One of the most fascinating debates in the Talmud take place between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. I say ‘the school of’ as the Talmud in Shabbat says that in fact Hillel and Shammai themselves only argued about 3 topics (the subjects of their disputes are not relevant to this post) and it was their respective students who did all of the arguing.
We know that in the vast majority of cases we follow the rule of Hillel. We are also told that this is due to the approach of Hillel in listening to the opinions of others. However the Mishna in Shabbat (13b) tells us that on one particular day 18 decrees were made following the ruling of Shammai. Was this due to their arguments? Perhaps they listened nicely to Hillel’s point of view? The reality was much more mundane, Shammai happened to have a majority on that day.
We know that we follow the majority when making a Halakhic ruling but that is not (apparently) why we follow Hillel. Perhaps Hillel was always in the majority due to the lenient nature of their rulings. The implication of the fact that we generally follow Hillel is irrespective of whether they have a majority or not….
Today’s daf struggles with how the Mishna came to a count of 18 decrees. In a discussion about the purity of grapes and olives we are told:-
נעצו חרב בבית המדרש, אמרו: הנכנס יכנס והיוצא אל יצא. ואותו היום היה הלל כפוף ויושב לפני שמאי כאחד מן התלמידים, והיה קשה לישראל כיום שנעשה בו העגל
they struck a sword in the study hall, and they said: One who [seeks to] enter [the study hall,] let him enter, and one who [seeks to] leave may not leave, [so that all the Sages will be assembled to determine the halakha.] That day Hillel was bowed and was sitting before Shammai like one of the students. [The Gemara said:] And [that day] was as difficult for Israel as the day the [Golden] Calf was made.
It is worth sharing the two notes on this passage that Koren state as follows:
‘The struck a sword in the study hall‘: It is not clear exactly what took place in the study hall then. According to the tradition cited in a similar manner in the Jerusalem Talmud, there was a harsh dispute in the study hall to the point of bloodshed. Some explain that Hillel sat bowed before Shammai trying to convince Shammai through a discussion of the issues like a student deliberating before his teacher. However, at that point the students of Beit Shammai outnumbered the students of Beit Hillel and the halakha was established in accordance with Shammai’s opinion (ge’onim).
‘Like one of the students‘: In the times of the Mishna and the Talmud the students would sit in rows on the floor in the study hall, according to their level of learning. The Sage teaching the halakha would sit elevated on a chair or on several cushions, facing them.
Hillel, who was the Nasi of the Sanhedrin, should have been facing the people, with Shammai and the rest of the members of the Sanhedrin alongside him. Motivated by humility and by a desire to avoid dispute, Hillel descended from his place and sat before Shammai in one of the students’ places. The submission of the Nasi of the Sanhedrin and his humiliation was a shocking event in the eyes of the people. The situation that developed involved a certain amount of violence on the part of students of Beit Shammai, and the leader of Israel was forced to demean himself due to external pressure. This was considered a tragic event, tantamount to the sin of the Golden Calf.