In Acts 10.1-2 we learn that Cornelius was a “God-fearer” which were a group of people (non-Jews) who were in various stages or levels of observance. The Greek word for these people is “Phoubemenoi” and in English they were called “devout” or “worshippers” which is the Greek word “Sebemenoi.” When you see the words “feared God”, “devout” or “worshipper”, if you look up the word in Greek it will most likely be one of these words. In Acts 10.11-14 Peter see’s a vision and the “heaven opened” (meaning a deeper insight or revelation was coming) and he saw a “sheet” (indicating the four corners of the earth) and it had four footed animals, crawling creatures and birds of the air. God tells him to “kill and eat” but Peter says he doesn’t eat unclean animals. The voice from Heaven says “What God has cleansed should not be considered unclean.” This was done three times. Some interpret this to mean the laws concerning clean and unclean food have been done away with, but we will see that is not the case. Peter doesn’t know what it means at first (10.17). Then, three men arrive and Peter is told to go with them. In Acts 10.28 he says how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with a non-Jew “But God has shown me not to call any man unclean.” That was the meaning of the vision, it wasn’t about eating unclean things, it was about people. Peter is also referring to the 18 Edicts that forbid interaction between Jews and non-Jews. In Acts 10.34 Peter says that he understands the concept now about how God is not partial, but in every nation, the non-Jew who fears him and does what is right (as explained in the Torah) is welcome to him. This is an important point to remember about the proper relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews, and how Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai related to the non-Jew. There are over 300 disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.
Now, let’s get into the Gospels to get some information. In the Gospels, when it mentions the “Pharisees” it almost always will be referring to Beit Shammai for the most part, especially when a Pharisee is taking issue with Yeshua. When it says “rulers” it will be Beit Hillel. In Luke 7.36-50, a Pharisee invites Yeshua to dinner. The Torah teaches basic hospitality (Gen 18) and we know from the Talmud, Tosefta and the Mishnah that Beit Shammai held themselves aloof from the people, and Beit Hillel opened themselves up to the people. The Pharisee in this passage was most likely from Beit Shammai because of the way he treated Yeshua. Now, there is a point here. We are are not saying that Yeshua was agreeing with and following the teachings of Hillel, but, we are saying that Yeshua and Beit Hillel were going in the same direction. If one looked at Yeshua, you would probably think he was a Pharisee from Beit Hillel, and was learning from them (like Paul did). But the truth is, Yeshua had the truth and Beit Hillel was closer to it and arrived at the same conclusions that Yeshua did about spiritual things.
In another passage from Luke 11.37-54, we have another Pharisee from Beit Hillel who invited Yeshua to lunch. This Pharisee was surprised that Yeshua did not ceremonially wash his hands before eating. Beit Shammai was more strict about these things than Beit Hillel. In v 47, Yeshua refers to the people killed at the meeting at Hananiah Ben Hezekiah Ben Gurion’s house, and those killed were from Beit Hillel. The Talmud calls those people who were killed “prophets.” So, the “fathers” of Beit Shammai at the time of Yeshua were the ones who killed them (Rabbi Harvey Falk, “Jesus the Pharisee”).
Now, let’s touch on something from the Book of Acts. In Acts 5.34-40, we see a man named Gamaliel who was the grandson of Hillel. Judas the Galilean formally started the Zealot Party in 6 AD, and he was the brother of Hezekiah the Zealot and the uncle of Hananiah. In Luke 11 and Acts 5, in these two passages, we can see the contrast between the two groups. In Acts 23.6 we find out that Paul remained a Pharisee, and we know he was from Beit Hillel because his teacher was Gamaliel (Acts 22.3). In Matt 3.4-12, we see that the Pharisee’s mentioned there were from Beit Shammai. John uses a well known phrase used by Beit Hillel to describe Beit Shammai when he calls them a “brood of vipers.” Yeshua will use the same phrase about Pharisee’s from Beit Shammai in Matt 23.
In Matt 5.20, Yeshua compliments the Pharisees, but he also is saying that even what they do is not enough to gain righteousness if you think you can earn your salvation. In Matt 9.9-13 we see Pharisees from Beit Shammai who did not believe that one should associate with tax-gatherer’s and sinners. In the Torah, there is a concept called the “Hierarchy of of Principles.” In Matt 12.1-8 we see this concept being taught by Yeshua. He says if the needs of the Temple outweigh the Sabbath, what about the needs of a man? The answer is in Mark 2.27. Certain needs take precedence over others. Yeshua is the Temple (John 2.19-21) and if the people only knew he was the Messiah, then they would have no cause to criticize those who did any work (like the priests in the physical Temple) serving the one who is greater than the Temple.
In Matt 12.9-14 we have another confrontation between Yeshua and Pharisees from Beit Shammai. According to Beit Shammai, you cannot heal on the Sabbath. Yeshua proves them wrong again. Matt 12.18-45 begins with a passage out of the “Servant Passages” in Isaiah. In Matt 12.21, it says “And in his name the Gentiles will hope” was something that Beit Shammai was against. The Pharisees in v 24 were from Beit Shammai because they did not like what Yeshua quoted about the Gentiles. In Matt 12.34, it is the first time that Yeshua calls them a “brood of vipers” which was the exact description that Beit Hillel had about Beit Shammai in the Talmud. We can understand why people say “Why should we have anything to do with the Pharisees because Yeshua said they were a brood of vipers.” But remember, there were strong feelings among the two groups of Pharisee’s and they weren’t always good.
The Chasidim were from Beit Hillel and the other group was Beit Shammai. In some texts, all of these will be called Pharisees but in other texts they are distinguished into two groups, and arguing with each other. When we look at the Mishnah and the Talmud you will see, almost verbatim, the same criticisms between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that Yeshua had. When you see Beit Shammai called “murderer’s” they are referencing back to the assassination of those from Beit Hillel at the meeting at the upper room of Hananiah Ben Hezekiah to discuss the 18 Edicts from Beit Shammai. Beit Shammai used these deaths to not only pass the 18 Edicts, but to take control of the Sanhedrin and the controlling vote. Shammai became Av Beit Din (vice-president) after Menachem left.
Matt 15.1-13 has another disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai involving Yeshua. The word “tradition” is the Greek “paradosis” and it means in Hebrew the “halakah” or “way to walk” (1 Cor 11.1-2; 2 Thes 2.15, 3.6). In Matt 15.5, we have the halakah of Shammai on taking care of parents and gifts to God. This was later revoked as legal halakah. Now, Beit Shammai had some good people, too. However, as a “school of thought” their avoidance and even disdain for the non-Jews and the Romans was well documented. They even sided with the Zealots, and this attitude will lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the people in 70 AD, resulting in the Dispersion.
The Sadducees were headed by the Chief Priests, whether it was from the family of Boethus of Chanan (Annas). They took advantage of the conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai to keep their power. Now, most kohanim were good and faithful men who loved God, but a few bad apples can ruin everything, especially of those apples were the ones in power. The Chasidim who fought with Judah Ha Maccabee eventually would develop into the Pharisee Party. This will develop into two groups. Now, let’s talk briefly about the difference between a “burden” and a “fence.” We see this terminology in Matt 23.4, Acts 15.10, Gal 2.11-15, Eph 2.14-15. The “burdens” that were placed on the people were not placed there by the Sadducees. But, they were very harsh in their judgments. You never wanted to go before a judge who was a Sadducee. They were very literal and the criticisms the Pharisees had with them had to do with this manner of judgment which lacked mercy. The Pharisees, especially Beit Hillel, wanted people to keep the commandments but also make it reasonable, down to earth so that one could function. Beit Shammai will be criticized in all the Jewish writings for making “burdens” on the people. That defeats the purpose of the Torah and puts obstacles before the people. The “fences” were not to make the keeping of the commandments difficult, but were there to safeguard the keeping of them.
In Part 8 we will pick up here and continue looking into the Pharisees, the Sadducees and Yeshua.