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Hillel was a famous Jewish religious leader who lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod; he is one of the most important figures in Judaic history, associated with the Mishnah and the Talmud. He was the founder of Beit Hillel[?] school, and the ancestor of the patriarchs who stood at the head of Palestinian Judaism till about the fifth century of the common era.

His two best-known statements are probably:

  • "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot[?])
  • "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it." (Rabbi Shammai[?])

Hillel was a Babylonian by birth and, according to a later tradition, belonged to the faimly of David. Nothing definite, however, is known concerning his origin, nor is he anywhere called by his father's name, which may perhaps have been Gamaliel. When Josephus ("Vita," § 38) speaks of Hillel's great-grandson, Simeon ben Gamaliel I., as belonging to a very celebrated family (γένους δφόδρα λαμροῦ), he probably refers to the glory which the family owed to the activity of Hillel and Gamaliel I. Only Hillel's brother Shebna is mentioned; he was a merchant, whereas Hillel devoted himself to study.

In the Midrash compilation Sifre (Deut. 357) the periods of Hillel's life are made parallel to those in the life of Moses. Both were 120 years old; at the age of forty Hillel went to Palestine; forty years he spent in study; and the last third of his life he passed as the spiritual head of Israel. Of this artificially constructed biographical sketch this much may be true, that Hillel went to Jerusalem in the prime of his manhood and attained a great age. His activity of forty years is perhaps historical; and since it began about one hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem, it likely covered the period 30 B.C. to 10 C.E.

Table of contents

His Position

According to the Mishnah Hillel went to Jerusalem with the intention of studying Biblical exposition and of tradition. The difficulties which Hillel had to overcome in order to be admitted to their school, and the hardships he suffered while pursuing his aim, are told in a touching passage (Talmud, tractate Yoma 35b), the ultimate purpose of which is to show that poverty can not be considered as an obstacle to the study of the Law. Some time later, Hillel succeeded in settling a question concerning the sacrificial ritual in a manner which showed his superiority over the Bene Bathyra, who were at that time the heads of the college. On that occasion, it is narrated, they voluntarily resigned their position in favor of Hillel. According to tradition, Hillel thereupon became head of the Sanhedrin with the title of Nasi (prince). After the resignation of the Bene Bathyra, Hillel was recognized as the highest authority among the Pharisees (predecessors to rabbinic Judaism). Hillel was the head of the great school, at first associated with Menahem, a scholar mentioned in no other connection, afterward with Shammai, Hillel's peer in the study of the Law.

Whatever Hillel's position, his authority was sufficient to introduce those decrees which were handed down in his name. The most famous of his enactments was the Prosbul, (προσβολή), an institution which, in spite of the law concerning the year of jubilee (Deut. xv) insured the repayment of loans. The motive for this institution was the "repair of the world", i.e., of the social order, because this legal innovation protected both the creditor against the loss of his property, and the needy against being refused the loan of money for fear of loss. A like tendency is found in another of Hillel's institutions, having reference to the sale of houses. These two are the only institutions handed down in Hillel's name, although the words which introduce the prosbul show that there were others. Hillel's judicial activity may be inferred from the decision by which he confirmed the legitimacy of some Alexandrians whose origin was disputed, by interpreting the marriage document (ketubah) of their mother in her favor (Tosef., Ket. iv 9; B. M. 104a). Of other official acts no mention is found in the sources.

Hillel and Shammai

In the memory of posterity Hillel lived, on the one hand, as the scholar who made the whole contents of the traditional law his own (Soferim xvi. 9), who, in opposition to his colleague, Shammai, generally advocated milder interpretations of Halakha (Jewish law and tradition) and whose disciples stood in like opposition to Shammai's disciples.

He was known as the saint and the sage who in his private life and in his dealings with men practised the high virtues of morality and resignation, just as he taught them in his maxims with unexcelled brevity and earnestness. The traditions concerning Hillel's life harmonize completely with the sayings which are handed down in his name, and bear in themselves the proof of their genuineness. No wonder that the Babylonian Talmud is richer in traditions concerning Hillel than the Palestinian, since the Babylonians were especially careful to preserve the recollection of their great countryman; and in the Babylonian schools of the third century was proudly quoted the saying of the Palestinian Simeon ben LaKish — on the whole no friend of the Babylonians — in which he placed the activity of Hillel on a level with that of Ezra, who also went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.

The Golden Rule

The saying of Hillel which introduces the collection of his maxims in the Mishnaic treatise Abot mentions Aaron as the great model to be imitated in his love of peace, in his love of man, and in his leading mankind to a knowledge of the Law (Ab. i. 12). In mentioning these characteristics, which the Haggadah then already ascribed to Moses' brother, Hillel mentions his own most prominent virtues. Love of man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching. When a gentile who wished to become a Jew asked him for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, Hillel said: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary" (Shab. 31a). With these words Hillel recognized as the fundamental principle of the Jewish moral law the Biblical precept of brotherly love (Lev. xix. 18). Almost the same thing was taught by Paul, a pupil of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel (Gal. v. 14; comp. Rom. xiii. 8); and more broadly by Jesus when he declared the love of one's neighbor to be the second great commandment beside the love of God, the first (Matt. xxii. 39; Mark xii. 31; Luke x. 27). It may be assumed without argument that Hillel's answer to the proselyte, which is extant in a narrative in the Babylonian Talmud, was generally known in Palestine, and that it was not without its effect on Jesus.

From the doctrine of man's likeness to God, Hillel ingeniously deduced man's duty to care for his own body. In a conversation with his disciples (Lev. R. xxxiv.) he said: "As in a theater and circus the statues of the king must be kept clean by him to whom they have been entrusted, so the bathing of the body is a duty of man, who was created in the image of the almighty King of the world."

In another conversation Hillel calls his soul a guest upon earth, toward which he must fulfil the duties of charity (ib.). Man's duty toward himself Hillel emphasized also in the first sentence of his saying (Ab. i. 14): "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?" The second part of this sentence expresses the same idea as another of Hillel's teachings (Ab. ii. 4): "Separate not thyself from the congregation." The third part contains the admonition to postpone no duty—the same admonition which he gave with reference to study (Ab. ii. 4): "Say not, 'When I have time I shall study'; for you may perhaps never have any leisure."

The precept that one should not separate oneself from the community, Hillel paraphrases, with reference to Eccl. iii. 4, in the following saying (Tosef., Ber. ii., toward the end): "Appear neither naked nor clothed, neither sitting nor standing, neither laughing nor weeping." Man should not appear different from others in his outward deportment; he should always regard himself as a part of the whole, thereby showing that love of man which Hillel taught. The feeling of love for one's neighbor shows itself also in his exhortation (Ab. ii. 4): "Judge not thy neighbor till thou art in his place" (comp. Matt. vii. 1).

In the following maxim is expressed also his consciousness of his own insufficiency: "Trust not thyself till the day of thy death." How far his love of man went may be seen from an example which shows that benevolence must act with regard to the needs of him who is to be helped. Thus a man of good family who had become poor Hillel provided with a riding horse, in order that he might not be deprived of his customary physical exercise, and with a slave, in order that he might be served (Tosef., Peah, iv. 10; Ket. 67b).

Love of Peace

The exhortation to love peace emanated from Hillel's most characteristic traits — from that meekness and mildness which had become proverbial, as is seen from the saying: "Let a man be always humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai" (Shab. 31a; Ab. R. N. xv.). Hillel's gentleness and patience are illustrated in an anecdote which relates how 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 (ib.).

The Study of the Law

The many anecdotes according to which Hillel made proselytes, correspond to the third part of his maxim: "Bring men to the Law." A later source (Ab. R. N.) gives the following explanation of the sentence: Hillel stood in the gate of Jerusalem one day and saw the people on their way to work. "How much," he asked, "will you earn to-day?" One said: "A denarius"; the second: "Two denarii." "What will you do with the money?" he inquired. "We will provide for the necessities of life." Then said he to them: "Would you not rather come and make the Torah your possession, that you may possess both this and the future world?"

This narrative has the same points as the epigrammatic group of Hillel's sayings (Ab. ii. 7) commencing: "The more flesh, the more worms," and closing with the words: "Whoever has acquired the words of the Law has acquired the life of the world to come." In an Aramaic saying Hillel sounds a warning against neglect of study or its abuse for selfish purposes: "Whoever would make a name (i.e. glory) loses the name; he who increases not [his knowledge] decreases; whoever learns not [in Ab. R. N. xii.: "who does not serve the wise and learn"] is worthy of death; whoever makes use of the crown perishes" (Ab. i. 13).

Hillel's Influence

Hillel's disciples are generally called "the house of Hillel", in contrast to Shammai's disciples, "the house of Shammai." Their controversies concern all branches of the Jewish. Only a few decisions have been handed down under Hillel's name; but there can be no doubt that much of the oldest anonymous traditional literature was due directly to him or to the teachings of his masters. The fixation of the norms of the Midrash and of halakic Scripture exposition was first made by Hillel, in the "seven rules of Hillel," which, as is told in one source, he applied on the day on which he overcame the Bene Bathyra (Tosef., Sanh. vii., toward the end; Sifra, Introduction, end; Ab. R. N. xxxvii.). On these seven rules rest the thirteen of R. Ishmael; they were epoch-making for the systematic development of the ancient Scripture exposition.

See also: Mishnah

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