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HILLEL (the Elder; end of first century B.C.E. and beginning of first century C.E.), considered one of the "fathers of the world" (Eduy. 1:4; Tosef. Eduy. 1:3) who laid the foundations for the spiritual and intellectual movement of the tannaitic period. Hillel was one of the last pair of *zugot. At first *Menahem was his colleague but when he withdrew *Shammai succeeded him (Ḥag. 2:2). After the period of the zugot, Hillel's descendants established a dynasty which was to dominate rabbinic circles in the land of Israel for more than 400 years. When dealing with rabbinic or proto-rabbinic figures of Hillel's stature, it is always important to distinguish between the earlier and more historically reliable tannaitic sources, and the later talmudic traditions which often have a more legendary character. In the case of Hillel, however, even the earliest extant rabbinic sources are highly legendary in nature. For example, a tannaitic midrash (Sifre Deut. 357) provides the following outline of Hillel's "biography": "'And Moses was 120 years old' – He was one of four who died at the age of 120, and they are Moses, Hillel the Elder, Rabban Joḥanan ben Zakkai, and Rabbi Akiva. Moses was in Egypt for 40 years; in Midian for forty years; served and lead Israel for 40 years. Hillel the Elder came up from Babylonia at the age of 40; studied under the sages for 40 years; served and lead Israel for 40 years. Rabban Joḥanan ben Zakkai engaged in business for 40 years; studied under the sages for 40 years; served and lead Israel for 40 years. Rabbi Akiva began to learn Torah at the age of 40; studied under the sages for 40 years; served and lead Israel for 40 years." Clearly the point of this midrash is to establish a typological connection between these three rabbinic heroes and their biblical model – Moses. Any attempt to glean concrete historical information from this tradition would therefore be misguided. The notion that Hillel came from Babyloniais attested elsewhere (Tosef. Neg. 1:16; Sifra Tazria 9:15), but beyond this we are on shaky ground. For evidence of Hillel's character we have the following tradition from Tosef. Sot. 13:3: "Once the sages were gathered together in the upper chamber of the house of Guria in Jericho, when a heavenly voice came out and said to them: 'There is one here among you who is worth of receiving the holy spirit (prophecy), but his generation does not deserve it'. They all looked at Hillel the Elder. When he died they said: So humble; so pious – a true disciple of Ezra." This aspect of Hillel's personality developed in later aggadot into a stereotypical feature, standing in equally stereotypical opposition to Shammai's presumably harsh and difficult personality. Thus in TB Shabbat (31a) we find the story of three candidates for conversion who were rejected by Shammai and accepted by Hillel because of his "humility," though the terms "patience" and "insight" would better characterize Hillel's behavior there. In this context Hillel is reported to have summarized the entire Torah, saying "What is hateful to you, don't do to your companion" (cf. The Book of Tobit 4:15, ed. F. Zimmerman, 70, 159ff.; Sifra Kedosh. ch. 4:12 and Gen. R. 24). Another late aggadah (Yoma 35b) tells of Hillel's "humble" origins, i.e., his devotion to the study of Torah despite his abject poverty, which nearly led to his freezing to death on the roof of the study hall when, on one occasion, he was unable to pay the entrance fee. The only obvious connection between this famous story and the earlier tannaitic traditions about Hillel is that the first three letters of the Hebrew word for "humble" also spell the Hebrew word for "poor."

The traditions surrounding Hillel's appointment to the office of Nasi deserve special attention. Tosefta Pes. 4:13 tells that on one occasion Passover fell on a Sabbath, and "they asked Hillel the Elder" if the offering of the paschal lamb overrode the Sabbath or not. According to the Tosefta, Hillel responded somewhat cryptically: "Is there only one paschal offering which overrides the Sabbath every year? Are there not more than three hundred "paschal offerings" each year which override the Sabbath?" We are then told that "all [those present in] the Temple courtyard descended upon him" (cf. Tosef. Ḥag. 2:11). Hillel apparently was referring to the daily sacrifice which regularly overrides the Sabbath. He then proceeded to present no fewer than four different legal justifications for his ruling. The first three justifications base the ruling in the case of the paschal offering on a legal precedent – the daily sacrifice. All three involve some form of legal reasoning, and the last two seem to use apparently standard tannaitic hermeneutical techniques for the exposition of scripture. The fourth justification consists of an appeal to accepted religious authority: "Moreover, I have received an explicit tradition from my teachers that the paschal offering overrides the Sabbath." After a brief side discussion the Tosefta concludes: "On that very day they appointed Hillel as Nasi, and he instructed them in the laws of the Passover." There are many points in this story which demand clarification. Who asked Hillel this question? Who were Hillel's teachers from whom he had heard this halakhah, and why was this tradition unknown to the rest of those present? If Hillel indeed had received such a tradition from his teachers, why did he at first respond cryptically and then offer three independent and presumably original derivations of this law? If Hillel in fact offered three independent derivations of the law that paschal offering overrides the Sabbath and backed it up with an explicit tradition from his teachers, why do three halakhic Midrashim (Mech. Pisḥa 5; Sifre Num. 65, 142) ascribe a very similar midrashic derivation of this very law to R. Josiah, a much later tanna? What is the relation of this tradition to another tannaitic tradition (Tosef. Sanh. 7:11; Sifra, Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael) which states that "Hillel used seven hermeneutical methods before the elders of Patera (Batera)"?

To all these questions the later talmudic tradition (TJ Pes. 6:1, 33a; TB Pes. 66a) provides clear and unequivocal answers – though not always the same ones. First of all, later tradition identifies the events surrounding the paschal offering with the traditions concerning Hillel's use of seven hermeneutical methods before the Elders of Patera, who are apparently viewed as representing established authority in the Temple prior to Hillel's appointment (cf. TJ Kil. 9:3, 32b; TB BM 85a). Moreover, Hillel's "teachers" are identified as Shemaiah and Avtalyon, who preceded Hillel and Shammai in the traditional list of zugot. Since an explicit tradition from Shemaiah and Avtalyon must have been known to anyone holding legitimate office in the Temple, the talmudic story begins by stating: "This halakhah was forgotten by the Elders of Batera" (TJ; TB: Sons of *Bathyra). After being informed that a certain "Babylonian" named Hillel was present, who had studied under Shemaiah and Avtalyon, the Elders of Batera (apparently reluctantly) turned to Hillel to see if he had anything to offer on the subject. At this point the Babylonain and the Jerusalem Talmuds part ways in relating the story. According to the Jerusalem Talmud Hillel offered three interpretations in order to justify his position, but the Elders of Batera refuted every single one of them. Only when Hillel testified that he had received an explicit tradition on this matter from Shemaiah and Avtalyon, were the Elders of Batera willing to accept his view and to appoint him as Nasi. In the Babylonian Talmud, Hillel presents two original scriptural interpretations to justify his ruling, and on the basis of these original interpretations alone, they accepted his view and appointed him as Nasi. The difference between these two versions would seem to turn, therefore, on the question of the relative weight one should ascribe to original interpretation as opposed to accepted tradition in the deciding of this halakhic question. The talmudic versions of the story probably do not reflect ancient and reliable historical traditions, but are rather a result of later editorial elaboration and reworking of ancient literary sources. Even the earliest forms of these traditions (Tosef. Pes. 4:13; Tosef. Sanh. 7:11; Sifra, Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael) cannot be simply accepted as accurately representing actual historical events in Hillel's life. Nevertheless, even some of the greatest talmudic scholars have assumed that these traditions – in their latest and most highly elaborated talmudic versions – preserve ancient and reliable historical sources, and have used them as such (e.g. Epstein. ITL. 510–511; Lieberman, Hellenism, 54, no. 58).

Relatively few halakhot are actually ascribed in tannaitic sources to Hillel himself. Most of these halakhot consist of brief statements of no more than two to five words (Eduy. 1:1–3, Sifra, Shemini 9:5; but see Sifre Zuta Num. 30). Other halakhot are indirectly attributed to Hillel (Tosef. Neg. 1:16, Sifra Tazria 9:15; Tosef. Ber. 2:22; Tosef.; cf. Tosef. Ketub. 7:9). Similarly two very important rabbinic decrees – takkanot – are attributed to him. These takkanot provide evidence of Hillel's interest in civil law and economic matters. The first was the *prosbul, designed to prevent the complete cancellation of debts during the sabbatical year, since with changing economic conditions it became difficult to carry out the biblical law, and the economy which was based upon credit and loans was thereby imperiled (Shev. 10:3; Git. 4:3; Sifre Deut. 113). The second takkanah was with regard to the houses of the walled cities which, according to biblical law (Lev. 25:29), could be redeemed by the seller only within the year of the sale. In Hillel's time the buyer who desired to acquire the house permanently would disappear until the last day of the year, so that the seller would be unable to redeem his house. Hillel's takkanah provided for the seller to deposit the proceeds of the sale in the Temple treasury, to enable him later to acquire the title to his house (Ar. 9:4; Sifra Behar 4:8).

Hillel's ethical-religious teachings have been preserved in a series of proverbs, some in Hebrew (Tosef. Ber. 2:24; 7:24) and some in Aramaic (Avot 1:13; 2:6), such as: "He who magnifies his name destroys it; he who does not increase his knowledge decreases it, and he who does not study deserves to die; and he who makes worldly use of the crown of Torah shall waste away." The belief in reward and punishment is expressed in the statement, "he saw a skull floating on the surface of the water, and said to it, 'Because you drowned someone, you will be drowned, and the end of those who drown you will be that they will be drowned'." Later sources present Hillel quoting scriptural verses which he used as proverbs. Thus on one occasion when he heard a loud cry on entering the city, he expressed his confidence that it did not proceed from his house by quoting, "He shall not fear an evil report" (Ps. 112:7; TJ, Ber. 9:5, 14b); and once when he differed from his colleague Shammai, who was in the habit of making provision for the Sabbath from the beginning of the week, he quoted the verse: "Blessed be the Lord day by day" (Ps. 68:20; Bezah 16a). When he wished to explain to his disciples the importance of personal cleanliness, he resorted to the language of paradox interspersed with proverbs: "When he [Hillel] took leave of his students, he used to go off for a walk. His students asked him: 'Where are you walking to?' He answered: 'To perform a meritorious deed.' – They said to him: 'And what is this deed?' – And he said to them: 'To take a bath in the bathhouse.' – They said to him: 'And is this a meritorious deed?' – He answered: 'It is; if the statues erected to kings in the theaters and circuses are washed and scrubbed by those in charge of them… how much more should we, who have been created in His image and likeness, take care of our bodies, as it is written: For in the image of God made He man'" (Gen. 9:6). Another version of this story runs: "'Rabbi, where are you going to?' – To which he answered: 'To do a charitable deed for a guest in my house.' – They said to him: 'Does this guest stay with you every day?' – He answered: 'This poor soul – is it not a guest in the body, here today and gone tomorrow?'" (Lev. R. 24:3).

The personality of Hillel, in which wisdom was combined with righteousness, and humility with simplicity, became a model of conduct for subsequent generations. The changes that he brought about in his day with respect to the study of the Torah and the methods of promulgating legal decisions caused him to be compared with Ezra, who, like him, came from Babylonia and reestablished the Torah (Suk. 20a). Lavish praise was also showered on his disciples: "Hillel the Elder had 80 students: 30 of them were worthy that the Shekhinah should rest upon them, like Moses, our teacher; 30 that the sun should stand still for them, as it did for Joshua son of Nun; 20 were average; the greatest among them was Jonathan b. Uzziel and the least among them Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai" (Suk. 28a).


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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.