Meet Hillel, Who Would Teach Anyone

Image: The entrance to the Tomb of Hillel the Elder, as it was around 1900. From the Jewish Encyclopedia, published by Funk & Wagnalls between 1901 and 1906. Public Domain.

Hillel the Elder is perhaps the most famous and most quoted of the early rabbis. He was born in Babylon about 110 BCE and died in Jerusalem about 10 CE. He was renowned in his own time as a teacher of Torah and had many students, who became known as Beit Hillel, the House (or School) of Hillel. His name is forever associated with his fellow scholar, Shammai, who had his own followers, known as Beit Shammai.

He is not called “Rabbi Hillel” because he is from a time just before the rabbis. Some writers give him that title, but in his case it is an anachronism.

 

All of our information about Hillel comes from sources written down long after his death, in some cases, hundreds of years after his death. What we know for sure is that he founded a great school of Torah study. The debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai became the model for beneficial disagreements, “arguments for the sake of heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

The stories we have about Hillel himself depict him as a mild individual with a brilliant mind for Torah. One of the longest stories about Hillel is from Shabbat 31a, which is so good that I will quote it in its entirety:

The Sages taught in a baraitaA person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. The Gemara related: There was an incident involving two people 

who wagered with each other and said: Anyone who will go and aggravate Hillel to the point that he reprimands him, will take four-hundred zuzOne of them said: I will aggravate him. That day that he chose to bother Hillel was Shabbat eve, and Hillel was washing the hair on his head. He went and passed the entrance to Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Hillel wrapped himself in a dignified garment and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. Hillel said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked him: Why are the heads of Babylonians oval? He was alluding to and attempting to insult Hillel, who was Babylonian. He said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.

That man went and waited one hour, a short while, returned to look for Hillel, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. Hillel said to him: My son, what do you seek? The man said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why are the eyes of the residents of Tadmor bleary [terutot]? Hillel said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes.

Once again the man went, waited one hour, returned, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, he, Hillel, wrapped himself and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why do Africans have wide feet? Hillel said to him: You have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live in marshlands and their feet widened to enable them to walk through those swampy areas.

That man said to him: I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid lest you get angry. Hillel wrapped himself and sat before him, and he said to him: All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them. The man got angry and said to him: Are you Hillel whom they call the Nasi of Israel? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: If it is you, then may there not be many like you in Israel. Hillel said to him: My son, for what reason do you say this? The man said to him: Because I lost four hundred zuz because of you.Hillel said to him: Be vigilant of your spirit and avoid situations of this sort. Hillel is worthy of having you lose four hundred zuz and another four hundred zuz on his account, and Hillel will not get upset. – Shabbat 30b-31a

This passage is followed by other stories about Hillel. Here is another, perhaps the most famous story of all:

There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai whacked him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study. – Shabbat 31a

The image that emerges of Hillel is a man so willing to teach Torah that he will put up with some significant shenanigans from students. He means it when he says “no question is too stupid!” In the second story, Shammai rejects a jokester who seems to be mocking the Torah. Hillel summarizes the Torah, then admonishes him: Go study. Hillel has faith in the power of Torah study to change a life.

Hillel was a modest man who established a great school of rabbis. He is one of the foundational figures for Rabbinic Judaism, and a role model to all of us who try to do justice to Torah in our own time.

Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

Here is a lovely bit of Talmud to study. When we need a break from a painful present, Jewish study can provide both rest and refreshment.

This particular story offers some of the arcana of sukkah construction – or does it? What are the rabbis up to in this passage?

The Talmud Blog

Since the 1990’s (and Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel), there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Talmud, the carnivalesque, and the absurd.  Put simply, the Talmud contains a fair number of passages, even halakhic ones, that we might say operate on a plain other than the normal sphere of human existence.  Amazingly, these passages interact in strange and unexpected ways with the more regular talmudic fare.  Much of this research has been driven by criticism developed in the study of literature that probes the meaning of “bizarre” texts and their relationship to the normative work. This is, for example, one of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis primary concerns, and it also powers a fascinating discussion about courtroom etiquette in Barry Wimpfheimer‘s  Narrating the Law.

This morning, reader Yair Rosenberg sent me Pshita‘s most recent creation – a children’s story that reworks the following talmudic discussion.

If…

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Our Biblical Cousins?

Some of the excavated ruins of Ugarit, or Ras Shamra. Photo by Loris Romito, via Italian Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

I have a word to tell you, a message to recount to you: the word of the tree and the whisper of the stone, the murmur of the heavens to the earth, of the seas to the stars. I understand the lightning that the heavens do not know, the word that people do not know, and earth’s masses cannot understand. Come, and I will reveal it. – Ras Shamra inscription

The Bronze Age city of Ugarit sat on the coast in northern Syria. The citizens of that city left an enormous library of clay tablets inscribed in Ugaritic, a Semitic language. From those writings, we know that they worshiped El, Asherah, and Baal, Canaanite deities mentioned in our Bible. Some of their poetry has close parallels in our Book of Psalms. As you can see from the example above, the writings were vivid and very beautiful.

The “golden age” of Ugarit came to an end about 1200 BCE, at a time of great upheaval in the ancient Near East. The invasions of the Sea Peoples (Philistines) coincided with the destruction of the city. This corresponds to the period described in the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. — Judges 21:25

Baseless Hatred

Image: A white wall with two angry men’s faces painted in black and shades of gray. Artwork: “Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly, used under a Creative Commons license.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b  

The ancient rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. (Yoma 9b) We practice sinat chinom when we hate another person or group of persons without having a good reason.

The trouble is that people who are filled with hatred are always sure they have a very good reason. In fact, they are sure that what they feel is not really hatred – it’s just a reasonable dislike.

Let me rephrase that: When we are filled with hatred, we are sure we have a very good reason. We are sure that what we feel isn’t hatred – just a reasonable dislike.

I have heard otherwise good people express something that sure sounded like hatred for the following groups of people:

  • Christians
  • Muslims
  • Palestinians
  • Israelis
  • Jews
  • Zionists
  • Trump voters
  • African-Americans
  • Refugees
  • Liberals
  • Conservatives
  • Journalists
  • Rednecks
  • Fat people
  • Immigrants
  • Californians
  • People who believe in climate change
  • People who don’t believe in climate change

… and the beat goes on. I imagine you’ve heard it too.

So the place to start in weeding out sinat chinam from my own heart might be:

For whom do I have a perfectly reasonable dislike?

And then I can ask myself: why do I extend that dislike to an entire group of people?

And maybe: Is there any group I don’t dislike but I don’t particularly care about either? What’s going on with that?

These are hard questions.

Av is a hard month.

 

 

Three Texts for Changing the World

Image:  “I Can Change the World, Every Child Counts” painted on a schoolhouse in South Africa. (henkpijper/pixabay.)

Do you want to change the world? Here are some texts for help and encouragement. One is ancient, one medieval, one modern.

Anxiety in one’s heart saddens it, but a good word gladdens it. – Proverbs 12:25

It is tempting to criticize. However, when we scold and scold without a word of encouragement, no one has the heart to keep on going. Therefore it is important to to put as much energy into encouragement as it is into criticism. Reward good behavior, always. Encourage any move in the right direction.

Proper generosity involves not only money and goods, but also power . . . Generosity with power entails using [the power] bestowed [on us] by God to help those in need.  – Rabbi Abraham Maimuni in The Guide to Serving God.

It is not enough to give to good causes. It is also important to share power. Sometimes that means listening instead of talking, encouraging instead of criticising, serving instead of insisting always on leading.

We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

It is easy to point at others and say, “That person is doing a bad thing!” We must also look within and say, “What am I doing that contributes to the bad situation? How can I contribute to real change?” Some are guilty, yes, but all of us are responsible to make things better.

 

 

Hidden Treasures in the Torah – Preparing a Text for Services

Image: Numbers 27:1- 5 in one of the sifrei Torah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Rabbi Adar.

I read Torah at Temple Sinai this morning. While I was preparing the portion, I was reminded again just how happy I am that I learned how to read Hebrew. I learned late in life, and I still struggle with it, but it is absolutely worth the trouble. Here’s why:

Last week’s Torah portion was Pinchas. (The sun has set, it’s a new week. This morning was last week in Jewish terms.) Pinchas contains the first part of the story of the Daughters of Tzelophehad, a story I’ve written about in O Daughters, My Mothers! 

I’ve studied these verses many times, but with Torah there is always more to learn. This time, preparing to read from the Torah scroll (see the photo above) the study carried me deep into the grammar of the text. (I know, sounds boring, but trust me here.)

The scroll is a close copy of the scroll from which Ezra read in Nehemiah 8. The scroll does not have nekudot – the little marks invented by the Masoretes centuries later to tell us about vowels, pronunciation, and punctuation. For those marks, I have to go to a tikkun or to a copy of the verses in Torah as in Sefaria.org.

If I’m going to read the text correctly, I have to learn which vowels to put in which places – that means I have to understand every single word of that text. (Granted, it is possible simply to memorize the sound of the words, which is what I did as a beginner, but as I age I find that it is better just to do it the hard way and actually learn each word because memory can fail me.)

These particular verses (beginning at Numbers 27:1) are tricky because the Torah is telling us a story about women. That’s fairly unusual, and the verb forms for women are less familiar because we don’t use them as much in Biblical Hebrew. It’s a nice grammatical workout.

Sure enough, the first word is וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה – vah-tee-KRAV-nah. It means “And they (f) drew close.” Then it hit me: this is a special word! The root of the word is kuf-resh-bet, which is the root having to do with sacrifices.The translations say something like “they came forward” but it there is much more meaning in that word. Yes, it means “come close” but it is a special sort of drawing close. The text could have had other verbs, but the fact that it uses this particular verb signals us that something special and holy is coming, something that will bring the Israelites closer to God.  I have circled the word in red at the top of the image below – on the image, not on the sefer Torah!

Num27.1-11.Marked

Another example of something really special in this portion is in the other word I have circled, a tiny little word of two letters. Here is the text and translation from Sefaria.org:

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

“The plea of Tzelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” – Numbers 27:7

It’s the standard JPS translation, but it waters down the meaning of the text. The little circled word, pronounced “Ken” means “Yes.” Here’s my alternate translation of the line:

“Yes! The daughters of Tzelophehad said it!* You must give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them.”

*In this case, “dov-roht” is a feminine participle from the root dalet-bet-resh. There’s no good way to get it into English without turning it back into a verb.

The whole point of the story is that God says “Yes!” when five women who are suffering from an injustice approach with a well-reasoned case. Had I been working merely from a translation the readings would be much more dignified but the passion in that “Yes!” would be missing. God rewards the women for standing up for themselves, and approves of their competence in doing so.

Feminist commentators have had much to say about this story, justly so, but in that “Yes!” I read broader meaning. When disenfranchised people bring a well-reasoned case before the legal authority, this story sets the precedent for hearing them out and finding a way to make things more fair.

In this story, God doesn’t quibble, or get defensive, or suggest that if they all got husbands it would be OK. God just says “Yes.” God then corrects the injustice by changing the rules of inheritance.

I finished my preparation of this story feeling inspired.

And yes, this is why I love studying Torah in Hebrew.

If you are older, if you are “bad at languages,” if you have perceptual quirks (aka learning disabilities) don’t let it stop you. I’m all those things, and I’m so glad I learned.

How is Torah like Fire?

Image: A bonfire at night. (pixabay)

A teaching metaphor from the Talmud:

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: Why are matters of Torah compared to fire, as it is stated: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29)? To tell you: Just as fire does not ignite in a lone stick of wood but in a pile of kindling, so too, matters of Torah are not retained and understood properly by a lone scholar who studies by himself, but by a group of Sages. — Ta’anit 7a