According to the Mishnah Hillel went to Jerusalem with the intention
of studying Biblical exposition and 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 cannot be considered as an obstacle
to the study of Torah. Some time later, Hillel succeeded in settling
a question concerning the sacrificial ritual in a manner which showed
his superiority over the Benei Betheira (literally, sons of Betheira),
who were at that time the heads of the Sanhedrin. On that occasion,
it is narrated, they voluntarily resigned their position as Nasi
(President) in favor of Hillel. After the resignation of the Benei
Betheira, 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 Menachem, a scholar
mentioned in no other connection, afterward with Shammai, Hillel's
peer in the teaching of Jewish 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 Pruzbul, (προσβολή),
an institution which, in spite of the law concerning cancellation
of debts in the Sabbatical year (Deut. xv) ensured 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 likewise 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 pruzbul 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
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 Judaean colleague, Shammai, generally
advocated milder interpretations of Halakha (Jewish law and tradition)
and whose disciples stood in like opposition to Shammai's disciples.
It was in this time that the rabbinical tradition was recorded,
with Hillel as its 'founder'. Modern-day Rabbinic tradition descends
from this the law that Hillel recorded.
He was known as the saint and the sage who in his private life and
in his dealings with people 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 Jerusalem Talmud, 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 Judean sage Simeon ben Lakish, 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
saying of Hillel which introduces the collection of his maxims in
the Mishnaic treatise Pirkei Avoth mentions Aaron HaKohen (the high
priest) 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 (Pirkei Avoth 1:12).
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 had just been harshly
dismissed by Shammai, wished to become a Jew asked him for a summary
of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms ("while standing
on one foot"), Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, do
not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation;
go and learn" (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).
From the doctrine of man's likeness to God, Hillel deduced man's
duty to care for his own body. According to Midrash Leviticus rabbah
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 this work Hillel calls
his soul a guest upon earth, toward which he must fulfill the duties
In Avot, Hillel stated "If I am not for myself, who will be?
If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
The third part contains the admonition to postpone no duty, the
same admonition which he gave with reference to study (Avot 2:4):
"Say not, 'When I have free time I shall study'; for you may
perhaps never have any free time."
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.): "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 (Avot ii.
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
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 Torah
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 (Avot. 2:7) 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" (Avot. 1:13).
Hillel's influence: "House of Hillel" vs. "House
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 law. 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 halakhic 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 Benei Betheira (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.
the Elder is often credited as having been the inventor of the "sandwich"
in the 1st century B.C.E. well over a thousand and a half years
before John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.
This is based on a part of the Passover Seder (the annual commemoration
of the Exodus from Egypt), in the section of Korech, where the Haggadah,
the ancient liturgy, instructs participants to take the matzo and
wrap it around the bitter herbs and eat them together whilst saying
in Hebrew: This is a remembrance of Hillel in Temple times — This
is what Hillel did when the Temple existed: he used to enwrap the
Paschal lamb, the matzo and the bitter herbs and eat them as one.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, the usual practice is to do this by
making a matzo and horseradish sandwich.
However, it is more likely that matzo in Hillel's day was not hard
and crisp but soft like that of many Polish Jews before the Holocaust.
Thus, Hillel would have been eating something more like a lamb,
lettuce and lavash (or tortilla-like) "wrap", similar
to a burrito, than a traditional English closed sandwich.
Additionally, the Hittite Empire has records of troop provisions
in the form of meat stuck between two slices of bread more than
a millennium before Hillel.