A dance at Duke University's Hillel organization, circa 1950. (Duke University Archives)

Who Was Hillel?

The preeminent sage of first century Palestine whose name is on Jewish campus organizations worldwide.

Hillel (also known as Hillel the Elder) is one of the best-known sages of the Talmud. He lived during the last century before the Common Era, served as head of the Sanhedrin, the ancient rabbinic tribunal, and was the founder of the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel in Hebrew), a school of Jewish law famous for its disputes with the rival House of Shammai. 

Though little has been firmly established about Hillel’s biography by historians, he is said to have been born in Babylonia around 110 BCE and died in Jerusalem in the first years of the Common Era. His grave is in Meron, in northern Israel. 

 

Hillel and Shammai

Hundreds of disputes between Hillel and Shammai are recorded in the Talmud, with the House of Hillel generally favoring a more lenient opinion and the House of Shammai favoring a stricter one. The rabbis of the Talmud generally favored the views of the House of Hillel, but in keeping with talmudic tradition, both opinions are recorded in the text. 

According to a famous passage in the tractate Eruvin, the disciples of Hillel and Shammai argued for years saying the law was in accordance with their views. Ultimately a divine voice proclaimed: “Both these are the words of the living God. However, the halachah [Jewish law] is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.” The Talmud goes on to note that the law follows the views of Hillel’s disciples precisely because they were “agreeable and forbearing.” 

 

Stories of Hillel

While Hillel and Shammai were links in a chain of oral transmission of the Torah that began with Moses and continued through the rabbis of the talmudic period, Hillel is renowned less for his legal rulings than for his kindness and ethics, traits reflected in the numerous stories and maxims attributed to him, several of which continue to be widely quoted today.

According to one story, Hillel was so poor that he could not afford the price of admission to the study hall. Instead, he climbed the building and sat near a skylight so he could hear the lesson being taught inside. When morning came, Hillel’s body blocked the light from entering the study hall. When those inside looked up, they saw Hillel’s body, which had been covered by an overnight snowfall. Talmudic commentators derive from the story that even poverty should not be considered an obstacle to Torah study.

Another story in the Talmud concerns a non-Jew who came to Shammai and agreed to be converted if he could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai sent him away, but Hillel welcomed him, saying: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.” This and other stories showing Hillel’s graciousness even in the face of provocation are invoked to justify the teaching of the rabbis that one should be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. 

 

Famous sayings

Hillel is known for a number of famous maxims in addition to his articulation of a variant of the golden rule noted above. Many of these are recorded in the early chapters of Pirkei Avot, the section of the Talmud concerned primarily with matters of ethics. Perhaps the most well-known of Hillel’s statements is this: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

The following chapter records another oft-quoted statement from Hillel: “Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place.”

 

Legacy

Hillel has a prominent place in the Passover seder with the institution of the so-called “Hillel sandwich,” known in Hebrew as korech. The last ritual prior to the eating of the festive meal, korech involves the joining together of matzah, bitter herbs and the sweet paste known as haroset into a kind of sandwich, which is done in commemoration of Hillel’s practice of eating those three together.

Hillel International, the Jewish campus groups, has borne the name of the Jewish sage since its founding in 1923. The founder of the first Hillel chapter, Benjamin Frankel, liked the name because it is “a symbol of the quest for higher learning” and because it connoted Christian fellowship, since Hillel was a contemporary of Jesus. 

Hillel’s famous sayings have been widely quoted and adopted. “If not now, when,” was the title of a book by Primo Levi and an album from the American rock band Incubus. IfNotNow was adopted by the name of an organization fighting to end American Jewish support for Israeli policies that harm the Palestinians. And Hillel’s statements were included on the quirky labels of the soap brand Dr. Bronner’s.

 

Discover More

Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

This section of the Mishnah is one of the best-known and most cited of Jewish texts.

Who Was Rabbi Akiva?

The second-century sage was the inspiration for many legends and may have died as a martyr.

Who Was Rashi?

The most widely read Jewish Bible commentator, he also wrote a running commentary to the Babylonian Talmud.