Hillel the Elder (Hillel Hazaken) is one of the most influential rabbis in Jewish history. He was the head of a school, the House of Hillel, that eventually became the primary academy for Torah study prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. His title, the Elder, differentiated him from the later Hillels, including his descendant, Hillel Hakatan (“the Small”). He is the ancestor of Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishnah. To this day, his teachings and lessons are integral to Jewish perspective and practice.

Hillel’s Early Life

Hillel the Elder was born around the year 110 BCE1 in Babylon2 . His only recorded sibling is his brother, Shevna. At the age of forty, his intense desire to study more Torah led him to Jerusalem to study under Shemaya and Avtalyon, who were then leaders of the Jewish world.

Hillel’s Desire to Study

Hillel was very poor in his younger days, and the expense of traveling to Israel caused his financial state to worsen even more. He would earn only half a dinar for an entire day’s work, some of which he spent to gain admittance into the study hall. The entrance fee was one quarter of a dinar, leaving him with a daily allowance of one quarter of a dinar to live on. Yet, even in such poverty, Hillel the Elder never considered using the money on anything other than the study of Torah.

One Friday, he found no work. Unable to pay the entrance fee, he was denied admittance into the study hall of Shemaya and Avtalyon. Hillel was so determined to continue learning that he climbed on to the roof and listened to the lecture through a skylight.

It was the depths of winter, and snow began to fall. Hillel remained on the roof all night, and was buried in snow. The next morning, Shemaya realized that there was a figure blocking the sunlight. The students retrieved him from the roof, and even though it was Shabbat, lit a fire to warm him. Although it is forbidden to light a flame on Shabbat, one is commanded to do so in the case of saving a life; in fact, it was counted as a merit for the men who rescued Hillel, the very sage who continues to exemplify devotion to Torah study.3

Hillel’s brother, Shevna, was a successful businessman. One day, he approached Hillel with a proposition. Shevna would support Hillel, and Hillel would share half his merit of Torah study with his brother. Hillel the Elder categorically refused, adamant4 that his Torah study was worth far beyond any material goods that Shevna could offer.5

The School of Hillel

One day, a heated and important debate arose among the Bnei Beteira6 about the proper method of sacrificing the Passover offering on Shabbat. Unable to resolve the issue, and desperately needing a conclusive answer, the rabbis turned to Hillel the Elder. Using exacting logic and proofs, Hillel the Elder settled the question that had stumped the greatest of minds. After such a display of Torah prowess, Hillel was appointed the leader of Jewry,7 a position he held for forty years (approximately one hundred years before the destruction of the Second Temple8 ).

Read More: Hillel’s Paradox

Hillel taught eighty students, each of whom became a great rabbi. Thirty of them were so great that they were worthy to have the sun stand still for them, as it did with Joshua. Another thirty were said to be worthy of prophetic vision on the level of Moses. The final twenty were on an intermediate level. Included among his students were Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yonatan ben Uziel.9

Hillel established a school of thought that attracted many students and became the center of Torah study in his time. His school lasted for many years after his passing and proved to be one of the most influential academies of all times, ruling on every area of Jewish law. His institution found itself in opposition to the other academy of the time, which was formed by Hillel’s colleague, Shammai.

The two schools, called Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, debated many topics in Jewish law, with the halachah usually being resolved in favor of the School of Hillel. Hillel was a man of kindness, and he passed that characteristic on to his students. Beit Hillel, therefore, generally took a more compassionate approach.

Read More: Hillel and Shammai

Hillel: A Man of Kindness

Hillel’s tolerance and understanding personality were renowned. One Friday afternoon, as Hillel the Elder was busily preparing for Shabbat, a man came to his door and demanded to speak with him. Hillel calmly dressed himself in proper attire and went to speak with his visitor to find out what was so urgent. The man related a question: Why were Babylonians’ heads unusually round? This was a dig at the Babylonian-born Hillel. Without missing a beat, Hillel answered that the unusual shape of their heads was due to improper care by midwives.

The man left, seemingly satisfied. A few minutes later, though, he was back, once again with an all-important query. This time he wanted to know about the squinted eyes of the residents of Tadmur. Hillel answered him and he left. This cycle repeated itself again, with the man asking about the wide feet ascribed to the people of Africa.

After the third question and another even-keeled response from Hillel, the man became very upset. He told Hillel that he had bet his friend four hundred zuz that he could get Hillel the Elder upset. Now, he would lose four hundred zuz! Hillel smiled and said, “Better you lose four hundred zuz than I get upset.”10

Beyond his masterful self-control, Hillel was also exceptionally holy. A heavenly voice once pronounced that Hillel the Elder had merited to have been a prophet; however, the shortcomings of his generation prevented that from happening.11

Hillel and the Convert

Hillel the Elder is most famous for his tolerant and welcoming persona. This character trait is exemplified by the following story:

A non-Jew once came before Shammai with a curious demand. He wanted Shammai to teach him the entire Torah while the non-Jew stood on one foot. Knowing the impossibility of such a thing, Shammai rejected him. The questioner then took his request to Hillel the Elder. Hillel gently told him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its commentary. Now go and study.”12

Teachings of Hillel

Hillel also championed empathy, saying: “Do not judge your friend until you have stood in his place.”13

We evoke Hillel every year at the Pesach Seder, when we eat the matzah and marror sandwich, reflecting Hillel’s practice to wrap the Passover lamb, matzah and bitter herbs and eat them all together.14

Hillel was once walking by a river and saw a floating skull. Recognizing that it belonged to a murderer, he turned to it and said: “You drowned because you drowned others, and those who drowned you will eventually drown.15

Sounds mysterious? Read More: The Case of the Floating Skull

Credit: Gify
Credit: Gify

Hillel on Health

Hillel was once walking down the street with his students when he changed directions and began walking towards the bath house. When his students asked him where he was headed, he responded, “To fulfill a commandment from G‑d! I am going to take a bath.”

Seeing their confusion, Hillel the Elder said, “If statues of kings that are made in the likeness of a mortal of flesh and blood require cleaning and polishing, how much more so our bodies, which were created in the likeness of G‑d.”16

Hillel would constantly emphasize the importance of taking care of one’s physical health, even going so far as to comparing his soul to a guest inside his own body. Just as one must prepare the room properly, with all its amenities, for an honored guest, so too must a person take care that one’s body is a worthy space for the soul.17

See: The Importance of Maintaining Good Health

The Pruzbul

Perhaps the most influential enactment of Hillel was that of the pruzbul. Individuals resisted lending because a Shemmitah cancels debts; in turn, this had a negative impact on the economy. Hillel established a system whereby creditors could assign their debt to the court, making it into a public debt that is unaffected by Shemmitah.18

The pruzbul was widely accepted, and is still in use today.

Read More: Shemittah Loan Amnesty

Hillel’s Passing and Legacy

Hillel the Elder passed away around the year 8 CE. At his funeral, he was eulogized as a “pious, humble and righteous man, and student of Ezra the Scribe.”19 Hillel began an illustrious line of descendants, including Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Judah the Prince, author of the Mishnah. His teachings and lessons have become ingrained in Jewish culture, making a permanent mark on the ethos of Judaism today.