Rabbi Hillel

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




In the first century BCE there lived in Israel the greatest scholar Judaism had produced by then. His name was Hillel, usually called “the Elder” because his son and grandson had the same name. Although a woodcutter by trade, Hillel became a student of Torah, and in his maturity the most important contributor to the Mishna.

Hillel formulated the basic rules of Rabbinic logic, which seeks to extract new meaning from old laws. This made it possible to give the Jewish religion perpetual life in that rabbis, using the Seven Basic Modes, can apply the laws of the Torah to conditions in various places and at various times. Hillel had a friendly adversary who also lived during the reign of king Herod (37-4 BCE). He was Rabbi Shammai, a strict interpreter of the law who feared that Jews would have too much contact with the Romans and that this would weaken the Jewish community. Hillel was more liberal in his interpretation of the Torah. He was also a contributor to the Pirkei Avot or Sayings of the Fathers. His most famous saying was: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?”

Hillel was more popular than Shammai and was chosen to be president of the Jewish Supreme Court then called the Sanhedrin. This word is derived from the Greek word Sunedrion meaning assembly.

Hillel and Shammai both had many followers or disciples. These followers were called Beth Hillel or Beth Shammai. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between the two schools of thought. Over the years, both views were incorporated into Jewish learning so that the sixteenth century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, considered both scholarly traditions valid and enduring. Today, the majority of Rabbis follow the teachings of the House of Hillel. The reason for this is that Jews generally believe that Hillel was more pragmatic and that his teachings are better suited to this life than the ideals of Shammai whose views, it is believed, will be supreme when the Moshiach has come and the world perfected.

Hillel was very much concerned with the welfare of the individual. The example often used to show the difference between Hillel and Shammai is the attitude towards a woman who may have lost her husband but is not certain he has died. According to Hillel she can remarry even on indirect evidence that her husband is dead. According to Shammai she must have witnesses with direct evidence of the husband’s death. Likewise, Hillel was willing that non-Jews convert to Judaism without having studied for years. Hillel reputedly was asked by a Roman how he could become a Jew while standing on one foot. Said Hillel: Veohavto l’reacho komaucho –“you shall love your neighbor as yourself – the rest is commentary.” (Leviticus-19:18).

There is today a foundation sponsored by the B’nai B’rith called The Hillel Foundation. This foundation is located in numerous American universities and colleges and seeks to promote Jewish life on the campuses of our institutions of higher learning. Because 80% of Jews attend college (only forty percent of all Americans attend college), this organization has been important in giving Jewish students an opportunity to attend Shabbat services, celebrate Holy Days, and in a few instances operate a kosher dining room.

I know about the kosher dining room at the University of Pennsylvania because the then Hillel director, a rabbi, ejected me from the dining room when I asked for food and had no money to pay for it. At that time I was “down and out” in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is Greek. It means brotherly love. Evidently, the rabbi didn’t know Greek because he had no sympathy for a fellow Jew who had nothing to eat. He would have ejected Hillel himself because he too was so poor in his youth that he could not pay for Torah lessons.

To this day I must assume that Hillel is only for the wealthy. I may be wrong but I think things haven’t changed very much since I was ejected from a West Philadelphia synagogue for lack of money and from Hillel for being hungry.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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