At the end of the first chapter of Yevamot we get an insight into the unique relationship that existed between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai and a clearer understanding of what the Mishnah in Avot means when it describes the argument for the sake of heaven as being the dispute between Hillel and Shammai. The exact nature of the dispute gives us a clear directive as to how we should conduct our own disagreements.
The last Mishnah in the first chapter of Yevamot brings a dispute between the two houses of study which on the surface is quite astonishing. The Mishnah leaves us with a catch twenty-two where someone who acts in accordance with Beit Hillel would be forbidden to marry a Kohen according to Beit Shammai, while if the reverse action was taken and the opinion of Beit Shammai was followed the child would be a mamzer according to Beit Hillel. Nevertheless “Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, and neither did Beit Hillel refrain from Beit Shammai.” The continuation is that they also ate from each other’s houses in spite of the differing opinions with regards to ritual purity.
On the surface this is both shocking and to a certain degree highly utopian. It appears that Chazal were willing to forgo their Halachic decisions for the sake of Jewish unity - a statement that does not hold up to scrutiny in the Gemara. It would certainly have many ramifications to the structure of Halacha today if this would be true.
In the Yerushalmi (Kidushin 1:1 and here in Yevamot) it seems to suggest that while they were not conciliatory towards each others position it was accepted that they had differing positions. Not much was done about this situation1 until the heavenly voice came down and stated clearly that everyone must follow the opinion of Beit Hillel, which effectively ended the debate as a practical concern.
The Yerushalmi then gives us Yavneh as the location of the Sanhedrin when the heavenly voice was heard. This strange additional piece of information seems to tell us something extra. Yavneh was the central seat of Jewish learning immediately following the destruction of the temple as was requested by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (see Gittin 55b). It is a symbol of the new age Torah of the exile. It is at this point that the vibrant debate and the way of life that existed prior to the destruction came to be redefined by the heavenly voice for the thousands of years of the exile.
This way of thinking however is not actually the answer given by the Bavli (Yevamot 14a) as well as the commentators, who unanimously follow that direction. The Gemara says that due to the massive ramifications of the two cases (having children who are mamzerim in the first and the defiling of the sacrifices in the second) they clearly would not blindly intermarry. Instead each school would inform the other of a relationship that they knew the other school would find questionable. The Gemara therefore simply says that instead of putting a blanket ban on the other house they had a series of checks to determine the persons status according to their opinion, as they would readily volunteer information about any vessel whose purity is suspect according to the view of their rivals.
This gives us a clear look at a true dispute for the sake of heaven. In spite of differences of opinion, there is still room to recognise a difference of opinion and that this view is also the word of G-d – “Both these and these are the words of the living G-d.” At the end of the day they were both strong in their own views but were able to recognise the opposing position and were comfortable enough in their own opinions to be able to accommodate them in a way that would not create divisions in the nation.
1 Editor’s note: There is a debate in the Yerushalmi whether Beit Shammai acted in accordance to Beit Hillel’s ruling acting stringently or whether each school acted according to their own opinion. According to the latter opinion, even though there could have potentially been problems relating to mamzerut, the Yerushalmi explains that these cases never existed - "המקום משמר ולא אירע מעשה מעולם"
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