Metzora – Shabbat Hagadol –
Maintaining Modest Machloket (debate)
by Rabbi Micah Liben ’95,
Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Kellman Brown Academy, New Jersey
Pesach preparations are often accompanied by machloket (debate): Horseradish or romaine lettuce? Haroset with walnuts or without? White Moscato or red Manischewitz?
They say that with two Jews come three opinions. Indeed, a little machloket can do a lot of good, as long as it is l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. When we debate for the right reasons—striving for truth, empathy, new perspectives—then machloket yields positive outcomes. It is when we engage in machloket for selfish motives that debate becomes corrosive.
The paradigm for machloket l’shem shamayim is represented by Hillel and Shammai. Their schools disagreed about everything from candle-lighting to conversion, but they argued for the right reasons. My own favorite is their disagreement over Kiddush at the Seder: Shammai declared that the blessing over the day be recited first, while Hillel insisted on starting with the blessing over wine.
This argument may appear silly; who cares which blessing comes first? However, the underlying issue is deeper. For Shammai, the day is blessed first because if it weren’t a holiday, there would be no reason for a special cup of wine. But Hillel argues the holiday is not inherently special. Rather it is what we bring—through family and ritual—that imbues the day with holiness. Thus, the wine ritual comes first.
As usual, our practice is to follow Hillel. I am moved by Hilllel’s position, but I am also aware that Shammai—both here and elsewhere—is not “wrong.” On the contrary, the Talmud declares both parties’ positions valid. Moreover, the Talmud states that in the messianic era, unresolved disagreements will be settled by Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), and strikingly, we will then follow Shammai.
On this Shabbat before Pesach, known as “Shabbat Hagadol,” Eliyahu appears in the Haftarah portion (Malachi 3). According to this passage, the prophet will come before the “Day of the Lord” to restore relationships. Just as Pesach looks toward a future redemption, the Haftarah reading points to a redemptive period when conflict will be resolved.
Maintaining hope in a peaceful future, free of discord, is laudable. But until Eliyahu rings in the messianic era, feel free to engage in some modest machloket at your Seder table! It’s a healthy part of Jewish life which, if done right, can truly imbue the day with significance and holiness. Just be careful not to spill the red wine.