Aristotle – writing about 800 years before the compilation of the Talmud, and about 200 years before Hillel – is famous for his doctrine of the Golden Mean. The idea is that good and healthy conduct is defined by balance and proportion, never by excess or extremism.
Indeed, for the Greeks, beauty was seen as a deep and abiding guiding principle, something to be internalised and then recreated in action and personality. And the primary constituents of beauty, in as much as they could be defined, were symmetry, proportion, and harmony.
I’d love to say that Judaism embraces this, and Maimonides famously uses this principle in talking about virtue and personality. We are, however, forever engaged with the Law, and this sometimes threatens to upset the balance.
The Law can seem to make unreasonable demands, to be indifferent to our inner needs, to be arbitrary and ruthless. In short, it can come across as extreme.
It can be hard to see how it is sculpting our souls, how it is leaving an imprint of beauty and truth, around which a crystal of virtue and grace may begin to grow.
This concern is one of the reasons I’m so interested to explore Talmudic material which sheds light on the spirit of the law, to understand the philosophy of halakha. I want to hear the earliest voices on this, the intention and inclination of those who were in the process of founding Rabbinic Judaism.
Today we have a little more insight into the approach of Shammai. We have already discussed their fundamental differences: Hillel seems to have a humanitarian guiding principle, Shammai grants the Law a much rawer and absolute form of authority. (My friend Rav Alex Israel brought an excellent article to my attention, which also explores this difference.)
We are discussing the laws concerning different fruits and vegetables, and there is uncertainty as to the classification of a caper bush. Is it a fruit or a vegetable?
Beit Shammai want to have it both ways: for the prohibition of mixing plant types, kilayim, they view it as a vegetable; for the prohibition of eating the fruit of a tree for its first three years they manage to view it as a fruit.
The first voice in the Talmud states the obvious:
This is contradictory, it is fundamentally difficult.
And yes, they are right, it is problematic to be unable to classify. One cannot be learning the ways of harmony and beauty when one is inviting contradiction into the heart of one’s worldview.
The next voice however, suggests that there is an explanation:
Beit Shammai were in doubt, so they acted strictly in this case, viewing it as vegetable, and strictly in that case, viewing it as a fruit.
If in doubt, follow the strict path. This seems to be the approach of Beit Shammai. And, if we’re honest, it’s a path which a lot of people seem to follow today. In this worldview the Law stands to protect us from danger, to guide us to safety, to keep us out of harm’s way. And so, it follows, when in doubt, play it safe.
What does the Talmud conclude?
Well, one thing is clear, this is only the approach of Beit Shammai, and the implication seems to be that Beit Hillel do not follow this, do not believe in it.
For them, the Law is there to refine us, to enhance our sense of balance, to deepen our attunement to beauty, proportion, harmony. And therefore, there is no such easy option, no lazy comfort. One must wrestle with what is presented, and following that, one must decide.
In decision we create, we act out the nascent intuition of beauty which we have been patiently incubating.
And if all goes well we will have strengthened our own intuition, cementing its roots in our personality. We will also have brought light to the rest of the world, showing something that was previously hidden, illuminating a possible new path.
No, for Hillel, we cannot just go the stricter way: it is unhealthy, it is unbalanced and it is untrue.
So we have a dispute between Hillel and Shammai, a pretty fundamental one. What do we do?
On this point, the Talmud here is completely unequivocal:
When Beit Shammai express an opinion in the same place as Beit Hillel, it is not considered a teaching, it is as if nothing has been said.
The matter is too important, and here we must bring in some strictures of our own. Beit Shammai wish to bring disharmony into life, to turn halakhic living into a form of poison. As a result, they must be thoroughly dismissed, they must be clinically lanced from the discussion.
This is a different voice from ‘Eilu ve Eilu’, ‘both are the Voice of the Living God’, (Eruvin 13b) , an important principle which has its time and place. Here the matter is more serious: Beit Shammai want to make excessive strictness, extreme submission into a guiding principle, and we cannot accept that.
I see this dispute as illuminating the very next legal principle that comes up in the discussion, the status of peel and leaves which act as ‘protection for the fruit’.
Abaye teaches that certain protective parts of a fruit – for example, topically, the crown of a pomegranate – contribute to the size of the fruit. And the size is important for deciding whether a fruit can become tameh, ritually impure. If it is too small, it cannot, if it is big enough, it can.
So, Abaye teaches us, if you have a small fruit, it may be immune to the possibility of being impure. If however, it is encased in protection, if that protection appears to be a form of swelling, if it needs protecting because it is considered too delicate, then it can become impure.
The protection is what creates the possibility of impurity, without it, it was incorruptible.
So let us stick with the spirit of Hillel, let us remember that the Law has a delicate and subtle purpose, and that there is tremendous danger in approaching it with extremity and a spirit of excess. Indeed, it might just be our attempts at protection, at playing safe, that ultimately render us impure.