Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXII: Wise Guys – $1200

Jeopardy! category: WISE GUYS (02-07-2014)

$1200 clue: Hillel regularly whups Shammai in debate in this compilation of Jewish teachings, from Hebrew for “learning”

Correct response

The gist: The schools of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are kind of the Hatfields and McCoys of the Jewish diaspora in first century BCE Jerusalem. 

The arguments between the two of them are recorded in the Talmud, the most important Jewish text behind the Torah, and read like the machinations of rival high school cliques, or maybe parliamentary insults. Their debates have informed nearly every aspect of Rabbinic law and Jewish tradition and values up to the present day. As the clue says, Hillel nearly always came out on top – and luckily for today’s Jews, since he was invariably the more lenient, progressive, and, well, nicer of the two. Some examples of their disagreements:

  • Hillel believed anyone regardless of righteousness should be allowed to study Torah; Shammai believed only those worthy should be admitted to study.
  • Hillel believed it was an acceptably white lie to tell an ugly woman she is beautiful on her wedding day; Shammai insisted lying is wrong no matter what.
  • When a man went to Shammai asking to learn all of Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai beat him with a stick until he ran off. When he went to Hillel, he offered the now-famous response:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole of the Torah – the rest is commentary.

And yet, in some disputes Hillel’s leniency might seem pretty out there to modern eyes. For example, Hillel took the more “lenient” view that a man can divorce his wife for any trivial offence, while Shammai believed divorce was only acceptable for major transgressions.

In any case, the lively debates among the two schools (and many other Rabbis of the period) contributed to a vibrant intellectual community in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The two schools became politicized as Roman control over Judea (formerly an independent kingdom) tightened, and an extremist faction known as the Zealots came to prominence and sided with Shammai’s anti-Gentile views. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, however, the Jewish community, no longer having a central location for religious devotion and focus, sided again with Hillel in order to allow more disparate forms of worship.

A sample page of the Talmud – the main text is in the centre column, and is surrounded by commentary

The clue: If you’re familiar with the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai should be more than enough to know the correct response to this one. If you’re not, though, you might opt for other more famous Jewish texts, like one contestant did by offering “Torah.” While the Torah, the first of the three parts of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, is the most important text in Judaism, it’s not really a compilation of teachings, although parts of it are. More importantly, though, “Torah” actually comes from the Hebrew for “teach,” not “learn,” since it taught the ancient Hebrews how to behave – the Talmud, on the other hand, is a text meant to aid Torah study, hence its name means “learn.”

In Jeopardy!: Surprisingly to me, at least, the Talmud only appears in 13 clues in the J!Archive, plus one where it was guessed incorrectly as being AKA the Old Testament (which properly refers to the entire Hebrew Bible). It also appears in a wide variety of topics. Obviously, Judaism is mentioned quite a few times, but correct responses range from “wine” (the Talmud says when it goes in, secrets come out) to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (where a grateful Jew tells Schindler the Talmudic saying that “‘Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”) and Barbra Streisand’s starring role in the movie Yentl (where she dresses as a boy in order to study Talmud). To sum up, though, the most important things to know about the Talmud are that it’s a book of commentary, it’s not the Old Testament, and if you can remember it, that its name comes from the Hebrew for “learn.”

The rest is commentary (sorry, couldn’t resist).

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