The Law and the Spirit – Berakhot 11

When asked about the essence of Torah, Hillel (110 BCE – 10CE) said:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn. (Bavli Shabbat 31a)

We’re probably all quite familiar with this dictum, it gets pretty good press throughout Jewish education, and with very good reason.

What we’re less sure about is quite how seriously to take it.  In what sense is ‘the rest’ really just ‘explanation’?

As ever, ‘just’ is a subtly loaded term, and we need to be careful about using it.

What we might ask, more precisely, is this:  How does this characterisation of Torah, of Jewish Law, actually affect our understanding  and application of it; what, if any, is its practical import?

If we wanted to be yeshivish, lomdisch, we might phrase it thus:  What’s the nafka mina?

In today’s daf, there seems to be an indication of such a practical consequence.  In brief, Hillel’s school seem to see Torah as something natural, as something lived, a harmonious practice designed to enhance the rhythms of our life.  Shammai’s school do not seem to see this, they seem to see the Law as a harsh and perhaps arbitrary set of laws.  It is no doubt Divine in origin, but, on their understanding of the Divine, it is all the more uncompromising and demanding for being so.  They do not inhabit an easy, friendly universe, they inhabit a universe of obligation, of sacrifice, what we might call a world of ascetic pride.

With this in mind, we can understand why Shammai had no time for the heathen on Shabbat 31a who wanted to learn the Torah on one foot – he chased him away with the plank of wood he had to hand.  The Law is a series of obligations, there is no essence, just a very long list of injunctions.  So for Shammai, it makes no sense to talk of its ethos.

As an aside, Shammai’s was a markedly violent reaction.  Is there not here an externalisation, an objectification of an inner violence, of the aggression turned inwards which so often fuels the obligation driven life?

We have here two different approaches to the spirit of the Law, something we touched on in discussing Berakhot 2.  For Hillel, we should be like Aharon, loving peace, pursuing it, loving people and thus bringing them closer to Torah.  If we embody love, people learn Torah.  Not in a superficial way – ‘he’s a nice guy so his Torah must mean something’ – but again, intrinsically, because the spirit that radiates love and peace is the spirit properly attuned to the meaning of Torah, to the way the Divine is revealed in the world.

The spirit of the Law is particularly important in Judaism because the Law has come to occupy such a huge and dominant role therein.  The sheer volume and scope of the Law threatens to suffocate and stifle everything else.  And this is not merely theoretical, in some communities it seems like this has already happened.

If we want to embrace the Law, but with our sense of the Divine intact (see yesterday’s blog), then we need to be very careful about how we handle and understand the Law.  We need to marshal all the support we can find to argue for a loving Law, a peaceful Law, a Law which respects the way human beings ought to best interact with each other.  We want to believe, with Hillel, that the Law is to be read as an extended discourse on consideration and sensitivity, and that it is designed to help us realise these virtues in our lives.

So, where do we see this on Berakhot 11?

In an early skirmish, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagree on how to read ‘beshokhbekha uv’kumecha’, the words in the Shema from which we learn how to say it.

Beit Shammai translate and read as ‘when you lie down and when you rise’.  From this they deduce that one must lie down to recite the Shema at night, and one must stand to recite it in the morning.

Beit Hillel hear it differently, they seem to hear more of the poetry of the verse, the naturalness of it.  They read it as ‘in the time that people go to bed, and in the time when people rise from bed’.

And they don’t rest there, they bring support from the next words, ‘uvelekhtekha vaderekh’, ‘in your going on the way’.  From here they see that everyone should read the Shema in his own way, in his natural way, as it comes to him.  This is quite a novel reading of those words – where Beit Shammai are probably overly literal in their reading – they’re looking for constriction and obligation at every turn – Beit Hillel are surprisingly imaginative, reading an insight into the spirit of the Law where it wasn’t at all obvious.

We should read in our way, it should complement our lives naturally.  This is the insight of Hillel, and it flows naturally from everything we said above.

The mishna (in the last words of page 10b) tells a story which reflects on this contrast:

Rabbi Tarfon recounted the following:  I was on a journey and I lay down to recite the Shema in accordance with the words of Beit Shammai.  In so doing, I endangered myself through exposure to bandits. 

What was the response of the Sages to this – did they praise him for his strictness, extol his sacrifice and commitment?  Did they salute the courage he showed in putting himself at risk in this way?

No, nothing of the sort.  Instead they said to him:

It would have been fitting for you to endanger yourself, because you discarded the advice of Beit Hillel.

Powerful words.  When we ignore the teaching of Hillel, when we lose the delicate and graceful balance with which the Law must be approached, it is fitting that we should pay with our lives, we have placed ourselves in grave danger.  Hillel’s is the Law of life, in Shammai’s hands it becomes something alien.

Later on the daf, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak re-inforces this, making this retort of the Sages into a general dictum:

Whoever follows the words of Beit Shammai is liable for the death penalty. 

He doesn’t mean it literally, but he’s taking the rebuke of the Sages very seriously.

Too seriously, perhaps?  Is the zealousy with which he follows Beit Hillel actually contrary to the love and peace which Hillel advocated?

This is always a danger, it’s so hard to walk the golden mean, to retain our balance, to stay on Freud’s horse – see Adam Phillips’ essay ‘On Balance’ – that we can become zealots for anti-zealotry.

And that would be to miss the point.

We see this danger already surfacing in the continuation of the Talmud.  After contrasting various Hillel and Shammai readings, which all reflect the difference I’ve highlighted, we encounter the words of Rav Yechezkel , an early Babylonian Amora, (c.200CE):

If one acted according to the words of Beit Shammai, he has acted, there’s no problem.  And if he has acted like Beit Hillel, he, too has acted, and there’s no problem.

This truly is the spirit of Hillel, if one has tried to act righteously, to do the right thing, then one has achieved something.  Let’s not get caught up in scorekeeping, in ‘fulfilling obligation’, in treating God like an inflexible umpire.

Rav Yosef, however, didn’t accept this spirit, and he finds it harder to be Hillel-esque in his following of Hillel:

One who followed the words of Beit Shammai, he has neither done nor achieved anything. 

In a gesture of jawdropping irony, exhibiting a frightening lack of self awareness, he brings a proof from a story of Shammai’s early followers.  When they encountered Rabbi Yochanan ben HaHoranit, who had been eating in the Sukkah in a manner not in accordance with their understanding, they had the following kind words for him:

If this is the way you always behave, you have never in your life fulfilled the mitzvah of a Sukkah.

Harsh, sharp, and, ultimately, horrifying words.  It’s a car crash moment, it’s so bad you can’t actually believe it’s happening.  And yet, it does.  We’ve all been there, we’ve all seen someone make a big effort only to be told that they haven’t actually fulfilled the Law, that according to the Shulkhan Arukh they’ve been wasting their time.

This is how not to be, and, as Rav Yosef unwittingly teaches us, we must be careful not to let any of this spirit seep into our attitudes.

Do not do anything that your empathic imagination teaches you to be hurtful.  It’s that simple.  The rest really is commentary.

2 thoughts on “The Law and the Spirit – Berakhot 11

    • Thanks Alex – a great piece, lots of good sources to back up the point. Especially Shammai playing down the body, saying nothing other than ‘We must fulfil our obligations with this body.’

Leave a Reply