Exemplified by the Chanukah Lights
In the basic discussion of Chanukah in the Talmud (beginning Shabbat 21b), the Gemara cites a Halachic dispute between “Beit Shammai,” the Academy of Shammai, and “Beit Hillel,” the Academy of Hillel, where “Beit Shammai” says that on the first night of Chanukah, eight lights are lit, and the number decreases by one each night, so that on the eighth night of Chanukah, only one light is lit. “Beit Hillel” describes a reverse process, whereby on the first night, just one light is kindled, and by the eighth night, fully eight lights are lit.
This is a classic “machloket,” an intellectual dispute, a disagreement as to practice based on radically different understanding of basic principles, in the world of Torah. This “machloket” between “Beit Shammai” and “Beit Hillel” is presumably indicative of disagreement concerning basic world views of their founders. Shammai was focused entirely on the “end-game;” in our terminology, we would probably describe him as completely results-oriented. He was not interested in anything that separated him from the ultimate truth and, as a result, did not “suffer fools lightly.” Hillel was, by contrast, mild-mannered and unassuming. Though also well aware of the distinction between “ultimate truth” and lesser perceptions of reality, he was also aware of the long and arduous intellectual and spiritual road that that human beings are required to travel before reaching, or approaching, that goal. He was therefore far more tolerant of individuals far below him on that spiritual-intellectual journey, and the Talmud abounds with anecdotes of individuals attempting to throw Hillel off his spiritual center by posing ridiculous or trivial questions, which Hillel didn’t see as ridiculous, and could not be reduced to anger.
In Eruvin 13b, we find, “For three years, students of the Academies of Shammai and Hillel contested with each other. These would say, ‘The Halachah is according to our opinion.’ And those would say, ‘The Halachah is according to our opinion.’ Until a Heavenly Voice was heard, ‘The opinions of both these and those are in accordance with the Words of the Living G-d, but in practice, the Halachah is according to the opinion of ‘Beit Hillel.’ ” (Resort to Heavenly Voices is a most unusual way of resolving Halachic disputes. Usually the Sages would vote and the opinion of the majority would be accepted as the Halachah.) The Gemara continues, “Since both opinions are in agreement with G-d, why did ‘Beit Hillel’ merit that the Halachah should be according to their opinion? The reason is that they were more gentle and submissive; in addition, they would state the opinion of ‘Beit Shammai’ first… to teach that anyone who lowers himself, the Holy One, Blessed is He, elevates. And anyone who attempts to raise himself up without help from HaShem, the Holy One, Blessed is He, lowers.”
There is, however, an opinion that although both Hillel and Shammai were geniuses in Torah, Shammai was the more brilliant, and in the “World-to-Come,” the Halachah will be decided according to his view.
Two explanations are offered in Shabbat 21b as to the “machloket” between “Beit Shammai” and “Beit Hillel:”
1–a. “Beit Shammai,” requiring one light on the final night of Chanukah, focuses on the decreasing “days-to-come,” This is in accord with the results-oriented religious outlook of Shammai, that requires energy and enthusiasm to be concentrated in the final expression of the “Mitzvah.”
1-b. “Beit Hillel,” focuses on the increasing “days-that-have-passed,” regarding every day of fulfillment of the “Mitzvah” to be infinitely valuable, so they retain each light that has been lit throughout the Holiday.
2-a. “Beit Shammai” takes as its model the “Parei HaChag,” the “Bulls of Succos” that were offered for the 70 nations of the world. In this case, 13 bulls were offered on the First Day of the Holiday, and 7 on the Seventh, and last Day, with the number decreasing by 1 each day. This is another example of “Beit Shammai” using a negative increment, with the starting and ending numbers adjusted so that the total will equal 70.
2-b. “Beit Hillel” is guided by the principle of “Maalin BaKodesh, V’Ayn Moridin;” as the “Mora D’Asra” of our shul, Rabbi Yisroel Gottlieb, explained in an essay in a shul newsletter, “The Talmud relates that the position of Hillel’s students is predicated on the halachic imperative that in matters of sanctity we always add, never diminish…Perhaps Hillel’s most important lesson to us is the subtle message embedded in the Chanukah lights, the message that in our spiritual world, we must always climb, rather than descend…That climb, the never ending journey to greater and greater spiritual heights, is the essence of life. Life is a mountain whose peak is unreachable, for there has not yet been, nor will there ever be a man or woman on this earth with no room for further improvement. Our job isn’t to reach the peak; our task is to climb.”
In the course of their daily lives, Shammai and Hillel followed different approaches. Whenever Shammai, who lived for the Shabbat, the day that is similar to the “World-to-Come,” came across a delightful morsel, he would put it aside for Shabbat. Hillel, trusting in the principle of “Blessed is HaShem each and every day!” would not hesitate to partake of the morsel during the week, relying on HaShem to provide the best for Shabbat. In the Shabbat “Zemer,” “Chai HaShem,” “HaShem lives,” we find:
“My soul thirsts for HaShem;
May He fill our storehouses with abundance;
To the mountains I raise my eyes with faith in HaShem,
Like the approach of Hillel, and not like that of Shammai.”