In order to figure out why we lead, we must first understand why we follow. In the Gemara, both Hillel and Shammai are presented as schools of thought that argue about many points of law. We usually follow Hillel. As a Shammai fan: why?
In day school, I was taught that Hillel had a bigger school because he was more lenient. His endless patience and emphasis on having a good heart won over more people than Shammai’s stringency. The law followed the majority opinion.
But there have been multiple times in history when Hillel's students did not have the majority, and yet we still followed Hillel.
One such incident happens in Eruvin 13b. Hillel and Shammai argued over the same piece of law for three years. Finally, a voice from Heaven calls out:
".אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן, והלכה כב"ה”
“This one and this one are both the living word of God, and the law is like Beit Hillel (the house of Hillel).”
The Gemara explains that both were right, and Hillel did not have the majority. The reason given for why the voice ruled in favor of Hillel is that Hillel’s students were taught both Hillel and Shammai’s opinion, whereas Shammai’s students were just taught the Shammai opinion.
We know both Hillel and Shammai to be leaders. They both carry with them the authority of the law, and they are both correct. However, Hillel’s students acted with modesty and kindness. That is why we follow them. As Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” People remembered Hillel’s students for their kindness and patience, even when they may not have been as sharp as Shammai’s students.
Then why do we read about Shammai if his students were not as modest?
If you take a look at chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot, both Hillel and Shammai share several pieces of advice about how one should live their life. Hillel’s is longer. Shammai says it all in one line.
When you read their sayings in depth, though, it becomes clear that both Hillel and Shammai say the same things arranged in a different order. Hillel starts with kindness. Shammai starts with the rules. Hillel expounds upon them. Shammai is understated. It’s not necessarily about what they said. It is, again, how they said it.
Shammai was strict, yes, but that does not mean he was cruel or mean. He was zealous but kind. His modesty was remarked upon by those who knew him. Shammai’s strictness was not expressed as meanness.
In a similar vein, just because Hillel was renowned for his leniency and seemingly endless patience does not mean he was a pushover. Far from it – Hillel was still exacting in his practice. Hillel’s kindness does not equate with laxness.
Both Hillel and Shammai were leaders. The key, the element that brought them to their position, was their dedication and devotion to the Torah. On a broader level, this is one vital reason why people lead: Because they are powerfully drawn and dedicated to a cause; so powerfully drawn that others are moved with them or join them in their pursuit. Leaders feel a calling or see a need and do not run away from it.
Leaders also have to walk a fine line between stringency and leniency, zeal and patience. One must have a little bit of both to succeed. Both schools of thought emphasize being proactive, humble, and kind, with an emphasis on kindness. In the end, both Shammai and Hillel were kind.
Hillel and Shammai are both considered leaders because their arguments, however fierce, were always l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven (to learn, and not to win, not self-serving). Hillel and Shammai agreed about what matters and were driven by the same cause. They both found themselves propelled to leadership positions, not because they sought them out, but because their love of the cause brought them to it.
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Ze'ev Weinstein is the Communications Coordinator for The Wexner Foundation.