Shammai’s school of thought became known as the House of Shammai (Hebrew: Beth Shammai), as Hillel’s was known as the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel). After Menahem the Essene had resigned the office of Av Beit Din (or vice-president) of the Sanhedrin, Shammai was elected to it, Hillel being at the time president. After Hillel died, circa 20 CE, Shammai took his place as president but no vice-president from the minority was elected so that the school of Shammai attained complete ascendancy, during which Shammai passed “18 ordinances” in conformity with his ideas. The Talmud states that when he passed one of the ordinances, contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day “was as grievous to Israel as the day when the [golden] calf was made” (Shabbat, 17a). The exact content of the ordinances is not known, but they seem to have been designed to strengthen Jewish identity by insisting on stringent separation between Jews and gentiles, an approach that was regarded as divisive and misanthropic by Shammai’s opponents.
And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
–Acts 10:28 (ESV)
I suppose I could have called this blog post, “Things I Learned in Church Today,” but then, I’d have a lot of blog posts with the same title. I recently came across a “statistic” on a blog (it’s not based on any real data) that said the vast majority of Christianity, something like “99.99999999999%” is “anti-Judaic.” I’ll agree that the church has a rather poor track record relative to Jews, Judaism, and Israel, but that’s changing. I know because the church I attend is very pro Jews, Judaism, and Israel. It’s not just the Pastoral staff but the regular members, too. In my Sunday school class, the teacher, who by trade is an electrical contractor, opined on how much we Christians owe the Jewish people at the very start of class.
But what did I learn in church about Jews, Judaism, and Acts 10? I learned about something called the “18 measures.” Apparently, this was something debated between Hillel and Shammai and while the specifics of these “measures” crafted by Shammai are no longer known, two of them were said to be “anti-Gentile.” Pastor Randy came to speak with me right before services began and shared what he had found out during his research. He said that one of the measures of Shammai stated that it was “unlawful” for a Jew to enter a Gentile’s home because it would be possible for a corpse to be present without the Jew’s knowledge (resulting in ritual defilement: see Num. 19:11-16). This could include a dead person buried under the house, since it seems it was the custom in some households to bury the family patriarch under the structure.
Or was Shammai looking for excuses to keep Jews and Gentiles apart? After all, Israel was occupied by Gentile forces and the Romans never went out of their way to be friendly or courteous to the Jewish population. Quite the opposite in fact. The Jews had good reason to want to avoid Gentiles and particularly Roman soldiers.
Was this part of what Peter was thinking of when he was confronted by God with the news that he was to visit the household of a Roman Centurion? In the above-quoted passage from Acts 10, the greek word translated as “unlawful” as in “how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate…” isn’t the word for “Law,” but the word for “tradition.” Basically, Peter was telling Cornelius that it was against halakhah for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile because the Jew might well become ritualistically “unclean.” God showed Peter the contradiction (in this case) between the prevailing halakhah of his day and the teachings of God that no human being is “unclean.”
I don’t know if Peter was specifically thinking of Shammai during this whole transaction, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
But am I being too hard on Shammai?
Shammai is a much misunderstood character and you malign him with your words…. according to the Mishnah in Treatise Avot, one of Shammai’s favourite sayings was “Always receive all men with a cheerful expression on your face!” (Avot, chapter 1, para. 15)
-ProfBenTziyyon, 18 Jan 09
I’m not trying to be hard on Shammai or for that matter, on Peter. I did think this was an interesting detail that works to “flesh out” the humanity and the lived context for Peter as he was faced with doing a very hard thing. About fifteen years earlier, Jesus gave his Jewish disciples the “commission” to make disciples out of the Gentiles, but as far as we know, that command received no attention until the Master spurred Peter into action using a vision (Acts 10:9-16).
In this case however, if Peter has responded to halakhah rather than God, the good news of Christ would never have come to Cornelius and his household and arguably the rest of us would have suffered the same fate. Or God would have chosen a different messenger, but He chose Peter. It was Peter who had to grow beyond his prejudices and perhaps only a Jewish apostle could deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles. I mean, the angel (Acts 10:3-6) could have told Cornelius everything he needed to know, but it was more than just information that needed to be delivered, it was the forging of new connections and relationships. While Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, was a “God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation,” God had a far better destiny for him as one of first Gentiles to ever receive the Holy Spirit and be reconciled to God. Peter, for his part, and his Jewish companions needed to be witnesses and to see for themselves that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” They needed to see that even the Gentiles could receive the Spirit and be saved, even as the Jews had done.
This, as much as anything else in the Bible, was an incredible miracle, because God so loved the world.
What biases and prejudices prevent you and me from doing the will of God?