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Kanna’im and the Lesson of Beith Shammai and Beith Hillel

July 13, 2017

Why is it that among the dozens of Tannaim, the sages mentioned in the Mishna, we only find two Yeshivoth that express opinions worthy of being recorded for posterity, namely Beith Shammai and Beith Hillel? Surely Rabbi Jose the Galilean, or Rashbi, or Rabbi Akiva, or Rabbi Meir, or Rabbi Yehuda ben Illai, or Rabbi Joshua, or Rabbi Eliezer would have raised a generation of student-scholars capable of rendering an opinion. And indeed, we do know of whole academies from the third century until the present day, and their collective opinions are recorded. Yet in this regard the Mishnaic period is mostly silent, save for the numerous arguments between the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

The answer, I believe, lies in the sages’ characterization of the disputes between the two schools as being for the sake of heaven (Avoth 5:17): 

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai.


The sages actually wanted to discourage potential Phinehas’s from taking lethal action against perceived sinners, even when the halacha (Sanhedrin 9:6) prescribes that zealots may kill transgressors (Sanhedrin 82a):

R’ Hisda said, “If the zealot comes to take counsel [as to whether to strike the offenders], we do not instruct him to do so.” It has been stated likewise: Rabba b. Bar Hana said in R. Yohanan’s name, “If he comes to take counsel, we do not instruct him to do so. Also, if Zimri had stopped and Phinehas still slew him, Phinehas would have been executed on his account, and had Zimri turned upon Phinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Phinehas was a pursuer [trying to take his life].

The result of these interpretations is that in order for one to ever take such action, he would need a very high level of confidence, probably like that of a prophet violating an explicit prohibition when instructed to do so by God Himself, one that to my knowledge, has not been attained by anyone else in recorded history. At three more junctures we find that Phinehas would take action, but only after consultation with a higher authority. The first is in this book of Numbers, the second is in the book of Joshua, and the third is in the book of Judges.

Next week we will read (Numbers 31:1-7):

 The Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites; afterward shall you be gathered unto your people.” Moses spoke unto the people, saying: “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. Of every tribe a thousand, of all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the war.” So there were delivered, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. Moses sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest…

That is, even though this would be a war of God’s vengeance, Phinehas was not acting on his own, but rather as an agent of Moses.

Some fifteen years later, after the Land of Canaan had been divided among the tribes, we find (Joshua 22:9-13):

The children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel out of Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go unto the land of Gilead, to the land of their possession, whereof they were possessed, according to the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses. When they came to the region about the Jordan, that is in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, a great altar to look upon. The children of Israel heard them saying: “Behold, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built an altar in the forefront of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, across from the children of Israel.” When the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up against them to war. The children of Israel sent unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and with him ten leaders, one leader of a fathers’ house for each of the tribes of Israel; and they were every one of them head of their fathers’ houses among the thousands of Israel. They came unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, unto the land of Gilead, and they spoke with them.

That is, although the majority of the people were gearing up for a religiously motivated civil war, coolers heads still prevailed, and Phinehas served as the head of a fact-finding mission commissioned by the people’s leaders.

Even later we read about how an aggrieved Levite sought to provoke the rest of the tribes into a war against the single tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19:29-30, 20):

 Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was assembled as one man, from Dan to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead, to the Lord at Mizpah. The chiefs of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword. Now the children of Benjamin heard that the children of Israel were gone up to Mizpah.–And the children of Israel said: “Tell us, how was this wickedness brought to pass?” And the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said: “I came into Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to lodge. The men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night; me they thought to have slain, and they raped my concubine, and she is deadI took my concubine, and cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel; for they have committed lewdness and wantonness in Israel. Behold, you are all here, children of Israel, give here your advice and counsel.” All the people arose as one man, saying: “We will not any of us go to his tent, neither will we any of us turn unto his house. But now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah: we will go up against it by lot, and we will take ten men of a hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred of a thousand, and a thousand out of ten thousand, to fetch victuals for the people, that they may do, when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, according to all the wantonness that they have wrought in Israel.” So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, knit together as one man.

But before they attacked, they consulted God:

The children of Israel arose, and went up to Beth-el, and asked counsel of God; and they said: “Who shall go up for us first to battle “against the children of Benjamin?”… And the children of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until even; and they asked of the Lord, saying: “Shall I again draw nigh to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother?” And the Lord said: “Go up against him.” …. The children of Israel asked of the Lord–for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days–saying: “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease?”

And this time, it was Phinehas who thrice asked God what to do.

Some years ago I also wrote about how God relieved Elijah of his duties as prophet because he could not learn how to control his zealous tendencies. Thus, the clear message is that zealotry is undesirable, even on the part of the greatest of men. 


When Eldad’s and Medad’s prophecies posed a challenge to Moses’s authority, we read:

וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו–וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה, כְּלָאֵם. וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְי, נְבִיאִים–כִּי-יִתֵּן יְי אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם.

Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses mib’huraw, answered and said, “My master, Moses, incarcerate them.” Moses said unto him, “Ham’qanne atta, are you zealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”

Note how Joshua is here described in even more ways than usual. Not just Joshua, not Joshua bin Nun, not just Moses’s attendant, an appellation used before to indicate his close mentor/student relationship with Moses, but also mib’huraw, which, as the Ibn Ezra points out, could mean “since his youth,” i.e., Joshua had served Moses since the former was a young man.  However, that meaning of mib’huraw is untenable, because Joshua, who at the time was about 40 years of age, could only have entered Moses’s service two years before that, when Moses returned to Egypt in advance of the Exodus. Rather, mib’huraw means “of Moses’s bahurim,” the word for young men that even today is used to describe those who are dedicated to Torah study, or in Yinglish, “yeshiva bachurs.” (This explanation of the word was first given by Rabbeinu Bahyeh.) That is, although Moses was the teacher of all Israel, Joshua was part of Moses’s personal yeshiva.

It seems that the way of kanna’im is fundamentally different from that of their teachers, and it is to be reined in. The phenomenon of students being zealous for the sake of their rabbeim goes back to the very first yeshiva, and it was the first rosh yeshiva who rebuked his top student for displaying kanna’ut for the rebbe’s honor. The master does not need his students to speak up on his behalf. How much more so should this lesson be heeded today.

Some years ago, after the Slifkin controversy had left the front pages of the new, Jewish blogosphere, Gil Student wrote this summary of the events. I felt that it glossed over an essential part of the story: the role of the kanna’im in the whole affair. At the time, the internet was still the frontier for these discussions, and I wrote a letter to the Jewish Press which was printed in the next week’s issue. In it, I cited a metaphor that I had heard from Rabbi Eliyahu Soloveichik in the name of R’ Chayim Soloveichik: In the kitchen there are two who wish to be rid of the mice, the balabusta because of hygiene, and the cat because he is hungry. When great scholars speak out strongly against what they feel are threats to Jewish continuity, they are like balabustas, but the kanna’im and askanim, who are looking to pick fights, are like the cats.

I then made the connection to the Slifkin affair. It was not instigated by Rabbi Elyashiv and his colleagues, who were content to sit and study in peace and let their opinions and examples speak for themselves, but rather by hangers-on and professional controversy-stirrers.

Years later there was another individual who also came out strongly on some issue which I can not recall, and, to justify his strong denunciations, he pointed out that he was a talmid muvhak, a prime student, of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who had, contrary to his usual behavior, also come out strongly on this issue. He said that he was just doing as his rebbe did. I wrote to him at the time that there was an essential difference between him and R’ Moshe. R’ Moshe was a widely respected  scholar, whereas this talmid was certainly not famed for his piety and scholarship, and therefore, when his rebbe would express a very strong opinion, it would be taken into account, but if he himself came out of left field ranting and raving, he would be considered some meshugenneh from New Jersey. Apparently, he accepted what I had to say, because he stopped after that.

Most recently, I wrote this letter to Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein. When I think of talmidim of Rav Elyashiv, I think of Rav Efrati, a man known for his schools of Jewish scholarship and their publications regarding practical and relevant halacha, and specifically Israeli halacha, whom I have spoken to in person on a number of occasions when real practical and personal questions came up, He is not such a kanna’i. And then there’s Rabbi Eisenstein, who, unfortunately, is now known more for associating with those desecrators of God’s Name who initiated the Slifkin ban and for illogically denouncing God-fearing Jews for trying to fulfill the commandments. This fits into the pattern I mentioned above. The students care less about the logic behind the opinions and views they received, and more about the bottom line, and out of pride in their rebbe, they seek to impose their rebbe’s opinion on others or demand that others respect their rebbe as much as they do. Did R’ Elyashiv really feel so negatively about Jews wearing t’cheileth? Of course not. He felt that they have whom to rely on. Yet it is his students who need to go out and make sure that others honor those positions by practicing them. MY rebbe is the greatest, and therefore ALL shall follow him.

This, therefore, is why I believe other schools are not mentioned in the Mishna. Beith Shammai and Beith Hillel demonstrated a profound respect for each other. The sages imply that when there were differences of opinion between other schools, they were not l’shem shamayim, but rather tinged with personal interests. If there was a dispute between Beith Rabbi Joshua and Beith Rabbi Eliezer, it may have been corrupted by the students who took their rebbes’ views too seriously, maybe even to the extent that they could not understand why others would not accept those views. When the sages sought an example of an intellectually honest disputation, they did not propose “the differences of opinion between the various yeshivoth” because, unfortunately, those are usually not born of pure motives. Only Beith Shammai and Beith Hillel achieved that. The sages pointed out (Y’vamoth 14) that although some of the disputes between the schools were regarding the most severe of prohibitions, the forbidden relations, this did not prevent them from tolerating the others’ practices. This statement is remarkable because of what it implies regarding other schools: they would not intermarry with others because of the implications and consequences of the others’ halachic views on pedigree and familial association. This phenomenon is of course still around today, where in some circles it is considered verboten for a young man of one yeshiva community to be matched with a young woman from another if it is too different, whether so different that they wear different hats, or that, God forbid, one is Ashkenazi and the other Sepharadi.   

Our role as students and as objective seekers of the truth is to make sure, therefore, that we not have so much confidence in our views that we denigrate the views of others or seek to impose our views on others, or, God forbid, take action against others, and all of these even for those positions which we have received with certainty from our rabbeim.


From → original, parasha

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