It was taught in a baraita: They said about Shammai the Elder that every day he ate in honor of shabbat: If he found a good quality animal he would say: “This is for shabbat.” If he found an even better one, he would save the second one [for shabbat] and eat the first one. But Hillel the Elder employed a different strategy, whereby all his actions were for the sake of heaven, as it is said, Blessed is God day by day (Psalms 68:20). This was also taught in this baraita: Bet Shammai say: From the first day of the week [prepare for] your shabbat. But Bet Hillel say: Blessed is God day by day.
How often does your week—filled with dozens of obligations and activities—whiz by, Friday arrives as if without warning, and you find yourself saying, “How did it get to be Friday already? How am I going to get ready for shabbat in time?” Winter in the northern hemisphere is especially challenging because the sun sets early where many of us live, depriving us of precious time to prepare for shabbat. Torah records the mitzvah of shabbat in each of the two versions of the Ten Commandments: (1) Remember (zachor) the sabbath day and sanctify it… (Exodus 20:7-9); and (2) Observe (shamor) the sabbath day to sanctify it… (Deuteronomy 5:12-13). The Rabbis wondered: Which way did God deliver the commandment at Mount Sinai?
The sabbath hymn, Lecha Dodi says in the first verse that “Shamor and zachor were spoken in one utterance.”
The midrash Mekhilta, trying to reconcile the two versions, tells us: “‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’—remember before and observe afterwards… Remember it from the first day of the week, so that if you come upon a rare bit, ready it for the sabbath. R. Yitzhak says: Do not count [days] as others count, but count with respect to shabbat.” R. Yitzhak wants us to live a shabbat-centric week. This helps us appreciate the difference between Shammai and Hillel that the Talmud spotlights.
Shammai and Hillel have different approaches to preparing for shabbat. Shammai spends the entire week looking for the best food he can secure for celebrating shabbat. When he finds something wonderful, he sets it aside. If he subsequently finds something superior, Shammai consumes the first item and saves the superior second item for shabbat. In this way, from Sunday onward he is thinking about shabbat and preparing for it. Shammai counts the days as R. Yitzhak advises in Mekhilta: “Six days until shabbat, five days until shabbat, four days until shabbat…”
Hillel has a different approach. If he comes across something special, he enjoys it that day; not all his efforts, from Sunday onward, are directed toward preparing for shabbat. Everything he does, day in and day out, Hillel does for the sake of heaven because every day is sacred and every moment an opportunity to serve God and express gratitude for one’s blessings. He seems to trust that he will find what is needed in time to celebrate Shabbat.
Being Jewish is not a competitive sport, but neither is it a spectator sport.
We are accustomed to thinking that in all debates between Hillel and Shammai, there must be a winner and a loser—and it’s probably Hillel who is “right.” Accordingly, the commentators trip over themselves to declare either Shammai or Hillel the “winner” of this round. There is an unfortunate current running through Jewish tradition, modeled as it is on the legal paradigm and employing the legal idiom, that most every situation there is a “right way” and a “wrong way.” Hence in every disagreement there is a “winner” and a “loser.” Being Jewish is not (and ought not be) a competitive sport. But neither is Judaism a spectator sport, as both Shammai and Hillel attest. They offer us different approaches to Jewish living. Each has merit. What distinguishes them is the personality and temperament of the person who adopts them as his own. There are many good and wonderful ways to live Jewishly, celebrate shabbat, and serve God. That is the beauty of this story.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Which approach—Shammai’s or Hillel’s—appeals to you more, and sounds closer to your way of doing things? Why?
- We are creatures of habit—our story describes the habits of Shammai and Hillel. What are the Shabbat “habits” of your household? What would you like them to be? In another tractate of the Talmud (BT Shabbat 119a) the Sages tell us that two angels—one good, one bad—escort us home from shul on Friday evening. If the two angels find our homes prepared to celebrate shabbat—candles lit, delicious food simmering, the family assembled to celebrate together and enjoy one another’s company—the good angel says, “May it be so next week” and the bad angel must say, “amen.” If, however, they find that our homes are not prepared for shabbat and no shabbat celebration is happening, the bad angel says, “May it be so next week” and the good angel must say, “amen.” The story reminds us that getting started is often the hardest part. Continuing a way of celebrating shabbat that we find meaningful and fulfilling is far easier than launching it in the first place.
- What elements in your life can make shabbat festive for you? Shammai seems to have focused on food. Hillel doesn’t mention food. Here are some suggestions. Which appeal to you?
• Saving a new garment you acquired during the week to wear on shabbat
• Using a new tool or utensil to prepare for shabbat
• Reserving a new game to play on shabbat
• Setting aside a new book to begin reading on shabbat
• Using a new recipe to prepare food for shabbat
• Setting the dinner table with a special tablecloth and dishes
• Planning a special family conversation to hold on shabbat