Every now and then the Gemara allows us a tantalizing look at the world that existed before Rabbinic law became more standardized and codified. We sometimes get the impression that despite the arguments and disputes, the rabbis followed a more or less similar line of thinking and “everyone” agreed. But then we come to the Yevamot 13-16 where we see the major fault lines between the houses of Hillel and Shammai. In the end, everything is seemingly smoothed over:
“Although Beit Hillel prohibit and Beit Shammai permit them, and although these disqualify these women and those deem them fit, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai” (Yevamot 13b)
But is it? There are very different world views at the root of these disputes.
According to Rabbi Binyamin Lau, Shammai and Hillel, and the sages that follow them respectively, represent two different ways of looking at halacha. Shammai and his followers, among them Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, believe in the power of tradition, of only teaching what you heard from your teachers and they from their teachers. Hillel and his followers, which include Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva, delight in the power of innovation and creativity. They want to draw out the halacha from logic and from rules, not only learn it from tradition. In the language of Pirkei Avot they are represented by the plastered cistern that retains every drop and by the flowing spring that is always brimming over with new ideas.
Cistern in Masada (Wikipedia)
Can these two approaches ultimately reconcile? We get a little look at the dynamic in the story on Yevamot 16a (also brought in the Yerushalmi with some variations) about a rabbinic visit to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinos:
“In the time of Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinos the rival wife of a daughter to the brothers was permitted. And this matter was difficult in the eyes of the Rabbis because he was a great Sage. His eyes had dimmed so much that he was incapable of coming to the study hall. They said: And who will go and notify him that this matter requires clarification? Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: I will go. And who shall go after him? Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, And who after him? Rabbi Akiva. They went and stood at the entrance of Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinos’ house. His maidservant entered and said to him: Rabbi, the Sages of Israel have come to you. He said to her: Let them enter, and they entered” (Yevamot 16a)
Rabbi Dosa is a link to an earlier generation. He was active in the time that the Temple was standing and was a contemporary of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. He is now so old that he cannot see and no longer visits the bet midrash. While he knows Rabbi Yehoshua, the oldest of the three visitors, he has never met Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva. He seems delighted to greet the next generation. But he is not just a sweet old man reveling in the smart new scholars. He is also a living witness to the halacha and to the different ways of Hillel and Shammai. While he assures the rabbis that he is not the one who supports Bet Shammai’s opinion (that the rival wife of a daughter is eligible for yibbum), he does it in a very Shammai- like way, as we shall see. Meanwhile, the brother that he pins the blame on for the deviant opinion acts in a very Hillel-like way.
Grave attributed to Rabbi Dosa in Tzfat (Ariel Palmon, Wikipedia)
It is interesting to note who visits Rabbi Dosa and what he says about each visitor. Rabbi Dosa recognizes Rabbi Yehoshua and according to the Yerushalmi, remembers a charming story about him as a baby:
“I remember that his mother used to bring the cradle to the synagogue so that his ears would cleave to the teachings of the Torah.” (Yerushalmi Yevamot 1:6)
But while Rabbi Dosa recalls Rabbi Yehoshua’s infancy, we know that there is another story where they interact as adults. When Rabbi Yehoshua challenges patriarch Rabban Gamliel’s ruling on the new month (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:9) he does so because he is agreeing with Rabbi Dosa’s opinion. However, Rabbi Dosa counsels Rabbi Yehoshua to accept the authority of the patriarch. Rabbi Dosa, and ultimately Rabbi Yehoshua, emerge as figures willing to (sometimes) compromise their ideas for the common good.
The second guest is Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the sage who became a patriarch at a very young age, replacing Rabban Gamliel. Here too Rabbi Dosa has a connection to him. He is thrilled that his colleague Azariah, has a son, and he remarks that not only is he the tenth generation to Ezra but he also has Ezra’s eyes (Yerushalmi Yevamot 1:6). Could this be a hint that he sees Rabbi Elazar as another Ezra, a continuer of tradition and Torah?
Finally, Rabbi Dosa greets Rabbi Akiva, again just as you would expect an older man to greet an up and coming young star:
This heartwarming display of connection across the generations is ended by the rabbis’ question about the halacha of Bet Shammai. Rabbi Dosa explains that of course, he did not teach this, rather it was his brother Yonatan, a student of Shammai and in Rabbi Dosa’s words, the firstborn of Satan. Rashi understands this harsh expression to mean that Yonatan is very smart and refuses to change his position even if he is against the majority. Yonatan has not one or two but three hundred proofs why the halacha should be according to Bet Shammai. He insults Rabbi Akiva (and all the rabbis in the Yerushalmi version) and comes off as supremely arrogant. However, he only follows Bet Shammai up to a point. Rather than asserting that his opinion is the tradition, he brings myriad intellectual proofs for it. This is the way of the bet midrash. Meanwhile, Rabbi Dosa proves his position by relating a tradition from Haggai the prophet. Shammai proven by halachic creativity and Hillel proven by prophetic tradition, what better way to bring the two disparate worlds together?
Rabbi Yehoshua is the one who first volunteers to visit Rabbi Dosa and reconcile the opposing views. As Rabbi Lau explains, Rabbi Yehoshua placed a great emphasis on the community, the study hall and the connections among scholars. When asked what is the most important thing a person needs in life he answered a good companion, חבר טוב (Avot 2:9). Despite our differences we must learn to understand each other and live with each other, accepting the other as a good friend and havruta. Perhaps that is why it is so important for Rabbi Yehoshua to meet with Rabbi Dosa and understand his position.