Jewish Law, Shabbat, and the World to Come

The rabbinic school of Shammai constructed its version of the Sabbath laws on the basis of the notion that Shabbat is a foretaste of life in the perfect world, yet to come.

Print this page Print this page

"Beth Shammai"(the "house" of the first-century rabbi named Shammai) was one of two frequently opposing schools of thought in the early development of rabbinic law, often locking horns with "the house of Hillel." It was the latter whose formulations, frequently more lenient, were accepted in most cases as normative by later generations. This article, like "Shabbat as a Preview of the Perfected World," is excerpted with permission from the Fall 1967 issue (Vol. 16, no. 4) of Judaism, published by the American Jewish Congress.

Generally speaking, it is the Sabbath halakhah of Beth Shammai that directly reflects this concept [of the Sabbath as preview of the world to come] with amazing literalness. It is not that the Shammaites were more rigorous in their views, but rather that they sought to translate the concept Sabbath-Olam Haba ["world to come"] into literal reality. While the Hillelites accept this basic notion, they cannot accede to its literal rendering. To do so would be to make the Sabbath an impossibly oppressive day and defeat the very purpose of the Sabbath. 

A few examples drawn from the Sabbath halakhah of Beth Shammai should suffice to illustrate the direct line that links it to its source, the aggadic-mythological concept [of the Sabbath as foretaste of the perfected world].

Killing is Inconsistent with Harmony

We read in the Tosefta [a collection of rabbinic rulings from the centuries just prior to 200 C.E., parallel to the Mishnah], "Beth Shammai says: 'One does not kill a moth on the Sabbath.' Beth Hillel permits." The Shammaite view is elaborated upon by one of its most distinguished adherents, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 12a), "He who kills a vermin on the Sabbath is as if he slew a camel." The view reflects the notion that the perfect peace and harmony that will prevail between man and all living creatures in the world-to-come must prevail on the Sabbath, the foretaste of that world.

Things Which Will Not Be Necessary in the World to Come

In one statement of Beth Shammai we find a number of apparently disparate matters joined together as activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath. At first glance, one is puzzled why these seemingly unrelated activities should be included in a single category. If, however, one bears in mind the single concept from which they flow, their mutual relationship becomes apparent.

shabbat and the world to comeWhat do they have in common? None of them will be necessary in the world-to-come, hence they are forbidden on the Sabbath. The statement reads "Beth Shammai says: 'Contributions for the poor are not allotted on the Sabbath in the synagogue, even a dowry to marry an orphan young man to an orphan young woman. Quarrels between husband and wife are not adjudicated and one does not pray for the sick on the Sabbath.' Beth Hillel permits these activities." (Tosefta Shabbat 16:22)

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Theodore Friedman, Ph.D. (1908-1992), served for many years as rabbi of congregations in Jackson Heights, New York, and South Orange, New Jersey. He later lived in Jerusalem, where he taught Talmud to students from the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (Buenos Aires).