Hillel the Elder
It is said that one day, Hillel and the other sages were assembled at Jericho. Suddenly, a voice spoke from heaven: "Among those present here is one upon whom the Holy Spirit would have rested, if this time were worthy of it." All eyes were fixed on Hillel.
Orthodox Jewish tradition does not say things like this lightly. So who exactly was this man who was praised in such high terms?
"In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man."
We can build up some sort of a picture of the life of Hillel the Elder from the many stories and sayings that are scattered through the Talmudic literature and later traditions. He was born around 70 B.C.E. in Babylonia, to a reasonably wealthy Jewish family (his brother Shebna was a successful merchant). In his thirties, he travelled to Israel during the reign of Herod the Great to study the Law under the greatest teachers of the time - Shemayah and Avtalion. Despite his being an outsider and a newcomer to the academies, Hillel was recognised as the leader of the Pharisees after the death of Avtalion when he was 40, around the year 30 B.C.E. The depth of his learning was so great that the Bene Bathyra - the heads of the academy - resigned their positions in his favour. He spent the last third of his life as the acknowledged spiritual leader of Israel, and died sometime around 10 C.E.
Clearly, a most remarkable career. But the stories and traditions themselves paint a picture of a man who was even more remarkable than a dry recitation of his accomplishments would suggest.
"Do not say, 'I will study when I have time', for you may never have the time."
Hillel was poor when he came to Jerusalem to study under Shemayah and Avtalion. He found work, for one tropaik a day. Half of this he spent for his family's food and shelter, and the other half to obtain entrance to the House of Learning.
Yet one day dawned when he found no work, and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter. So Hillel climbed up and sat upon the window to hear the words of the living God from the mouth of Shemayah and Avtalion. That day, they say, was the eve of Shabbat in the winter solstice, and snow fell down upon him from heaven.
When the dawn rose that Shabbat morning, Shemayah said to Avtalion: "Brother Avtalion, on every day this house is light but today it is dark. Is it perhaps a cloudy day?" They looked up and saw the figure of a man in the window. They went up and found Hillel covered by three cubits of snow.
It was the Shabbat, but still they removed him, bathed and anointed him, and placed him opposite the fire, and they said: "For this man's sake, it is worth profaning the Shabbat."
In later life, long after he had shown his superiority in learning over the Bene Bathyra in a dispute over the Passover observance, Hillel would stand in the gate of Jerusalem one day and speak to the people that were on their way to work. "How much," he asked, "will you earn to-day?" One said: "A tropaik"; the second: "Two tropaiks."
"What will you do with the money?" he asked. They answered: "We will provide for the necessities of life." Then he said to them: "Would you not instead come and make the Torah your possession, that you may possess both this and the future world?"
It was said about Shammai the Elder that all his life he ate in honour of the Shabbat. Thus if he found a well favoured animal, he said, "Let this be for Shabbat." If afterwards he found one better favoured, he put aside the second for Shabbat and ate the first.
But Hillel the Elder had a different trait, for all his works were for the sake of heaven. And he said, "Blessed be the Lord, day by day"
Hillel's love of the Torah was far removed from the overweeningly legalistic ritualism that many writers are fond of portraying Pharisaic Judaism as being. To Hillel, the purpose of the law was to enable people to live for the sake of God. Where others treated the profane as being nothing more than necessities to get through to the holy, Hillel treated the profane as something that could be joined to the sacred, so that we continue to live the everyday life but in recognition and celebration of the element of holiness that is concealed within it. "If I am here — so says God — every one is here; if I am not here, nobody is here."
Once when he concluded his studies with his disciples, he walked along with them. His disciples asked him: "Master, where are you going?" He answered: "To perform a religious duty."
"What is this religious duty, Master?" they asked. "To wash in the bath-house," he replied.
"Is that a religious duty, Master?" they asked. "Yes," he replied, "if the statues of kings, which are erected in theatres and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, how much more so I, who have been created in the Divine image?"
"Be among the disciples of Aaron: Love peace and pursue peace
Love your fellow creatures and bring them near to Torah."
Hillel's learning was great. He first fixed the norms of the Midrash and of Halacha. The thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael that form the basis of Jewish Scripture exposition were based on the seven rules, which he devised in the dispute where he overcame the Bene Bathyra. But Hillel also loved mankind as much as he loved the Law. He is said to have admonished other teachers of his time: "Separate not yourself from your congregation." Every man had a duty to care for himself, but it was also each man's duty to care for his fellow men, in the here and now and not as a future obligation. "If I am not for myself, who is for me? and if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when?".
Hillel himself lived by this principle, as did his family. Jewish tradition relates that once an honoured guest visited Hillel, and Hillel's wife prepared a special meal for him. But then she saw a poor man, with ragged clothes and sad countenance outside the house. She went to him, and gave him the meal she had just prepared.
"My humiliation is my exaltation and my exaltation is my humiliation."
Hillel was held in such high esteem by his people that even Herod the Great did not dare harm him, when Hillel refused to make the oath of allegiance which Herod had demanded under penalty of death. But for all this, he was gentle, humble, and kind.
A man once bet four hundred zouzim that he would make Hillel lose his temper. So close upon Sabbath-eve, when Hillel was washing himself, the man rushed to his door and shouted, "Is Hillel here? Is Hillel here?" Hillel wrapped his mantle around him, and sallied forth to see what the man wanted. "I want to ask you a question," the man said. "Ask on, my son," said Hillel. The man asked, "Why do the Babylonians have such round heads?" "This is a very important question, my son," said Hillel. "The reason is because their midwives are not clever."
The man went away, but after an hour he returned. "Is Hillel here? Is Hillel here?". As before, Hillel again wrapped his mantle around him and went out, meekly asking: "What now, my son?"
"I want to know," the man said, "why the people of Tadmor are weak-eyed." Hillel replied, "This is an important question, my son. The reason is that they live in a sandy country."
Away went the man, but in another hour's time he returned as before.
"Is Hillel here? Is Hillel here?"
Out came Hillel again, as gentle as ever. "And what now, my son?"
"I have a question to ask," said the man. "Ask on, my son," said Hillel. "Well, why do the Africans have such broad feet?" said he. "This is a very important question, my son", said Hillel. "It is because they live in a marshy land."
"I have so many more questions to ask," said the man, "but I am afraid that I'll only try your patience and make you angry."
Hillel drewing his mantle around him and sat down. "Ask all you desire, my son".
"Are you Hillel," said the man, "whom they call a prince in Israel?"
"Yes," was the reply. "Well," said the man, "then I pray there are no more like you in Israel!"
"Why," said Hillel, "how is that?"
"Because," said the man, "I have bet four hundred zouzim that I could make you lose your temper, and now I have lost them all thanks to you."
"Well, my son, then your money was well spent," said Hillel, "for learn this if nothing else. You may lose four hundred and four times four hundred, but Hillel will not lose his temper."
"Do not judge your fellow creature until you have come into his position."
Hillel's concern for the immediate, daily needs of his people was also reflected in his legal rulings. It was the law in Israel then that all debts should be forgiven in the Shmitta year, or Sabbatical year. The effect of this rule was that people were unwilling to lend money to one another as the Sabbatical year was coming near, with the result that poor people had nowhere to turn. Hillel intervened in this situation with a new legal instrument: the prozbul.
The prozbul is a legal device which, in effect, transfers a private debt to the beth din, the Jewish court. The Sabbatical year only cancels debts between people, and not money owed to the court. In addition, the court had the power to transfer its assets to individuals, and give them the power to collect it. Hillel in effect had devised a system for avoiding the consequences of the Sabbatical year, protecting the creditor against the loss of his property, and the needy against being refused the loan of money for fear of loss.
The school of Shammai says: "Do not teach a man unless he is wise and meek and the son of wealthy parents!"
The school of Hillel says: "Teach every man! For there were many sinners in Israel who were led to study Torah, from whom came righteous and pious and worthy men."
More than anything, Hillel's abiding popularity was because he knew how to reach out to people - to everyone, not just the pious - and fill their spiritual needs. Once it happened that a foreigner wanted to become a Jew. He went to Shammai, and asked him: "How many Torahs are there for you?" Shammai answered: "Two, one written Torah and one oral Torah." The foreigner then said: "I can trust you on what is written, but not what is oral. I will become a Jew if you teach me only the written Torah."
Shammai was furious, and chased the foreigner away with the builder's rule which he had in his hand.
Now the foreigner went to Hillel, and told him the same thing. Hillel immediately made him a Jew, and told him to come back to learn. The foreigner came back the next day, and Hillel began teaching him the Hebrew alphabet thus: "Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth." But when the foreigner came back the next day, Hillel inverted the letters' names. The foreigner protested: "But yesterday you told it to me differently!" Hillel smiled and answered: "So you trust my oral teaching on this? Then trust it on the law as well."
"What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire law. The rest is commentary."
Another foreigner came to Shammai once, and said to him: "I will become a Jew if you teach me the entire law while I'm standing here on one foot." Shammai was furious, and chased him away with the builder's rule in his hand.
The man then went to Hillel, and told him the same thing. Hillel immediately made him a Jew, and told him: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire law. The rest is commentary. Now go, and learn."
The school of Shammai says: "There will be three groups on Judgment Day: one that is completely righteous, one that is completely wicked, and one that is in between. The completely righteous will be recorded and sealed at once for eternal life. The completely wicked will be recorded and doomed at once to Gehinnom... Those in between will go down to Gehinnom and cry out and rise up."
But the school of Hillel says: "He who is Master of grace tends towards grace."
The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Hillel ends with a long paragraph pointing out that for all the wisdom attributed to Hillel, he was never more than a teacher and never showed the qualities the Son of God did. Indeed. No miracles are attributed to Hillel, nor has legend given him glory and lordship. Instead, he is remembered by posterity as he lived: a a great teacher of gentle personality and deep spiritual insight, who was distinguished by his kindness, wisdom, humility, and deep concern for humanity.
"He who tries to make great his name, destroys his name.
He who does not increase, decreases.
He who lives in reliance on his crown perishes."
The stories contained here are, for the most part, from the Mishna and gemara of the Talmud Bavli, but also from the Tosefta and miscellaneous Midrashim as well as later oral traditions. All direct quotes are from the body of sayings attribted to Hillel in the Jewish writings.