Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris


Let us now take a glance at the religious life of Judah in this reign. The picture is brighter. Hillel was made president of the Sanhedrin in the year 30. A new direction was given to the development of rabbinic Judaism under his guidance. He was the greatest Jewish teacher since Ezra. Like Ezra he came from Babylon, which had remained a Jewish centre since the exile, 600 B. C. E., and was to continue to be a Jewish centre for many centuries later. Pleasing stories are told of the sacrifices made by this poor boy to gratify his thirst for knowledge. Once he was almost frozen to death while lying on the skylight to hear the discussion, since he was not allowed to hear it from within. Ultimately he was placed at the head of the Sanhedrin where at first he was a beggar at its doors. Great as he was as an expounder of the Law, he is perhaps best known by the sweetness of his character. None could put him out of temper, it is said. This story is given as illustration. A man who ventured a wager that he would rouse Hillel's wrath called thrice at the most inopportune time asking the absurdest questions, and each time more rudely than before. The attempt failed. On hearing the explanation of this strange behavior, Hillel, unruffled to the last, said, "Better that you should lose your wager than I my temper." He united in himself gentleness and firmness.

Hillel as Moralist.

Many interesting instances are given of his evenness of disposition that disarmed the violent and won many a convert to the fold, where the brusqueness of his colleague—Shammai—often drove them away. "Be patient like Hillel, not passionate like Shammai," ran the saying. Thus Hillel became the peacemaker in those troublous Herodian days. In this connection he taught, "Be of the disciples of Aaron—loving and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Law." His consideration for others went so far that, a man of standing, becoming suddenly poor, he provided him with a horse and servant that he might still enjoy some of the comforts of his earlier life.

He is the author of the famous Golden Rule in its earlier form, uttered in reply to a heathen who would have him teach the whole Law while he stood on one foot: "That which is hateful to thee do not unto thy neighbor; this is the principle, all the rest is commentary." Another heathen must needs be made a priest if converted: Hillel gently showed him the prohibition of the Law. But the instances show that proselytism was encouraged.

In the following maxims many phases of his character are revealed:

  • "He who craves to raise his name, lowers it."
  • "A name inflated is a name destroyed."
  • "My humility is my pride, my pride my humility."
  • "He who will not learn or teach deserves death."
  • "He who does not progress, retrogrades."
  • "Say not, 'when I have leisure I will study,' for you may never have leisure."
  • "Study God's word; then both this world and the next will be thine."
  • "Trust not thyself till the day of thy death."
  • "In a place where there is no man, strive to show thyself a man."
  • "Judge not thy neighbor till thou art in his place."
  • "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?"

Do you realize how much is contained in that last maxim? Unravel it and you will see revealed his philosophy of life.

Hillel as Legislator.

So gentle, he was yet daring. When an old law was abused, he ventured to modify it. The Law, for example, for release of debts every seventh year, made particularly for the benefit of the poor (Deut. xv), hampered the growth of trade in more complex times and changed a generous purpose into an occasional embarrassment. There is a gulf of difference between a loan to buy bread and a loan for business enterprise. In the latter case Hillel allowed the stipulation to be stated in the contract, called prosbul, that the law of release was to be suspended.

To Hillel is due the important service of devising a logical system of seven rules of deduction by which new laws to meet new needs could be developed out of the fewer and more general principles in the Bible code. It must be confessed that these deductions were occasionally far-fetched. None the less the custom prevailed among the rabbis to make laws for all exigencies in that way for many centuries to come. The practice arose from the reverence paid the five books of Moses that induced them to seek authority for every regulation they found needful, in their pages. We might say it was a virtue carried to the extreme of a fault. Hillel's method earned him the title "Regenerator of the Law."

Last Days.

"Where goest thou, Master," said Hillel's disciples one day when he hastened from the house of learning. "I go to meet a guest," Hillel replied. "Who is this guest of whom thou so often speakest?" The sweetness of the master's face deepened into earnestness. "My guest is my soul. Too often in intercourse with the world must its claims be pushed aside."

But the day came, as indeed it must, when the soul was summoned to a greater tribunal than his own. The day of Hillel's death was a day of mourning in Israel. "O, pious, gentle, worthy follower of Ezra," cried the sorrowing people. Contrast his death with Herod's.

Such was the love and esteem in which he was held by the scholars of his own and later ages, that the presidency of the Sanhedrin was kept in his family for four centuries (like a royal succession), and in this way his memory reverenced for many generations.


In Hillel and Shammai, the "Pairs" referred to in chapter viii reached their culmination. A teaching of Shammai ran, "Say little but do much." These two men were the founders of two distinct schools of interpretation of Jewish Law. They were as distinct in their character as in their exposition of Scripture. Hillel was broad, tolerant and original; Shammai—narrow, strict, and conservative. (Hillel's opinions were usually accepted by later generations.) Shammai was a pessimist saying "It were better not to have been born." Hillel was an optimist, and said, "Being born, make the most of life."

To the Shammai school we owe the many stringent prohibitions with regard to the Sabbath and to ecclesiastical purity. They objected even to teaching the young, visiting the sick, or comforting mourners on the Sabbath day. We are glad to state that Jewish practice has taken the opposite view. The rabbis of the Shammai school were not only severe in their religious decisions, but also in the interpretation of patriotism and in their views of life generally. Their gloomy philosophy is shown in Second Esdras: see chap. v., on the Apocrypha. We might compare them with the first Puritan settlers in America.

This school, also unlike Hillel's, opposed the admission of proselytes from the heathen. Yet in those stormy times, these severe views against the heathen found the larger following. From these doubtless came the band of Zealots whose fanatic hatred of Rome and its institutions became almost a religion, and whose deeds, to be told later, form a lurid chapter in Judah's closing days.


Law and Equity:—According to ancient Jewish law a city home sold could be redeemed within a year. "But suppose the owner lock it up and depart." "Break the lock and lodge the money with the court," said Hillel. He touched a modern need in showing here that craft must not defeat the benevolent purpose of the Law.

See Geiger's History of Judaism, vol. i, chap. viii.

Golden rule. See Tobit iv, 15.

Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, Taylor, pp. 34 to 37.

Theme for Discussion:Is it possible as Hillel said, to evolve the whole law from the Golden Rule?