The preeminent rabbi of first century Palestine.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Hillel was the foremost teacher in Palestine in the first century BCE. Together with Shammai, Hillel is mentioned in the first chapter of Ethics of the Fathers as the last of the 'Pairs', the five sets of two spiritual heads in succession until the leadership of the people was in the hands of Hillel's descendants, of the house of Rabban Gamaliel. A number of Hillel's descendants were also named Hillel, of whom the best-known is the fourth-century Hillel to whom is attributed the fixing of the calendar.

Do Unto Others…

The problem scholars have had to face in attempting to put together a biography of Hillel is that the major sources for Hillel and his activity are the Talmud and the Midrash and a good deal of the material in these sources dates from no earlier than the time of their compilation, often centuries after Hillel. Great caution is therefore necessary when using these sources for a reconstruction of Hillel's life and work.

For instance, much has been made of the Talmudic story (Shabbat 31a) in which Hillel, when asked by a prospective convert to Judaism to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one leg, replied: 'That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.'

Theologians, Jewish and non-Jewish, have compared this version of the Golden Rule, stated in negative form, with that of Jesus, in the positive form. There is a total failure to appreciate that this story is told, in Babylonian Aramaic, at least two hundred years after Hillel and probably much later. Moreover, in the same set of stories related in a Midrash, the hero is not Hillel at all but Rabbi Joshua.

Similarly, when it is said of Hillel and other key figures that they lived for 120 years, it is as obvious as can be that this is not factual but a way of saying that these teachers followed in the footsteps of Moses who was 120 years old at his death (Deuteronomy 34:7).

Yet while there is little authentic information about Hillel and Shammai themselves, the Mishnah and Talmud are full of the great debates between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai.

The Two Houses

That there were two houses, in the sense of schools, formed of the disciples of the two sages, is undeniable but even with regard to these houses the sources have to be approached with caution. Although, in the Talmudic sources, the House of Hillel generally gives lenient rulings in matters of law and the House of Shammai stricter rulings, it can hardly be suggested that the three hundred and more cases debated by the two great schools depended solely, or even mainly, on whether the law should be decided strictly or leniently.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.