Relaxed Hillel - Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


In the last two issues, we discussed how Hillel is renowned for his consistently calm and relaxed demeanor throughout his life. This week, we conclude our series by showing how Hillel’s tranquil personality impacted his Halachic teachings and practice.

Eiruvin 13b – Why Beit Hillel’s Opinions Constitute Accepted Halachah

Eiruvin 13b records that a three-year long dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai climaxed with a Bat Kol (voice from heaven[1]) declaring that even though both opinions were “words of the Living God,” the Halachah follows Beit Hillel. If both opinions were in harmony with Hashem’s will, asks the Gemara, why did Beit Hillel merit the Divine ruling in their favor? The Gemara answers that it was because of their gentleness and tolerance, as demonstrated by their always quoting the opposing opinion of Beit Shamai, and sometimes even stating it before their own[2].

This Gemara is an extraordinary tribute to Hillel. Not only was Hillel renowned for his tranquil conduct, but he also suc­ceeded in transmitting this character trait to his students and to the students of his students! The entire school that Hillel began was distinguished by its kind disposition, even towards those who did not reciprocate the kindness.

Indeed, the Gemara (Shabbat 30b) mentions (and rejects) the Kapdanut (strin­gency) of Shamai which ap­parently also was transmit­ted to his students. Shamai felt that he must emulate Hashem’s Middat HaDin (attribute of strict law), and attracted Talmidim to whom this Hashkafah (worldview) appealed. Shamai apparently felt that life and Torah were very serious business, and must be treated with great reverence and awe. None­theless, the Bat Kol clarifies that Hashem prefers the calmer and more forgiving style of Hillel and his Talmidim, whose personalities, lifestyles, and even Halachic methodologies were patterned after Hashem’s Middat HaRachamim.

Hillel’s Flexibility with Unconventional Conversion Candidates

A specific and very well-known example of the impact of Hillel’s peaceful approach to life is the manner in which he handled unconventional candidates for Gi’ur (conversion)[3]. The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) relates:

A gentile once came to convert to Judaism on the condition that he could learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. He approached Shamai, who rejected him, so he went to Hillel, who taught him: “That which you dislike don’t do to your fellow. That’s the basis of Torah. The rest is commentary; go learn!”

Another gentile who accepted only the written Torah came to convert. Shamai refused him, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the Hebrew Alphabet. The next day, he reversed the letters. The convert was confused. “But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Hillel responded, “Now you see that the written word alone is insufficient. We need the oral tradition to understand the written.”

A third gentile was very impressed by the Bigdei Ko­hein Gadol (High Priest’s garments), and came to con­vert. Again, Shamai dis­missed him, but Hillel en­couraged him to study more. After learning, he came to realize that even King David didn’t qualify to serve as a priest in the Beit HaMikdash, because he wasn't born a Kohein.

It is not coincidental that the Gemara presents this story specifically after relating the classic incident in which Hillel remaining calm despite powerful provocation to react poorly. In both stories, Hillel’s Anavah, modesty (which we explained in an earlier article in this series as flexibility and a peaceful approach to life), is praised, and the Kapdanut (stringency and inflexibility) of Shamai is criticized. At the conclusion of the conversion stories, the three converts gather and proclaim that it was the Anavah of Hillel that brought them close to the Shechinah, while the Kapdanut of Shamai would have unnecessarily and unjustly denied them this opportunity.

Hillel did not relax his conversion standards. What distinguished him from Shamai was his “bedside manner,” i.e. the style in which he dealt with conversion candidates. Shamai, the Kapdan, was unwilling to work with people who harbored unconventional attitudes and approaches. Hillel, the Anavtan, was willing to work even with individuals who had a highly atypical approach. He was confident (see Rashi ad loc. s.v. Gayarei) that his wisdom, patience, and kindness would redirect these individuals to wholeheartedly embrace Torah practice and Hashkafah. Hillel felt that if he was successful, he would convert them; otherwise, he would not.

Hillel’s flexibility and sympathy for the variety of human experiences and personalities is reflected in his exhortation (Avot 2:5) not to judge someone until he has been in the other’s place. Hillel likely attributed the odd demands to the “place” of these converts; namely, the environments in which these candidates were raised. Hillel felt he could remedy these problems with kindness and exposure to the Torah environment of his milieu.

Avoid Evil or Do Good?

Eiruvin 13b also records that for two and a half years, Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai debated whether mankind would have been better off had it never been created[4]. Tehilim (34:15) urges, “Sur MeiRa VaAsei Tov,” “Avoid evil and do good.” It has been suggested that the root of many disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai hinges upon whether the emphasis in life is on avoiding evil or doing good. This certainly fits with the dispute of whether it is better to have been created or not. If the primary goal of life is to avoid evil, it is better to have not been born. If the primary goal of life is to do good, then it is in our interest to have been created, since one cannot do good unless he is born.

Shamai cannot countenance risking admission of an unworthy candidate for conversion, since he feels man’s primary goal in life is to avoid evil. For Hillel, one must take reasonable risks in admitting individuals to study for conversion, since one can accomplish good only if he assumes certain prudent risks.

There is no doubt that Shamai’s Kapdan approach and Hillel’s Anavtan lifestyle connect to their contrasting views as to whether it is better to be born and whether the primary goal in life is to avoid evil or to do good. Shamai’s Kapdanut flows from his focus on avoiding evil, whereas Hillel is more relaxed, since his primary focus is doing good. Maintaining the view that it is better to have not been created lends itself to a stern approach to living. On the other hand, espousing the view that it is good to have been created leads to a happier and more relaxed attitude towards life.

Hillel the Meikel and Shamai the Machmir

It is well-known that Shamai almost always adopts the strict approach to Halachah, while Hillel adopts the more lenient approach to life. In fact, the Mishnah often (for example, Chulin 8:1) notes the oddity of a situation in which Beit Hillel is the strict one and Beit Shamai adopts the lenient approach. The entire fourth Perek and part of the fifth Perek of Masechet Eiduyot are devoted to listing the cases in which Beit Shamai favors the lenient approach and Beit Hillel adopts the strict approach.

Clearly, Chazal are teaching that it is not a coincidence that Beit Shamai almost always follow the strict course. If one’s goal in life is to avoid evil and if one advocates adopting a stern approach to life to avoid sin, then one’s inclination will be to adopt a stricter approach towards service of Hashem. If, however, one adopts a more relaxed approach to life, focusing on the positive, then he will be less motivated to adopt a strict approach in regards to Halachah (Rav Ovadia Yosef ZT”L is a good modern day example of such an outlook and approach).


Hillel advocated and adopted a consistent lifestyle of tolerance and tranquility which expressed itself at many and varied critical junctures of his life. The fact that Halachah endorses Hillel’s opinions in almost all cases[5] shows that Torah Hashkafah embraces Hillel’s calm and positive approach to life. If we embrace this approach to life, we can state with confidence that it is indeed better to have been created[6].

[1] If we accept the Bat Kol in regard to following Beit Hillel, ask Tosafot (Bava Metzi’a 59b s.v. Lo BaShamayim Hi), why did the Chachamim - not only Rabi Yehoshua - reject its intervention on behalf of Rabi Eliezer in the famous ‘Tanur Shel Achnai’ story (Bava Metzi’a 59b)? Two resolutions are offered by Tosafot. One is that a Bat Kol can indeed be considered, but in the case of Rabi Eliezer, who invited Hashem’s intervention, it was clear both from the nature of the request and the language of the message that it was intended only as a tribute to Rabi Eliezer’s scholarly greatness and not as a Halachic authority. The other answer is that a Bat Kol cannot override the ruling of a majority since the Torah told us to follow the majority rule. In Rabi Eliezer’s case, he was in the minority, but in Beit Hillel's case, they were the majority. The only reason a Bat Kol was needed was to reject Beit Shamai's argument (Yevamot 14a) that majority rule applied only when the disputants were of comparable intellectual accomplishment, but not in this dispute because Beit Shamai was sharper. The Bat Kol clarified that this was not a consideration, but rather that majority decision must always determine the Halachah.

[2] An example is the Mishnah (Sukkah 2:7), where Beit Hillel relate a story involving the elders of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, and in the course of relating the story, Beit Hillel mention the elders of Beit Shamai before mentioning the elders of Beit Hillel.

[3] This is following the opinion of Maharsha (s.v. Amar Lei) that Hillel did not actually convert these gentlemen until they fully embraced Torah law and outlook. Hillel merely accepted them as candidates for conversion, but Shamai rejected even considering these individuals as viable candidates.

[4] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein understands the Gemara literally. Beit Shamai were saying only that ‘Noach,’ it would be more comfortable, not to have been created. Rav Lichteinstein argues that all agree that it is positive to have been created. Taz (Orach Chaim 46:4), however, understands that the debate is whether it is better for man to have not been created. Magein Avraham (46:9), though, might fit with Rav Lichtenstein’s approach.

[5] For a list of the few places we follow Beit Shamai, see Tosafot, Sukkah 3a s.v. DeAmar Lecha.

[6] Perhaps the Gemara’s conclusion that it is better to have not been created applies only to those who have not succeeded in adopting Hillel’s more relaxed lifestyle. Embracing Hillel’s Hashkafah leads to a happy and content life with reduced stress and frustration.

Hopping Between Two Opinions: Understanding the Biblical Portrait of Acha- Part One by Rabbi Hayyim Angel

Relaxed Hillel – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter