Shabbat 31

Torah on one foot.

While the majority of the discussions in the Talmud focus on halacha (legal matters), much of the Talmud’s material can be classified as aggadah (lore and non-legal discussions). Today’s daf is rich in aggadah, containing two sets of stories (including perhaps the most famous story about him) highlighting the exemplary patience of Hillel, the first century sage whose lenient approach became a rabbinic model. As we have seen, Hillel’s rulings were usually preferred over those of his counterpart, Shammai, who was known for his strictness.

The sages taught: A person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.

The first set of stories focuses on a man who makes a bet that he can make Hillel angry. Three times he interrupts Hillel’s pre-Shabbat bathing and hair washing with silly questions about why certain groups of people have a distinctive physical appearance, like round heads or flat feet. Rather than be annoyed, Hillel towels off and answers him patiently, explaining that these characteristics are products of their environment. Finally, seeing that he has lost the bet, the man says:

Are you Hillel whom they call the Nasi of Israel?

He said to him: Yes.

He said to him: If it is you, then may there not be many like you in Israel.

Hillel said to him: My son, for what reason do you say this?

The man said to him: Because I lost four hundred zuz (coins) because of you.

Hillel said to him: Be vigilant of your spirit. Hillel is worthy of having you lose four hundred zuz and another four hundred zuz on his account, and Hillel will not get upset.

After demonstrating Hillel’s exemplary patience, the next set of stories compares him directly to Shammai, in set of “bad cop, good cop” scenarios. This time three people come in turn, first to Shammai and then Hillel, asking to be taught and converted to Judaism for spurious reasons.

The first only wants to know the written Torah and not the Oral (rabbinic law). Since the authenticity of Oral Torah is a central part of rabbinic theology, Shammai dismisses him with a reprimand. But Hillel accepts him, and then gently teaches him that even learning the alphabet in order takes an acceptance of “Oral Torah.”

The next convert famously asks to learn the whole Torah while he stands on one foot! Shammai pushes him away with the builder’s cubit — a kind of measuring rod — in his hand (his day job was carpentry). But Hillel accepts the man and tells him:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is interpretation. Go study!

The third would-be convert wants to become Jewish so that he can become the High Priest and wear fancy clothes. Since that is a hereditary office, Shammai rejects his ridiculous ambition. But Hillel accepts the man and lets him learn the facts for himself as he progresses in his own Torah study.

Finally, all three of the new Jews get together and bless Hillel:

Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence).

Today, many of us find ourselves in situations where we often need to draw on our quality of patience. May we all practice patience like Hillel.

Read all of Shabbat 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 6, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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