Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Patience of Hillel - Shabbat 31

Two of the most famous founding figures in Rabbinic Judaism are Hillel and Shammai, and today’s page contains some wonderful maises [stories] about the Hillel’s gentleness and Shammai’s impatience, all to prove the rabbinic saying that “A man should always be gentle like Hillel, and not impatient like Shammai.” Even if what they were teaching is foreign to us, the lesson of gentle persuasion is not lost.

Two men make a bet of 400 zuzim that one of them can get Hillel mad, so he shows up on erev Shabbat [Shabbat eve] to urgently ask a silly question, go away, then come back a few moments later with another – why do Babylonians have round heads, or Palmyreans bleared eyes, or why Africans have wide feet, and so on. Hillel responds to each question patiently, and the man eventually complains that he has lost the 400 zuzim. Hillel answers that too – Hillel is worth more than 400 or even 800 zuzim, and he will still not lose his temper. The next time we find ourselves about to blow our top to save a few bucks, we can consider this and think twice.

A non-Jew came to Shammai asking how many torot the Jews have, and when he is told of the Oral and Written Torah, he says, “I believe you for the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah [i.e. rabbinic teachings] – teach me only the Written Torah.” Shammai scolded and repulsed him. When the same man came to Hillel, the first day Hillel taught him “Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Daled” [the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet], but on the second day he taught them backwards. The convert says, “that’s not what you taught me yesterday!” And Hillel responds, “don’t you have to trust me, your teacher, to tell you what’s true? So trust me with the Oral Torah too!” We see here how important it is to demonstrate one’s authority as a teacher by showing knowledge rather than asserting authority.

The most famous ma’aseh [story], that of the convert wanting to know the entire Torah while standing on one foot, concludes with Hillel’s famous summary: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” And the fourth concerns a non-Jew who wanted to become High Priest, was driven away by Shammai with a yardstick, but accepted by Hillel to begin studying. Hillel set him studying the laws of government, where he read that even David as a non-priest could not come close to the sanctuary, so kal va-khomer [how much more so] a convert! And he thanked Hillel for his welcoming patience. Let people learn for themselves, and they will thank you for empowering them. In some sense, this is the rationale behind this entire Talmud Blog!

Rabbi Adam Chalom