Talmudic Reading of Shabbat 31a, Part I

Fellow Maven Freddie Mac recently posted here about a relatively well-known Talmudic narrative about a potential proselyte who doesn’t want to hear about the Oral Law, who Shammai rejects and Hillel accepts and convinces of the need for an Oral Law as well. Much of Fred’s discussion centered on the logic of Hillel’s argument for Torah She-be’al peh.

In general, I believe that a literary approach to these narratives are more fruitful than attempts to reduce them to philosophy. The philosophical merit of Hamlet’s reasons for and against suicide are secondary to the literary power of his soliloquy. So, too, or even kal va-chomer, the first analysis of this narrative (actually, a set of three different stories about Hillel, Shammai, and potential proselytes) should address the human story portrayed, attempt to understand the characters, etc. Fred’s post contains the original and translated text under discussion, so there’s no need to reproduce it here.

The over-arching theme of this story, which is clear from its context within the broader sugya, is a contrast between the attitudes of Hillel and Shammai. In all three episodes, Hillel is the patient, sensitive, and understanding hero, whereas Shammai rejects these people immediately.

In each story, a non-Jew comes before these Sages requesting to become Jewish, but with ridiculous auxiliary requests:

  1. on condition that I only study the Written Law

  2. on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one leg

  3. on condition that I become the High Priest

The first question that must be asked, for each story, is, “What is motivating this person?” Where’s he coming from? As a rabbi, and as one who is addressed with a range of questions, it’s easy to forget that behind the question or request stands a human being, and that my job is not to resolve the question as though it’s a Sudoku, but to address the human being who is bothered enough to ask the LOR. Sometimes the most difficult situations arise in connection with those who are most distant from my ‘four cubits’. I’ve screwed up conversations with potential converts who have no interest in Halakhic praxis and with fiancées of Jews, to name a couple. It’s simply not easy to understand where they’re coming from.

In that sense, I wonder if Shammai really behaved like such a ‘jerk’, or if these people simply didn’t have the tools to understand what he was saying, and only saw the rejection. The end of this Talmudic unit which describes a conversation between the three converts, would make that reading plausible.

Hillel, on the other hand, invites each of them to continue, works with them, converts them, and eventually (presumably) they come around. Hillel took them seriously. But beyond that, it’s fair to ask what exactly he saw. Why was he willing to convert them?

We’ll find out in Part II.

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