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SHAMMAI (Ha-Zaken , i.e., The Elder ; c. 50 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.), one of the *Zugot, the leaders of the Sanhedrin. Hillel's first colleague was *Menahem the Essene and Shammai was appointed to succeed him as *av bet din when he retired. Nothing is known of the early life of Shammai except for the statement that he was a builder by occupation (Shab. 31a). Shammai was the founder of the great school which, called after him, was known as Bet Shammai. In general Bet Shammai took up a stringent attitude as compared with the lenient one of its counterpart *Bet Hillel. Shammai himself, however, did not always adopt a stringent line, and of some 20 halakhot transmitted in his name, he adopts a stringent view in about two-thirds of the cases, while in the other third he takes the lenient view.

Other Halakhot

On five topics, most of which deal with levitical cleanness and uncleanness, Shammai, adopting a more stringent approach, disagreed with both Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai (Eduy. 1, 7–8, 10–11), but in one detail of the halakhot of cleanness and uncleanness he took a lenient view contrary to the opinion of Bet Shammai and in accordance with that of Bet Hillel (Or. ii, 12). Against the view of the other sages, Shammai held that he who appoints an agent to kill a person is himself liable (Kid. 43a citing in the name of the prophet Haggai, a tradition based on Nathan holding David responsible for the death of Uriah). Shammai wished to insist on his minor son fasting on the Day of Atonement "but they ordered him to feed him with his own hand" (Tosef. Yoma 4 (5):2). He also acted against the view of the sages when, his daughter-in-law having on Sukkot given birth to a male child, "he broke away the roof plastering and put a sukkah-covering over the bed for the sake of the child" (Suk. 2:8). On the other hand he adopted a lenient view on two cases: in his opinion an offensive war and a siege begun three days before the Sabbath were not to be interrupted on that day, and though one was forbidden to set out on a long voyage in the Mediterranean Sea less than three days before the Sabbath, a short one could be undertaken even on the eve of the Sabbath. Shammai wanted to declare that a field improved during the Sabbatical Year was not to be sown in its eighth year, but he did not do so because "the times were not free" (or poor) and "only a bet din after him issued a decree about it" (Tosef. Shev. 3, 10). Many of Shammai's halakhot appear to be based on the literal interpretation of the biblical text, yet it is difficult to detect a consistent line in his halakhot, most of which deal with the laws of levitical cleanness and uncleanness. Despite his reputation for irascibility, Shammai's dictum was "Make your study of the Torah a matter of established regularity, say little and do much, and receive all men with a friendly countenance" (Avot, 1, 15).


Weiss, Dor, 1 (19044), 145–76; L. Ginzberg, On Jewish Law and Lore (1955), 77–124; Derenbourg, Hist, 116–8, 149ff., 176–92, 463ff.; Schuerer, Gesch, index; Graetz, Gesch, 3 (19055) 212f.; G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of Christian Era, The Age of Tannaim, 1 (1927), 72–82.

[Moshe David Herr]

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Shammai (active 1st century B.C.), called Hazaken, or Elder, was a Jewish sage. He founded the Bet Shammai, the "School of Shammai," which was the persistent opponent of the rival Bet Hillel, the "School of Hillel."

Shammai was probably a little older than Hillel (ca. 60 B.C.-ca. A.D. 10). The two sages formed the last of the five Zuggot, or Pairs, who transmitted the Unwritten or Oral Tradition (as distinguished from the Written or Scriptural) to successive generations over a period of about 2 centuries (ca. 175 B.C.-A.D. 10). Shammai was the Av Bet Din, the "Father," or Senior Judge, of the Court of the Great Sanhedrin, and Hillel was its Nasi, or President. Shammai, a conservative, belonged to the upper classes and followed strictly the older, rigid, Oral Tradition. Hillel, a liberal, attempted to broaden the tradition by means of interpretation of the biblical text. In order to give the law greater flexibility he sought out its intent.

Shammai's rigorous adherence to literal rather than liberal truth is illustrated by the opinion of his school that even a bride is to be lauded only on what she actually is, in accordance with the biblical principle "Keep thyself far from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7). But the Hillelites took a far more generous attitude and held that "every bride may be described as comely and graceful." The Shammaites also supported the view that a husband may divorce his wife only for infidelity, while Hillel maintained that a husband could do so for any reason.

The rivalry of the schools of Shammai and Hillel, which began in the first pre-Christian century, continued through the period of Roman rule and the stormy Judean revolt. At that time, it was natural that non-Jews would be suspect and the loyalty of proselytes would be questioned. Shammai insisted on a stringent policy toward proselytes, to discourage their admission to the Jewish fold. He rebuffed a prospective convert who was ready to accept Judaism provided he could abide only by the Written (Scriptural) Law, but Hillel patiently explained to him the importance of the Oral Law. Shammai also harshly rebuked a proselyte who undertook to become a Jew if he would be made a priest, but Hillel had the proselyte understand that the priesthood was limited only to the descendants of Aaron. Pagan proselytes consequently declared "that the irritability of Shammai could drive one from the world, while the tolerance of Hillel brought them under the wings of the Shechinah ("Divine Presence"). Despite Shammai's reputation for severity, his favorite maxim was: "Make the study of Torah thy chief occupation; say little and do much, and receive all men with a cheerful countenance" (Abot 1:15).

The Shammaites evidently prevailed in their viewpoint until the fall of the Jewish state in A.D. 70, but their school hardly survived the disaster. Their debates with the Hillelites added vital content to Judaism.

Further Reading

A good study of Shammai and his school is in Solomon Zeitlin, The Rise and Fall of the Judaean State, vol. 2 (1967). Nahum N. Glatzer, Hillel the Elder (1956), and Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees (2 vols., 1938; 3d ed., 1962), make frequent reference to Shammai and the Shammaites. Judah Goldin's "The Period of the Talmud" in Louis Finkelstein, ed., The Jews (2 vols., 1949; 3d ed. 1960), sketches the development of the Halakah (Jewish law). □

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Shammai (c.50 BCE–c. 30 CE). Jewish rabbinic leader. Shammai was a contemporary of Hillel and together they were the last of the zugot (pairs). He was the founder of the great school of Bet Shammai which was known for its stringent attitude towards the law, but Shammai himself does not always seem to have taken a hard line in the halakhot transmitted in his name.

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