Shabbos: Hillel Incapable of Embarrassment
Those who know me and how I study Talmud will not be surprised if I compare Hillel and Shammai to Lennon and McCartney. Shammai (second from the left) is more stringent, insisting on a narrow path, exhorting us to imagine that there is nothing but the energy that we generate by pursuing truth. Hillel (third from the left) has a sunnier disposition and invites the neophyte in by example rather than trial. Shammai will tell you how important he is (bigger than Jesus!) while Hillel will leave you feeling as if you are important. It's not as compelling or well developed as my argument on the oral transmission via Abbott & Costello (not yet posted to this blog, though bound to end up here sooner or later), but take the poetic leap with me and think on how each pair of antagonists created a unique linguistic/musical pallet that consolidated what preceded it and took it to the next level.
The legend of Hillel's beautiful melodies would not have endured so long without Shammai's abrasive interruptions of his elegant tempos. If Shammai did not expel the convert with impossible demands, Hillel's conversion of him by taking his demands seriously and turning them on their head would be a lesser song: the success is cherished most because of the failure that preceded it.
The fool who bets that Hillel will lose his temper (31a) loses his wager twice and wins for losing, but who will bet that Shammai will answer a truly thoughtful question temperately? And what would be the lesson if he won?
Kaspit's comments below led me to his blog, where I discovered his comments on this very daf and responded as follows:
. . . and he who isn't busy being born is busy dying, eh? Hillel's role in this folio suggests that we will find our path by avoiding what is hateful to others; Shammai's role is to offer an alternative motivation to stumble along the same road: fear of God. While Hillel ostensibly prevails, the next folio is a litany of the calamities that will befall one who descrates the Sabbath. Death hovers at every turn. The Fear Factor does not get pushed back easily. Those of us who have managerial responsibility know only too well that a sharp word uttered thoughtlessly has more clout than we realize in the moment. Murderous blows unconsciously delivered kill just the same.