The Teachings of Hillel and Shammai

Learned men emerged among the Pharisees as well. Hillel and Shammai were both scholars whose pharisaic tendency toward spirited discussion gave rise to two distinguished systems of thought in the early years of the first century C.E.—the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.

The School of Shammai the Elder

Shammai the Elder lived between 50 B.C.E. and 30 C.E. A man of learning, he was known for his great wisdom—and a quick temper. In his approach to students and others, he tended to be very pedantic.

Shammai believed that the essence of Torah could be discovered in the details of the text. Together with his followers, Shammai adopted a strict view of Halakhah, particularly on matters having to do with cleanliness. Ultimately, this perspective took the school of Shammai out of rabbinic Judaism and, like the Sadducees, this group eventually disappeared.

The School of Hillel the Babylonian

Shammai's great adversary in matters of interpretation of the Torah and the Law was a man by the name of Hillel (30 B.C.E.–10 C.E.), sometimes referred to as Hillel the Babylonian. According to Jewish legends, Hillel was a Diaspora Jew who appeared in Jerusalem one day and began to teach Jewish Law, and in a way markedly different from Shammai.

In fact, the two men disagreed on almost all scholarly and religious matters. Furthermore, their personalities could not have been more different. Hillel was an unassuming man who displayed patience even with the slowest of learners. He sincerely believed in the worth of each individual, and this was reflected in his approach to Judaism. Hillel embraced a universal and humane interpretation of the Torah. Unlike Shammai, he was of the opinion that the essence of Torah could be found in its spirit.

Hillel had an enduring influence on Judaism, and he is regarded as the forebear of the later sages who led the Jews of Judea until 400 C.E. One of his important contributions was to create a new (and easier) way for people to convert to Judaism.

Many of Hillel's aphorisms have lasted down to the present day. One of the most renowned is his response to a pagan who said he would become a Jew if he could be taught the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel's famous reply was: “What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor: this is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary—go and study it.”

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