The Mishnah is a book of great importance to the Jewish people, taking its place of prominence directly behind the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. A record of the Jewish Oral Traditions dating from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., the Mishnah was recorded in 220 A.D., for fear that the traditions would be lost with the passage of time and persecution of the Jews. Within its pages, are recorded debates between rabbinic sages, two of which were popular in the time of Jesus – that of Shammai and Hillel. Shammai lived from 50 B.C. – 30 A.D. and Hillil from 110 B.C. – 10 A.D. These two men held differing viewpoints in their interpretation of Hebrew scripture. Their differences led to two religious schools of thought known as the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. The people of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with the debates between the two and many would have been associated as a follower of one or the other.
The House of Shammai held to a strict interpretation of Scripture, while the House of Hillel was more liberal or loose. Shammai’s legalism is demonstrated in the story his grandson’s birth. When his daughter-in-law gave birth to a son during Sukkot, Shammai broke through the roof of her room and covered the bed with boughs so his newborn grandson wouldn’t be in technical violation of a commandment. And again in the story of a hungry child, who Shammai did not allow to eat during a time the Jews were fasting, until the insistence of his fellow rabbis convinced him to allow the child to be fed.1 Hillel did not hold to the technicalities of the law as Shammai did.
In one discussion about saying the blessing after the meal, the following took place:
“The question was: ‘What happens when you forget to say the blessing after you finished your meal and you left the place where you ate?’ Hillel said that you can say the blessing anywhere, the important thing is to say the blessing while Shammai argues that you have to go back to the place where you ate the meal and say the blessing there.”2
And another is their response to a Gentile:
“who asked that the Torah be explained to him while he stood on one foot… Shammai dismissed the man. Hillel chided the man for his behavior, but in a constructive way: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.'”3
This second quote of Hillel’s resembles that of the Golden Rule spoken of by Jesus many years later: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
Hillel recognized brotherly love as the fundamental principle of Jewish moral law. Paul, a pupil of Gamaliel who was the grandson of Hillel, taught in nearly the same manner. Also Jesus, when he answered the expert in the law (possibly of the House of Hillel) who asked what the greatest commandment of the Law was, answered him thus: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Still addressing the same man, an “expert in the law,” Jesus addresses his next question to get clarification on what Jesus meant by the term “neighbor” when he asks “and who is my neighbor?” If this man was from the House of Hillel and an expert in the law, he would have been a teacher of Torah and as such he would have been required to quote a famous rabbi who inspired the teaching. These teachings of Hillel would have been memorized and so would the rulings.
Now here is the beginning of the story Jesus told of “The Good Samaritan”:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)
This is a debate recorded in the Mishnah (Berachot 1:3):
“The House of Shammai say, ‘In the evening everyone should recline in order to recite [the Shema] and in the morning they should stand,’ as it says [in the passage of the Shema], ‘When you lie down and when you rise (Dt. 6:7).’
But the House of Hillel say, ‘Everyone may recite according to his own manner [either reclining or standing],’ as it says, ‘And as you walk by the way (Dt. 6:7).’
If it is so [that one may recite however he wishes] why does [the verse] say, When you lie down and when you rise? [It means you must recite the Shema] at the hour that people lie down [night] and at the hour that people rise [in the morning].
Said R. Tarfon, ‘I was coming along the road in the evening and reclined to recite the Shema as required by the House of Shammai. And in doing so I placed myself in danger of being attacked by bandits.’
They said to him, ‘You are yourself responsible for what might have befallen you, for you violated the words of the House of Hillel.’4
Notice the similarities between the two stories as Jesus starts his story talking about the man being robbed in the road? Jesus may have been using this educated man’s background to make a point he could easily understand from Hillel’s debate with Shammai.
Now, I am not saying that Jesus copied this saying or any of Hillel’s saying as his own or even that he was a follower of Hillel, but that he used them to teach the people as they would have been familiar with the sayings.
To the same end, these two schools of thought are not mentioned in the Bible as the sects of the Jews are. However, we can see other instances in the Bible when these two groups may have been present. One such example is when the Pharisees were watching Jesus to see if he would heal a man on the Sabbath. This healing act would have been seen as work by those of the House of Shammai, whereas the House of Hillel would have seen it as a good deed that was allowed on the Sabbath.
“Therefore some of the Pharisees (House of Shammai) were saying, ‘This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others (House of Hillel) were saying, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And there was a division among them.” (John 9:16)
Due to Shammai’s influence, a number of his teachings became laws. The disregard the Jews had for the Gentiles at the start of the church is seen when we read in Acts of Peter who was criticized for entering the house of a Gentile and eating with him. This criticism is the same held by the teachings of Shammai, and which were apparently being reflected by the Christian Jews in the earliest days of the church.
There may be more of these occurrences, however these are the ones that jumped out at me. Just as we are influenced by the world around us today, it would be fitting for us to keep in mind that so were the people of Jesus’ day and age.
1 “What you never knew about the Pharisees”, accessed Oct 13, 2012, http://www.centralcal.com/crist2.htm.
2 “House of Shammai”, Wikipedia, accessed Oct 13, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Shammai.
3 “Hillel the Elder”, Wikipedia, accessed Oct 13, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder.
4 “Hillel and the Good Samaritan”, Think Hebrew, accessed Oct 13, 2012, http://thinkhebrew.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/hillel-and-the-good-samaritan/.