.
  20. ^ Betzah 11b
  21. ^ Yebamot 9a.

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