When someone challenged Hillel the Elder (b. 110 BCE) to teach the entire Torah while his listener stood on one foot, he famously replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”1

Of course, Hillel was expounding upon the verse in Leviticus: “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself. I am the L‑rd.”2

Not The Golden Rule

Hillel’s teaching looks pretty similar to the classic “Golden Rule” (which goes something like this): “Do unto others what you want them to do to you.”

However, if we further examine the two aphorisms, there are stark differences.3 Many are struck by Hillel’s negative phraseology. Why did he say not to do that which you do not like instead of saying you should do that which you do like?

The question of Hillel’s word choice is more than just “Why go negative if you can go positive?” As we explained, the source for Hillel’s teaching is the verse in Leviticus, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” So why switch to the negative?

Some explain that the reason Hillel focuses on what not to do is because the verse itself introduces the commandment of loving your fellow with the prohibition of not taking revenge or bearing a grudge against your fellow, indicating that the mitzvah is best framed as an instruction of acts to avoid.4 But we are still left with the question of why this is so.

Some explain that this is based on the Torah principle that when in danger, one’s own life takes precedence over that of the other. As such, Hillel did not go so far as to tell us that we should treat others like ourselves, as this is not the truth. Rather, he was teaching that we may not mistreat others, just like we do not want to be mistreated.5

Alternatively, knowing that his questioner was a beginner and potential convert to Judaism, Hillel was telling him that although it may seem very hard to reach the ultimate level of this mitzvah (of loving others like yourself), you should start off with at least not doing to others that which is hateful to you.6

However, Hillel ended off his words with “The rest is commentary. Now go and study.” Some commentators explain that Hillel was intimating that his words had many more layers of meaning, and to understand the depth of the mitzvah beyond the negative phraseology, “he should go learn.”7

True Love Covers All Blemishes

The third Chabad Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek,8 explains that Hillel’s unique formulation expresses a much deeper level of the mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself.

The Talmud states that “a person sees no flaw within himself.”9 This, he explains, does not mean that we’re completely unaware of our shortcomings. On the contrary, we may be aware of and understand the depths of our deficiencies even more than another person. After all, the other person only perceives what is visible to the eye, while we discern what is in the depths of our own heart.

Rather, the intent is that our own faults are not as important to us and don’t disturb us. It is as if we don't see them at all. Why? Because we love ourselves. Even if we are intellectually aware of our deficiencies, this knowledge will not evoke an emotional response. Accordingly, our shortcomings give us no cause to be concerned. All our failings are drowned out in our self-love.

When someone points out our failings, we become angry, even if we know what they are saying is true. We are not mad about the deficiencies (since we knew about them all along), but because we are hurt by the fact that they uncovered the uncomfortable truth we had been covering with self-love.

Hillel’s teaching can be read thusly:

“What is hateful to you”—having one of your shortcomings revealed—“do not do to your fellow”—do not expose his faults and imperfections, whether in worldly matters, in his relations with others, or in his spiritual behavior. Do not make them noticeable and concrete. Instead, let your love for them cover over their faults to the point that they evoke no repulsion, just like your own.

When you love a person because of his or her very soul, no (external) shortcomings will interfere with this love, and any perceived evil will be swallowed up by the love.

When we understand that our souls are all one and do not see each other’s flaws, G‑d also overlooks our flaws and blesses us with an abundance of good—including the future Redemption, “the day that is all good.”