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Hillel ben Samuel

HILLEL BEN SAMUEL (c. 1220–c. 1295), physician, talmudic scholar, and philosopher. Since it has been held that Hillel lived in Verona, he has also been called Hillel b. Samuel of Verona; but, in fact, only his grandfather lived in that city. Little is known about Hillel's personality, place of birth, or life. It is known that he came from a rabbinic family, and that his grandfather, *Eliezer ben Samuel, was a tosafist and av bet din at Verona. Hillel is first mentioned in a legal document of 1254. He lived in Naples and then in Capua, where he practiced medicine and studied philosophy with Abraham *Abulafia. Earlier he had lived in Rome, where he became friendly with Zerahiah b. Shealtiel *Gracian and with the physician Isaac b. Mordecai (Maestro Gaio), who later served as the physician of Pope Nicholas IV. Most information about Hillel is derived from correspondence between him and these friends. Some scholars, relying upon Hillel's own, rather dubious, testimony, have concluded that between the years 1259 and 1262 Hillel lived in Barcelona, where he was a disciple of *Jonah Gerondi. Hillel's statement that he studied medicine in Montpellier finds no corroboration in other sources. Hillel played a major role in the controversies of 1289–90 concerning the philosophical works of Maimonides (see *Maimonidean Controversy). Defending Maimonides, Hillel addressed a letter to his friend Maestro Gaio asking him to use his influence with the Jews of Rome against Maimonides' opponents. He also advanced the bold idea of gathering together Maimonides' defenders and opponents in one of the towns on the shores of the Mediterranean, in order to bring the controversy before a court of Babylonian rabbis, whose decision would be binding on both factions. From a second letter to Maestro Gaio, it appears that Hillel's efforts were partially successful: the rabbis of Babylonia, Ereẓ Israel, and Italy supported his idea and placed a ban of excommunication on the instigator of the opposition to Maimonides, *Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier. Both letters are included in Ḥemdah Genuzah (ed. by Ẓ.H. Edelmann (1856), 18a–22b). The first also appears in Ta'am Zekenim (ed. by A. Ashkenazi (1854), 70b–73a). Hillel's position may be understood against the background of the religious-philosophical controversy prevalent at that time among the Christians. Under the influence of Christian scholasticism, Hillel believed that the threat to faith stemmed from the adherents of *Averroes, whose views concerning the human intellect brought them to deny the immortality of the individual human soul. While Hillel generally followed Maimonides' rationalistic position, he deviated from Maimonides, who tended toward an allegorical interpretation of miracles and prophetic visions, by holding that these must be taken literally (see Oẓar Neḥmad, 2 (1857), 124–43). Hillel's major work is Tagmulei ha-Nefesh (written in 1288–91; published from an imperfect manuscript by S. Halberstamm in 1874). The book is divided into two parts. The first part, which itself contains seven sections and is the major portion of the book, deals with the nature of the soul and the intellect, and relies heavily on the earlier literature on this topic. Thus, the first two sections of the first part are mainly a translation of Dominicus Gundissalinus' De Anima, also called Liber Sextus Naturalium; the third and fifth sections are based on the Tractatus de Animae Beatitudine ("Treatise on the Beatitude of the Soul") attributed to Averroes; the sixth section is a copy of the three treatises by Averroes on the conjunction of the hylic and active intellects, from the Hebrew translation by Samuel ibn *Tibbon; and the seventh is a translation of Thomas *Aquinas' De Unitate Intellectus. The second part of the book, which deals with the question of the soul's retribution, reflects the influence of *Naḥmanides' Sha'ar ha-Gemul. Hillel wrote this work, as he says, to explain the nature of the soul to the Hebrew reader in order to save him from the dangers inherent in blind, non-philosophical faith, on the one hand, and from the extreme conclusions of philosophic speculation, on the other. Hillel, in Tagmulei ha-Nefesh, maintains that the soul is a "formal substance" which is spiritual and emanates directly from the supreme being, God. The ultimate aim of the soul is to unite with the active intellect. On the question of whether there exists an infinite number of independent souls or a single soul for all individuals, Hillel follows Averroes in maintaining that there is a universal soul, from which the souls of individuals emanate like rays from the sun. However, while Averroes believed in collective immortality, Hillel, following Aquinas, believed in individual immortality. The arguments which Hillel used to prove that the immortality of the soul is individual were actually those of Thomas Aquinas. Hillel advanced these proofs of the individual immortality of the soul mainly in order to substantiate his notion of reward and punishment which he discusses in the second part of the work. In Hillel's view, which was also influenced by the Christian scholasticism of his day, the soul's retribution was spiritual rather than physical – its reward consisting in drawing close to God, its punishment in removal from God. Though Hillel does remain faithful to Jewish tradition in his description of Gan Eden and Gehinnom (heaven and hell), details of his description reflect the influence of Christian scholasticism. In addition to Tagmulei ha-Nefesh, Hillel wrote a commentary on the 25 propositions appearing at the beginning of the second part of the Guide, and three philosophical treatises, which were appended to Tagmulei ha-Nefesh: the first on knowledge and free will; the second on the question of why mortality resulted from the sin of Adam; the third on whether or not the belief in the fallen angels is a true belief. It is uncertain whether the commentaries on three philosophical treatises by Maimonides (published in Ḥemdah Genuzah, 31b–36a) which are attributed to Hillel were actually written by him. In Tagmulei ha-Nefesh Hillel mentions a work that he wrote himself, entitled Ma'amar ha-Darban (or ha-Darkan), dealing with tales of miracles in the aggadah. However, preserved excerpts of the work (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cod. Héb., 704; published by Goldblum in Mi-Ginzei Yisrael be-Paris, 1894) offer only an explanation of philosophical terms. Hillel also translated the pseudo-Aristotelian Liber de causis under the title Ma'amar Lamed Bet Hakdamot (extracts contained in Tagmulei ha-Nefesh). In composing this translation he apparently relied on Aquinas' commentary on this work. He also translated several important medieval works from Latin into Hebrew, which served in his time as textbooks for teaching medicine: (1) Sefer Keritut (Chirurgia Magna) of Bruno de Lungoburgo, which was written in 1254 (Parma, De Rossi Ms. 1281; the preface is found in Tagmulei ha-Nefesh, 43a–44b); (2) parts of Hippocrates' Aphorisms with Galen's commentaries; and (3) Melekhet Ketannah, Galen's Micra Techne, according to the Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona. Hillel, whose strength lay in his translations rather than in his original philosophical works, was a characteristic figure of the height of the scholastic period. The subjects with which he dealt, especially the question of the soul's retribution, are also dealt with by Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and *Immanuel of Rome. Despite his rationalism, Hillel emphasized, to a greater extent than did his predecessors, the dangers to faith inherent in philosophic speculation. Hillel's importance in the history of medieval Jewish philosophy results from his attempt to deal systematically with the question of the immortality of the soul, which Maimonides had avoided discussing at length.


Guttmann, Philosophies, 157, 197–200; Husik, Philosophy, 312–27; Teicher, in: Tarbiz, 7 (1936), 366, 372; Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, index; Vogelstein-Rieger, 1 (1896), 400–10, 415–8; Elbogen, in: Annuario di studi ebraici, 2 (1935–37), 99–105; J.B. Sermoneta, in: World Congress of Jewish Studies, Synopses of Lectures, 4 (1961).

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