In Pursuit of Truth (and how to find it)

Yevamot (15:2) | Yisrael Bankier | 17 years ago

In two of the Mishnayot (15:2-3) we see two arguments between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel where Beit Hillel ultimately concedes. This is not the only instance where we find the Mishnah describing such debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel that have this very outcome (see Eduyot 1:12-14, Keilim 9:2, Ohalot 5:2). If the Mishnayot were formulated in a terse manner to aid in memorising and if Beit Hillel ultimately conceded in these cases, why are they even recorded? Surely stating the opinion of Beit Shammai would have sufficed?

The Rambam in his Introduction to Mishnah explains:

[The reason is] to teach you the yearning for truth and choosing of righteousness. For these giants, prominent, pious, abounding in wisdom and complete in intellect, when they saw that the words of their opponent were superior to their own and more insightful, they would concede and retract their position. How much more so, for the rest of humanity, that if they see that the truth lies with their opponent, they should concede and not be stubborn. This is the meaning of the pasuk “righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue”. About this, the Sages said: “admit to truth”. In other words, that even if you could free yourself with further claim and arguments, if you know that your opponent words… are correct – concede and dismantle the argument.

We see then that this fundamental concept – admission of truth – was so important that the codifier of the Mishnah diverted from his usual concise style to teach it.

Analysing this answer deeper, one finds an awesome point. Despite being immersed in the depths of a heated argument, one can have the clarity to see the truth. While we can appreciate this sometimes, one could understand from the above Rambam that they had the ability to see the truth all the time. How?

The Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) states:

R’ Abba said in the name of Shmuel, “For three years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated… A heavenly voice went forth and declared, ‘These and those are the words of the living G-d but the halacha follows Beit Hillel’”

Firstly, we find that when they both indeed spoke the truth (this requires further explanation) the arguments certainly endured. They would not give in so easily.

The Gemara continues:

But now that these and those are the words of the living
G-d, why did Beit Hillel merit to fix halacha according to their opinion? Because they were easy and forbearing and they would study their opinion and the opinion of Beit Shammai. Moreover, they would mention the matters of Beit Shammai before their own.

The Sichat Mussar (47) explains that at a first reading, it appears that Beit Hillel were rewarded for their anava (humility) with establishing halacha in accordance with their opinion. However he suggests a different understanding. This was not a reward; rather, anava is the only means of approaching the truth of Torah.

But what is anava? Unfortunately the English translation, “humility” presents a concept that may relate to external attributes of a person exhibiting anava, yet is far from its true meaning. It is certainly not simply abasing oneself. The Sha’arei Teshuva (1:24) writes:

The highest level of submission required for the path of teshuva is to raise and elate avodat Hashem, and not to take credit for oneself, for everything is minute when compared to one’s obligation in avodat Hashem. Therefore one will worship with tzniyut and not desire honour for his honourable actions…

At the very heart of anava is avodat Hashem. One has been designed with all his strengths and weaknesses to function in a particular manner for this purpose.

With that focus, when one enters a Torah argument, a debate for the sake of heaven, it is no longer the clash of two personalities. Instead it is the combining of two keilim (tools) that are to be employed in the discovery of truth. In that environment, if the truth is monochromatic, then it will be easily revealed.


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