in Pirkei Avot chapter 1, Shammai says "receive every person with a pleasant countenance".

Why then did Shammai drive away the 3 gentiles (Shab.31a) who were interested in converting to Judaism? Shouldn't he have used a friendlier approach like Hillel did as he seems to be teaching here?

  • 4
    Maybe he was nice to them when they first came in, but then lost his patience when they did something stupid. He only said to be מקבל, not necessarily to continue with סבר פנים יפות. (Not that I'm advocating that approach - הלכה כבית הלל.)
    – Heshy
    Commented Jul 16, 2018 at 21:27
  • 1
    @Heshy That's a very astute analysis. It certainly does fit with my answer.
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 16, 2018 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


This discrepancy is addressed in the footnotes of the collected lectures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Likutei Sichos Vol. 17 p. 114 note 37

ועד"ז יש לבאר במאמר שמאי אבות פ"א מט"ו הוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות אף שמצינו שהנהגתו היתה באופן הפכי בהנכרים שבאו להתגייר אצלו (שבת לא א) והרי במאמרו האדם (בה"א) כולל גם בני נח (תוד"ה ואין יבמות סא א)

אלא לאחר שאמר הלל (אבות שם מי"ב) הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן אוהב שלום כו' פעל גם על שמאי שהי' מבחי' הגבורות שגם הוא יאמר והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות אף שמצ"ע דחפו באמת הבנין (שבת שם

Here the explanation seems to be that Shammai was saying this as some kind of continuation of Hillel's statement of loving peace, even though it did not accord with his own actions.

Likutei Sichos Vol. 17 p. 354

להעיר מהנהגת שמאי (שבת לא א) וראה שושנים לדוד הובא בלקוטים למשניות כאן אבל י"ל דשאני התם שאם הי' מקבלו בספ"י הי' אפשר להנכרי לפרש שיש מקום דעתו

Here the explanation given is that there was a specific need to be harsh with the gentiles, namely, that they not think that their ideas were correct.

R. Gershon Chanoch Lapeh also raises this contradiction and says that there is a simple resolution. In Avos, Shammai refers to every אדם (man/person). However there is a Talmudic passage in Bava Metziah that says that gentiles are not called אדם. Thus, Shammai's adage did not apply to his situation in Maseches Shabbos:

Megachalei Hatorah Avos 1:15

שמאי אומר עשה תורתך קבע וכו' והוי מקבל כל אדם בסבר פנים יפות וראה בשבת לא ע"א ת"ר מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו כמה תורות יש לכם וכו' גער בו והוציאו בנזיפה בא לפני הלל גייריה וכו' שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי א"ל גיירני ע"מ שתלמדני וכו' דחפו באמת הבנין וכו' עי"ש וממעשה זה שראינו יש בו תמיהה מרובה על ההלכה של שמאי שסותר עצמו במעשיו ונראה לתרץ בס"ד ע"פ הנאמר בב"מ קיד ע"ב דתניא ר"ש אומר קבריהן של עכו"ם אין מטמאין שנאמר ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם אתם קרוין אדם ואין עכו"ם קרוין אדם (וע"ע בע"ז ג' ע"א בתוס' ד"ה כהנים) ולפי"ז פשוט שבאם עכו"ם לא נכללים בגדר אדם מובן המשנה הוי מקבל כל אדם בסבר פנים יפות אדם דייקא משא"כ נכרי וכדומה שאין הוא צריך לקבלם בסבר פנים יפות ודו"ק (ומצאתי שכן כתב השפ"א ותירץ בדרר אחר

R. Meir Yosef Katz in She'ar Yoseph on the Mishnah in Avos mentions a few possible resolutions:

  • Shammai's statement in Avos is indeed an admission that Hillel's approach to the gentiles was correct.
  • Shammai's statement was not applicable to converts who were trying to convert conditionally
  • Gentiles are not included in אדם
  • Shammai saw that the specific gentile was not an אדם
  • Most editions use the phrase "Kol HaAdam" meaning "all of the person". Thus, one could explain this to mean that when one greets someone, accept the "entire person" - the way that he is. I.e., don't hunt for faults.
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 13:52

You've asked a terrific question. This article provides good insight that Shammai's adage in Pirkei Avot and the situation described in Talmud Shabbat are not contradictory at all. Excerpts:

It is important to recognize, however, that Shammai was not merely exhibiting impatience and short-temperedness. He certainly did believe in greeting others cheerfully. Yet at times it is necessary to speak up for one’s values. A person who wants to become Jewish in order to wear the High Priest’s impressive vestments is seeing Judaism as nothing more than a stepping stone towards fashion and high society (this was an era in which much of the priestly class formed an aristocracy, fashioned after Hellenistic society)

Likewise, a person who expects to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot is in effect stating that in his mind the Torah is so shallow it can basically be condensed into a few meaningless generalities. The fellow was clearly looking for fast and easy inspiration, some quick- and-dirty spirituality which he could pick up through no effort of his own.

Shammai was hardly being impatient. He was simply standing up for what matters. In his mind, he had just witnessed a terrible affront to Judaism and all it stands for. And he was quick to tell the fellow that coming to a rabbi looking for sweet religious nothings basically misses (or attempts to ignore) the entire point of Judaism.

Mind you, Hillel had a very different approach to dealing with the Gentiles. So, this is not really a question of right vs. wrong. Theye are just two different approaches by two different people. However, Shammai's behavior, here, does not contradict his general adage to greet people cheerfully. Perhaps, for Shammai, this was an exception.

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