Tag Archives: Shammai

Oneness, Twoness, and Three Converts

Let us use the famous story of Shammai, Hillel and the three converts (Shabbos 31) to demonstrate the fusion of Halacha and Aggadah,: A gentile once came to Shammai, and wanted to convert to Judaism. But he insisted on learning the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him, so he went to Hillel, who taught him: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!” Another gentile who accepted only the Written Torah, came to convert. Shammai refused, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the correct order of the Hebrew Alphabet. The next day he reversed the letters. The convert was confused:”But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Said Hillel: “You now see that the Written Word alone is insufficient. We need the Oral Tradition to explain G-d’s Word.” A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…

from “Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts”
Saratoga Chabad

This is sort of the “B-side” to my earlier blog post Twoness and Oneness: From Sermons by David Rudolph which, in turn, was a response to a blog post written by Peter Vest called David Rudolph to Gentiles: Like Yeshua, Our Mission is to the Jews, not Gentiles

The basic allegation is that certain Messianic Jewish organizations, congregations, and leaders are being “exclusionist” and even “racist” by having a mission only or at least primarily to the Jewish people. This was based on a twenty-minute sermon delivered by Rabbi Rudolph called Our Mission. I listened to the sermon and, not finding anything disturbing or offensive in the content, looked for other sermons and materials to add some dimension to this discussion, and then I wrote “Twoness and Oneness.”

I knew that there would be some folks my response wouldn’t satisfy. There will always be someone who disagrees and there are people with whom I disagree. That’s the nature of human beings, especially in discussions of religion and politics.

The comparison of Messianic Jewish congregations to churches such as Chinese or Korean churches broke down, at least in one person’s eyes (see the comments on Peter’s blog post for details), because it was argued that if you were not Korean but attended a Korean church (let’s say you regularly attended with Korean family members or friends) your role would not be restricted because you weren’t Korean.

In certain Messianic Jewish congregations (and this is regularly debated and agonized over in many of those congregations), non-Jewish members are not allowed to fulfill certain roles or perform certain functions (be a Rabbi or be called up to an aliyah, for example) as those roles and activities are reserved for Jewish members only.

I have no idea how any of this works at Tikvat Israel, Rabbi Rudolph’s congregation, and I can hardly speak for his position, but even if it’s true, there is a foundation for making such distinctions.

Notice the quote I placed at the top of this blog post. It’s a rather famous story that would have taken place about a generation before the time of Jesus. Three Gentiles wanting to convert to Judaism for various reasons first approach the sage Shammai with their rather outrageous requests and are chased away. When they approach Rabbinic Master Hillel, he accepts all three as converts and students but he does so with a “twist.”

The relevant convert is the man who wanted to be Jewish so he could fulfill the role of High Priest and wear the priestly robes. Hillel didn’t explain that it would be a role forever denied him because, even converting to Judaism, he wasn’t a Levite and he wasn’t a direct descendent of Aaron. He let the convert find out for himself.

Hillel and ShammaiI remember reading a commentary that described a conversation between the three converts some years after these events. I can’t find where I read it and only sort of recall it (such is my middle-aged memory), but I think these three men realized finally that not only were they incredibly arrogant in their original motivations, but that Hillel, in his graciousness, enabled them to learn the truth for themselves and saved them from condemnation by Hashem.

If someone can point me to the actual commentary online so I can correct any errors in recall, I’d really appreciate it.

As applied to the latest allegations against Rudolph in specific and Messianic Judaism in general, frankly ladies and gentlemen…this isn’t “church”.

Potentially, in the Christian hierarchy, anyone can be anything provided they meet certain qualifications. You can be the Pastor of a church, regardless of lineage or background, as long as you satisfy the educational and experiential requirements.

But to be the High Priest, you must be a Levite and a descendant of Aaron. To be the rightful King of Israel, you must be from the tribe of Judah and be a descendant of David.

In the modern synagogue setting, Messianic or not, you must be Jewish to qualify for certain offices and activities (In a Reform synagogue, a Gentile can be on the board of directors, but still will never be Rabbi). As a Gentile, I would not be called up for an aliyah, to read the Torah on Shabbat, in any synagogue in the world. I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a Rabbi or Cantor, even if I had the proper equivalent education (and I would never be admitted into a Yeshiva for study as a non-Jew, though there have been rare exceptions).

Because a synagogue is Messianic, that is, because the members have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and as Israel’s King, doesn’t mean it is not a center of Jewish community and worship, and it doesn’t mean that Jewish and Gentile roles have stopped being Jewish and Gentile roles. I’ve written a great deal on the legal decision rendered by James and the Council of Apostles on the status of Gentiles within the ancient Jewish religious stream of “the Way,” and how Jewish and Gentile roles were to be managed.

Granted, after Acts 15, there would be a long period of application and adjustment as copies of the Jerusalem letter circulated in the Messianic communities in the Land and in the diaspora. We don’t have a complete record of how it was (or if it was) finally lived out, unless the Didache can give us some clues, but what we definitely don’t have is a “smoking gun” saying that Jewish and Gentile members of “the Way” were indistinguishable units in the body of Messiah (this is hotly debated in Christianity, of course, relative to Ephesians 2:15, which I addressed in my previous missive).

Again, the opinions I’m expressing are my own. I have no idea, based on the recorded sermons of David Rudolph I reviewed, how things are run at Tikvat Israel. For all I know, they may have a completely different conceptualization of these issues. This is only how I look at these matters.

I don’t say all this in the hopes of convincing anyone to change their minds and to look at Messianic Judaism in a different light. But the question was raised and I thought some people might want to read one possible answer. As I said on Peter’s blog, I’m not interested in toggling back and forth across two or more web-based venues trying to talk about all this. I just want to clarify my position on the issues at hand for the sake of anyone who might want to know.

Shammai, Peter, and Cornelius

hillel_shammaiShammai’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?