4/13/2010

A Linguistic Observation about Hillel and Shammai

 I just (literally, minutes ago) realized something about the famous names of Hillel and Shammai.

The name 'Hillel' means 'praised'; the name 'Shammai' means 'appraiser'. I wonder if thee meanings correlate to the positions ascribed to them - with Shammai more inclined to evaluate things as the truly are and Hillel inclined to allow for generous leeway. A few of their famous disputes seem to go in that direction:
  • The well-known dispute of 'KeitzadMerakdin', in which the Hillelites instruct that every groom must be praised for his choice of a bride, whereas the Shammites ruled that a spade must be called a spade.
  • The Shammites placed a 'real' value on kiddushei kessef, whereas the Hillelites placed a symbolic value.
  • In the set of three narratives about potential converts who approach Hillel and Shammai, Hillel is willing to look beyond the present reality, whereas Shammai looks at the present situation; indeed, Shammai chases one prospective convert out with a yardstick. (I discussed this set of narratives here and here).
 So what does this mean? Did Hillel and Shammai choose positions based on their names? Are 'Beit Hillel' and 'Bait Shammai' actually philosophies or attitudes, with the characters of Hillel and Shammai being later literary constructs? Were they real historical figures who were later 'enlisted' as paradigms? Some combination? Does this entire endeavor smack of 19th century Eastern European Wissenschaft?
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