The Torah on One Foot

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos 31a relates the following well-known story of Hillel:

“On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”1 Thereupon he chased him away with the builder’s cubit that was in his hand.2 When he came before Hillel, (he also asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot) Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”3

While it is clearly suggested in the Talmud that ahavas Yisrael is the entire Torah and the rest is commentary, this statement of Hillel requires clarification.

It is well known that the 613 Commandments may broadly be divided into two categories: between man and G‑d, and between man and man. The mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael is obviously fundamental in the realm of mitzvos between man and man; however, how can it be suggested that it is the entire Torah — that it also applies to mitzvos between man and G‑d?

The Great Principle

On the verse, “Love your fellow as yourself,” the classic commentator Rashi quotes from Toras Kohanim, an early Midrashic text regarding the famous dictum of Rabbi Akiva: “Love your fellow as yourself — Rabbi Akiva says this is a great principle of the Torah.”4

It is well known that Rabbi Akiva lived many years after Hillel. One may therefore ask: If Hillel has already stated that ahavas Yisrael is the entire Torah and the rest of the Torah is just commentary, what has Rabbi Akiva added in his statement by saying that ahavas Yisrael is a “great principle” of the Torah? Surely this idea is already included in the words of Hillel.5

Bring Them Near to the Torah

We will answer the above questions by first introducing another famous saying of Hillel.6

“Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them near to the Torah.”

One may ask, what is the connection between “loving your fellow creatures” and “bringing them near to the Torah”? The mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael tells us to show concern for another in all matters both material and spiritual. The Baal Shem Tov taught that one must look to do a favor for another without making it conditional on spiritual achievement or circumstance.7 Why then does the mishnah make this connection?

One way of explaining it is to say that the mishnah is giving a directive as to the boundaries of ahavas Yisrael: fulfilling the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael should never be an excuse to “dilute” the words or ways of the Torah to the ways of the people, rather the opposite: one must draw the people nearer to the ways of the Torah.8

According to this explanation, however, the words “and bring them near to the Torah” are peripheral to the concept of ahavas Yisrael, explaining only the parameters of ahavas Yisrael. The plain meaning of the mishnah instead implies that “bringing them near to the Torah” is not merely tangential but rather a direct consequence of “loving your fellow creatures,” i.e.,ahavas Yisrael reflects itself and is demonstrated in “bringing them near to the Torah.”9

The question is made even stronger with the explanation in chapter 32 of Tanya which states that ahavas Yisrael must be in a way of realizing that the other Jew possesses a soul which, in its source, is one with all other souls, which explains why ahavas Yisrael has no limits and applies to the great as well as the small — and as the Mezritcher Maggid says10 — one must love the perfectly wicked just as the perfectly righteous. If ahavas Yisrael must be independent of the Jew’s standing in his G‑dly service, why then does the mishnah state that ahavas Yisrael must manifest itself in “bringing them near to the Torah”?

First in Thought

The explanation:

There is a well-known saying of the Sages:11 “The thought of Israel preceded any other.” This means that when G‑d created the world, Israel preceded Torah in His thought.

On the other hand, the Zohar12 teaches: “Israel connects with the Torah, and the Torah connects with G‑d,” which seems to suggest that Torah precedes Israel.

Chassidic philosophy13 explains: In their source, Israel stands higher than the Torah. However, as souls descend below, Torah is higher than Israel, and the connection of a soul to G‑d is through Torah.

This explanation elucidates the two opposites in a Jew:

1. Since in his source a Jew stands higher than Torah; therefore, “A Jew even though he has sinned is still called a Jew.”14 No number of sins can rid the Jew of the title “Jew,” because the connection of the Jew’s essence with G‑d is not dependent upon his observance of Torah and mitzvos.15

2. It is this very essential connection that brings every Jew ultimately to do teshuvah,16 and since the connection of a soul with G‑d is through the Torah (once the soul descends into a body), eventually the essential connection will bring every Jew to keep the Torah and mitzvos.17

Opposites Reflected

These two opposites reflect themselves in the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael.

The essence of ahavas Yisrael is the love for the soul as it stands in its source united with all other souls, and as it stands above Torah. That essential love therefore transcends Torah observance and extends itself even to those who are distant from the Torah. On this level, there is no differentiation between a tzaddik and a rasha. Furthermore, the love is not limited to the spirituality of the other Jew but even extends to his material requirements, for even his material requirements are those of a Jew (as we view the soul in its essential state.)

However, since the connection of the soul with G‑d — as it descends below — is through Torah, therefore ahavas Yisrael becomes a mitzvah of the Torah, (i.e., we must love a fellow Jew as an imperative of the Torah18 ). The mitzvah then contains within it all the limitations that the Torah places upon us; for example, the idea mentioned above not to “dilute” the Torah to make it more accessible.

We can now understand the teaching of Hillel: “Love your fellow creatures and bring them near to the Torah.” Although one must have ahavas Yisrael independent of any standing or levels of observance (because of the essence and source of the soul as explained above); nevertheless, once the soul descends below, its connection to G‑d is through the Torah. Therefore, one cannot suffice with ahavas Yisrael from the sole perspective of the soul’s essence, but should try to bring one’s fellow Jew to a full connection with G‑d through the Torah, which recognizes his soul’s connection here below.

A true sense of unity will only be felt if all Jews connect themselves with G‑d through the Torah. If a Jew remains “distant from the Torah,” one must still love him because of his essence, his essence being higher than the Torah; however, true ahavas Yisrael will bring him to a full connection with G‑d, and that is accomplished by drawing him near to the Torah. Once a Jew has a connection with G‑d through the Torah, his essential bond with G‑d can be fully revealed.

The Difference Between Hillel and Rabbi Akiva

We will now understand the difference between the sayings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Akiva was talking about the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael that must be observed by a Jew in a body, i.e., with all the limitations and directions of the Torah. Therefore, he cannot state that ahavas Yisrael is the entire Torah for if so, it could override other rules of the Torah (just as saving a life can override all other rules) and as previously mentioned that is not the case. On the level of Torah, ahavas Yisrael is only a “great principle of the Torah” — a principle which must be carried out under the directives of the Torah.

Hillel, however, was talking about the essential level of ahavas Yisrael, where the Jew stands higher than Torah. On that level, the whole purpose of the Torah is as a means to reveal the essence of the Jew. Since a Jew’s essence is revealed by the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael, it can therefore be said that it is the entire Torah and the rest is explanation; that is, that the rest of the Torah is the vehicle through which the essence of the Jew is revealed as exemplified in the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael.