Shammai and the Zealots

This week my Tuesday night Bible study, The Jewish Context of the Bible, continued our series on Famous Rabbis.  Last time we started with perhaps the biggest one of all, Hillel.  This week we took a look at his most eminent halakic (legal) opponent, Shammai.  Next up is Akiva, then Sha’ul (aka: Paul, and with Paul we’ll look at his own first rabbi, Gamaliel) and finally ending with, Yeshua (Jesus).  Knowing and understanding the rabbis has helped me understand the teachings and writings of Jesus and Paul and I’m sure you will be excited as well as we apply all that we’ve learned. You can find the audio on the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ, or on my Audio Lessons page.

In my readings about Shammai, I ran across something very interesting.  Apparently Shammai, a member of the peace-loving Pharisees, had some ties to the religious movement known as the Zealots.

It appears that Shammai supported the Zealots, a position which his school took up in the years after his death leading up to the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 72 AD).  Shammai himself disliked Gentiles and it appears that this viewpoint leaked over into his patriotism to free Israel from Rome.  In the year 5 AD Judas of Gamla in Galilee started his opposition to Rome centered around the census and was joined by one of the leaders of the Pharisees, Rabbi Zadok, one of the most prominent disciples of Shammai.1 But even when that revolt failed, Shammai never changed his position on the matter, and years later when the seeds of rebellion were being sown, the House of Shammai was first to back the Ḳanna’im (Zealots). His support of a free nation is understandable, but what he allowed in the name of it is what I find remarkable.

Recall that Shammai’s interpretations of the Torah were intensely strict and literal.  Recall also that each rabbi had the 613 commands of the Torah ranked differently from 1st to 613th; while Jesus and Hillel both agreed that the second greatest command was to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), Shammai’s was “Keep the Sabbath Holy” (Exodus 20:7).  The Sabbath took center stage during the whole week, and each day was just one more day leading up to it.  Why?  Because the Sabbath was about God, not about you, and you are way less important than God.  “Man was made for the sabbath,” said Rabbi Shammai. Understanding that Shammai had said this before Jesus’ public ministry helps us understand Jesus’ own statement in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man,” something Hillel had already said 30 years earlier but was definitely still the minority opinion during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  I cannot convey in this short blog post the immense importance of the Sabbath to Shammai, but let’s just say that it was way up there, and you should never do anything to break it.

Nothing except…warfare against the heathen possessors of Palestine 2.  Apparently, even the ultra-strict House of Shammai had its exceptions, and allowing the killing of Romans and Jewish collaborators on the Sabbath was one of them.  The Romans apparently knew that the Jews would observe the Sabbath and let their guard down.  Josephus tells about a surprise move in 66 AD where the Jews rose up on a Sabbath day and everywhere in the land overpowered the Romans 3 (reminds me of the Texans’ victory at San Jacinto where the Texans made a surprise attack during the Mexican siesta (nap time)).

I find it sad that Shammai placed so much weight on strictly keeping the Sabbath and yet was blinded by his intense hatred for the Roman occupation. When most other Pharisees were backing away from the knife (sicarii) and relying on righteousness and prayer, Shammai was about as close as he could get to picking up the knife without actually doing it. His disciples, it seems, were not as conscientious about that fine line which their rabbi walked. These close ties with the Zealot movement is linked in part to the House of Shammai’s downfall after the destruction of the temple. When the rabbis got back together in Yavneh in 80 AD, all hope of national independence was lost and so the views of Shammai became looked down upon for that very reason.

Today, many Christians put much weight on Jesus’ commands to love one another (as they should). We sit in church and sing songs like “Love One Another” and we talk about love. And yet at the same time many of us politically support all kinds of war, destruction, killing, and violence, all in the name of national independence (in Texas, “Christian” and “Republican” are mostly synonymous in the church of Christ, and most Christian Republicans continue to support the war in Iraq. I’m actually not saying the war in Iraq is good or bad, just pointing this out for you to think about). I’m not a pacifist, not by any means, but perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the exceptions Shammai made to God’s rules.

Peace to you,




1. “Ant.” xviii. 11; Giṭ. 56a; Grätz, “Gesch.” iii. 4, 259, 796, and I. H. Weiss, “Dor Dor we-Dorshaw,” i. 177, against Geiger, “Zeitschrift,” v. 268.

2. Talmud Shab. 19a; Grätz, l.c. pp. 796-797.

3. “Bello Judaico” ii. 19, § 2.


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