Hillel, Shammai, and Prospective Gerim: Reading Gemara as Aggadah, Halakhah, and Policy

One of the most famous passages of the Talmud tells the story of three prospective gerim (converts) who approach Shammai, who rejects them, and then Hillel, who accepts them.
How are we to understand the stories of these three gerim? Do they imply that Hillel would accept anyone who wished to become Jewish? Did he see something in each of these potential gerim? If so, what?

Hillel is clearly the hero of these stories, but what is the relationship between these stories and other passages from the Talmud that seems to take a more Shammai-esque approach? What is the crux of the debate between Hillel and Shammai?

Finally, how is the relationship between halakhah and aggadah expressed in contemporary approaches and policies regarding gerut (conversion)?

With these questions in mind, we can begin.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: כַּמָּה תּוֹרוֹת יֵשׁ לָכֶם? אָמַר לוֹ: שְׁתַּיִם, תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְתוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה.

The rabbis taught: It happened that a gentile came before Shammai and asked: “How many Torahs do you have?” [Shammai] replied, “Two. A Written Torah and an Oral Torah.

The question seems strange, and the answer seems even stranger. What answer was the prospective convert seeking? If someone were to ask you how many Torahs there are, would you answer "two" or "one" (or something else)? Why do you think Shammai gave the answer he gave?

אָמַר לוֹ: שֶׁבִּכְתָב אֲנִי מַאֲמִינְךָ, וְשֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה — אֵינִי מַאֲמִינְךָ. גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב. גָּעַר בּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ בִּנְזִיפָה.

[The gentile] said: “I trust you regarding the Written Torah, but I do not trust you regarding the Oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me the Written Torah.” [Shammai] admonished him and angrily removed him.

Consider the Protestant Reformation and its doctrine of "sola Scriptura", the notion of return to Scripture and the ability of each individual to interpret it on their own. What motivated this return to the text? What were its theological implications? Can we see something of this approach in the words of this prospective ger?
And what of Shammai's reaction? Would we react differently if someone came to convert with an attitude of "I do not trust you"?

בא לפני הלל גייריה יומא קמא א"ל א"ב ג"ד למחר אפיך ליה א"ל והא אתמול לא אמרת לי הכי א"ל לאו עלי דידי קא סמכת דעל פה נמי סמוך עלי:

[The gentile] came before Hillel. He converted him. The first day, [Hillel] taught him “Alef-bet-gimel-daled.” The next day, he reversed the order. [The convert] said to him, “But yesterday you did not say that!” [Hillel] said to him, “Didn’t you rely on me? Rely on me regarding the Oral Law as well.”

Hillel clearly saw something that made him willing to convert this person. What did he see? What of the concerns about not believing that there is an Oral Torah?
With regard to Hillel's response, is he saying that there is no such thing as a "Written Torah" without an "Oral Torah"? Is that correct?

Hillel, in a sense, lied to the convert by mis-teaching the Hebrew alphabet. Was he not taking advantage of the convert's vulnerability and ignorance? Is "rely on me" a safe attitude for converts to have toward rabbis?

שׁוּב מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ כְּשֶׁאֲנִי עוֹמֵד עַל רֶגֶל אַחַת! דְּחָפוֹ בְּאַמַּת הַבִּנְיָן שֶׁבְּיָדוֹ.

There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand.

This is the most famous of the three stories that appear in this passage: The man who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. What kind of person wants to learn the whole Torah on one foot?
How would you respond if someone asked you to summarize the entire Torah in one tweet? "Hey rabbi! Gimme the Cliff Notes! What's the bumper sticker version of the Torah?" (Note also that the word for "foot" - "regel" - means "rule" in Latin. A "regulum". Perhaps this person wanted the Torah distilled into one overarching principle.)

Shammai (who perhaps now has a bit more sympathy from us) pushes this person away with his "builder's cubit". His yardstick. His measuring stick. His standard. He thought that this candidate doesn't "measure up".

בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. אָמַר לוֹ: דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד — זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ, וְאִידַּךְ פֵּירוּשַׁהּ הוּא, זִיל גְּמוֹר.

The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.

What did Hillel see in this person who wanted the Torah in one tweet?
Perhaps Hillel saw a rebel in search of a cause. An activist. Someone looking for an ethos or credo by which to live life.

And what does Hillel give that person? A credo that is completely passive, and an instruction to learn more.
Should we take Hillel at face value - that this principle is "the entire Torah", and that the rest is interpretation? Or was Hillel answering this person according to his understanding of their motives?

שׁוּב מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר אֲחוֹרֵי בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, וְשָׁמַע קוֹל סוֹפֵר שֶׁהָיָה אוֹמֵר: ״וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חוֹשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד״. אָמַר: הַלָּלוּ לְמִי? אָמְרוּ לוֹ: לְכֹהֵן גָּדוֹל. אָמַר אוֹתוֹ גּוֹי בְּעַצְמוֹ: אֵלֵךְ וְאֶתְגַּיֵּיר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁיְּשִׂימוּנִי כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל.

There was another incident involving one gentile who was passing behind the study hall and heard the voice of a teacher who was teaching Torah to his students and saying the verse: “And these are the garments which they shall make: A breastplate, and an efod, and a robe, and a tunic of checkered work, a mitre, and a girdle” (Exodus 28:4). The gentile said: These garments, for whom are they designated? The students said to him: For the High Priest. The gentile said to himself: I will go and convert so that they will install me as High Priest.

Imagine the scenario. You are a rabbi. One day, someone walks into your office and says they wish to become Jewish. You ask why. They say, "because I really like those 'chai' necklaces. I want to wear one. So make me Jewish." In this third story, someone decides to convert after they hear about the High Priest's bling. Is this a good reason to convert?

בָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי, אָמַר לוֹ: גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּשִׂימֵנִי כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל. דְּחָפוֹ בְּאַמַּת הַבִּנְיָן שֶׁבְּיָדוֹ. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. אָמַר לוֹ: כְּלוּם מַעֲמִידִין מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁיּוֹדֵעַ טַכְסִיסֵי מַלְכוּת, לֵךְ לְמוֹד טַכְסִיסֵי מַלְכוּת. הָלַךְ וְקָרָא. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ ״וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת״, אָמַר לֵיהּ: מִקְרָא זֶה עַל מִי נֶאֱמַר? אָמַר לוֹ: אֲפִילּוּ עַל דָּוִד מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל. נָשָׂא אוֹתוֹ גֵּר קַל וָחוֹמֶר בְּעַצְמוֹ: וּמַה יִּשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁנִּקְרְאוּ בָּנִים לַמָּקוֹם וּמִתּוֹךְ אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֲהָבָם קְרָא לָהֶם: ״בְּנִי בְּכוֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל״, כְּתִיב עֲלֵיהֶם ״וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת״ — גֵּר הַקַּל שֶׁבָּא בְּמַקְלוֹ וּבְתַרְמִילוֹ, עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה. בָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי, אָמַר לוֹ: כְּלוּם רָאוּי אֲנִי לִהְיוֹת כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל? וַהֲלֹא כְּתִיב בַּתּוֹרָה: ״וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת״. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, אָמַר לוֹ: עַנְוְותָן הִלֵּל, יָנוּחוּ לְךָ בְּרָכוֹת עַל רֹאשְׁךָ, שֶׁקֵּרַבְתַּנִי תַּחַת כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה.

He came before Shammai and said, "Convert me so that they will install me as High Priest." Shammai pushed him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. He came before Hillel; he converted him. Hillel said to him, to the convert: Is it not the way of the world that only one who knows the protocols [takhsisei] of royalty is appointed king? Go and learn the royal protocols by engaging in Torah study. He went and read the Bible. When he reached the verse which says: “And the common man that draws near shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51), the convert said to Hillel: With regard to whom is the verse speaking? Hillel said to him: Even with regard to David, king of Israel. The convert reasoned an a fortiori inference himself: If the Jewish people are called God’s children, and due to the love that God loved them he called them: “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), and nevertheless it is written about them: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death; a mere convert who came without merit, with nothing more than his staff and traveling bag, all the more so that this applies to him, as well. The convert came before Shammai and told him that he retracts his demand to appoint him High Priest, saying: Am I at all worthy to be High Priest? Is it not written in the Torah: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death? He came before Hillel and said to him: Hillel the patient, may blessings rest upon your head as you brought me under the wings of the Divine Presence.

Shammai, predictably, rejects this candidate. Hillel accepts him. What did Hillel see? Are there other instances where a uniform is not just about the clothes, but something bigger? The guards at Buckingham Palace? A baseball player?

Eventually, the
ger learns that none but someone of priestly pedigree can become High Priest, and he accepts this. He even confronts Shammai for not letting him know. Should Shammai have told him the truth?

לְיָמִים נִזְדַּוְּוגוּ שְׁלָשְׁתָּן לִמְקוֹם אֶחָד, אָמְרוּ: קַפְּדָנוּתוֹ שֶׁל שַׁמַּאי בִּקְּשָׁה לְטוֹרְדֵנוּ מִן הָעוֹלָם, עִנְוְותָנוּתוֹ שֶׁל הִלֵּל קֵרְבַתְנוּ תַּחַת כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה.

Eventually, the three converts gathered together in one place, and they said: Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.

In this "recap", Hillel is clearly the good guy, and Shammai is the bad guy. Is that a fair assessment of Shammai? Let's look at a couple of other sources about the personalities of Hillel and Shammai.

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים: כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב"ש לב"ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי' לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג, ז) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב"ה לב"ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות

The Sages taught: How does one dance before the bride? Beit Shammai say: One recites praise of the bride as she is. And Beit Hillel say: One says: A fair and attractive bride. Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: In a case where the bride was lame or blind, does one say: A fair and attractive bride? But the Torah states: “Keep you from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7). Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your statement, with regard to one who acquired an inferior acquisition from the market, should another praise it or condemn it? From here the Sages said: A person’s disposition should always be empathetic with mankind.

תניא אמרו עליו על שמאי הזקן כל ימיו היה אוכל לכבוד שבת מצא בהמה נאה אומר זו לשבת מצא אחרת נאה הימנה מניח את השניה ואוכל את הראשונה אבל הלל הזקן מדה אחרת היתה לו שכל מעשיו לשם שמים שנאמר (תהלים סח, כ) ברוך ה' יום יום תניא נמי הכי בית שמאי אומרים מחד שביך לשבתיך ובית הלל אומרים ברוך ה' יום יום

It is taught: They said about Shammai the Elder that all his days he would eat in honor of Shabbat. If he found a choice animal, he would say: This is for Shabbat. If he subsequently found another one choicer than it, he would set aside the second for Shabbat and eat the first. However, Hillel the Elder had a different temperament, that all his actions were for the sake of Heaven, as it is stated: “Blessed be the Lord, day by day” (Psalms 68:20), That is also taught in a baraita: Beit Shammai say: From the first day of the week, start preparing already for your Shabbat. And Beit Hillel say: “Blessed be the Lord, day by day.”

Is the difference between Hillel and Shammai one of ideology or one of personality?
What about the difference between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai? Personality or ideology?
I am inclined to think that the personality of the leader is emulated and treated as ideology by disciples.

Do the differences between Hillel and Shammai have a theme? Note that the name "Hillel" is related to Hallel - praise - and "Shammai" can mean "assessor" or "appraiser". Do these distinctions come out in the three Gemaras we have seen?

Having studied these aggadot, we now turn to halakhic material.

אחד איש שנתגייר לשום אשה ואחד אשה שנתגיירה לשום איש וכן מי שנתגייר לשום שולחן מלכים... אינן גרים דברי ר' נחמיה... איתמר עלה... הלכה כדברי האומר כולם גרים הם... ת"ר אין מקבלין גרים לימות המשיח כיוצא בו לא קבלו גרים לא בימי דוד ולא בימי שלמה

Whether a man who converts for a woman or a woman who converts for a man, or one who converts for the royal table… are not converts. These are R. Nehemia’s words… It was said on this… the law follows the opinion that they are all converts… The rabbis taught: Converts are not accepted in the messianic era; similarly, they did not accept them in the times of David and Solomon.

This passage contains an outright rejection of any potential convert suspected of ulterior motives: love, gain, power, etc. What is the relationship between this passage and the passages from Shabbat? Does this passage align more with Hillel's approach or with Shammai's approach? Is it possible that the Shabbat passages are a form of self-critique, an expression of discomfort with the Shammai approach that the rabbis themselves espouse?

וההיא דפ"ב דשבת (דף לא.) ההוא דאתא לקמיה דהלל ואמר גיירני ע"מ לעשות כ"ג בטוח היה הלל דסופו לעשות לשם שמים

Tosafot ad loc.

But in the second chapter of Shabbat there is the one who came to Hillel and asked to be converted on condition that he be made high priest. Hillel was certain that it would ultimately be for heaven’s sake.

The Tosafists - one of the most important commentators on the side of every page of Talmud - note the tension between the passage in Yevamot and the passage in Shabbat. How do they harmonize this contradiction? Are there other potential resolutions? Is the assertion, "Hillel was certain that it would ultimately be for heaven's sake," borne out in the text in Shabbat?

אחד איש שנתגייר לשם אשה ואחד אשה שנתגיירה לשם איש ושנתגייר לשם שלחן מלכים ואחד גרי אריות וחלומות כולם גרים

Tur, Yoreh De'ah 268

Whether a man who converts for a woman or a woman who converts for a man, or one who converts for the royal table, or converts because of lions and dreams – they are all converts.

וכתבו שם התוספות: “וההיא דפרק שני" ומכאן יש ללמוד דהכל לפי ראות עיני בית דין

Beit Yosef ad loc.

And Tosafot write there: “But in the second chapter…” From here we learn that everything accords with the view of the court.

The Tur, or Arba Turim, is one of the great medieval halakhic codes. It codifies the passage in Yevamot and completely neglects the Shabbat passage. After all, there is a general rule that halakhah cannot be derived from aggadah. However, Beit Yosef, Rabbi Joseph Karo's monumental, encyclopedic commentary on the Tur, cites the Tosafot and draws a general conclusion: that everything hinges on what the court sees fit.

What is the meaning of "the court sees fit"? Is this carte blanche to ignore the rules set forth in Yevamot? Is it an acknowledgment that even though rules and guidelines are important, the complexity and diversity of human experience means that the court may exercise discretion in exceptional cases?

This leads to a question with real contemporary implications: How important is it that the court "sees"? What does this say about rabbinical courts that try not to "see"?

(כשיבא הגר להתגייר בודקים אחריו, שמא בגלל ממון שיטול, או בשביל שררה שיזכה לה, או מפני הפחד בא ליכנס לדת. ואם איש הוא, בודקין אחריו שמא עיניו נתן באשה יהודית. ואם אשה היא, בודקין אחריה שמא עיניה נתנה בבחורי ישראל.

When a convert comes to convert, we examine him: perhaps it is because of money he will get or power he will earn or out of fear that he wants to join the religion. If he is a man, we check that maybe he has his heart set on a Jewish woman. If she is a woman, we check that maybe she has her heart set on a Jewish boy.

וכתבו התוס הכל לפי ראות עיני הב"ד עכ"ל ב"י

Shakh ad loc.

Tosafot write…everything accords with the view of the court – thus states Beit Yosef.

Although R. Karo cites the Tosafot in Beit Yosef, in Shulhan Arukh - written by the same author - this important element of discretion is left out. It is reintroduced by Shakh, one of the major commentators in the margins of the page.

This series of sources would have a striking visual component if we saw them in printed books. Three sources - the Talmud, the Tur, and Shulhan Arukh - cite the view that converts with ulterior motives are not accepted. In all three cases, a commentator in the margin - the Tosafists, Beit Yosef, and Shakh - complicate this ruling by introducing an element of discretion.

The main text follows the
Yevamot passage and reflects the Shammai approach. The commentary - present, but in the margins - reflects the Hillel approach. The aggadic passages about Hillel "sneak" into halakhic discourse and complicate it by noting that real-life situations can't always be measured easily. This is a function of aggadah more generally. In this case, the tension between halakhah and aggadah reflects the difference between Hillel's disposition and Shammai's disposition and finds expression on the very pages of the texts. The central, block texts take a Shammai approach, while the commentaries, off to the side, smaller and in Rashi script, introduce the Hillel approach.

Let us conclude by considering the state of conversion today. A great deal has been said and written about "higher" and "lower" conversion standards, with those who espouse lower standards claiming Hillel's mantle. But is Hillel really a "lower" standard? Isn't it possible that those who favor standards, whether high or low, agree with Shammai that rabbis should be using yardsticks, and merely disagree about the correct length of the yardstick? Wouldn't Hillel's approach be that there is no such thing as a conversion course and no such thing as standards - but rather each individual is taught based on what makes them tick? Is a Hillel approach even feasible on a large scale?

In Israel today, conversion is state-run, which means that it has taken on many of the features of modern, bureaucratic government. Is that more conducive to a Hillel approach or a Shammai approach? Is there any way to synthesize the approaches of Hillel and Shammai, to obtain the best of both worlds?