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 baraita: A 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 zuz. One 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.