Avot: Meet Shammai

Shammai used to say: Make your Torah permanent, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance. (Avot 1:13)

It’s traditional to study Pirkei Avot during the time between Passover and Shavuot, and I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the less-familiar sayings in it. The entire text of this section of the Mishnah is available online in both Hebrew and in several different translations.

Shammai was a first century rabbi, one of several pairs of teachers mentioned in rabbinic literature. His opponent and pair was Hillel, one of the most famous of the early rabbis. Shammai was an irascible fellow, if we believe some of the stories told about him. He didn’t suffer fools. However, judging from this aphorism, he aspired to be more like calm, kind Hillel.

“Make your Torah fixed” – has been translated many different ways. Often it’s translated “study Torah at a fixed time very day.” However, I don’t see anything about time in the text. I think he’s telling his students (us) to fix Torah in our minds. Don’t “sort of learn” it: learn it, memorize it, engrave it on our minds.

“Say little and do much” – What counts for more, words or deeds? It is easier to talk about what we are going to do than to actually make the time and effort to do something. What is the good of talking about politics if we don’t vote? What good does it do to talk about writing a thank you note, if we never actually write it?

“Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – In Shabbat 31a, there are several stories about people approaching Shammai, wanting to convert to Judaism. Shammai chases them away because they ask rude or stupid questions. Hillel is more patient. It is amusing, therefore, to read here that Shammai says to “receive every person with a pleasant countenance” – really? What about the fellow at whom he threw the builder’s tool?

I admit that there are some lessons I teach that I do not yet practice perfectly, including this one. I worry sometimes about hypocrisy. The only way I know to deal with that is to be honest about my own imperfections.

What do you make of Shammai’s words? And what do you think about the fact that he taught a lesson he had not yet mastered?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “Avot: Meet Shammai”

  1. Rabbi Ruth,

    I have just pulled my copy PIRKE AVOT off the shelf today and now I find this blog from you.

    After reading what you wrote, I think Shammai is sage. I believe I can learn much from one who inspires good even a crusty individual who is still learning the lessons he inspires me to learn as well. Now here is a person to model. His behavior is more like the average person, me, than some lofty individual whom I strive to be, but appears to have such ideal behavior is so far beyond my own, that I am often frustrated by the process of my learning. In Shammai I have truly found a teacher I identify with, someone like myself, who is not perfect, yet has ideals and strives daily to achieve them.

  2. I think I understand, Sheila – Shammai is human. He is not perfect. He is known for being very strict about his rulings and his understanding of Torah. Most of the decisions in the tradition actually go with Hillel, the more lenient rabbi. Reading about Shammai, I wonder if he was one of those people who are hardest on themselves, but who manage to be pretty hard on the world around them in the process.

    What’s your favorite bit of Pirkei Avot?

    1. Rabbi Shimon said, “Be very careful in reciting the SHEMA and the TEFILAH. When you pray, don’t make your prayer a fixed, form, but rather (infuse it with) a plea for mercy and grace from G-d, as Scripture teaches,’For G-d is a compassionate and gracious G-d, long suffering and abounding in steadfast love and relenting of evil.’ [Joel 2:13] [Moreover] don’t be wicked in your own mind.”

      As Rashi explains, prayer should not become a burden. Rather, our hearts should be the source of our prayer and we should become the vessel of prayer. Amen.

  3. This is a very good thoughts, stop worrying how many steps you can do,just make each step for Hashem count.

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