Rabbi Hillel

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Rabbi Hillel was one of the great heroes of the Jewish People. He was the "Nasi," a perhaps untranslatable term which has been translated "Prince," "President," etc. It was actually a position that combined religious and secular leadership, and was the highest position of leadership in Jewish Society during the several centuries preceding and several centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple. Hillel himself lived at the beginning of the century preceding the Destruction. Sitting opposite him at the head of the "Sanhedrin," Jewish "Supreme Court," and filling the role of the "Av Beit Din," "Chief Justice," was his colleague, Shammai, with whom he had, and their respective groups of students, had numerous classical disagreements recorded in the Talmud.

In addition to his contributions to the understanding of Jewish Law referred to above, he is famous for a number of incidents in his personal life, and "ethical" pronouncements that he made:

1. Most famous perhaps is the incident which occurred before his rise to leadership, when he was not yet a scholar, but had a burning desire to study Torah. At that time, Torah study was tightly controlled and limited only to those of the highest caliber and to those who could pay for it. Hillel, working then as a woodchopper, did not have enough money to pay for entry into the Beit Midrash. On a freezing cold snowy day, he climbed onto the roof of the Study Hall, and lay at the "skylight" listening to the lecture, until he froze. When the scholars below observed his form above, they retrieved him, and changed the policy such that anyone who wished to study Torah could come in and do so.

2. A certain non-Jewish "wise-guy" came to scoff at the Torah, first to the home of Shammai, then to the home of Hillel. He said, "Teach me the Torah while I am standing on one foot." Shammai, sensing his true intention, had him thrown out forthwith. (From this story, probably mostly, Shammai has received the bad "rep" of being a short-tempered, person who "did not suffer fools" lightly. However, this is certainly not the case, since it is Shammai himself who teaches "Receive everyone with a smiling face.")

When the individual came to the home of Hillel with the same request, Hillel responded. "No problem! The main idea of the Torah is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary. Now, if you're really interested, go and study the commentary." So impressed with Hillel's response, according to Jewish Tradition, was the visitor, that he took Hillel up on his instructions, began to study the Torah seriously, and became a Jew.

3. Hillel says in Pirkei Avot (1:12), in line with the story above, "Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving G-d's creatures, and bringing them close to the Torah."

4. Hillel says in Pirkei Avot (2:5), among other extremely important things, the following, "Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place." This, from the Prince of the Sanhedrin - that it is fundamentally impossible for one human being to judge another, because no one ever occupies the same "place." That is, no person ever experiences exactly the same circumstances as another - yet the Torah commands us to in fact judge others, playing by its rules, which are designed to reach the ultimate level of fairness that a human being can reach.


In the first century BCE, Babylonian born Hillel (later known as Hillel the Elder) migrated to the Land of Israel to study and worked as a woodcutter, eventually becoming the most influential force in Jewish life. Hillel is said to have lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, gentleness, concern for humanity. One of his most famous sayings, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah), is "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?" The Hillel organization, a network of Jewish college student organizations, is named for him. Hillel and his descendants established academies of learning and were the leaders of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for several centuries. The Hillel dynasty ended with the death of Hillel II in 365 CE.

Hillel the Elder’s friendly adversary was Shammai, a native of the Land of Israel about whom little is known except that he was a builder, known for the strictness of his views. He was reputed to be dour, quick-tempered and impatient. Both lived during the reign of King Herod (37-4 BCE), an oppressive period in Jewish history because of the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel. Shammai was concerned that if Jews had too much contact with the Romans, the Jewish community would be weakened, and this attitude was reflected in his strict interpretation of Jewish law. Hillel did not share Shammai's fear and therefore was more liberal in his view of law.

Hillel was the more popular of the two scholars, and he was chosen by the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court, to serve as its president. While Hillel and Shammai themselves did not differ on a great many basic issues of Jewish law, their disciples were often in conflict. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). The Rabbis of the Talmud generally sided with the rulings of the School of Hillel, although the Sages believed that both views were valid. Sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the “Ari”) said that not only are both the words of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel enduring on the conceptual level, but each has its time and place on the pragmatic level as well. In our present world, we follow the rulings of the House of Hillel, but in the era of Messiah, the majority opinion will shift in favor of the House of Shammai, and their rulings will then be implemented. The Ari believed that in our present reality, where divine commandments must be imposed upon an imperfect world, the rulings of the House of Hillel represent the ultimate in conformity to the divine will, while the rulings of the House of Shammai represent an ideal that is too lofty for our present state (which is why we perceive them as “stricter” and more confining), and can only be realized on the conceptual level. In the era of Messiah, the situation will be reversed: a perfected world will embrace the more exacting application of Torah law expressed by the House of Shammai, while the Hillelian school of interpretation will endure only conceptually.

Hillel's rulings were often based on concern for the welfare of the individual. For example with regard to the remarriage of an aguna, whose husband is not known with certainty to be alive or dead, the view of Hillel (and most of his colleagues) was that she can remarry even on the basis of indirect evidence of the husband's death. Bet Shammai required that witnesses come forth with direct testimony before she was permitted to remarry. Another example of his leniency as compared with Shammai involves converts; Hillel favored the admission of proselytes into Judaism even when they made unreasonable demands, such as one did by demanding that the whole Torah be taught to him quickly "while standing on one foot." Hillel accepted this person as eligible for conversion, whereas Shammai dismissed him as not serious about Judaism.


Rabbi Kook on the 'Hillel Sandwich'

Nissan 11, 5768, 16 April 08 01:16
by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Separate or together? The sages disagreed on how to eat the matzah and maror at the Passover Seder.

The Talmud (Berachot 49a) teaches that mitzvot should not be performed "bundled" together (chavilot chavilot). We do not want to give the impression that mitzvot are a burden, an unwanted obligation that we wish to quickly discharge. For this reason, the mitzvot of eating matzah and maror should be performed separately.

But Hillel's custom was to combine the Pesach sacrifice, matzah and maror, and eat them together. Why did Hillel join these mitzvot together?

Matzah and Freedom
To understand Hillel's opinion we must first examine the significance of matzah and maror.

Matzah is a symbol of freedom. But what is freedom? Freedom does not mean to sit idle and unemployed. True freedom is the opportunity to grow and develop according to one's true inner nature, without the interference of foreign influences. This freedom is symbolized by matzah, a simple food consisting of only flour and water, unaffected by other ingredients and chemical processes.

The formation of the Jewish people as a holy nation required that their national character be free of all foreign influence. They left Egypt retaining none of Egypt's spiritual or cultural baggage. Before offering the Passover offering, they were commanded to "remove and take for yourselves sheep" (Exodus 12:21) - they needed to remove the small measure of Egyptian idolatry that clung to them (Mechilta ad loc).

Without any national character of their own, the Divine character could then be ingrained upon Israel's national soul. This is an aspect of the matzah metaphor: it lacks any shape and taste of its own, so that the desired form and flavor may be properly imposed upon it.

Maror and Servitude
Maror is the opposite of matzah; it symbolizes servitude. But even servitude can have a positive value. An individual whose life's ambition is to be a doctor must spend many years in medical school before finally achieving this goal. The long years of concentrated effort require great dedication and discipline. These years are a form of servitude - but a servitude that serves one's inner goal, and thus ultimately complements the true expression of freedom.

This concept also applies to the Jewish people. The soul is ingrained with a Divine character, but there is dross that clings to us and prevents us from realizing our inner nature. For this reason we need to accept upon ourselves a pleasant form of servitude, the service of God. We acquired this talent through our bondage in Egypt.

After removing the negative aspects of slavery, we are left with its positive contribution. It is through this trait that we are able to accept that which goes against the desires of the moment. This is the message of maror: acceptance of the bitter side of life, with the knowledge that before us lays a higher objective. For this reason, we eat the maror only after eating the matzah - after we have clarified our ultimate goal.

Slavery and Freedom
Now we can understand the disagreement between Hillel and the other scholars.

Freedom, as symbolized by the matzah, reveals the Divine character of Israel and their innate love for God, His Torah and mitzvot. It is this very force that gives us the ability to overcome inclinations that do not yet match the overall elevated goal. It is through our persistence and servitude to the overall goal that the inner power of freedom is fully revealed.

Both freedom and servitude need to act without interference from the other. When freedom is appropriate, it should not be limited by a servile attitude; and when discipline and a sense of obligation are needed, they should not be disrupted by a desire for freedom. Thus, according to the majority opinion, matzah and maror should be eaten separately.

The final goal, however, is attained only with the recognition that these two forces do not contradict one another. Joined together, they present the highest freedom, whose nobility and power is only revealed when it bears the crown of lofty servitude - the service of the Holy King, which is complete freedom.

Thus, Hillel would eat the matzah and maror together. He sought to emphasize that freedom and slavery are not contradictory concepts, dealing with distinctly separate stages. Yes, servitude belongs more to the initial preparatory stage - but in the overall picture, the two forces are connected, influencing and complementing one other.

"The highest form of freedom is when it is combined with servitude. Then one finds in his soul true independence, befitting for one who is truly free: when one can control even the greatest of his powers - the power of freedom."

[Adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. II, pp. 287-289]