What were the Hillelite and Shammaite interpretations of Jewish law?
Hillel, often called Hillel the Elder, and Shammai were well-known Jewish rabbis who lived in Israel in the first century BC during the reign of King Herod. Their friendly rivalry is displayed in the hundreds of disputes between the two of them recorded in the Talmud. In Judaism, studying and interpreting the law is seen as one of the primary ways to serve God, so commentary holds an honored place in Jewish tradition. The Talmud is made up of the Mishnah, which is the original written version of oral law, and the Gemara, which is the record of rabbinic discussions about this printed oral law. Hillel and Shammai were contributors to the oral law and this tradition of discussion and dispute.
In general, Shammai's interpretations tended to be literal and strict, emphasizing the need for temple rituals. Hillel's interpretations tended to be more concerned for the welfare of the individual and therefore more liberal and tolerant. The sages saw fit to preserve both the Hillelite and Shammaite interpretations of the law because they believed both views to be valid. The thought is that while in this current imperfect world, people need the more lenient interpretation of Hillel; but once the world is perfected, they will then be able to live up to the Shammaite ideal.
Hillel was known for his kindness, gentleness, and concern for humanity. Hillel's likability got him elected head of the Sanhedrin during his time. Thus his interpretation was the opinion most often followed by the Pharisees and most often enforced in Jewish courts during that time. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Shammai's Israel-centric, strict, temple-based interpretations could no longer even be lived out, so Hillel's interpretation became the basis for normative Jewish law and the current opinion followed by modern Jews.
The dispute between the two schools of thought can be seen when the Pharisees, teachers, and elders set about questioning Jesus about His own views on divorce (Mark 10:2), taxes (Mark 12:13–14), resurrection (Mark 12:18–23), and the most important commandment (Mark 12:28). Of course, Jesus is the author of the law; His words are not mere opinion or interpretation the way the words of both Hillel and Shammai are. In fact, Jesus taught with such authority that the people saw a difference between His teachings and those of their own teachers, and they were amazed (Matthew 7:28–29).
Because Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, they view neither the Hillelite nor the Shammaite interpretation of Jewish law as authoritative and do not follow any particular teachings of the Talmud. The Bible remains our source of truth as "the word of the LORD proves true" (Psalm 18:30) and the Holy Scriptures "are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15).
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