02.01.20 School of Shammai

02.01.20 School of Shammai

Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 19, 2016  -  Comments Off on 02.01.20 School of Shammai

02.01.20 School of Shammai. Rabbi Shammai (c. 50 B.C. – A.D. 30) was a leading Jewish scholar during the time of Herod the Great and Jesus. He was the embodiment of the narrow-minded legalistic Pharisaic spirit.[1] His school of biblical interpretation became popular about 30 B.C. and he took control of the Sanhedrin ten years later when he was most powerful.[2] Shammai, an aggressive man with a rough personality, established an academy to promote his theology. Students of Shammai, along with the leading Pharisees,[3] the Sadducees and Herodians, were the most aggressive challengers to Jesus.[4]

Essentially, this school introduced some new changes in the way the Mosaic Law was applied to the common people. The Jerusalem Talmud reports that one member of this group practiced polygamy, a severe change from the norm in first century Judaism.[5]  The rabbis of this school placed restrictive rules upon the people (“binding”), which were released by the rabbis of Hillel (“loosening”). When Jesus made harsh statements toward the Pharisees, it was generally to the School of Shammai. Hence, there was not only conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees, but also between these two theological centers within the Pharisee sect.[6]  In A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed, the School of Shammai was also destroyed along with the Sadducees.[7]

Comparing the differences of Hillel and Shammai can be challenging for modern students because they do not fit well in the “conservative vs. liberal” mold. Shammai and his followers were stricter in their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, Jewish traditions, and in their judicial decisions. Hillel and his school were more merciful, kinder, and forgiving in their handling of the law.  An example is as follows:

If someone stole a beam and built it into a house—

The School of Shammai says, “Let him tear down the whole house and return the beam to its owner.”

And the School of Hillel says, “The owner has a claim only for the value of the beam alone, on account of the good order of those who repent.”

Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 18b[8]


The entire conflict between the two schools of theology, Hillel and Shammai, became so intense that it caused division and conflict in the Jewish judicial system. Notice the following warning.

Abbaye said, “The caution against splintering into deviant groups applies only in the case of two courts of law, such as one deciding according to the views of Beit (meaning House of) Shammai and one according to the views of Beit Hillel, but two courts of law in separate cities would not be subject to this limitation.”  Rava challenged this, “But were not the Shammaites and the Hillelites like two courts of law [and they differed freely from each other in the same locale]?”  Said Rava, “The caution applies in the case of one court in the same city, with half the judges deciding according to the Beit Shammai and the other half according to the Beit Hillel.”

Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 14a[9]  


Furthermore, the Mishnah has numerous situations where the application of the Mosaic Law or Oral Law by these opposing schools led to intense arguments. There can be no question that some, if not all, of the legalistic questions presented to Jesus were from the Shammaite branch of the Pharisees.

In the case of a violation, the rabbis of Shammai demanded physical punishment whereas the Pharisaic Hillelites offered a milder punishment that was often in the form of a monetary fine.[10] Those who confronted Jesus about healing on the Sabbath were most likely to be followers of Shammai, rather than Hillel. The School of Shammai had the following objections concerning so-called sinners, Gentiles, and the poor:

  1. They were not permitted to have a continuous relationship, unless absolutely necessary, with a “sinner.”
  1. They were not to eat any food that was not tithed, especially if it came from a “sinner.” That meant a Pharisee could not enjoy a dinner[11] in the home of a “sinner.”
  1. They were not permitted to invite a “sinner” to their home.
  1. The best relationship a Pharisee could have with a “sinner” was none.
  1. The leading Pharisees believed that wealth was the result of Divine favor and, therefore, contact with poor people should be avoided.
  1. No animal could be sacrificed in the temple if the owner had taken it from non-Jewish land or it crossed heathen territory.

Clearly, the followers of Shammai would not be the judges anyone would have to be accountable to. If there were any Pharisees before Pilate demanding the crucifixion of Jesus, it would have been those of this school.


02.01.20 (3)


[1]. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:276.


[2]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 5, Session 2.


[3]. Only the leading Pharisees, but by no means, all the Pharisees opposed Jesus.


[4]. New International Version Study Bible note on Leviticus 24:20.

[5]. Falk, Jesus the Pharisee. 54. Harvey Falk reports that a Rabbi Eliezer was married, and in his later years he also married his niece; but his first wife, whom he never divorced, outlived him.  There is a well documented case of first century polygamy in the religious establishment of the Pharisees, but it was not a common practice. See the Jerusalem Talmud, Yevamot 13.2 and Sanhedrin 68a.


[6]. Farrar, Life of Christ. 307.


[7]. http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Instone-Brewer/prepub/Sanhedrin%2043a%20censored.pdf. Retrieved May 26, 2013.


[8] Cited by Neusner, The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation. Vol XVIIIB: Gittin. 93.


[9]. Cited by Boker, The Talmud: Selected Writings. 134-35; Bracketed insert by Boker; Definition in parenthesis mine.


[10]. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 2:106.


[11]. The evening meal was the “chief” meal of the day, usually held in the evening. It was the primary meal during the feasts, such as the Passover meal and marriage feast.


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