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 on Shammai
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).