Within the spectrum of Jewish law there are sometimes two seemingly incompatible opinions that are both correct. How can one rabbi permit something that another rabbi prohibits?
The fact of the matter is that disputes in the practice of Jewish law (halacha) are a natural part of the halachic process. The Torah sets general parameters for what is permitted and what is prohibited, for what one should do and how one should act, but there are many fine details that often needed to be clarified.
Numerous disagreements of this nature are recorded in the Talmud. Some of the most famous of these are the disputes between the Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel. Like the great sages after whom these academies are named, these two groups of disciples often had opposing opinions.
From the disagreements of the Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel, however, comes an important and intriguing insight into when, according to Jewish law, it is permissible to argue:
Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel, the former asserting, “the halacha is in agreement with our views” and the latter contending, “the halacha is in agreement with our views.” Then a bat kol (heavenly voice) issued announcing “[The utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the halacha is in agreement with the ruling of the Academy of Hillel,” (Talmud Eiruvin 13b). The Talmud goes on to explain that the halacha follows the Academy of Hillel because “they were kindly and modest.”
The Talmudic principle that allows for two correct but conflicting opinions in Jewish law is known as “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim”–This one and this one are the words of the Living God. A very important aspect of understanding the principle of “eilu v’eilu” is that the differing opinions can all be considered within the confines of halacha, when the arguments follow Torah principles and methodology, and are for the sake of establishing the proper path of Torah.
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