“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.