Shammai's Approach to Loving Your Neighbor

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Shammai's Approach to Loving Your Neighbor

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



            Parashat Kedoshim features the famous dictum, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18). In the midrash on our parasha (Sifra, 2), Rabbi Akiva emphasizes that "This is a (perhaps 'the') major principle of the Torah." But in both the Midrash (ibid., and Bereishit Rabba, 24) and the Gemara (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4) we find a contrasting view: "Ben Azzai taught, [The verse] 'This is the book of the generations of man' (Bereishit 5:1) is an even greater principle."


The obvious difference between these two opinions is that Rabbi Akiva focuses on a precept that applies specifically to Am Yisrael – "your neighbor" refers to Jews - while Ben Azzai points to a tenet that applies to every human being.  Although we adopt Rabbi Akiva's approach, we must still perceive and internalize the principle that Ben Azzai is teaching us, and understand the great and profound need to protect the rights of every person, not only of our "neighbors," fellow Jews.


            While Rabbi Akiva championed the centrality of "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," Hillel the Elder focused on a related notion.  The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) recounts:


A heathen came before Shammai and said to him, "Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand.

When he went before Hillel, the latter answered him: "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary thereof; now go and learn it."


I once heard an innovative interpretation of this anecdote. The convert understood that every structure needs to stand firmly upon two legs.  While he insisted that he could therefore not be a "complete" Jew, he still wanted to acquire at least the one leg.  Shammai maintained that there can be no such thing as a structure that stands on only one leg, and therefore he pushed him away using a builder's cubit – signifying to him that no building can stand on one leg. 


Hillel, on the other hand, understood that some aspects of the Torah pertain to the man-God relationship, while other aspects address themselves to inter-personal relationships.  What he was telling the convert was that although the latter could not (yet) practice the laws between man and God, he certainly could start with the precepts defining our relationships with others, and from there he could progress.


            The Gemara (Shabbat 30b) explains the difference between the approaches of Shammai and Hillel: "One should always be gentle like Hillel, and not a kapdan like Shammai."  Shammai was strict and punctilious – and it is important to know that there is great value in this approach, too; in some respects, I prefer it.  The Gemara does not mean to say that Hillel's approach is correct for everyone and in all situations.  Rather, if a person is uncertain as to which educational approach to follow, he should follow the direction of Hillel – but if he feels that Shammai's approach is the correct one for him or for his situation, it is not ruled out. 


Yet we encounter a problem when we read Shammai's teaching in Avot (1:15): "Greet every person with a pleasant countenance." How are we to reconcile this with the Gemara in Shabbat? What exactly was Shammai's educational path? 


            Shammai maintained that one who wishes to study Torah should seek out a teacher. The teacher need not go about trying to convert or preach to the whole world.  A person who seeks to progress in his service of God and to learn Torah must himself make the effort; he should not wait for others to run after him and try to convince him.  When a person comes to study of his own accord, he should be accepted and extended the friendliest and most pleasant welcome possible – but he must take the first step. 


People today expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter; living in a consumer society, they think that the marketers have to chase after the consumers.  Yet Torah is not a commodity to be sold.  It is a precious gift that one has to seek out: "If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures, then shall you understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God" (Mishlei 2:4-5).


Avraham converted thousands of pagans, but where are their descendants today? According to the Midrash, all those converts reverted to their old ways after some time.  When the initiative to change one's life comes from the outside, and not from internal motivation, then one's adherence to the new way of life is often unstable and lacking in sufficient foundations and commitment. It is for this reason that Shammai rejects the would-be convert who wants to study Torah while standing on one leg: a person who wants to learn Torah must make the effort; no one owes him any favors or short-cuts. 


            I believe that this is a legitimate path.  The Gemara teaches us that if a person does not know which approach to adopt, it is preferable that he be friendly and outreaching like Hillel rather than strict like Shammai, but this should not be construed as a negation of the value and greatness of Shammai's approach.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Kedoshim 5763 [2003].)