Shammai (called ha-Zekan, “the Elder”), a famous Jewish scribe who together with Hillel made up the last of “the pairs” (zitgoth), or, as they are sometimes erroneously named, “presidents and vice-presidents” of the Sanhedrim. The schools of Shammai and Hillel held rival sway, according to Talmudic tradition (Shabbath 15a), from about a hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Comparatively little is known about either of the great scribes. The Mischna, the only trustworthy authority in this matter, mentions Shammai in only eight passages (Maaser sheni, II, 4, 9; Orla, II, 5; Eduyoth I, 1-4, 10, II; Aboth, I, 12, 15, V, 17; Kelim, XXII, 4; Nidda, I 1). He was the very opposite of Hillel in character and teaching. Stern and severe in living the law to the letter, he was strict to an extreme in legal interpretation. The tale tells that, on the feast of the Tabernacles, his daughter-in-law gave birth to a child; straightway Shammai had the roof broken through and the bed covered over with boughs, so that the child might celebrate the feast in an improvised sukka (tent or booth) and might not fail of keeping the law of Leviticus (xxiii, 42).
The strictness of the master characterises the school of Shammai as opposed to that of Hillel. The difference between the two schools had regard chiefly to the interpretation of the first, second, third and fifth parts of the “Mishna”—i.e. to religious dues, the keeping of the Sabbath and of holy days, the laws in regard to marriage and purification. The law, for example, to prepare no food on the Sabbath had to be observed by not allowing even the beast to toil; hence it was argued that an egg laid on the Sabbath might not be eaten (Eduyoth, iv, 1). Another debate was whether, on a holy day, a ladder might be borne from one dovecote to another or should only be glided from hole to hole. The need of fringes to a linen night dress was likewise made a matter of difference between the two schools (Eduyoth, iv, 10). In these and many other discussions we find much straining out of gnats and swallowing of camels (Matt., xxiii, 24), much pain taken to push the Mosaic law to an unbearable extreme, and no heed given to the practical reform which was really needed in Jewish morals. It was the method of the school of Shammai rather than that of Hillel which Christ condemned. On this account non-Catholic scholars generally make Him out to have belonged to the school of Hillel. This opinion has been shared in by a few Catholics (Gigot, “General Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scripture“, New York, 1900, p. 422). Most Catholic exegetes, however, refuse to admit that Christ belonged to any of the fallible Jewish schools of interpretation. He established His own school—to wit, the infallible teaching body to which He gave the Old Testament to have and to keep and to interpret to all nations without error.