Hillel (ca. 60 B.C.-A.D. ca. 10) was a Jewish scholar and founder of a dynasty of patriarchs who were the spiritual heads of Jewry until the 5th century.

Sources of information about Hillel are meager and must be sifted from many legends which subsequent generations have spun about him. Hillel, known as Hillel Hazaken, or Hillel the Elder, was born in Babylonia and was said to have descended from the house of David. Impelled by a thirst for learning, he migrated to Palestine at a mature age (ca. 40 B.C.) and arrived in Jerusalem only a few years before Herod the Great ascended to the Judean throne. In Jerusalem, Hillel studied at the academy of two highly reputed scholars, Shmaiah and Abtalion, while earning a meager livelihood as a manual laborer. Half of Hillel's wages went for the support of his family, while the remainder was used for tuition at the academy.

Hillel devoted himself to his studies with great zeal and skill and succeeded in attaining the rank of nasi, prince or president of the Bet Din Hagadol, the High Court of ordained scholars known as the Great Sanhedrin. This was the supreme legal and judicial body in Judea.


Hillel's Teachings

Hillel appears to have laid great stress on the practice of Babylonian schools to derive doctrine and law directly from the scriptural text rather than merely relying on established tradition, memorized and transmitted orally from one generation to another. This method of textual deduction, called midrash, or exposition, involved the use of Hillel's Seven Rules of Logic. These rules enabled the rabbis in Hillel's and subsequent generations to apply the law to new conditions on the theory that the new laws were implicit in the Mosaic law.

Hillel was a man of saintly and noble character and disposition. A popular anecdote tells of the heathen who asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Unperturbed, Hillel answered, "What is hateful to thee, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary; go and study it further!" This version of the golden rule is believed by many to be a less utopian and more practical precept than the affirmative one to love one's neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18).

The sayings attributed to Hillel in the tractate Abot (Fathers) reveal his humanity and virtue. Hillel was a great lover of peace who urged his followers to "be of the disciples of Aaron [who was famed as a peacemaker in rabbinic lore]; loving thy fellow creatures and drawing them nigh to Torah." "Judge not thy neighbor till thou art in his place, " he urged. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me, yet if I am only for myself, then what am I?" he taught. He also preached the social tenet, "Do not separate thyself from the community."

For 2 1/2 years the Hillelites and Shammaites are said to have debated the question of the worthwhileness of existence, the Hillelites characteristically taking a positive viewpoint and the Shammaites the negative. On this basic issue the two opposing schools agreed that theoretically the Shammaites may be correct, but practically, since existence is a fact, man should live constructively and effectively. Life-affirming Judaism permits of no other attitude.


Further Reading on Hillel

Solomon Zeitlin, The Rise and Fall of the Judaean State, vol. 2 (1967), offers a good sketch of the life and work of Hillel. Nahum N. Glatzer, Hillel the Elder: The Emergence of Classical Judaism (1956), presents a well-written, popular account of Hillel's life, works, and ideas. Recommended for a brief historical survey of Hillel's times is Judah Goldin, "The Period of the Talmud, " in Louis Finkelstein, ed., The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, vol. 1 (1946; 3d ed. 1960). Louis Ginzberg, On Jewish Law and Lore (1955), contains an essay "The Significance of the Halacha." Hillel's doctrines are expounded in George Foote Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. 1 (1927).


Additional Biography Sources

Blumenthal, Aaron H., If I am only for myself; the story of Hillel, New York United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education 1973.

Buxbaum, Yitzhak., The life and teachings of Hillel, Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1994.

Neusner, Jacob, Judaism in the beginning of Christianity, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.