KING HEROD inaugurated his reign with the slaughter of all the outstanding scholars in the country. He destroyed them, just as he annihilated the Hasmonean dynasty, out of conviction that they would challenge his right to the throne. He knew that the scholars secretly called him the “Idumean slave” and that because of the fact that he was married to a Hasmonean princess, in order to establish a Herodian-Hasmonean dynasty, they established a rule that whoever pretends to be of Hasmonean descent is a slave.
But since Herod could not under any circumstances abolish the Torah, he had to recognize the religious authority of the Sanhedrin. His first attempt was to appoint the men of Bathyra to head the Sanhedrin but these voluntarily resigned in favor of Hillel of Babylonia. Herod was thus forced by circumstances to recognize the significance of Hillel and to tolerate his control of the religious life even as he previously was forced to spare the aged Shemaiah and Abtalion.
The appelation Babylonian clearly indicates that Hillel was born in Babylonia; in order to differentiate him from other scholars who were named Hillel he was also called Hillel the Old.
When Hillel came to Palestine he was in his late thirties and already possessed much knowledge. He came to the country in order to clarify for himself three religious questions of which he was in doubt. These were: 1) Whether a man who underwent purification had to be declared pure by a priest or whether the procedure of purification was sufficient. 2) The disagreement between two texts of the Bible one of which says that the Paschal offering is to be made from sheep and cattle and the other states that the offering is to be selected from the sheep and the goats. 3) The contradiction between two texts one of which enjoins that Matzoth be eaten for six days and the other that they should be eaten for seven days.1)ירושלמי פּסחים פרק ו׳ הלכה א׳.
He sought clarification on these questions from Shemaiah and Abtalion and was ready to return to Babylonia, where he lived in favorable circumstances. He had one brother who was a merchant and his other relatives undoubtedly also aided him. But his great desire for learning delayed his return and as time went by it still seemed to him that he did not know enough. He thus became estranged from his native country where Jews lived in peace and he was not frightened by the discord and political revolutions which agitated Palestine.
The Babylonian Jews of that time were pious and God fearing people who observed all the regulations of Judaism in so far as that could be done outside of Palestine. They were especially strict in their observance of the Sabbath to its minutest details and they sent their “Shkolim” and sacrifices to Jerusalem. But there was a lack of colleges for the study of the Torah and the Babylonian Jews were therefore held in contempt by the Palestinian Jews for their ignorance. In addition both Babylonian and Palestinian Jews believed that only in Palestine could the religious regulations be correctly interpreted and any regulation which did not have the sanction of the Great Court of Jerusalem was not accepted by the people.
While studying with Shemaiah and Abtalion, Hillel lived in straitened circumstances and earned his livelihood from hard labor. Altogether he earned but a small coin a day, half of which he spent for himself and his household and the other half he gave to the gate keeper of the academy. But one day he did not earn any money. Neither he nor his family ate on that day but, being anxious to hear the discourse of Shemaiah and Abtalion and not having the money to pay the gate keeper, Hillel climbed onto the roof of the academy and lay near the chimney where he could hear the discussion inside. All night he thus lay on the roof. This was in the month of Tebeth in midwinter and all that night it snowed and the snow covered his whole body to a great height.
On the following morning the academy seemed darker than usual. The sky light was covered with snow, but when the people looked closer they saw the body of a man under the snow. They immediately went up and removed the snow and recognized the man as Hillel. They washed him and annointed his body with oil and warmed him before the fire. Although such work is prohibited on the Sabbath the scholars declared that a man like Hillel deserved that the Sabbath be desecrated for his sake.2)יומא ל״ה ב׳.
All this time Hillel did not reveal his great knowledge. Besides Shemaiah and Abtalion no one knew him intimately, neither did he confide in anyone whether he and his household were in need.
After the death of Shemaiah and Abtalion he apparently returned to Babylonia but he frequently visited Jerusalem whenever any doubt arose in his mind. Mostly he came before the feast days in observance of the commandment to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but he always kept in the background. Once, on the eve of Passover, which occurred on a Saturday, the men of Bathyra, who were the religious authorities, were in doubt whether the Paschal lamb offering should supersede the Sabbath or whether it should not be offered at all because of it. One of their pupils rose and said to them: “There is present a man from Babylonia who studied under Shemaiah and Abtalion; he will certainly know the law.” But the men of Bathyra nodded their heads as if to say: “What can one learn from a Babylonian?”
Nevertheless they summoned Hillel and asked him what should be done. Hillel said: “Are you concerned about the Paschal lamb only when there are many other sacrifices offered on the Sabbath?” He expounded the rules of the Torah all day to prove that the Paschal lamb offering supersedes the Sabbath. Still they would not listen to him until he said that he received the law from Shemaiah and Abtalion.
They then asked him: “What should be done if the people do not bring the slaughtering knives? For even if the offering of the sacrifice supersedes the Sabbath it still remains prohibited to carry any object on that day.” Hillel then replied: “I do not remember what Shemaiah and Abtalion taught in this matter but I am certain that the people will know the law, for whenever there is any doubt what to do one should observe the custom of the people and decide the law accordingly.”
On the following day, Passover eve, it happened just as Hillel predicted. The people brought their sacrifices and had the slaughtering knives hidden in the wool of the lambs and among the horns of the goats. When Hillel saw this he remembered that Shemaiah and Abtalion instructed that it should be done so.3)פּסחים ס״ו א׳, ירושלמי פּסחים פרק וי הלכה א׳.
Hillel was the first of the authors of the Mishnah who insisted that the object of religion is to enforce the fulfillment of the duties of one man toward another and that all practical commandments are but a means to this end. He therefore established the principle of brotherly love as the main condition for all the commandments of the Torah. Once, when a Gentile wanted to adopt Judaism on one condition, that he be taught the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot, Hillel gave him but one rule: Do not unto thy neighbor what you would not have him do unto you. This is the whole Jewish law, he said. All else are but commentaries on their commandment which you will know when you study them.4)שבת ל״א א׳.
Hillel was very gentle in his relations with other people and suffered their capricious behavior without anger. He particularly insisted on showing friendship to the poor. Not only did he provide them with necessities but also with such luxuries as they were previously unused to. Once he provided a poor man with a horse and a slave to run before him, as was the custom. However, when he could not obtain a slave, he ran before the man himself for three miles.5)כתובות ס״ז א׳.
Hillel’s modesty and unusual patience gained wide renown and many interesting stories were told of futile attempts to make him angry. After the person who wanted to learn the whole Jewish law while standing on one foot, there appeared before Hillel a heathen who was ready to embrace Judaism on condition that he be made high priest. Hillel answered both of them satisfactorily and converted them.
Probably the most interesting story concerns a man who wagered a large sum of money on angering Hillel. The man ran before Hillel’s house on a Friday, just as the time that Hillel was bathing in preparation for the Sabbath. In a loud voice he shouted: “Hillel, who is Hillel and where is he?” Hillel wrapped himself in a cloak and came out saying: “I am Hillel. What do you want, my son?”
“I want to ask you a question,” the man said.
“Ask,” Hillel replied, “and whatever I know I will tell you.”
“I want to know,” the man said, “why the Babylonians have round heads.”
“You asked a correct question,” Hillel answered. “It is because the Babylonians do not have skilled midwives; the heads of the newborn children become rounded in their hands.”
A moment later the man shouted again: “Hillel, where is Hillel?”
Again Hillel came out and said: “I am Hillel. What do you want, my son?”
“Can you tell me,” the man asked, “why the eyes of the people of Tadmor are weak?”
“You have asked well,” Hillel said; “it is because Tadmor is located in a sandy region and dust gets into people’s eyes.”
Once more the man shouted: “Hillel, where is Hillel?”
Hillel wrapped himself and came out saying: “Here I am, what do you want, my son?”
“I want to know,” the man said, “why the feet of the Africans are so wide.”
“It is a good question,” Hillel said, “it is a result of their going barefoot in swampy land.”
Thereupon the man said: “I wish to ask you other questions but I fear that you will be angry.”
“You may ask as many questions as you want and I shall answer them to the best of my knowledge,” Hillel said.
“Are you Hillel, who is a Nasi among Jews?” the man exclaimed.
“I am he,” Hillel replied.
“Then I wish the Jews that there should be no more like you among them,” the man said.
“Why do you wish them this?” Hillel asked.
“Because through you I have lost a large sum of money. I wagered that I will make you angry and now I do not know what to do to anger you.”
To this Hillel replied, “Even if you were to lose twice that sum, still you could not anger me.”6)שבת ל׳ ב׳.
Hillel served as Nasi from 30 B.C. to 10 C.E. In the prevailing political situation of the country it was significant that Hillel was a descendant of king David. (His mother was descended from Shefatia, the son of David.) The people considered him a scion of the royal house of David and accorded him appropriate honors. While everyone looked upon Herod as a tyrant whose only aim was to collect taxes for the foreign rulers and to protect the boundaries of the land, they revered Hillel as a religious leader and obeyed his every word. It was then that the benediction of the House of David, ending with the words, “He raises a ray of hope,” was introduced into the daily prayers (Shmoneh Esrei) and it is possible that the people looked upon Hillel’s exalted position as a beginning of the restoraion of the House of David. This was also the cause for the introduction of still another benediction, to be recited on Saturday after the reading of the prophets, which began with the words: “Gladden us, oh Lord, with the prophet Elijah, your servant, and with the kingdom of David your anointed” and ended with: “On his throne a stranger shall not sit nor shall others inherit his honor.”
From Hillel were descended three generations of N’siim who governed religious life for one hundred years. For the outside world Herod and his successors were the sovereigns of the country but the internal life of the nation, which concentrated about the faith, was guided by Hillel’s heirs.
Herod no doubt knew of the honor which was being accorded to Hillel and that he was looked upon as a successor of David, But in his political sagacity he realized that Hillel would constitute a real danger only if he claimed to be a descendant of the Hasmoneans.
In later generations Hillel’s importance was compared to that of Ezra. It was said that Ezra renewed the Torah after it was forgotten by the people and similarly Hillel came out of Babylonia and taught the Torah which was neglected after the death of Shemaiah and Abtalion.
The Talmud relates: Eighty of the most important men of the generation were pupils of Hillel. Thirty of these were worthy enough to have the “Shechinah” rest upon them even as it rested upon Moses. Another thirty were deserving to have the sun stop in its course for their sake even as it did for Joshua b. Nun. The remaining twenty were intermediate men and among them were such as Jonathan b. Uziel of whom it was said that his enthusiasm in studying the Torah was so great that were a bird to fly by him when he was expounding the law it would have been burnt by the flames of his enthusiasm.7)סוכה כ״ח א׳.
Aside from his humility and patience Hillel was also noted for being satisfied with his lot and he was in the habit of saying: “Blessed be God for this day.” He was never worried over what the following day might bring and taught the members of his household to feel likewise. Once, as he was approaching his house, he heard shouts coming from that direction and he said to his disciples who were accompanying him to his home: “I am certain that these quarrel-some shouts do not come from my home.”8)ברכות ס׳ א׳.
In his moral teachings he frequently used picturesque language and employed short epigrammatic maxims. It is therefore difficult at times to know his exact meaning, since these maxims can be interpreted in various ways. But this does not diminish their moral worth since, no matter how one interprets them, they still express elevated moral teachings which are an honor for the whole people which could produce a personality like Hillel in such difficult times as then prevailed.
One of his maxims stated: “Wherever my heart loves, there my feet lead me; if you will come to me then will I also come to you, but if you do not come to me neither can I come to you.” This maxim has been interpreted in many ways and many people found in it that which they sought.
Nearly every day, as he left his pupils, he was in the habit of saying that he was going to entertain a guest. Once they asked him: “Do you have a guest at home every day?” and he replied: “Our soul is only a guest with us; today it is here and tomorrow it may leave us.”9)ויקרא רבה ל״ד ג׳.
But when Hillel spoke of entertaining a guest, he did not have in mind only food and drink, although he never underestimated these and said that it is a great virtue to preserve God’s image in man in the same purity as it was created. But he particularly insisted that man is obliged to perfect his spiritual self, for if a man does not do so himself no one will do it for him. To this he added that one man for himself counts for little and he must also have the assistance of others, and he stressed the importance of the present moment in one’s life, for if not now, when?
Hillel firmly believed that there was no unjust suffering and even when it seemed that divine justice was wrong one must bear in mind that all one’s deeds are reckoned and that one receives his punishment at the hands of another sinful creature. Once he saw a head floating upon the water. It was a time of many murders; Herod frequently allowed many people to be executed and had their bodies thrown into the water. Hillel believed that if those people had not deserved it, God would not have permitted their being killed but, at the same time, he was convinced that the murderers would also meet their punishment. He therefore addressed the floating head: “You drowned others and therefore you were drowned; but in the end your assassins will also be drowned.”10)סוכה נ״ג א׳.
Hillel placed learning in the very center of the scheme of life and he said that whoever refuses to study deserves to be condemned to death. Also, he insisted that one must not say “I will study when I will have time, for it is possible that one will never find the time. Study, he maintained, also leads to fear of God and he who is ignorant cannot be pious. But a person who devotes himself to learning in order to gain a great name for himself is certain to lose his name.
With all the power at his command Hillel strove to popularize the Torah. He said: “When others gather, you must spread; but when others spread, you must gather.” Seeing that the people did not understand him he explained his words in this manner: “When you see a generation which loves the Torah then you must spread your knowledge among them; but if you see a generation which does not love the Torah then you must hide your knowledge within yourself.”11)ברכות ס״ג א׳.
In his exposition of the law Hillel was tolerant toward his opponents. This was contrary to the custom of the scholars of that generation who did not tolerate any divergence of opinion and sharply reacted to differing interpretations. Hillel expressed his opinions peacefully and when he tried to prove the truth of his statements he did so in a calm manner. He said that man must love peace and search for it. When one attains the state of love for his fellow man he brings other people closer to the Torah.
Although Hillel was devoted to the traditions of the “oral law,” he did not attack those who doubted them. He never drove the doubters from himself, as others did, but merely sought to convince them that it was impossible to observe the written law without recognizing the validity of the oral law. Once a heathen came to him saying that he wanted to embrace Judaism on condition that he learn the written law only. Hillel accepted him and then he showed him that it was impossible to study anything without accepting the opinions of one’s teacher. The proselyte understood that since he had to believe Hillel he also had to accept Hillel’s belief that the written law cannot be explained without the aid of the oral law.
The scholars preceding Hillel opposed the Sadducees violently but achieved little. Even Simeon b. Shetach, who opposed the Sadducees with the force of the government, could not prevail against them. But Hillel’s method of peaceful argumentation served its purpose. He said of them: “There were many sinners among the Jews who were brought close to the study of the Torah and in time they became pious and just men.”
So far as we know, Hillel was the first of the Tanaim to establish a system of expounding the laws of the Torah that was based on rules of logic or “measures according to which the Torah was expounded,” as they were called in the Talmud. There were seven rules defined by Hillel.
We may assume that Hillel did not invent these seven rules (or measures) without a definite foundation. These rules were employed before him. But when Hillel analyzed the method of interpreting the texts of the Torah that was employed by his predecessors, he discovered that the interpretations and expositions of the previous scholars followed a definite system of logical rules.
Hillel established seven rules but his successors increased the number of these rules. Rabbi Ishmael defined thirteen; Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Jose Hagalili identified as many as thirty-two rules.
Hillel’s seven rules of logic for interpreting the Torah are as follows: 1) קל וחומר — argument from minor to major and vice versa. 2) גזרה שוה — argument by analogy. 3) בנין אב — a standard passage serving as a basis for interpretation. 4) כלל ופּרט — general and particular limitation of the general by the particular and vice versa. 5) שני כתובים — standard from two passages — a decision involving two laws having a common characteristic is applied to other laws having the same characteristics. 6) כיוצא בו ממקום אחר — like that in another place — explanation of one passage according to another of similar content. 7) דבר הלמד מענינו — definition from context.*Of the traditional reverence in which these rules were held we learn from a statement in the Talmud which says: Thus spoke God. And if one says all the Torah is from heaven except this minuta or this argument from minor to major or this argument, by analogy he has not accepted the Torah, (Sanhedrin, 99). Our scholars therefore believed that all interpretations of the Torah which were derived from its exposition, including those innovations which ranking scholars of the future will introduce, are as law handed down to Moses from Mount Sinai.)
Hillel employed these rules of logic for the first time in his argumentation with the men of Bathyra. Later these rules continued to be used by other scholars in the same manner.
Hillel’s first rule — Kal vachomer — argument from minor to major and vice versa—implies that the accepted interpretation of a law of minor importance may be applied to a law of major importance when the latter is in doubt: This rule is generally applied in order to establish a more severe interpretation of a doubtful law. Sometimes, however, it may also be used to limit the restrictions of a doubtful commandment.
According to our scholars there exist ten examples of in the case of Joseph’s brothers when they were accused of stealing the beaker from Joseph’s house. They said: “The silver which we found in our sacks we returned to you from the land of Canaan and how shall we steal from the house of your lord silver or gold.” Their reasoning implied that if they took the greater trouble to return silver from the distant land of Canaan they would not stoop to steal. A statement of Moses serves as a second example of a “Kal vachomer.” Moses said: “Even when I am with you today you disobey God, what will you do after my death?”
When Hillel stood before the men of Bathyra discussing whether the offering of the Paschal lamb supersedes the Sabbath he argued as follows: “If the daily sacrifice, the non-offering of which is not punishable by death, supersedes the Sabbath; the Paschal lamb, the non-offering of which is punishable by death, certainly supersedes the Sabbath.
Hillel’s second rule—argument by analogy—employs the comparison of the text of one law to the text of another in order to apply the interpretation of the first to the latter. But the Talmud states that a person may use this rule only to substantiate an interpretation but not to abolish one.
An example of argument by analogy occurs when the Talmud tries to establish that the commandment “an eye for an eye” is not to be taken literally although the biblical text states “If one shall cripple his neighbor, as he did so shall be done to him.” The Talmud argues that in another case involving a man whose ox gored his neighbor’s ox the Bible enjoins that the man shall “pay an ox for an ox.” From this the Talmud deduces that “an eye for an eye” also implies that monetary compensation shall be given to the victim.12)בבא קמא פּ״ד א׳.
The Jerusalem Talmud indicates how broadly the “argument by analogy” may be employed by stating: “Whenever the text of the law is not clear that law may be substantiated from other texts.”
Hillel also employed this rule in his argumentation before the men of Bathyra. He said: “The commandment to offer the daily sacrifice employs the word במועדו (in its appointed time), so does the commandment to offer the Paschal lamb. Since the daily sacrifice supersedes the Sabbath we must conclude that the Paschal lamb offering does so as well.”
The rule גזרה שוה could also be called the rule of comparison and the Talmud does say that it is possible to “compare and to derive an argument by analogy.” But the rule of comparison later became differentiated from argument by analogy.
The Gzerah Shavah was derived from the Torah which compares differing instances in order to cast light from one on the other. Thus in the case of the rape of an engaged girl which took place outside of the city the girl is not to be punished for it because it is assumed that she called for help but no one came to her assistance and the case is compared to that of a person being murdered.
The third rule of Hillel — בנין אב — concerns a subject whose text is expressed in a general manner, and from this text decisions are deduced concerning other subjects which are not mentioned in the Torah.
The name בנין אב means “paternal structure” because the expounder is like a father and the pupils are like children. This appellation also indicates that his rule is like a building in which one large stone is supported by numerous smaller ones.
Whenever we find subjects in the Torah, which are similar to one another in content or in some other characteristic which is clearly defined in one instance but is not definite in the other cases, we interpret all doubtful texts according to the clearly established one and we compare this one to a father whose influence extends over a wide range of texts and binds them into a family unit.
The fourth rule — כלל ופּרט — involves a general law whose specialized interpretations explain the doubtful phases of its generality.
We already mentioned that one of the causes of Hillel’s coming to Palestine was his desire to ascertain whether a man who underwent purification required the statement of a priest to establish that fact or whether the purification procedure was sufficient in itself. Hillel came to the conclusion that since in the case of the cure of a “Nethek” the Bible states “he is clean,” which is a generalization, which statement is later followed by the words “the priest shall purify him,” which is a specification, it is impossible to understand the generalization without the specification. The specific therefore comes to elucidate the general that the man is not clean until he is declared so by the priest.
The fifth rule is שני כתובים. This concerns two contradictory texts such as those affecting the offering of the Paschal lamb. One of them states “and you shall slaughter the Pesach to your God, sheep and cattle” while another text says “from the sheep and from the goats you shall take it.” Hillel therefore did not know what animal should be offered for the Passover sacrifice until he elucidated this matter by the aid of a third text which states “take for yourself sheep for your families and slaughter the Pesach.” He explained it to mean sheep for the special Passover sacrifice, and sheep and cattle for the general feast day offering.
Similar to the above was Hillel’s explanation of another set of contradictory texts about which he was at first confused and came to Palestine to seek elucidation. One text which says “six days you shall eat Matzoth” is contradicted by another stating “seven days you shall eat Matzoth.” He interpreted it to mean that one must eat Matzoth made out of the new grain (garnered after the Omer) for six days and on the seventh day one should eat Matzoth made out of old grain.
The sixth rule — כיוצא בו ממקום אחר — involves the explanation of a word in the text of one law by another law which may be entirely unrelated.
The seventh rule — דבר הלמד מענינו — governs the interpretation of a doubtful part of one subject from the text of the same subject.