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


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

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 (Pirkei Avot) 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 200 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: Hillel and Shammai

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 300 and more cases debated by the two great schools depended solely, or even mainly, on whether the law should be decided strictly or leniently.

We are told nowhere, in fact, why two separate schools should have emerged at all, and we are largely left in ignorance both of their composition and of the principles by which they operated.

In an oft-quoted talmudic passage (Eruvin 13b), dating not earlier than the third century CE and obviously containing strong elements of pure legend, it is said that for three years the two houses debated whether the law should be decided in accordance with the House of Hillel or the House of Shammai and there was a danger that the Torah would become two Torahs; in other words, there was a danger of schism in which the religious practices and the laws of one group of Jews were quite different from those of another group of Jews.

The issue was finally decided by a Bat Kol, a voice from heaven, which declared: “Both these and these are the words of the living God but the law (the Halakhah) is in accordance with the rulings of the House of Hillel.”

All this has left modern scholarship with the extremely difficult and purely conjectural task of discovering the guiding principles behind the decisions and debates between the two houses.

Some modern scholars suggest that the two houses operated by different exegetical methods, interpreting Scripture in ways that led to different practical conclusions. In one version of this theory, the House of Shammai favored a more literal meaning of Scripture, while the House of Hillel tended to interpret Scripture in a less than literal manner.

Possible Class Differences

Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) advanced the ingenious thesis that the two houses really represented two social classes: the House of Shammai legislating for the wealthy landowners, the ‘patricians’, the House of Hillel for the working classes, the ‘plebeians’, as these are called by Ginzberg’s disciple, Louis Finkelstein.

To give one example among many, the Mishnah (Gittin 9:10) states: ‘The House of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found her to be unfaithful, for it is written (Deuteronomy 24:1), “because he has found some indecency in her.” But the House of Hillel say: Even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written: “because he has found some (i.e. ‘any’] indecency in her.”

On the theory of difference in exegetical principles, the different rulings of the two houses are based solely on how literally the verse is to be interpreted. But on the

Ginzberg-Finkelstein hypothesis, the scriptural exegesis is secondary and derives from the different needs and attitudes of two different social classes. The two houses, each legislating for a different social class, are bound to interpret Scripture in the way they do, since the position of women among the aristocracy is far better than among the lower social classes.

The trouble with all the theories, is that they can only be made to work by selective quotations and are far too neat. And what is one to make of the purely theological debates between the two houses upon which neither the exegetical nor the sociological theory has any bearing? Why, for example, did the House of Shammai say (Eruvin 13b) that it were better for a man not to have been created than to have been created and the House of Hillel say it were better for man to have been created than not to have been created, and why did the House of Hillel eventually agree with the House of Shammai on this matter?

To date, no satisfactory theory has been advanced which convincingly explains the reason or reasons for the emergence of two separate schools. It remains true that, because of the Bat Kol, Jewish law is usually decided in favor of the House of Hillel.

In the 16th-century Lurianic Kabbalah, it is stated that in this world, the law generally follows the more lenient views of the House of Hillel, but in the Messianic age, when people will have greater spiritual stamina, the law will follow the tougher rulings of the House of Shammai.

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

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