This week we’ve discussed the different practices of Hillel and Shammai regarding their Shabbat preparations, as noted by the Gemara in Masekhet Beitza (16a). Shammai would earmark for Shabbat any especially high-quality food product he came across during the week, and if he later found an even higher-quality product, he reserved the second one for Shabbat and ate the first. The Gemara relates that Hillel, “all of whose actions were for the sake of Heaven,” acted differently. He enjoyed the high-quality products he chanced upon that day, trusting that God would provide another in time for Shabbat.
A number of writers raised the question of why the Gemara describes Hillel in this context as somebody “all of whose actions were for the sake of Heaven.” How does this unique quality – performing every action solely for the sake of God, rather than for one’s personal benefit – relate to Hillel’s practice of trusting that God would provide quality products for Shabbat?
Chatam Sofer suggests that it was precisely because all of Hillel’s actions were done for a lofty purpose that he immediately partook of quality foods to which he had access, rather than reserve it for Shabbat, as Shammai did. Hillel agreed with Shammai, in principle, that if one happens to find a high-quality product, it should be earmarked for Shabbat, as a way of showing proper respect and honor for Shabbat. However, in the case of an exceptionally pious person, such as Hillel, whose physical actions are all performed solely for sacred purposes, and not simply for enjoyment, such a person should make use of the food in the present. For a righteous individual of this caliber, eating and all other bodily activities constitute mitzvot, religious acts. As such, if such a person has access to quality food, he should eat it that day – because this eating, like all that person’s physical actions, is a mitzva act. The individual in such a case has the opportunity to perform a mitzva now in the present, and he should therefore seize this opportunity, rather than set the item aside for Shabbat.
Chatam Sofer notes that this interpretation of the Gemara explains why Rashi, in his Torah commentary, appears to follow Shammai’s opinion. As we’ve noted earlier this week, Rashi (based on the Mekhilta) understands the command, “Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat” (“Remember the day of Shabbat – Shemot 20:7) to mean that one should be mindful of Shabbat throughout the week, and reserve for Shabbat exceptionally high-quality products that he comes across. Already the Ramban raised the question of why Rashi would follow the view of Shammai, when Halakha virtually always accepts Hillel’s position in his disputes with Shammai. Chatam Sofer notes that according to his approach to explaining Hillel’s practice, the answer is clear. Hillel agreed that for the vast majority of people, Shammai’s practice is correct. It is only somebody whose every action can truly be considered a “mitzva” that should make use of quality products he comes across, seizing the opportunity they offer to perform a sacred religious act in the present, rather than setting them aside for Shabbat.