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The Greatness of Hillel and Shammai

It Is Not Good To Be Too Strict

As humble and forbearing as Hillel was, so extreme and strict was Shammai. Shammai observed the Torah meticulously, never deviating even an iota.

One erev Yom Kippur, Shammai told his little child to eat heartily because he would have to fast the entire day on Yom Kippur. The following morning, the child became hungry and he asked his father for some food.

Shammai became angry and ordered his child to fast the entire day.

An hour later the child began to cry. "Abba," he pleaded, "I'm starving, please give me a piece of bread."

"I'm sorry," replied the father, "You will have to learn to fast an entire day, for that is what the Torah commanded us to do."

The child began to cry louder. Soon the entire congregation became aware and notified the leading sages of the era. The sages came to Shammai and ordered him to feed the child.

"The Torah does not command us to force a little child to fast, only an adult," they said, "especially if the child is crying for food. If you continue your behavior, you will endanger the child's life."

Grudgingly, Shammai gave the child a little piece of bread handing it to him with a disdainful attitude.

The sages who were watching Shammai asked, "Why don't you give the child more food? And why do you make the child feel as if he is committing a sin? You should give it to him with an open hand and a smiling countenance."

"Isn't it enough that you force me to give the child food on this Holy Day? Do I have to do it with a happy and light heart?" Shammai angrily replied.

Having no choice, Shammai was forced to provide a full meal for his child and to do it with a happy countenance.

Therefore, our sages declared that to be too extreme is not good and that a person should always follow the moderate path.

Observing The Mitzvah Of Sukkah

Once on Chol Hamoed Sukkot, Shammai was notified that his daughter-in-law had given birth to a baby boy. Shammai eagerly rushed over to the house and he began to chop away at the roof that was over the baby's bed. He removed wood, tar and plaster until he had made a hole in the roof.

When the sages saw his behavior they asked him what he was doing.

"Don't you know that it is now Sukkot? I want to make sure that my grandchild observes the mitzvah of eating and sleeping in a sukkah."

The Humility Of Hillel

One day, a dispute arose between Shammai and Hillel on the proper method of gleaning grapes. Shammai issued a stringent decree that they must be gathered only with specially purified knives and baskets that had been ritually cleaned.

Hillel objected and asked Shammai, "Why should this be any stricter than the gathering of olives, which do not require these precautions? Surely, the same reasoning should apply."

Shammai became angry and shouted, "If you provoke me, I will declare all the olives gathered as being unclean."

Hillel became worried. He realized the power and influence that Shammai had and he was afraid that out of anger Shammai would issue harsh decrees and thus cause unnecessary trouble among the people in the Land of Israel. Although Hillel was the ordained nasi, the prince of Israel, he kept quiet and sat submissive before Shammai, like one of his disciples.

A vote was called for in the Beth hamidrash and seeing that Hillel kept quiet and refused to argue, the assembly agreed with Shammai. So great was the humility of Hillel.

Shammai Defeated

Although Shammai was strict in the interpretation and observance of the Torah, he was the first to admit when he was defeated in an argument.

Once there was a very wealthy. man whose sons violated the Torah and committed many sins. Out of anger, the father wrote a will and bequeathed his entire estate to Jonathan Ben Uzziel. He stipulated that his sons should be left penniless. Some time later the father died and Jonathan Ben Uzziel inherited the entire estate.

But Jonathan Ben Uzziel had pity on the children, and wanted to rectify matters. Calling the heirs together, he made them promise that they would become good and honorable people. They readily agreed. Jonathan then gave the sons a third of the estate, consecrated a third to the Holy Temple, and sold the remaining third, keeping the proceeds for himself.

When Shammai was made aware of what Jonathan had done, he became furious. The father had specifically stated that his sons should not inherit a penny from his estate and now Jonathan had violated the father's trust.

"I will go to Jonathan and make him rescind his order," said Shammai.

His disciples tried to dissuade Shammai. "It is not befitting for a great leader like you to go to Jonathan. Better that you order him to come to you," they said.

But Shammai would not listen to them. He took his staff and bag and called upon Jonathan Ben Uzziel. Angrily, he shouted at Jonathan, "Why didn't you fulfill the wishes of the deceased and cut off his sons from his estate? He specifically ordered that his sons were not to receive one penny!"

Instead of disputing the merits of the will, Jonathan replied with a disarming smile, "Very well, I will listen to you. Now, if you can recall the third of the estate that I sold and the third that I donated to the Holy Temple, I will attempt to recall the third I gave to the children."

Realizing the impossibility of the first two conditions, Shammai exclaimed: "The son of Uzziel has confounded and defeated me. Yasher kochacha, you win!"


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