The 14th chapter of Romans has long been imagined as a supporting text for the removal or softening of Jewish law; specifically, dietary restrictions and holidays. However, a general introduction to certain Talmudic passages transforms our reading of the epistle and reaffirms its fidelity to Jewish tradition and law. Understood correctly, the passage in question can be celebrated as the earliest written record of certain customs reflecting the practices of Hillel and Shammai during the days of the zugot (a time just before the apostolic period).
The Honor of Shabbat:
Our Talmud describes contrasting ways in which the sages observed and magnified the Shabbat:
It was taught: They used to say about Shammai the elder that all his life he ate in honor of Shabbat. So, if he found a comely animal he would say: "Let this be for Shabbat." If he later found a more comely one, he would put aside the second for Shabbat and eat the first. But Hillel the elder had a different way, for all his deeds were for the sake of heaven, as it is said: "Blessed be the Lord day by day" (Tehilim 68:20). It was likewise taught: Bet Shammai say: From the first day of the week, prepare for Shabbat, but Bet Hillel say: "Blessed be the Lord day by day." (Betza 16a)It was the practice of Shammai to enhance his Shabbat observance in the eating of fine meats. The above passage explains that if Shammai had two animals he would select the finer of the two for his Shabbat eating. However, if for some reason, Shammai (or an adherent to his philosophy) had but one animal to slaughter he would reserve that animal for the Sabbath, voluntarily maintaining a vegetarian diet during the week. Because the Shabbat and its meals are holy, Shammai reasoned that weekdays and weekday eating are profane. For Shammai the only holiness found within a profane weekday was that it could be used to prepare for the holy Shabbat.
Conversely, Hillel viewed the practice of Shammai as evidencing a lack of faith. It was his custom to receive whatever Hashem provided daily, trusting that G-d would supply his needs for Shabbat as well. Hillel cited the verse “Bless my Lord day by day” as a support for his actions. From it he concluded that each day contained its own level of sanctity; the meat supplied on a given day should therefore be promptly accepted with thanksgiving. Hillel observed every day as holy and honored Shabbat as the holiest of them all. Although considering the custom of Shammai to lack faith, Hillel nevertheless respected Shammai inasmuch as his actions were for the sake of Heaven.
The Weak and the Strong:
The Apostle Paul, a student and practitioner of the philosophies taught by the school of Hillel (Acts 22:3), directed his students to do the same and encouraged a non-confrontational approach in the receiving of Beit Shammai members of the messianic community. His letter explains:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for G-d has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.After only a simple introduction to the practices of our pharisaic schools the intent and direction of our writer become clear. The text does not question the necessity of dietary restrictions and Shabbat observance but instead seeks to calm disputes regarding how to best amplify that observance. Continuing in the tradition of Hillel the elder, Paul considers those who abstain from eating more expensive foods during the “profane” days of the week to be lacking in faith and, nevertheless, judges favorably those who hold this custom inasmuch as what they do they do “unto the Lord.”
One person judges between days (ημεραν παρ ημεραν), another regards every day. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to G-d; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to G-d....I know and am convinced in the Master Yeshua that nothing is profane (κοινον) in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be profane, to him it is profane.