Hillel the Elder
Hillel (הלל) was a famous Jewish religious teacher who lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod around the beginning of the Common Era (d. 10-20 C.E.). He is one of the most important figures in Jewish history, associated with both the Mishnah and the Talmud. He was the founder of what was later known as the Beit Hillel ("House of Hillel"), a major and eventually dominant school of rabbinical thought.
Among Hillel's best-known statements are:
- "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Now go and learn." (Talmud: Shabbat 31a.)
- "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
Known for his mild and open-hearted approach to interpreting the spirit of the law, Hillel and his followers engaged in an often bitter battle against the strict-minded disciples of Shammai, Hillel's younger contemporary and successor as the president of the Sanhedrin, or ruling Jewish council. In the mid-first century C.E., Shammai's followers strongly influenced Jewish policy until their views were repudiated in the wake of the tragic Jewish rebellion against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. From about 80 C.E. until about the fifth century of the Common Era, Hillel's disciples formed an intellectual dynasty that determined much of the character of later Judaism.
Many scholars have noticed similarities between the sayings of Hillel and some of the teachings of Jesus, leading to speculation that Jesus was a hearer of Hillel or at least was influenced by his school.
Born in Babylon, Hillel is traditionally thought to be from the tribe of Benjamin on his father's side, and from the family of David on his mother's side. His family was not well off, and Hillel earned his living as a woodcutter (Hertz 1936). Josephus (Vita, § 38) speaks of Hillel's great-grandson, Shimon ben Gamliel I belonging to a very celebrated family, probably referring to the glory which the family owed to the activity of both Hillel and his famous grandson, Gamaliel, known to Christians for his defense of the disciples of Jesus in the Book of Acts (5:34-40).
Hillel's personal life was exemplary and virtuous, characterized by patience, civility, and compassion for his fellow man, including not only Jews but also Gentiles. He was a lover of peace, a capable teacher, and man of cheerful faith in God. Hillel's gentleness and patience are illustrated in an anecdote in which two men made a wager on the question whether Hillel could be made angry. Though they questioned him and made insulting allusions to his Babylonian origin, they were unsuccessful in their attempt (Shab. 31a).
As with most rabbis, stories of Hillel's life do not boast of miracles. However, his life history is difficult to separate from legend. In the Midrash Sifre the periods of Hillel's life are made parallel to those in the life of Moses. Both supposedly lived 120 years. At the age of 40, Hillel moved from Babylon to the Land of Israel. He spent 40 years in study, and the last third of his life was spent as the spiritual head of the Jewish people. While this account may be difficult to accept at face value, a biographical sketch can be constructed that Hillel went to Jerusalem in the prime of his life and attained a great age, spending his later years as head of the Sanhedrin and finally passing away around 10-20 C.E.
Hillel went to Jerusalem with the intention of studying biblical exposition and tradition. The difficulties which he had to overcome in order to be admitted to school and the hardships he suffered while pursuing his aim are told in a touching story. Hillel's family was so poor that they could not afford to enroll him at Jerusalem's yeshiva. Hill wanted to study so badly that in the winter he climbed up to the roof to observe the lesson through the school's skylight. He became so enthralled in the lesson that he forgot his bodily needs and became frozen in place. The next morning his body was discovered, still with life in it, but needing to be thawed out. (Yoma 35b)
As an adult Hillel made his reputation when he succeeded in settling a question concerning the sacrificial ritual in a manner which showed his superiority over the "sons of Betheira" who were at that time the heads of the Sanhedrin. They promptly resigned their control of the presidency of the Sanhedrin in favor of Hillel. He was thereby recognized as the highest authority among the Pharisees.
Hillel's authority was sufficient to introduce several decrees which were handed down in his name. The most famous of his enactments was the pruzbul, an institution which ensured the repayment of loans in spite of the law concerning cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15). This institution protected both the creditor against the loss of his property, and the needy against being refused loans. Hillel's inclusiveness was demonstrated by his affirming the legitimacy of certain Alexandrian Jews whose origin was disputed and by interpreting the marriage document of their mother in her favor (Tosef., Ket. 4:9). He was open to discourse with the poor, with sinners, and with Gentiles.
Love of one's fellow man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching. Perhaps his most famous saying was "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow." The feeling of love for one's neighbor shows itself also in his exhortation: "Pass not judgment upon thy neighbor until thou hast put thyself in his place." (Avot 2:4)
From the doctrine of man's being created in the image of God, Hillel deduced man's duty to care for his own body. He said: "The bathing of the body is a duty of man, who was created in the image of the almighty King of the world." (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah) Hillel called the soul a "guest on earth," toward which one must fulfill the duties of charity.
One of his most famous sayings was: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" The first two of these questions show Hillel's commitment to stand in the integrity of one's conscience, while the third part represents an admonition not to postpone one's duty. In a similar vein, he said: "Say not, 'When I have time I shall study,' for you may perhaps never have any leisure."
Hillel emphasized that one should not separate oneself from one's community and counseled moderation. In a paraphrase of Eccl. 3:4, he said, "Appear neither naked nor clothed, neither sitting nor standing, neither laughing nor weeping." (Tosef., Ber. 2) He also advised humility in all things, "Trust not in thy spiritual strength until the day of thy death." (Avot 2:4)
Several anecdotes speak of Hillel helping people to turn to God, whether they were Jews or Gentiles. The most famous of these stories tells of his teaching a summary of the Torah to a non-Jew while standing on one leg (see "Hillel and Shammai," below). According to another tradition, Hillel stood in the gate of Jerusalem one day and asked two men on their way to work: "How much, will you earn to-day?" "A denarius," says one. "Two denarii," said another. "What will you do with the money?" Hillel inquired. "We will provide for the necessities of life," they replied. Then said he to them: "Would you not rather come and make the Torah your possession, that you may possess both this and the world to come?"
This narrative makes a similar to point to Hillel's statements in (Avot. 2:7) such as: "The more flesh, the more worms," and "Whoever has acquired the words of the Law has acquired the life of the world to come." Hillel also sounds a warning against neglecting or abusing study of the Torah, saying: "Whoever would make a name loses the name; he who increases not [his knowledge] decreases; whoever learns not is worthy of death; whoever makes use of the crown perishes." (Avot. 1:13).
Hillel and Shammai
Hillel is also known for his opposition to his Judaean colleague and successor, Shammai. Despite Hillel's own careful observance of the Jewish law, in these debates, he generally advocated milder interpretations of Halakha (Jewish law and tradition). The difference between the two great teachers is epitomized in a famous story concerning a Gentile who wished to understand the law:
The man first approached Shammai, asking that the teacher provide him with a summary of the Torah while standing on one foot. Known in later years as a fierce opponent of commerce with Gentiles, Shammai took offense at the request and drove the man away with a measuring rod. When the man went Hillel, however, the sage saw his request not as a offense but as an opportunity. Standing on one leg, Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Shab. 31a) A paraphrase of this teaching was later taken up by Jesus of Nazareth, who said "do to others what you would have them do to you for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Mt 7:12)
After Hillel's death, his disciples stood in strong opposition and often bitter to Shammai's. Shammai became the head of the Sanhedrin after Hillel and the House of Shammai became dominant in the years preceding the Jewish rebellion of 66 C.E. The revolt ended in disaster, and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish religious life led to the rabbinical tradition emerging as the primary Jewish authority. Partly because Hillel's disciples opposed confrontation with Rome, while Shammai's opted for war, the exhortation to love peace became came to be known as particularly characteristic of Hillel. The Talmud therefore counsels: "Let a man be always humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai." (Shab. 31a)
In the Talmud, Hillel is generally viewed as the founder of the rabbinical tradition, and modern-day Judaism thus sees itself as the spiritual descendant of this “School of Hillel.” The world's largest Jewish campus organization is the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. It is established at more than 500 colleges and universities.
Hillel figures prominently in the Passover Seder liturgy and is thus fondly remembered each year by Jewish children and parents. The Passover Haggadah instructs participants to take the matzo and make a sandwich of bitter herbs, eating them together while saying:
"This is a remembrance of Hillel in Temple times. This is what Hillel did when the Temple existed: he used to enwrap the Paschal lamb, the matzo, and the bitter herbs, and eat them as one." In the Ashkenazi tradition the usual practice is to do this by making a matzo and lettuce/horseradish sandwich, known as the “Hillel sandwich.”
Hillel and Jesus
The similarity of some of Hillel's saying to some of those of Jesus is obvious:
- Hillel said: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah." Jesus said: "Do unto to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12)
- Hillel said: "Pass not judgment upon thy neighbor until thou hast put thyself in his place." Jesus said, "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned." (Luke 6:37)
- Hillel said: "Whoever would make a name loses the name… whoever makes use of the crown perishes." Jesus said: Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." (Luke 32:33)
In addition, several of Hillel’s general attitudes were similar to those of Jesus, for example his openness to discourse with Gentiles, his emphasis on the spirit of the law over the letter of the law, his humility and gentleness of spirit, and his compassion for the poor. This has led some to speculate that Jesus was influenced by the teachings of Hillel, if not directly, at least through the sayings popularized by Hillel's school.
While the Gospels generally portray the Pharisees as enemies of Jesus, their objections are often based on points important to the House of Shammai rather than the House of Hillel, such as association with sinners, strict interpretation of the dietary and Sabbath laws, etc. Questioned by certain Pharisees, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:30-32) Since tax collectors work for Rome, this confrontation makes less sense if the Pharisees were Hillel's followers, who favored coexistence with Rome, but much more sense if these Pharisees belonged to the House of Shammai, which disdained the Romans and their collaborators.
The Gospels also refer to at least one Pharisee who supported and defended Jesus, while none of the Pharisees who persecuted him are named. Nicodemus is named as the Pharisee and Sanhedrin member who defended Jesus when the council considered arresting him. (John 7:50ff) Joseph of Arimathea, though not identified specifically as a Pharisee, is named as a Sanhedrin member (Mark 15:43) and a secret disciple (John 19:38) of Jesus. The Book of Acts portrays the grandson of Hillel, Gamaliel, as a Sanhedrin leader who saved the disciples from death. (Acts 5:34) The same Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts as the former teacher of the Apostle Paul (Acts 22:3).
Some scholars have suggested that the attitude of animosity shown by Jesus to the Pharisees—heaping "woes" upon them and calling them "blind guides" and "hypocrites"—is a reflection of the time that the Gospel stories were formulated in the mid-first century C.E. This was the period when the House of Shammai was in control of the Sanhedrin and groups that favored peaceful coexistence with Rome—whether Hillelite or Jewish-Christian—faced bitter opposition from a coalition of Shammaite fundamentalists and violent Zealots.
Finally, an intriguing possibility is suggested during Jesus’ childhood, in the episode in which he visits the Temple of Jerusalem at age 12 and carries out a discourse "in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." (Luke 2:41-48) Since most scholars put Jesus' birth at somewhere around 4 B.C.E., this would put the episode in the period in which Hillel was still alive and acting in the role of nasi, or Sanhedrin president. Luke reports that Jesus, at 12, “amazed” the teachers he encountered, while his parents Mary and Joseph apparently neglected him and took no notice of what he had been doing. One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Jesus' parents had supported his continued discourse with and long-term instruction by the teachers in the Temple, perhaps including the Hillel the Elder himself.
- Buxbaum, Yitzhak. The Life and Teachings of Hillel. Jason Aronson, 1994. ISBN 9781568210490
- Charlesworth, James H. Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders. Fortress Press, 1997. ISBN 9780800625641
- Cohen, Abraham. Everyman's Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages. New York: Schocken; Reprint edition, 1995. ISBN 9780805210323
- Neusner, Jacob. The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70, Part I: The Masters. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005. ISBN 9781597524124
- The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70, Part II: The Houses. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005. ISBN 9781597524131
- Saldarini, James C. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, New edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. ISBN 9780802843586
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Hillel. www.jewishencyclopedia.com Retrieved May 17, 2007.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. www.jewishencyclopedia.com Retrieved May 17, 2007.
- Hillel Foundation web site. www.hillel.org Retrieved May 17, 2007.
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