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Shammai, the Misunderstood
By Yisrael Rutman
Shammai the Elder is one of the most misunderstood figures of Jewish history. If anybody had a right to sing the blues, it was Shammai.
Of Shammai and his beloved colleague and counterpart Hillel, the Talmud says, "One should always be humble like Hillel, and not short-tempered like Shammai." He was singled out as the negative role model, the one not to emulate. Not one of the infamous wicked; he was righteous, to be sure, but Jewish parents were destined to name their children after Hillel, not Shammai.
The stories of Hillel and Shammai told in the Talmud do seem to justify this unhappy reputation: "The gentile came before Shammai and requested, 'Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.' He [Shammai] pushed him out with the ruler in his hand. He then came before Hillel, who converted him. Hillel addressed to him the immortal words, 'That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.'" Afterwards, the successful convert declared in the presence of Hillel and Shammai that it was Hillel who had been his salvation.
This is but one of the stories told in the Talmud to illustrate the contrasting personalities and approaches of Hillel and Shammai. It would be a mistake, however, to take the story at face value. Before rushing to the judgment that he was a person whose emotional shortcomings prevented him from welcoming the would-be proselyte as Hillel did, one needs to understand first who Shammai was.
Hillel and Shammai lived during the Second Temple, at the beginning of the era of the tannaim, the authors of the Mishna, the core of the Oral Tradition. In a generation of saints and scholars, Hillel and Shammai were pre-eminent figures; Hillel was nasi,(President) Shammai av beit din (Head of the Court). Each had his own academy---Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai---the Harvard and Yale, so to speak, of their time. They ruled on the most difficult issues of the day, and spoke with equal authority. In cases of dispute between them, it was left for each individual to choose whether to follow Hillel or Shammai. That was the situation until a Heavenly voice emerged to declare that from thenceforth the law would go according to Hillel. Even then, it was stipulated that "both these and these are the words of the living God." Hillel's words merited to be the law; but Shammai's still merited to be recorded and studied along with him for all the generations.
Not only that, the Talmud declares that ultimately in the future the law will be decided according to Shammai, not Hillel. For whatever the reason, the rejection of Shammai's approach is not really a rejection, but a deferment. The law in its practical application must be decided one way or the other; whatever the merits of the case and the arguments on either side, in the end one is either pure or defiled, guilty or innocent. The truth of Shammai's approach will become clearer in the end of days.
Nor was Shammai's distinction limited to the legal sphere. In a time of great political and social turmoil, Shammai was an anchoring influence, refusing to be intimidated by foreign power. Shammai, who had come to maturity in the shadow of Herodian oppression, believed that a tough posture was necessary in dealing with the adversaries of Jewish tradition. When Herod himself appeared in the chamber of the Sanhedrin, surrounded by his royal guard, armed to the teeth, silence reigned. In the very bastion of sovereign Jewish judgment, the feeling of intimidation was palpable. Only Shammai, unafraid, stood up to speak and stand against him. He went on to make enactments to separate and protect the Jewish community from the pernicious interference of Herod and the Romans. Shammai warned his colleagues of the coming danger, that Herod would rule over them with a hard and bloody hand. Indeed, Shammai was one of the few to survive.
Yet, for all of his toughness in legal and political affairs, we get a rather different view of Shammai's character when we turn to the sayings attributed to him in the first chapter of the Ethics of the Fathers. There we encounter a different Shammai altogether. There, it is Shammai, not Hillel, who admonishes us to "greet every man with a cheerful countenance." The moral precepts in Ethics of the Fathers are associated with those sages who not only taught them, but lived them. Here we find the Shammai that his colleagues and disciples knew so well, the Shammai of the ready and radiant smile.
How then, are we to understand Shammai's treatment of the gentile? Why did he not greet him cheerfully, according to his own maxim? The answer is that Shammai considered the man's request, to teach him the entire Torah on one foot, to be an affront to the honor of the Torah. The profound wisdom of the Torah cannot be served up like fast food on demand. Shammai held that a person in a hurry is not a serious candidate for conversion, and one should not waste time on him. So he hurried him out. Moreover, in the context of the time, of the brutal assault on the very existence of Torah which confronted the Jewish leadership, we can better understand Shammai's sharp insistence on upholding the dignity of the Torah. No doubt he also understood that if the man was really a serious candidate for conversion, this initial rejection would not deter him. If not, it was just as well.
To be sure, the Talmud gives its approval to Hillel's posture of forebearance. Nevertheless, we should understand that Shammai's treatment of the gentile stemmed from an insistence on the dignity of Torah, not from any supposed shortcoming in character.
Still, the language of the Talmud's own verdict---"one should not be short-tempered like Shammai"---lingers in the mind. It sounds like a condemnation. How are we to reconcile it with the known facts of Shammai's great stature?
A careful reading of the passage can provide an answer. The Talmud is not passing judgement on Shammai. Rather, it is forewarning those who would emulate Shammai's strict approach. Do not try to be like Shammai. If you are a Shammai, and your motives are purely for the sake of Heaven and the good of Israel, then you may be as stern with others as he was. But since such people are rare, and if you would try to follow his example, it would only be your own anger and arrogance that would emerge, you would do better to take a different stance. Hillel's example is for the average person. One should always try to be like Hillel, reaching out to others, overcoming one's own natural ego and insularity. Be like Hillel, develop humility, and you have a greater chance of success in honoring the Torah.
In the meantime, even if we are not worthy of emulating Shammai, at least we can understand him somewhat better. Shammai, the Understood.
from the Febuary 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine