I think this is really important so am allowing you to choose a shorter option if you want to read it but want to have it finished by the time the toaster pops up.
The three-minute version
Students from Beit Shammai slaughtered students from Beit Hillel to swing a vote. This was bad. There was a fast day to remember this. It dropped out of custom. Our Jewish community still hasn’t learned the lesson, ie don’t use violence to silence others. I want to bring back the commemoration. Scroll down to find a source sheet and a creative liturgy (possibly featuring the first ever liturgical use of the word “mansplained”). And come to the Montagu Centre on Wednesday evening at 7pm to learn more, reflect on silencing behaviour in modern Anglo-Jewry and light a yahrzeit candle remembering the fallen Hillelites.
The eight-minute version
I doubt that more than a tiny handful of people (if any) have marked this occasion for centuries. By the 16th century, Joseph Caro, creator of the Shulchan Aruch, wrinkled his nose and said he’d never heard of anyone observing it.
But I think it’s time to bring back the Ninth of Adar, also known as The Fast of Hillel and Shammai.
A lot of genizah fragments, documentary leftovers from medieval Jewry, refer to the Ninth of Adar having been a fast day to commemorate a time “when controversy arose between Beit Hillel and the Beit Shammai: this was as difficult as the construction of the Golden Calf”.
But what was this controversy? Hillel and Shammai often disagreed, but always politely. Their relationship is held up as a glowing example of how people with different opinions can get on together. One allegory even depicts them as brothers, and their schools as being bound up in eternal friendship.
That depiction is sadly misleading. The reality was very different. Like, bloodbath different.
It all began in an attic, according to the Mishnah.
The sages were in the attic of Chananiah ben Hezekiah ben Gurion. When they had ascended, they took a vote, and Beit Shammai outnumbered Beit Hillel. On that day they enacted eighteen measures.
Then the drama began, according to the Bavli:
They stuck a sword into the beit midrash, and they said, “Anyone who wants to enter may enter, but nobody can leave.” And that day, Hillel was stooped and he sat before Shammai as if he was one of Shammai’s students. And it was as difficult for Israel as the day that the Golden Calf was made.
Finally, the Yerushalmi fills in some of the chilling detail:
Rabbi Yehoshua Oniya taught, “The students of Beit Shammai stood downstairs and began to slaughter the students of Beit Hillel.” It was further taught that six of them went upstairs, and the rest of them took positions with swords and spears. We are told that they decreed eighteen rules.
Medieval rabbis wrote prayers and laments about this atrocity. The Iranian poet Al-Bīrūnī even included it in an epic poem about Jewish customs. Some sources say 3,000 died. One suggests it was 28,000. These are clearly hyperbolic, but that just goes to show what a prominent event it was. Yet now it’s all but forgotten.
And actually, it’s a message that modern British Jewry desperately needs to hear. Actual physical violence along sectarian or political lines is thankfully rare in our community – though not unheard of – but other forms of silencing violence are prevalent. People get screamed at at communal events. People try to get political opponents fired. People are stalked online. People are relentlessly bullied in the hope of emotionally exhausting them into submission.
Beit Shammai silenced Beit Hillel because it was afraid of an open debate followed by a fair vote. Perhaps the swords were only carried by a small number of hotheaded students, but the scholars upstairs were happy to pass their eighteen decrees with the aid of the massacre below. Beit Shammai was silenced because its members dared to disagree.
I’m fasting on Thursday, this year’s Ninth of Adar. If you think that’s too hardcore for you, you have a couple of less extreme options –
- Come to the Montagu Centre on Wednesday evening at 7pm, where I’ll be teaching about these events, followed by a short remembrance ceremony.
- If you can’t make it, read the sources and hold your own ceremony. Resources are below, including this prayer I composed for the occasion:
Eternal God, God of wit and wisdom, God who speaks many words to many people: we stand before you shame-faced at our own arrogance. Each of us is created in Your image, with an inquiring mind and a creative soul, yet too often we have sought to suppress and muzzle our fellow human beings whose opinions and thoughts are different to our own.
On the Ninth of Adar, the voice of the House of Hillel was silenced, and 18 decrees were unjustly passed. True, not all of the Shammaiites acted with violence; some were in the attic passing the decrees. Yet all those who took part in the sham vote upstairs benefited from the butchery below. They preferred to see their colleagues stifled rather than tolerate a difference of opinion.
In memory of the 18 unjust decrees, now recall 18 unjust ways in which our own behaviour silences others and deters them from speaking their truth.
|We have been 1violent and 2abusive. We have 3defamed. We have 4lodged malicious complaints. We have 5distorted. We have 6misused the memory of the Holocaust. We have 7given a platform to inciters of hatred, and we have 8reaped the benefit of those who seek to silence others’ voices. We have 9demanded absolute unity. We have 10patronised, and 11labelled, and been 12sectarian. We have 13further marginalised those on the edges. We have 14mansplained. We have 15interrupted. We have 16harassed and 17stalked. We have 18sought to create an emotional cost for others.
הִתְקַפְנוּ, בִּזִּינוּ, הִשְׁמַצְנוּ, הִתְלוֹנַנּוּ בּאוֹפֶן מַרְגִּיז, סֵרַסְנוּ, עִוִּינוּ אֶת־זִיכְרוֹן הַשּׁוֹאָה, נָתַנּוּ דּוּכָן לִמְחַרְחֲרֵי שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם, הִרְוַחְנוּ מִמַּשְׁתִּיקֵי קוֹל, תָּבַעְנוּ אַחֲדוּת דֵּעִים, הִתְנַשֵּׂאנוּ, סִוַּגְנוּ, עָשִׂינוּ כִּתָּתִיּוּת, הוֹשַבְנוּ בִּסְפָר, הִסְגְבַרְנוּ, קָטַעְנוּ, הִטְרַדְנוּ, צַדְנוּ, יָצַרְנוּ עֲלוּת רִגְשִׁית