In Pirkei Avot 5:17, when citing an example of a controversy that is for the sake of Heaven, the Mishnah uses the terms "Hillel and Shamai". Many translations that I have seen - including Aish.com and Art Scroll as well as Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary translate this to mean Bet Hillel and Bet Shamai.

Is this a correct translation? If so, why didn't the Mishnah outrightly specify this? Was there an editing error?

  • Maybe they were continuing the tradition of the founders of their respective academies?
    – DonielF
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 13:46
  • Lmai Nafka Minah?
    – ezra
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 4:57
  • Shamai and Hillel didn't actually disagree that much. @ezra
    – Dr. Shmuel
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 6:06
  • What is the problem
    – kouty
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 6:11
  • @ezra peshat in a Mishnah?
    – robev
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:35

4 Answers 4


Milechet Shlomo:

אפשר שר"ל על בעלי המחלוקת עצמן כי שמאי והלל נתקיימו שניהן לא כן קרח שמת וירד שאולה אמנם אין הלשון מתיישב מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים דמשמע המחלוקת עצמה לא בעלי המחלוקת גם לפי זה מה בא התנא ללמדנו שנתקיים שמאי ולא מת למה יומת מה עשה גם אפשר לומר שדברי ב"ש לא נתבטלו לגמרי אלא נשנו דבריהם במשנה לפי שע"י דבריהם נתברר האמת כמו שאמרו בגמרא וכי מאחר שאין הלכה כדברי היחיד למה נשנו דבריו אצל דברי המרובים ותרצו שהוצרכו להזכיר דברי היחיד שאם יבא אדם לומר כך שמעתי וקבלתי יאמרו לו דברי היחיד שמעת ואין הלכה כמותו הרי שמתוך דברי היחיד מתקיימין דברי המרובים כן הוא ב"ש וב"ה מתוך דברי ב"ש יתקיימו דברי ב"ה אבל קרח ועדתו אינו כן שהרי לא הוצרך לאומרו בליעת קרח לקיים הכהונה ביד אהרן כי אם בא האות והמופת פריחת המטה גם זריחת הצרעת למערער על הכהונה א"כ סופה בטלה ואין מתקיים האמת ע"י קרח.

This is discussing the proprietors of the dispute themselves - Shamai and Hillel, they both endured (סופה להתקיים). As apposed to Korach, who died and went to Sheol. However, the language of the Mishnah seems to imply that the dispute itself will endure, not the proprietors of the dispute. Indeed Shamai, proprietor of the unpopular opinion, did not die. Why would he need to die? So, their disputes carry on, and the opinion of Shammi, and subsequently Beit Shamai, serve as a guide to the truth. If someone comes along with Shamai's opinion, his friend can tell him that the law ain't so. [See Ediyot 1]


Maharal, in Derech Chaim, says that the machlokos of Hillel and Shammai were the purest form of l'sheim shomayim, in that there was nothing that they could have done differently to prevent them:

שהמחלוקת שלהם היה לשם שמים לגמרי.‏ שלא תוכל לומר עליהם שום צד שלא לשם שמים,‏ שאי אפשר לומר שאם היו מטריחים עצמם בהלכה לעמוד על הדבר,‏ או ילכו לשאול,‏ לא‏ היה צריך להם המחלוקת

It seems that he's contrasting them with Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, of whom the Gemara (Sanhedrin 88b) says לא שמשו כל צרכם, their machlokos were because they hadn't applied themselves as fully as possible to learn from their teachers.

(The editor's footnotes there, though, are unsure about this understanding, since some of the Maharal's phrasing there - such as the expression אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים that he quotes - is, in the original (Eruvin 13b), speaking of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel.)


This is addressed in the Igeret of Sherirah Gaon 1:5 which says:

וכמה דהוה בית המקדש קיים כל חד וחד מרבוואתא הוה מגמר להו לתלמידי טעמי דאורייתא ודמשנה ודתלמוד במילי דמחבר להון בשעתיה ומורו לתלמידייהו כי היכי דחזי. והוה נפישא חכמה ולא הוו צריכין לטירחי [אחריני] וההיא פלוגתא דסמיכה לחוד הוא דהות ביניהון וכד אתו שמאי והלל נמי בתלת מילי בלחוד הוא דאיפליגו דאמרינן אמר רב הונא בשלשה מקומות נחלקו שמאי והלל וכיון דחריב בית המקדש ואזילו לביתר וחריב נמי ביתר ואיתבדרו רבנן לכל צד. ומשום הנך מהומות ושמדים ושגושין שהיו באותו זמן לא שמשו התלמידים כל צרכן ונפישי מחלוקות. מן כד נחת נפשיה דרבן יוחנן בן זכאי והוה רבן גמליאל והוה נמי עדיין ר' דוסא בן הרכינס ואחריני נמי מהנך ראשונים והות פלוגתא בין בית שמאי ובין בית הלל. ואע"ג דאדחו בית שמאי ונקבעה לכל הלכה כבית הלל הות פלוגתא בדורו של רבן גמליאל בדברים אחרים בין ר' אליעזר דהוי שמותי ובין ר' יהושע דאינון תלמידי רבן יוחנן בן זכאי.

Hillel and Shammai had disagreement (for the sake of Heaven) on only three issues. What is reported in Avot is accurate.

Their students, because of a diminished level in their learning properly (due to the environmental hardships of their time) did not have the level of unity and agreement that their teachers possessed.

That means that they didn't comprehend that there is only one Torah and all the various teachings and approaches are in agreement in reality. They believed that their own views were correct and the teachings of others were wrong.

Consequently, argument and disagreement increased among the students (which was not for the sake of Heaven, but because of their failure to learn sufficiently).

  • Where are you getting the last three paragraphs from? R. Sherira isn't saying anything about these students' level of unity or lack thereof, or anything suggesting that they "didn't comprehend that there is only one Torah," or that their arguments weren't for the sake of Heaven. (Perhaps you're confusing them with the 24000 students of R. Akiva שלא נהגו כבוד זה בזה?)
    – Meir
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 16:58
  • Oh, and let's not forget that the Gemara (Eruvin 13b) says about Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים.
    – Meir
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 17:26
  • @Meir No, that is what is recorded by Sherira Gaon in the non-bolded text and in contrast to what preceded them. That's what is meant by the expression that the Rabannan dispersed to each side and that "division; separation; difference, dissension, strife, faction (Machloket) spread among the students. Your citation from Eruvin is emphasizing that both teachings are the words of the (one) G-d of life. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 20:10
  • They wouldn't have been called דברי אלקים חיים if these machlokos weren't לשם שמים (even if, as in my answer, not the ultimate level in that). Let's translate the passage from R. Sherira: "As long as the Beis Hamikdash stood, each of the Sages taught his students the understanding of the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud using wording composed on the spot, and they taught their students as they saw fit. Wisdom was plentiful, and they didn't need to go to any [further] trouble; the only argument they had was about semicha. When Hillel and Shammai came, they too argued only about 3 things..." (cont.)
    – Meir
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 21:27
  • ...as we say: "Rav Huna said: In 3 places Shammai and Hillel disagreed." Later the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed and they moved to Betar, and then Betar too was destroyed and the Sages were scattered in all directions. Due to the upheavals and persecutions and disturbances at that time, the students didn't apply themselves as much as they should have, so machlokos proliferated. (cont.)
    – Meir
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 21:28

May be that the explanation is very obvious.

the point is how did the controversy begin. The machloket BH and BS started by Hillel and Shammai themselve. Even if most machloktot are between two bate midrashot, the spirit of this type of controversy is the spirit of Hillel and Shammai. The mishna addressed the paradigm. So it's right to write מחלוקת הלל ושמאי.

  • 1
    I'm not seeing how this answers the question, esp. the 2nd question.
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 15:10
  • @DanF I am not sure but I want to say that the BH BS machloket may be called H&S machloket because they initiated the BH & BS machloket. The quality of the beginning is important as Amnon and Tamar, David & Yehonatan. So here specially, the Tana want to call the whole machloktot BH & BS H&S. I am not sure that it is true
    – kouty
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 15:37

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