This reflection is part of the ongoing Forest Hills Haftorah Series. The rest of the content can be found here: https://www.sefaria.org/groups/FHJC-Haftorah-Series .

(above: Hillel on the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem)

A famous story is told about a Roman who decided he wanted to affiliate himself with the Judean sages of the Second Temple. However, he did not have the patience to spend an adequate amount of time immersed in their teachings and literature, so he said he would join them on condition that he be could be taught the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot.

The first sage he approached, Shammai, thought that the gentile was not being genuine, and chased him away with a measuring stick.

The second sage, Hillel, accepted the challenge and stated the following:

שׁוּב מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ כְּשֶׁאֲנִי עוֹמֵד עַל רֶגֶל אַחַת! דְּחָפוֹ בְּאַמַּת הַבִּנְיָן שֶׁבְּיָדוֹ. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. אָמַר לוֹ: דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד — זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ, וְאִידַּךְ פֵּירוּשַׁהּ הוּא, זִיל גְּמוֹר.

That which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah. The rest is interpretation. Go study.

The story's full context can be found in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a).

While like Shammai, I personally cannot shake the feeling that this gentile was attempting to provoke, or goad, (or, as they now say, to "troll"); Hillel's wisdom and patience show us that the gentile in question was opening a door to a thought-experiment which can lead to the deeply profound. Can there be said to be some kind of underlying, common denominator from which the entirety of the Torah can be said to emerge?

Hillel answers with a resounding YES, and even states what he believes that common denominator to be.

I am fascinating by Hillel's answer. In traditional Halacha (Jewish law), commandments are divided up between those which are between man and God (בין אדם למקום) on one hand, and between man and man on the other (בין אדם לחברו). According to Hillel, interpersonal, human relationships is the priority (the "עיקר").

But where did he get this from? I would have expected a Scriptural verse for support, but we get none. Hillel leaves it to us to speculate.

I have a thought. Consider the very first moment when mankind is mentioned in the Torah:

God-like

(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(26) And God said:

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness!"

Could Hillel have had this concept in mind? If so, his answer to the gentile's question is quite brilliant, in possibly being able to merge the two realms; Respect for the Almighty, and respect for other human beings, into one. Since every individual is created in God's image, perhaps one can be said to be respecting God by refraining from acting hateful to his or her fellows.

Hillel was not alone in his attempt to boil the Torah down to one all-encompassing thought. Nor was he alone in believing that the way we treat each other is of paramount importance. Compare this with Rabbi Akiva's reaction to reading Leviticus 19:18:

Akiva's Great Principle

(יב) [יב] "לא תקם ולא תטר את בני עמך" – נוקם אתה ונוטר לעכו"ם. "ואהבת לרעך כמוך" – רבי עקיבא אומר זה כלל גדול בתורה. בן עזאי אומר "זה ספר תולדות אדם" – זה כלל גדול מזה.

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself":

R. Akiva says: This is an all-embracing principle in the Torah.

Here's something interesting; In the previous century, Jesus was asked, while before a crowd, what the greatest of the commandments are. According to the narrative in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he responded with two verses. First, the shema; "Listen, O Israel! YHWH is our god; YHWH alone!" (Deut 6). And second, with Rabbi Akiva's verse above.

Yet another sage, Rav Simlai of the 3rd century, would pour through the TaNaKh to try to find cases of kings and prophets who give alternative answers to the question posed to Shammai and Hillel above.

(Also - on a side note - Have you ever wondered about the origin of there being 613 commandments in the Torah? Who first counted them up and publicized this number??? The midrash we will look into is that very source!)

Here is how it starts:

613 Commandments
דרש רבי שמלאי שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות נאמרו לו למשה שלש מאות וששים וחמש לאוין כמנין ימות החמה ומאתים וארבעים ושמונה עשה כנגד איבריו של אדם אמר רב המנונא מאי קרא (דברים לג, ד) תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה תורה בגימטריא שית מאה וחד סרי הוי אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום

§ Rabbi Simlai taught:

613 mitzvoth were stated to Moses:

  • 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year;
  • 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs.

Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this?

It is written: “The Torah that Moses commanded to us is an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).

The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value [gimatriyya], is 611, the number of mitzvot that were received and taught by Moses our teacher.

Additionally, there are two mitzvot:

“I am the Lord your god,” and: “You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), which are the first two of the Ten Commandments that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty Himself.

Rav Simlai then goes on to give several instances from the TaNaKh of kings and prophets who try to abbreviate all 613 commandments as much as possible. Let's take a look at them.

First, there's King David:

Dwelling with God
בא דוד והעמידן על אחת עשרה דכתיב (תהלים טו, א) מזמור לדוד [ה'] מי יגור באהלך מי ישכון בהר קדשך הולך תמים ופועל צדק ודובר אמת בלבבו לא רגל על לשונו לא עשה לרעהו רעה וחרפה לא נשא על קרובו נבזה בעיניו נמאס ואת יראי ה' יכבד נשבע להרע ולא ימיר כספו לא נתן בנשך ושוחד על נקי לא לקח עושה אלה לא ימוט לעולם

Rabbi Simlai continued: King David came and established the 613 mitzvot upon eleven mitzvot, as it is written (Psalms 15):

“A Psalm of David:

YHWH! Who shall sojourn in Your Tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your sacred mountain?

He who:

(1)Walks wholeheartedly;

(2)Works righteousnes;

(3)Speaks truth in his heart;

(4)Who has no slander upon his tongue;

(5)Does no evil to his neighbor;

(6)Takes up no reproach against his relative;

(7)In whose eyes a vile person is despised;

(8)Honors those who fear the Lord;

(9)Takes an oath to his own detriment, and changes not;

(10)He neither gives his money with interest;

(11)Nor takes a bribe against the innocent.

He who performs these shall never be moved."

Do you see how Rav Simlai is reading Psalms 15? It is quite clever! In this Psalm, which has the superscription connecting it to King David, we get a list of requirements which enable one to dwell with God in His Tabernacle, His home-on-Earth.

It might not have been as easy as Hillel's one-liner, but it is a reasonable passage to recite while standing on one foot. And according to Rav Simlai, incorporates the whole Torah!

But King David is just the first in Rav Simlai's list. Let's see who else he quotes, and how they continually "one-up" each other by abbreviating the Torah even further.

Next is Isaiah:

(above: Isaiah as conveyed by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel)

Dwelling with the Devouring Fire
בא ישעיהו והעמידן על שש דכתיב (ישעיהו לג, טו) הולך צדקות ודובר מישרים מואס בבצע מעשקות נוער כפיו מתמוך בשוחד אוטם אזנו משמוע דמים ועוצם עיניו מראות ברע

Rav Simlai’s exposition continues:

Isaiah came and established the 613 mitzvot upon six (!), as it is written (Isaiah 33):

“Who of us can dwell with the devouring fire? Who of us can dwell with the never-dying blaze?

He who:

(1)Walks righteously;

(2)Speaks uprightly;

(3)Despises the gain of oppressions

(4)Shakes his hands from holding of bribes;

(5)Stops his ears from hearing blood;

(6)Shuts his eyes from looking upon evil.

Such a one shall dwell in lofty security, with inaccessible cliffs for his stronghold, with food supplied and his drink assured.

Note how similar this passage from Isaiah is to the Psalm attributed to King David above. They both begin with a question, inquiring as to who is truly worthy to dwell with God, followed by a list of the necessary attributes.

Isaiah is one of the Four Greats of Judean and Israelite prophets who lived and preached during the 8th century CE. One of his contemporaries, Micah, cuts down Isaiah's list of 6 in half, and states the following (which is included in this week's Haftorah):

Micah's Three
בא מיכה והעמידן על שלש דכתיב (מיכה ו, ח) הגיד לך אדם מה טוב ומה ה' דורש ממך כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם (ה') אלהיך

Micah came and established the 613 mitzvot upon three, as it is written:

“It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what YHWH requires of you:

Only:

(1)Do justly;

(2)Love mercy;

(3)Walk wisely with your God.”

(Micah 6:8).

What happens next in this midrash is quite funny; We go back to Isaiah, who will not let himself be out-done by his colleague, and therefore revises his earlier statement:

Isaiah's Two
חזר ישעיהו והעמידן על שתים שנאמר (ישעיהו נו, א) כה אמר ה' שמרו משפט ועשו צדקה בא עמוס והעמידן על אחת שנאמר (עמוס ה, ד) כה אמר ה' לבית ישראל דרשוני וחיו מתקיף לה רב נחמן בר יצחק אימא דרשוני בכל התורה כולה אלא בא חבקוק והעמידן על אחת שנאמר (חבקוק ב, ד) וצדיק באמונתו יחיה

Isaiah then established the 613 mitzvot upon two, as it is stated:

“Thus says YHWH:

(1)Observe justice!

(2)Perform righteousness!” (Isaiah 56:1).

I mentioned above that there are Four Greats of the 8th century. Amos, another of the four, does not want to be left out of the action, and so he now joins the discussion:

Amos's One
חזר ישעיהו והעמידן על שתים שנאמר (ישעיהו נו, א) כה אמר ה' שמרו משפט ועשו צדקה בא עמוס והעמידן על אחת שנאמר (עמוס ה, ד) כה אמר ה' לבית ישראל דרשוני וחיו מתקיף לה רב נחמן בר יצחק אימא דרשוני בכל התורה כולה אלא בא חבקוק והעמידן על אחת שנאמר (חבקוק ב, ד) וצדיק באמונתו יחיה

Amos came and established the 613 mitzvot upon one, as it is stated:

“So says YHWH to the House of Israel:

(1) Seek Me and live!”

(Amos 5:4).

Remember how we started? With Hillel stating that the entirety of the Torah can be summarized by stating, Don't do to others that which you find hateful.

Well we now have Rav Simlai interpreting Amos as stating that the whole Torah can be encapsulated into the mandate to seek God. In other words, the עיקר is between man and God, not man and man. It is from this that all else follows.

What's fascinating is that some of the commentators on the Talmud have attempted to fit Hillel himself into this mold. Rabbi Shlmo Yitzhaki (Rashi, 11th century, France) offers two interpretations of Hillel's statement. One of them is what you would expect; Namely, just don't do hateful, or despicable things to the people around you. But take a look at his alternative explanation:

Israel's BFF
דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד - ריעך וריע אביך אל תעזוב (משלי כז) זה הקב"ה אל תעבור על דבריו שהרי עליך שנאוי שיעבור חבירך על דבריך ל"א חבירך ממש כגון גזלה גנבה ניאוף ורוב המצות:

Do not do that which is hateful to your fellow:

'Do not forsake your fellow or your father's fellow' (Proverbs 27:10)

This refers to the Holy Blessed One. Do not disobey His commandments, for it is hateful unto you when a friend disobeys yours.

Rashi cites a verse from Proverbs to demonstrate that "friend" of an Israelite can be said to be the Almighty, Himself. His comment on that line expresses such a beautiful idea:

רעך. ורע אביך הקב"ה שנקרא רע לישראל ורע אביך שחיבב את אבותיך:

The Holy One, blessed be He, is called the "Friend of Israel." And the same goes for "Friend of your father," for He cherished your fathers.

And finally, one more statement quoted by Rav Simlai; That of the prophet Habakkuk (of whom we know almost absolutely nothing about):

Habakkuk's One
חזר ישעיהו והעמידן על שתים שנאמר (ישעיהו נו, א) כה אמר ה' שמרו משפט ועשו צדקה בא עמוס והעמידן על אחת שנאמר (עמוס ה, ד) כה אמר ה' לבית ישראל דרשוני וחיו מתקיף לה רב נחמן בר יצחק אימא דרשוני בכל התורה כולה אלא בא חבקוק והעמידן על אחת שנאמר (חבקוק ב, ד) וצדיק באמונתו יחיה

Habakkuk came and established the 613 mitzvot upon one, as it is stated:

“But the righteous person shall live by his trust.” (Habakkuk 2:4).

So let's go back to the question originally posed to Hillel: Can you teach me the whole Torah on one foot?

Rav Simlai presents us with six different possible answers from some of the greatest, most refined minds in our history, four of them abbreviating the Torah into 3 mandates or less!! :

Micah:

  1. Do justice;
  2. Act Mercifully;
  3. Walk wisely with God

Isaiah

  1. Do justice;
  2. Do righteousness

Amos

  1. Seek God (and live)

Habakkuk

  1. Live with trust

(below: How Moses might have answered the question)

Rav Simlai's list is not all inclusive. There are certainly other moments in the TaNaKh when the Israelites are implored to show loyalty to God, and told that this is not too complicated or burdensome a request. Another example, which I love, comes from Jeremiah 7:

(כב) כִּ֠י לֹֽא־דִבַּ֤רְתִּי אֶת־אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם֙ וְלֹ֣א צִוִּיתִ֔ים בְּי֛וֹם הוציא [הוֹצִיאִ֥י] אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם עַל־דִּבְרֵ֥י עוֹלָ֖ה וָזָֽבַח׃ (כג) כִּ֣י אִֽם־אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַ֠זֶּה צִוִּ֨יתִי אוֹתָ֤ם לֵאמֹר֙ שִׁמְע֣וּ בְקוֹלִ֔י וְהָיִ֤יתִי לָכֶם֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּֽהְיוּ־לִ֣י לְעָ֑ם וַהֲלַכְתֶּ֗ם בְּכָל־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם לְמַ֖עַן יִיטַ֥ב לָכֶֽם׃

(22) When I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. (23) This is all that I commanded them!:

Do My bidding, that I may be your god and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

If one approaches the "Torah," which translates to "Instruction," with the mindset that it is a systematic legal-code, it can be quite overwhelming. As Rav Simlai points out, depending on how one counts, you could end up with a list of hundreds (!!!) of mandates! Furthermore, the laws of one passage might flat-out reject the laws of another! (To give just one example, the priests tell us in Leviticus 11 that it is permitted to eat an animal which died of natural causes. But in Deuteronomy 14 we are told that this is strictly forbidden!)

What Jeremiah and the other prophets above remind us is that there is always a much bigger picture. When we feel overwhelmed or overburdened by an extensive list of specific things that it seems God, by way of the prophets in the TaNaKh wants from us; Just pause, and take a step back, and reflect on what might be the underlying purpose, or the real goal, to the totality to all of the details.

Personally, I think Jeremiah is spot on in this one. God wants to be in relationship with Israel. The prophets throughout the TaNaKh, as well as the books of the Torah, provide us with different pathways or paradigms as to how to pursue this relationship. But each Israelite is different. Jeremiah's path might have been different from Amos, or David, or from Hillel or Rav Simlai.

So given all of this; How do you think you would answer, had you been in Hillel's position? If you were asked to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one foot? Would you share any of the verses above? Is there another verse in TaNaKh which you would feel is more appropriate? Or would you, like Hillel, state a principle that might not exist explicitly in Scripture, but that might concisely and adequately state that which all the rest (or most of the rest) could be said to be based on?

Appendix: Verses quoted above

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

And you shall love your fellow as yourself - I am YHWH!

(ד) שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

Hearken, O Israel!

YHWH is our elohim! YHWH alone!

(ד) תּוֹרָ֥ה צִוָּה־לָ֖נוּ מֹשֶׁ֑ה מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה קְהִלַּ֥ת יַעֲקֹֽב׃

The instruction that Moshe commanded us is an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov!

(ב) אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃ (ג) לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ

I am YHWH your elohim who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery! You shall not have any other elohim before me!

(א) מִזְמ֗וֹר לְדָ֫וִ֥ד יְ֭הֹוָה מִי־יָג֣וּר בְּאָהֳלֶ֑ךָ מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃ (ב) הוֹלֵ֣ךְ תָּ֭מִים וּפֹעֵ֥ל צֶ֑דֶק וְדֹבֵ֥ר אֱ֝מֶ֗ת בִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃ (ג) לֹֽא־רָגַ֨ל ׀ עַל־לְשֹׁנ֗וֹ לֹא־עָשָׂ֣ה לְרֵעֵ֣הוּ רָעָ֑ה וְ֝חֶרְפָּ֗ה לֹא־נָשָׂ֥א עַל־קְרֹֽבוֹ׃ (ד) נִבְזֶ֤ה ׀ בְּֽעֵ֘ינָ֤יו נִמְאָ֗ס וְאֶת־יִרְאֵ֣י יְהוָ֣ה יְכַבֵּ֑ד נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לְ֝הָרַ֗ע וְלֹ֣א יָמִֽר׃ (ה) כַּסְפּ֤וֹ ׀ לֹא־נָתַ֣ן בְּנֶשֶׁךְ֮ וְשֹׁ֥חַד עַל־נָקִ֗י לֹ֥א לָ֫קָ֥ח עֹֽשֵׂה־אֵ֑לֶּה לֹ֖א יִמּ֣וֹט לְעוֹלָֽם׃

(1) Who may sojourn in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy mountain?

(2) He who:

Lives without blame, who does what is right, and in his heart acknowledges the truth; (3) whose tongue is not given to evil; who has never done harm to his fellow, or borne reproach for [his acts toward] his neighbor; (4) for whom a contemptible man is abhorrent, but who honors those who fear YHWH; who stands by his oath even to his hurt; (5) who has never lent money at interest, or accepted a bribe against the innocent.

The man who acts thus shall never be shaken.

(טו) הֹלֵ֣ךְ צְדָק֔וֹת וְדֹבֵ֖ר מֵֽישָׁרִ֑ים מֹאֵ֞ס בְּבֶ֣צַע מַעֲשַׁקּ֗וֹת נֹעֵ֤ר כַּפָּיו֙ מִתְּמֹ֣ךְ בַּשֹּׁ֔חַד אֹטֵ֤ם אָזְנוֹ֙ מִשְּׁמֹ֣עַ דָּמִ֔ים וְעֹצֵ֥ם עֵינָ֖יו מֵרְא֥וֹת בְּרָֽע׃

“Who of us can dwell with the devouring fire? Who of us can dwell with the never-dying blaze?

He who:

(1)Walks righteously;

(2)Speaks uprightly;

(3)Despises the gain of oppressions

(4)Shakes his hands from holding of bribes;

(5)Stops his ears from hearing blood;

(6)Shuts his eyes from looking upon evil.

Such a one shall dwell in lofty security, with inaccessible cliffs for his stronghold, with food supplied and his drink assured.

(ח) הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

“It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what YHWH requires of you:

Only:

(1)Do justly;

(2)Love mercy;

(3)Walk wisely with your God.”

(א) כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה שִׁמְר֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט וַעֲשׂ֣וּ צְדָקָ֑ה

“Thus says YHWH:

(1)Observe justice!

(2)Perform righteousness!”

(ד) כִּ֣י כֹ֥ה אָמַ֛ר יְהוָ֖ה לְבֵ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל דִּרְשׁ֖וּנִי וִֽחְיֽוּ׃

“So says YHWH to the House of Israel:

(1) Seek Me and live!”

(י) רֵֽעֲךָ֨ ורעה [וְרֵ֪עַ] אָבִ֡יךָ אַֽל־תַּעֲזֹ֗ב

'Do not forsake your fellow or your father's fellow'

וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָת֥וֹ יִחְיֶֽה׃

But the righteous person shall live by his trust.

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