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Hillel a Shining Personality 30 BCE Bookmark and Share
Hillel a Shining Personality 30 BCE
By: A. S

In the midst of the oppressive darkness Herod spread over Jewish life, a shining personality emerged, whose radiant goodness lights human civilization even today. Hillel Habavli ("the Babylonian") emerged from his humble anonymity and personal economic poverty 1 to become the Nasi (head of the Sanhedrin) as well as the conscience and religious leader of Jewry. 2 Hillel is one of the greatest heroes of all Jewish History. Kind, patient, wise, innovative, far-seeing, he was an intellectual giant whose persona was defined by his holy spirit. Slow to anger, warm and accepting, 3

Hillel took strong initiatives to negate the influence of Herod's cruelties and aping of Roman ways. But he did so indirectly and not through confrontation. He strengthened Torah learning among the masses of Israel, revitalised the tradition and supremacy of the Oral Law, 4 ordained timely and necessary applications of halachah 5 and reinvigorated the flagging spirit of the people groaning under the tyrannical yoke of Herod. Hillel was the embodiment of the words of the prophet Zechariah, who said, "Not by might nor by force, but rather by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts." 6 In fact, in Hillel we are able to discern clearly the main personal quality that characterised all the great men of the Mishnah and Talmud – serenity of spirit. No matter how hectic and difficult the times, no matter how sad and vexing personal life is, a godly person is serene in the face of both triumph and adversity. Then prototype for such serenity is Hillel.

A New Focus
But Hillel did more than provide leadership for his generation. He is the architect of the basic Jewish mechanism which allowed for Jewish national survival under foreign 7 and often relentlessly hostile rule. Hillel, together with Shammai, the Sanhedrin under them, and their yeshivah colleagues, built a Jewish life so rich in spiritual and social content that it allowed Jews to ignore and discount the government and ruler that nominally dominated them. To the average Jew in Judah in 30 B.C.E.,Hillel was more important than Herod, just as in nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewish life, rabbis, Chassidic masters and Jewish culture were more significant to the Jew of the shtetl or the urban ghetto than was the Czar and his government. Beginning in Judah at the at the onset of the first millennia of the Common Era and stretching in time until our very day, the government that ruled over the Jewish people, whether in the Holy Land or the Diaspora, was to very many Jews largely irrelevant to the development of their own Jewish life, culture, values and life-style. Naturally, when the government became overly oppressive and violent it could not be ignored, and its actions inescapably shaped inner Jewish life itself. But from the time of Herod onward, Jews ignored the policies and caprices of government whenever possible 8 and lived their lives to the beat of a deep, inner rhythm which was represented by the personality, example, decrees and serenity of faith of Hillel.

The Houses of Hillel
Until the time of Hillel, there were few, if any, disputes in matters of Jewish Law and tradition. The power of the Sanhedrin, coupled with the loyalty of the populace to the great teachings of the Pharisees, enabled all questions to be solved and policies to be clearly and unanimously enunciated. But the infiltration of the Sanhedrin by the Sadducees, the shameful behaviour of the last Hasmonean Kings and princes, and the corruption of many of the leading priestly families created a climate where disputes regarding matters of Jewish Law and tradition also began to arise. The memory of clear decisions in Jewish life Began to fade.

Hillel and Shammai disputed only a small number of Torah legal issues. Their disciples in later generations, forming the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, already disputed hundreds of matters due to the changing circumstances caused by a weakening in the teacher-student transmission of the Torah heritage, forcing the disciples of Hillel and Shammai to engage in continued debate. In future generations, legal and Halachic issues would continue to be debated, analysed, disputed and reconciled. The principles elucidated during the course of these discussions became the basis for the opinions and discussions of the Mishnah and Talmud, and remain the subject of Torah study today. However, the loss of clarity in legal decision led to many problems that would later arise in Jewish life. 9 In their personal lives, the members of the two schools of Shammai and Hillel remained on good terms throughout the centuries, but their scholarly disagreements were often pointed, abrasive and irreconcilable. In the vast majority of cases, the final Talmudic decision followed the opinions advocated by the school of Hillel, although the opinions and personalities of the school of Shammai were yet most influential throughout the first and second centuries of the Common Era.

  1. See Talmud, Yoma 35b
  2. See Talmud, Perachim 66a, for the circumstances leading to Hillel's succeeding the B'nei Besaria and becoming the leader of the Jewish people.
  3. See Talmud, Shabbos 31a
  4. In the beginning (of the second Temple times) the Torah was under threat of becoming forgotten by Israel, until Ezra came from Babylonia and re-established it (in the Land of Israel). The Torah again was under threat of becoming forgotten by Israel (at the end of the reign of the Hasmoneans). Then came Hillel Habavli and re-established it once more" (Talmud, Succah 20a)
  5. See Talmud, Gittin 34b, for a discussion of Hillel's establishment of prozbul as a legitimate methos of preventing the Biblical cancellation of personal loan obligations in the Sabbatical (Shemitta) year. There is a vast literature available in Jewish scholarship regarding the legalisms and public policy involved in prozbul and other forms of rabbinic decrees instituted by Hillel and his successors, "in order to keep the world in good repair." those interested in knowing more about this fascinating aspect of halachic vitality are urged to follow the dictum of Hillel himself – "Go forth yourself and study the rest."
  6. Zechariah 4:6
  7. Even Jewish foreign rule.
  8. From my blessed personal experience of being able to live part of the year in Jerusalem, I can personally testify that this attitude is still quite strong among many Jews living under Israeli government rule today!
  9. Rabbi Menachim HaMeiri, the great fourteenth-century Talmudic scholar, in his introduction to the Mishnah, Avos characterised the beginning of halachic disputations at the time of Hillel and Shammai as being the time "when darkness descends on the (Torah) world