The Mishnah, tractate Shabbat 1:4, and its corresponding passage in the Babylonian Talmud (folios 13b-17b), present a strange puzzle to those who study it deeply. Let us begin with the Mishnah passage that is discussed in the Gemara:
These are some of the laws which they stated in the upper room of Hananiah b. Hezekiah b. Gurion when they went up to visit him. They took a vote, and the House of Shammai outnumbered the House of Hillel. And eighteen measures did they decree on that very day.
The exact nature of these Eighteen Measures is not given in this passage. Indeed, the very next passage of the Mishnah holds a lengthy comparison and contrast between the halakha of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, whereas m.Shabbat 1:4 indicates that these Eighteen Measures were passed as universal halakha by vote. The very next line of the Gemara also indicates that the full corpus of the Measures was lost to later sages, with R. Abbayye questioning whether the Mishnah passage above might refer to the passages that came before. (The answer is that it does not.)
The mystery only deepens as we read on. Shabbat 17a suddenly interjects a curious and sinister footnote into what would otherwise be a fairly standard discussion on ritual purity:
They plunged a sword into the schoolhouse, saying, “Let anyone come in who wants, but no one is going to get out of here,” and on that day, Hillel sat humble before Shammai like just another disciple. And that day was as hard for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made. (See also t.Shabbat 1:16B.)
Why did they plunge a sword into the Beit Midrash? Both the Soccino and Schottenstein footnotes claim that this was merely the standard practice when taking a vote, but neither cites any other passage of the Talmud to indicate that this was so, and after an extensive search, I could not find anywhere else that a sword is mentioned in connection with the Beit Midrash or with passing a ruling. Furthermore, plunging the sword into the door is accompanied with what appears to be a thinly-veiled threat and is immediately followed by the humiliation of Hillel (another unique event in the Talmud). Finally, it concludes with the curious phrase, “And that day was as hard for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made.”
Was there indeed a threat, or perhaps even actual violence? The Jerusalem Talmud (y.Shabbat 1:4) actually states that the followers of Shammai did murder the disciples of Hillel: “Rabbi Yehoshua taught: The students of Beit Shammai stood below, killing the students of Beit Hillel. We learn: Six of them went up, and the rest stood upon them with swords and spears.”
That’s an astounding twist to this strange event! How could it be that one great house of the Pharisees should actually murder the members of the other?
A clue may be found in the site of the Beit Midrash, the home of Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Gurion. The Jewish Encyclopedia states that Hezekiah ben Gurion is believed by some scholars to have been one and the same individual as Hezekiah the Zealot:
When King Aristobulus, taken prisoner by the Romans, had been poisoned by the followers of Pompey, Hezekiah (“Ezekias” in Josephus, “Ant.” xiv. 9, §§ 2 et seq) gathered together the remnants of that king’s army in the mountains of Galilee and carried on a successful guerrilla war against the Romans and Syrians, while awaiting the opportunity for a general uprising against Rome. The pious men of the country looked upon him as the avenger of their honor and liberty. Antipater, the governor of the country, and his sons, however, who were Rome’s agents in Palestine, viewed this patriotic band differently. In order to curry favor with the Romans, Herod, unauthorized by the king Hyrcanus, advanced against Hezekiah, took him prisoner, and beheaded him, without the formality of a trial; and he also slew many of his followers. This deed excited the indignation of all the patriots. Hezekiah and his band were enrolled among the martyrs of the nation.
If indeed Hananiah was the son of Hezekiah the Zealot, the actions of that night begin to make sense. Beit Shammai is well known for criticizing the leniency of Beit Hillel, especially in regards to Gentile converts. Shammai himself was known for driving away potential converts who then turned to R. Hillel, who accepted them in gentleness (b.Shabbat 31a). While we cannot state that this was the case with certainty, an alliance between Beit Shammai and the Gentile-hating Zealots in the house of Hananiah b. Hezekiah does not seem impossible.
Rabbi Hillel was not simply forced to sit at Shammai’s feet because his side was outvoted, but was apparently forced to under threat of violence to himself and his students. It would not be the only time Shammai and his students threatened Hillel, either. In another incident, recorded in b.Betzah 20a, Hillel once went up to the Temple to offer a burnt offering and was accosted by several students of Shammai. Rather than risk confrontation in the very Temple courtyard, Hillel offered a lie that they accepted and moved off. The fact that Shammai’s students were so emboldened as to accost the esteemed master and that Hillel had to offer a lie on holy ground to go on his way is telling of the atmosphere that existed at that point. This was especially telling given that R. Hillel was highly respected by the priests, who turned to him on matters of halakhah (see b.Peshachim 66a). Surely, Hillel should have expected aid from the priests! What had happened to so dishonor the once-honored rabbi that he had to lower his eyes before mere students?
The real key question is this: What were the Eighteen Measures, why were they considered so important to Beit Shammai that they would actually resort to violence to get them passed? And how would their passing be considered as hard for Israel as a day that would have resulted in our destruction if not for the intervention of Moshe? We will continue to explore this mystery in the coming weeks.