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Is there a "unified" theory of both schools' approaches that account for the differences in their rulings in all disputes?

Like a set of different principles all their rulings stem from, or their rulings are more or less random? In other words, if not explicitly stated by the Gemmorah we couldn't tell their rulings apart?

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R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin wrote a classic article, printed in his Le-Or Ha-Halachah, where he argues that Beit Shammai focused on potential, whereas Beit Hillel focused on the actual.

From memory, a number of arguments he explains according to this theory:

  • Increasing or decreasing the number of chanukah candles each day

  • At what point is a fish susceptible to impurity - from when it's caught or from when it's dead

  • The blessing on the flame after shabbat - borei meorei ha-esh or shebara maor ha-esh

  • Zohar says Beis Hillel epitomized Midas Rachamim and Beis Shammai epitomized Midas Din (same piece that says we’ll pasken like Beis Shammai in the future). Interesting that Shammai then lines up with potential and not actual, and vice versa for Hillel. – DonielF Sep 27 at 1:19
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I like Rav Zevin's theory, already shared by Joel K in his answer.

That said, though, there is strong indication that the legal differences derive from a misunderstanding. Sotah 47b says:

משרבו תלמידי שמאי והילל שלא שימשו כל צורכן רבו מחלוקת בישראל ונעשית תורה כשתי תורות

When the students of Shamai and Hillel multiplied, so that they didn't properly serve apprenticeship their [respective] rebbe, dispute multiplied in Israel, and the Torah became like two Torahs.

The disputes are blamed on there being too many students to get close to the rebbes, and therefore something was lost in the chain of transmission. Which then led to the explosion in the number of disputes.

The Maharal (on Avos 1:12) explains that the disputes derive from the rebbes' respective jobs. Hillel was the Nasi. It was his job to lead the community. Shammai was the Av Beis Din, the head of the Sanhedrin and thus the judicial system. Hillel's job was to be sympathetic; Shammai's job was to enforce strict justice. The Maharal explains that because of that lack of apprenticeship, the students' didn't realize the difference between their mentor's value, and his job. And so Beis Hillel tended to take the empathetic approach, and Beis Shammai, the more legally rigorous one.

But only because of a misunderstanding.

In any case, this Compassion (Rachamim) vs Din (Justice) dischotomy is also found in the Zohar. And based on this, for example, the the Ari haQadosh says that while today we nearly always follow Beis Hillel, in the Messianic Era we will be capable of living up to the standards of Justice, and the law will favor Beis Shammai.

  • I wouldn't necessarily have translated it such that משרבו was the cause of שלא שימשו, but this is an interesting approach. – Alex Oct 3 at 2:41
  • @Alex the Maharal’s point doesn’t depend on משרבו, just the effects of לא שמשו. But why would we be told “when they became many they didn’t sufficiently serve their mentors” if it wasn’t a causal link? I could see giving two reasons for the machloqesin - many people and the lack of apprenticeship. But there is no vav there. Looks like a causal chain. – Micha Berger Oct 3 at 11:50
  • An alternative would be that it’s saying “when the students who didn’t serve multiplied”, i.e. שלא שימשו is not an effect of משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל; it is instead a description of the subset of תלמידי שמאי והלל that multiplied. – Alex Oct 3 at 12:05
  • @Alex: thanks. Didn't cross my mind to read it as "when the students who didn't serve their rabbis multiplied". Given that Beis Hillel (at least) was clearly too large for apprenticing under Hillel to be an option for the vast majority of students, I'll go with my initial impression of the line. – Micha Berger Oct 3 at 15:22

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