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The gemara in Eiruvin 13b teaches that for two and a half years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel - these said that it was better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and these said that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. What were the specific arguments on each side? They argued for two and a half years, so this doesn't seem to have been a passing difference of opinion, but rather an argument with substance.

(I've seen this question, but it focuses on how we interpret this and I'm asking about what the points in the argument were in the first place.)

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All of the sources I found seem to deal on some level with the investigation of human nature.

Ben Jehoaidah, Eruvin 13b explains that Israel, (he says ישראל‏ specifically), was created as a part of the בריאה‏ from the Throne of Glory, citing the Arizal that we were created for the glory of Gd. as opposed to angels who are a part of the יצירה‏. The pertinent difference between these two primordial planes is that, when coming from בריאה‏ our non-verbal thoughts and feelings have the power to impact our surroundings. The argument was based around whether or not we should have been created within the בריאה‏, (notice the phrase in the Talmud uses the word נברא‏).

  • The argument against creation within the בריאה‏ was that since we have so very many impure or evil thoughts that negatively impact the world not having a toehold in the בריאה‏ would make these legions of corrosive thoughts ineffectual.
  • The argument for creation within the בריאה‏ was that we would gain much, (מרויח ריוח גדול‏), from all of the good that our heartfelt intentions could accomplish, and any evil thoughts could be amended and purified, (I assume through repentance?), and also that they would be nullified as being in the minority, (וגם בטיל במיעותיה‏).

It was concluded that we'd be better without a stake in the בריאה‏, like angels, because our negative feelings and thoughts are overwhelmingly many. In this source, we see the discussion and evaluation of human nature as a powerful thing in and of itself, even without action.

Etz Joseph, (in Ein Yaakov, Eruvin 13b), quotes the MHRS"A on Makkos 23a, who explains that the Torah is broken down in to positive 'do' commandments and negative 'don't' commandments. The argument was grounded in this frame work.

  • The argument against creation was that while on the the one hand we lose the opportunity to perform positive commandments, we at least are guaranteed the fulfillment of the negative ones by our non-creation and by extension our inaction. However if we are created, we run the risk of transgressing the negative commandments, which would counteract any reward we might gain from positive commandments, (יצא שכרו בהפסדו‏).
  • The argument for creation was that by not being created, we are guaranteeing that we will not fulfill any positive commandments. Thus all of the reward we get from fulfilling the negative commandments would be lost while filling the (hypothetical?) lack of reward from the neglected positive commandments, (יצא הפסדו בשכרו‏). However if we are created, we gain the opportunity to reap reward from all of the positive commandments.

We see again human nature, this time in the context of risk and reward. In the end, it came down to numbers. The commandments were formally enumerated, (perhaps for the first time which is why it took so long?). There were found to be 365 negative commandments versus 248 positive commandments. Thus it was concluded that what we stand to gain comes in less number and variety than what we stand to lose, and thus we would be better off not running the risk of creation.

The Anaf Joseph, (Ein Yaakov, ibid), brings two possible understandings.

First, he explains that we could have been created by way of an 'intermediary', like the rest of the animals, who were brought forth by the globe, (גלגל‏, By way of either earth or water? He seems to only mention earth, perhaps due to a focus on humans?). In other words, Gd could have commanded that the earth bring us forth just as he commanded it to bring forth plants and animals. Or he could, (and did), create us directly. The argument was about manner of creation.

  • The argument against our direct creation by Gd was that being created on a lesser level, by way of an intermediary, would make our sins and punishments less severe.
  • The argument for our direct creation by Gd was that being created directly by Him would cause him to be more lenient and merciful with us , so to speak, as opposed to indirect creation which would result in immediate destruction.

So the argument here was based around human nature when it came to sin, and the examination of the consequences of sin. The agreed upon conclusion was that It would be better for us "to not be created", (I assume directly by Gd based on what comes next), because being created on this level, work of the hands of the Creator of all, results in much more severe ramifications of our sins, (I speculate that the alternative argument was dismissed because it was also concluded that sin does not result in immediate destruction, and that even the extra mercy, so to speak, that we enjoy from Him is strained, so to speak. See this 2000+ year exile for reference).

His other possible understanding does not detail the arguments, just the point of contention and the conclusion with its reasoning. He says that בריאה‏ specifically was discussed. בריאה‏ is our creation as is, which requires us to to elevate ourselves to a spiritually whole plane of עשייה‏, with free choice. This would be opposed to only experiencing עשייה‏, that is existing in a way that it is our nature to fulfill Gd's will without inner conflict. It was concluded that just עשייה‏ would have been better, because the paragons, the בני עלייה‏, who actually attain this ascension from בריאה‏ to עשייה‏ are few and far between.

I am speculating, but it seems that the Sages struggled with the path of ascension's merit and increased reward versus its extreme difficulty. On the one hand, arriving at עשייה‏ from בריאה‏ would find us more richly adorned than if we began at עשייה‏. On the other hand, the struggle of ascension could prove to be too much for us, leaving us right where we started or lower, so why not just begin from עשייה‏, with guaranteed moderate sustenance and reward? After a statistical analysis of human nature, the Sages concluded that for humanity as a whole, עשייה‏ would have been a better starting place.

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Wow, thanks for compiling that! (I was starting to worry that there was no answer.) –  Monica Cellio Jan 1 at 3:27

R. Ezra Alteschuler (I think) in the Torah publication הבאר here raises two points on this gemara:

1) Why did they argue for exactly two and a half years?

2) Usually when there is a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel it says "Beis Shammai holds like this and Beis Hillel hold like this", but here it doesn't say what each one holds, it merely says that these held like this and these held like this.

The gemara in Berachos 17a teaches that R. Alexandri used to pray to Hashem after he finished the Shemoneh Esrei: We wish to do Your will, but what prevents us? Our evil inclination and our subjugation to the kingdoms.

Now, he cannot be saying that there are two separate reasons why we do not do Hashem's will, because having an evil inclination is an essential part of our being, without which we would have no free will and hence there would be no reward or punishment. Having both a good and evil inclination means that the scales of choice are balanced and thus gives us an equal opportunity to choose good. Therefore, having an evil inclination cannot be used as an excuse by itself. Rather, what he means is that the two reasons together tilt the scales against our choosing to do the will of God, and this is a very strong claim.

Thus when Yisrael dwelt in their land under their own rule, and there was true free will because the good and evil inclinations were balanced and so it was not difficult to do God's will, it was certainly true that it was better for man to have been created than not to have been created. But after we were exiled from our land and became subjugated to the kingdoms, so that now both this and our evil inclination together worked against our choosing to do God's will, then it was better for man not to have been created than to have been created.

Now, we know that when Bar Kochba ruled, there were many who believed that he was the Moshiach, and there were many who did not believe this. And these latter were afraid that he would not succeed and as a result the exile would be even worse because the Romans would declare them all to be rebels against the kingdom. The gemara in Sanhedrin 97b says that Bar Kochba ruled for two and a half years, and during those two and a half years some of the students of Shammai and some of the students of Hillel thought that he was the Moshiach, and thus decided that the time had come when we could happily say that it was better that man had been created. But on the other hand there were some students of Shammai and Hillel who held that he was not the Moshiach, and that he would cause a worsening of their subjugation, and therefore they said that it was better if man had not been created.

And after the two and a half years, after the downfall of Bar Kochba and all their hopes had been dashed and everyone knew that the coming of the real Moshiach was a long time off, they took a vote and decided that it was better for man not to have been created than to have been created - until Moshiach will truly come.

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(1) "... having an evil inclination is an essential part of our being"? So "essential" that when King David saw he couldn't subdue his, he "killed" it (Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:5, and ibid. Sotah 5:5)? (2) "... and this is a very strong claim" - from what precedes, this claim is barely strong enough: if one of the reasons didn't exist, we'd have no excuse for not fulfilling God's will. If, on the other hand, either reason had been enough on it's own, together they'd provide a much stronger claim. (...) –  Tamir Evan Jan 30 at 17:06
    
(...) (3) If "all their hopes had been dashed and everyone knew that the coming of the real Moshiach was a long time off", there'd be no need to take a vote. The latter side would just go back and maintain like the former side (like "חזרו בית הלל להורות כדברי בית שמאי" in Eduyot 1:12). –  Tamir Evan Jan 30 at 17:08

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