The Worst Day Ever

Daf 76 (Shabbas 13a-13b)

Summary. The teaching that “a zav may not eat together with a zavah since it might lead to sin” suggests that observance of the laws of ritual purity is widespread. The gemara asks if a niddah may sleep with her husband if they are both clothed. Will their clothes “remind” them not to sin? (Husbands and wives customarily slept nude together.) May this question be compared to the case of two lodgers who are permitted to eat at the same table even though one eats meat and one eats dairy?

Will a transgression shorten the life of the transgressor?

Mishnah. There were 18 measures enacted in the chamber of Chananyah ben Chizkiyah ben Goren on a day when “Beis Shammai outnumbered Beis Hillel.”

Gemara. Were these measures the ones from the previous mishnah or do they follow in the next mishnah?

Daf 77 (Shabbas 14a-14b)

Summary. Several of the 18 enactments from “that day” regard the change of status of one who eats certain foods. The gemara inquires on the reason for these enactments and explains each in turn.

Daf 78 (Shabbas 15a-15b)

Summary. The 18 measures disputed by Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were only disputed on “that day.” The next day, Beis Hillel changed their position.

Rav Huna said they argued “in three places only.” The gemara asks, “Are there really no more cases of disagreement between Hillel and Shammai?”

Daf 79 (Shabbas 16a-16b)

Summary. Does glassware contract impurity in the same manner as metalware? Is its susceptibility defined Biblically or rabbinically?

The gemara frets it may be able to identify only 17 of the 18 measures disputed by Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel on “that day.”

Daf 80 (Shabbas 17a-17b)

Summary. The search for the 18th measure continues. A dispute between Hillel and Shammai on the susceptibility of grapes to contamination is considered. Shammai rules that grapes moistened on the outside by the juice within them are susceptible. “And on that day Hillel was submissive and he sat before Shammai like one of his disciples and that day was as grievous to Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made.”

One of the enactments is related to the Sabbath: “If darkness of Sabbath eve overtakes someone on the road he should give his purse to a gentile.”

Mishnah. The kinds of work that are begun before Shabbas that set a process in motion that continues into Shabbas without additional human attention are permitted by Hillel and forbidden by Shammai.


In the five dapim summarized in this post, Shabbas is barely mentioned. Most of this section deals with technical disputes settled by a vote in favor of Shammai. The circumstances are exceptional: Shammai was never favored when Hillel disputed him, yet here are 18 votes, all on the same day, that favored Shammai. The gemara characterizes this day with noteworthy hyperbole: “that day was as grievous to Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made.”

But what does all this have to do with Shabbas? Here is a series of technical rulings on how objects made of various materials contract impurities and what may be done to restore them Only one of the 18 rulings is related to Shabbas, and of all the rulings considered here, it is the only one that is stated without further consideration.

If the placement of this extended apparent digression is not arbitrary, the motivation is perhaps to elucidate the philosophy and establish the gravity of the rabbis who instituted rabbinic restrictions on behavior related to the care of objects and to validate the restrictions they extrapolate from Scripture for the purpose of sanctifying Shabbas. This is, I believe, a reasonable assumption. Of course, whether or not one is persuaded by this tactic is a matter of faith rather than logic.

Given the longstanding authority of the Talmud, it is easy to fail to remember that rabbinic Judaism was only one of many competing Jewish sects at the time the Talmud was redacted. Political considerations that have been lost in the dark shadows of an era long since past may very well be the stimulus for this seemingly inexplicable digression.

Hillel and Shammai and the schools they founded were antagonists, but they at least shared a common set of principles for extracting doctrine and rules of conduct from Scripture. Their disputes were never about the legitimacy of rabbinic authority. The gemara, by presenting their most heated disputes, simultaneously acknowledges that disputatious interactions sharpen one’s understanding of rabbinic restrictions and establishes an implicit limit on the range of permissible disputes. What falls outside the range of the hermeneutic principles is simply heresy and outside consideration.

Beis Hillel was always the victor except on one day. This comes to teach that even an occurrence that is otherwise described as a ” day . . . as grievous to Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made,” will not destroy the Jewish people. On the other hand, you will never see Beis Hillel defeated by a Roman or a Greek!

There is a message embedded deeply in this sugya. I am especially struck by the fact that the only decree upon which both Hillel and Shammai agree was rejected by the people and had to be repeated by their disciples before it was accepted. This surpasses my understanding, but feeds my curiosity. I cannot let it go. I do not understand it.

This entry was posted in Daf Yomi, Hevruta study, Talmud and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Worst Day Ever

  1. Eliyahu Grossman says:

    One thing that might add some clarity is to put it into a historical perspective. Beit Shammai was either controlled by or was a place for the Zealots, who sought to eliminate all Jewish/Gentile relations of any sort. The Sicarii, a violent offshoot of the Zealots, were localized terrorists who were also influencing how people behaved, but with their daggers. Beit Shammi finally decided, with the aid of the Zealots, to take complete control and subjugate Beit Hillel. It is also said that “Hillel sat before Shammai, submissive, like one of his students”, that he was publically humiliated, but he gave in, keeping to the dictum “the majority is right”. Remember, they were locked away, with guards forbidding them to leave, and it was either “agree by choice, or by the sword”, and some of Beit Hillel were harmed and killed. (Refer to under “Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai” under the title “Relation to external world”.) In other words, these pages of Tractate Shabbat are referring to an event so horrid, it was “like that of the Golden Calf”. The nuances of the debates aside, especially those dealing with purity issues, since the specifics can get in the way of the background, it ends with “those cutheans (the wrong kind of Jews) have daughters who are niddah from birth.” And a summary by Bali that “[The prohibition concerning the Gentiles] bread, oil, wine and daughters: ALL OF THESE ARE THE 18 MEASURES.” In other words, it was activism for Jewish purity and isolation from the Gentile world by the extreme, and sometimes violent, activists of that day. As for asking why it was rejected and then accepted, Well, the Rabbis delivered this extreme decree and the people said “NO!”. Then the students of Shammai, many of whom were the Zealots and Sicarii went forth, and yeah, the people knew that they better accept it, or else. And it was this dismissing of Rabbinical authority which is equated to the Golden Calf. This was one of those side issues that you often find in a Daf, but it does segway very nicely!

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