Shammai was the most eminent contemporary of Hillel, and whose teachings almost entirely agreed with those of Hillel, except in only three places. Both were also divided over an earlier rabbinic dispute, regarding the actual laying on of hands upon one's sacrificial animal on a Festival Day, Hillel permitting to do so. Their disciples, who did not fully serve their masters, came to dispute over many other halakhic matters. The School of Shammai, founded by Shammai, is almost invariably mentioned along with the School of Hillel, founded by Hillel, and which differed fundamentally from each other. Although they were contemporaries, Hillel was nearly sixty years old at the time of Shammai's birth in ~50 BCE.
Shammai's school of thought became known as the House of Shammai (Hebrew: בית שמאי, Beit Shammai), as Hillel's was known as the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel). After Menahem the Essene had resigned the office of Av Beit Din (or vice-president) of the Sanhedrin, Shammai was elected to it, Hillel being at the time president. After Hillel died, circa 10 CE, Shammai took his place as president but no vice-president from the minority was elected so that the school of Shammai attained complete ascendancy, during which Shammai passed "18 ordinances" in conformity with his ideas. The Talmud states that when he passed one of the ordinances, contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day "was as grievous to Israel as the day when the [golden] calf was made". According to most opinions, the ordinances, which are listed in an appendix to the ArtScroll edition of the Mishnah of tractate Shabbos, dealt with ritual purity of the Terumah and increased separation between Jews and Gentiles.
Hillel's grandson Gamaliel succeeded to the position of president after Shammai in the year 30, but the Sanhedrin would remain dominated by the house of Shammai until around 70 (see Council of Jamnia). A "voice from heaven" is said to have nullified the legality of the rulings of the house of Shammai, which is why Rabbinical Judaism follows Hillel.
Shammai took an active part in the political and religious complications of his native land. Of a stern temperament, he cultivated the characteristic of firmness and strictness in law in contrast to the tireless patience which is said to have distinguished Hillel. Once, when a gentile came to him and asked to be converted to Judaism (or Noahide monotheism as H. Falk argues) upon the condition of extreme brevity ("on one foot") which Shammai held to be impossible, he drove the brazen applicant away; whereas Hillel rebuked him gently by saying, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation. Go and learn." The gentile subsequently converted.
Shammai recommended a friendly attitude toward all. His motto was: "Make your study of the Torah a permanent endeavor; speak little, but accomplish much; and receive every man with a cheerful disposition". He was modest even toward his pupils.
On a personal level, Shammai's religious views were known to be strict. He wished to make his son, while still a child, conform to the law regarding fasting on Yom Kippur; he was dissuaded from his purpose only through the insistence of his friends. Once, when his daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy on Sukkot he broke through the roof of the chamber in which she lay in order to make a sukkah of it, so that his new-born grandchild might fulfill the religious obligation of the festival.
In the Sifre it is said that Shammai commented exegetically upon three passages of Scripture: (1) the interpretation of Deuteronomy 20:20; (2) that of II Samuel 12:9; and (3) either the interpretation of Leviticus 11:34 (which is given anonymously in Sifra on the passage, but which is the basis for Shammai's halakha transmitted in Orlah 2:5), or else the interpretation of Exodus 20:8 ("Remember the Sabbath") (which is given in the Mekhilta in the name of Eleazar ben Hananiah, but which must have originated with Shammai, with whose custom of preparing for the Sabbath it accords).
Hillel the Elder
Menahem the Essene
| Av Beit Din
20 BCE – 20 CE
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- Virtual World Project (Creighton University), Shema', accessed 1 March 2019
- Eric Meyers (2014). Steven Fine, Aaron Koller (eds.). The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: An Archaeological Perspective. Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antique Palestine. Studia Judaica (Book 73). Walter de Gruyter. pp. 312–313. ISBN 9781614514855.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
- Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 15a), where it says that they disputed only in three matters: a) the amount of flour needed to constitute the separation of the dough-portion; b) the amount of drawn water that would disqualify a ritual bath (mikveh); c) whether or not a woman who had her natural purgation is able to defile foods through touch retrospectively.
- Jerusalem Talmud (Hagigah 2:2 [10b; 12a])
- Max Radin, "Roman Knowledge of Jewish Literature", The Classical Journal, vol. 13, no. 3 (Dec., 1917), p. 164 (note 2) concludes: "From the combination Pollio and Sameas, in the passage quoted, it is evident that Josephus had in mind the pair Abtalyon and Shemayah, who preceded Hillel and Shammai as heads of the Sanhedrin (Mishnah Avot 1:10)."
- Shabbat, 17a
- Yerushalmi Berakhot, 1:4
- Shabbat, 31a
- Avoth, 1:15
- Yoma, 77b
- Sukkah, 28a
- Sifre Deuteronomy, §203
- Tosefta, Eruvin, 3:7
- Kiddushin, 43a
- Mekhilta, Yitro, 7 (ed. Weiss, p. 76b)
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Shammai
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. .