Karaites and Beit Shammai: An Alliance for the Ages

Babylonian TalmudThere is a Rabbinic saying that when Mashiach comes, Jews will adopt the opinions of Beit Shammai. I don’t know whether this saying is correct, but I do chuckle every time I hear it.

You see, in one very interesting way, the Shabbat practice of Beit Shammai is virtually identical to the historical Karaite view.

The two major Talmudic schools of thought were the Houses of Hillel and Shammai. In general, the current Rabbinic practice sides with opinions of Beit Hillel, which are generally more lenient than the opinions of Beit Shammai. But when Mashiach comes, the opinions of Beit Shammai will govern.

One way that Beit Shammai’s views were more strict than Hillel’s concerns whether work (melacha) that begins prior to Shabbat must be completed before Shabbat. It is generally the case that Beit Shammai believed that all work started during the week must be complete before Shabbat; while Beit Hillel permitted Jews to set work in motion before Shabbat even if the work continues on Shabbat.  (See e.g. Mishna Shabbat 1:5-9.)

The historical Karaite view is in accord with Beit Shammai; that is, Karaites also forbade work that began during the regular week and carried over onto Shabbat.

According to the Tosefta (a Rabbinic source written at the same time as the Mishna’s compilation), Beit Shammai derived the prohibition from Exodus 20:8, which says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (melacha).” From this verse, Beit Shammai generally held that all of the work we do must be completed in the six days leading up to Shabbat.

A verse cited by Karaites to support their view that work may not carry over onto Shabbat is Exodus 35:2, which reads, “Six days work (melacha) shall be done and on the seventh day shall be for you a holy day, a Shabbat of complete cessation to Hashem; everyone who does melacha on it shall die.” From this verse, Karaites derive that work may not be done on the seventh day; that is, because the first part of the verse is in the passive voice, we may not before Shabbat set in motion work that will be done (or continue) on Shabbat – even if we ourselves are not directly involved in the work on Shabbat. The Karaite Jews of America has produced a detailed explanation of the classical Karaite view of Shabbat.

Because of the similarities between Karaites and Beit Shammai on this point, when the Mashiach comes, I guess we can say we will all be Karaites (at least to some extent).


Filed under Beit Hillel, Shabbat, Shammai

3 Responses to Karaites and Beit Shammai: An Alliance for the Ages

  1. Mike Leinweber

    Please excuse what might seem like rambling but it is hard to have a deep discussion in a post. I would much prefer to discuss this topic through an open face to face dialog.

    I really enjoyed reading this post and I also read the “Classical Karaite View of Shabbat” and found it interesting and yet at points disheartening.

    While I find it interesting to study the commandment of Shabbat in detail, and we should definitely study it in detail to try and understand the nuances of the commandment in it’s language, culture and time. I feel a bit disheartened that in my circumstances it seems unattainable to keep Shabbat according to the “Classical Karaite View”.

    To put it in the words of another rabbi, I am curious if we are straining at gnats and yet swallowing a camel? Are we too concerned at the details of the commandment and yet we neglect the spirit of the commandment remember and keep it holy? I have heard rabbis say that they thank God for Sunday because to them Shabbat is anything but a day of rest.

    Is it possible that an action for one person might be work and for another it might not? Or is it possible that an action might be work in one context and not work in another context?

    For instance, a waiter serves food to his customers throughout the week and then on Shabbat he serves food to his family, friends and guests. Same action and yet it is acceptable in the latter example. Is serving (carrying) food the issue? I am trying to get at the underlying spirit of Shabbat.

    Is it possible that the intentions of the action is what is important rather than the action itself?

    I looked up the story in BaMidbar 15:32 where a man was gathering sticks on Shabbat. While in the classical Karaite view of Shabbat this is used to show that walking is permitted, I would like to discuss the man that was gathering the sticks. His action is seen as a violation of the Shabbat. While looking at this example may seem odd because it would certainly seem like an obvious violation, I would still like to examine it.

    We know nothing of the man gathering sticks other than he was gathering sticks on Shabbat and that he was judged and put to death.

    Was he gathering the sticks to build a fire? Was he gathering sticks to build shelter? Was he gathering sticks to trade and/or barter as would be his occupation? Was he gathering sticks just because he knew that it would violate God’s command? There are many questions that could be asked to help illuminate the story so that we might rightly understand why he was judged.

    I know that Shemot 35:2 gives specific instructions that anyone who works on Shabbat shall be put to death (not specifying intentionality).

    Maybe the verses before can shed light on the subject. While chapter and verse are arbitrary breaks in the text, they can help to identify and segment a train of thought, an idea or subject. So since this story starts on verse 32 maybe the preceding verses may give us insight into the story of this man. (It is possible that the preceding verses do not relate specifically to the story of this man and I feel we should also keep that in mind.)

    The preceding verses discusses sacrifices when coming into the land, sacrifices when unintentionally violating a commandment and when someone intentionally violates a commandment.

    Then the example of the man who violated Shabbat by gathering sticks is presented. We are not told if his violation was intentional or unintentional. If the preceding verses are related then maybe his punishment suggests that he was intentionally violating the Shabbat. If the preceding verses are not related then maybe Shemot 35:2 is the reason for his punishment and maybe it is possible that he was unintentionally violating the Shabbat.

    I do not know the answer to this but I am curious.

    Getting back to the waiter, is it possible that the intention of serving food to his customers during the week is based on his earning a living whereas his intention of serving his family, friends and guests on Shabbat is to be a blessing to them and God?

    I don’t know the answer to this either but I am curious.

    I read somewhere, the fact that we struggle and wrestle with the meaning and proper application of Shabbat shows that we understand its holiness and desire to keep it sacred and that we do not want anything to encroach the special gift that is Shabbat.

    I would love to hear more thoughts and biblical understanding concerning Shabbat.


  2. Ilanb

    The issue here truly is that Beit Shammais rulings are subject to irrelevant today When it was declared that a Beit Din cannot override the decisions of a Beit Din greater in Wisdom and numbers, it uses the term Divrei Beit Din Chavero.
    A Beit Din of ages ago is not the Chaver, the peers of any judge that would render a misphat today. So any legitimate Bet Din need not lean on any rulings other then its own. The problem is that the Rabbis do not understand this fact and fear deviating from a Beit Din Lo Chaveiro which is not against Halachik principles. Holding certain scholars and legal in such awe that no change is possible is a direct contradiction to the Torah.
    People, in my opinion seem to be under the mistaken impression that the Mashiach will arrive and that they will continue their rulings based on legal precedents that were judged over 500 years ago, be it the Zugot, The Rishonim and Achronim and the Geonim. First the Mashiach will set about to restore the correct procedures per the Torah.

    What does the Torah say in Devarim?

    יח שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק. 18 Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.
    יט לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם. 19 Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither shalt thou take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous.
    ח כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט, בֵּין-דָּם לְדָם בֵּין-דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע–דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת,
    בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ: וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ–אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. 8

    If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose.
    ט וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, וְאֶל-הַשֹּׁפֵט, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם; וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ, אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט. 9 And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment.
    י וְעָשִׂיתָ, עַל-פִּי הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יַגִּידוּ לְךָ, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ. 10 And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence, which they shall declare unto thee from that place which the LORD shall choose; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they shall teach thee.
    יא עַל-פִּי הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ, וְעַל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ לְךָ–תַּעֲשֶׂה: לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ–יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל. 11 According to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.
    יב וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה בְזָדוֹן, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן הָעֹמֵד לְשָׁרֶת שָׁם אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אוֹ, אֶל-הַשֹּׁפֵט–וּמֵת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 12 And the man that doeth presumptuously, in not hearkening unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die; and thou shalt exterminate the evil from Israel.

    The Rabbinic interpretation for why it emphasizes neither to the right nor left when it should be obvious, is that even if they tell you left is right and right is left you should obey their word. This is another part of the built in mechanism to stave off dissent and to maintain the absolute rule of the Rabbinic courts.

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