1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hillel

HILLEL, Jewish rabbi, of Babylonian origin, lived at Jerusalem in the time of King Herod. Though hard pressed by poverty, he applied himself to study in the schools of Shemaiah and Abtalion (Sameas and Pollion in Josephus). On account of his comprehensive learning and his rare qualities he was numbered among the recognized leaders of the Pharisaic scribes. Tradition assigns him the highest dignity of the Sanhedrin, under the title of nasi (“prince”), about a hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem, i.e. about 30 B.C. The date at least can be recognized as historic; the fact that Hillel took a leading position in the council can also be established. The epithet ha-zaḳen (“the elder”), which usually accompanies his name, proves him to have been a member of the Sanhedrin, and according to a trustworthy authority Hillel filled his leading position for forty years, dying, therefore, about A.D. 10. His descendants remained, with few exceptions, at the head of Judaism in Palestine until the beginning of the 5th century, two of them, his grandson Gamaliel I. and the latter’s son Simon, during the time when the Temple was still standing. The fact that Josephus (Vita 38) ascribes to Simon descent from a very distinguished stock (γένους σφόδρα λαμπροῦ), shows in what degree of estimation Hillel’s descendants stood. When the dignity of nasi became afterwards hereditary among them, Hillel’s ancestry, perhaps on the ground of old family traditions, was traced back to David. Hillel is especially noted for the fact that he gave a definite form to the Jewish traditional learning, as it had been developed and made into the ruling and conserving factor of Judaism in the latter days of the second Temple, and particularly in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple. He laid down seven rules for the interpretation of the Scriptures, and these became the foundation of rabbinical hermeneutics; and the ordering of the traditional doctrines into a whole, effected in the Mishna by his successor Judah I., two hundred years after Hillel’s death, was probably likewise due to his instigation. The tendency of his theory and practice in matters pertaining to the Law is evidenced by the fact that in general he advanced milder and more lenient views in opposition to his colleague Shammai, a contrast which after the death of the two masters, but not until after the destruction of the Temple, was maintained in the strife kept up between the two schools named the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. The well-known institution of the Prosbol (προσβολή), introduced by Hillel, was intended to avert the evil consequences of the scriptural law of release in the seventh year (Deut. xv. 1). He was led to this, as is expressly set forth (M. Giṭṭin, iv. 3), by a regard for the welfare of the community. Hillel lived in the memory of posterity chiefly as the great teacher who enjoined and practised the virtues of charity, humility and true piety. His proverbial sayings, in particular, a great number of which were written down partly in Aramaic, partly in Hebrew, strongly affected the spirit both of his contemporaries and of the succeeding generations. In his Maxims (Aboth, i. 12) he recommends the love of peace and the love of mankind beyond all else, and his own love of peace sprang from the tenderness and deep humility which were essential features in his character, as has been illustrated by many anecdotes. Hillel’s patience has become proverbial. One of his sayings commends humility in the following paradox: “My abasement is my exaltation.” His charity towards men is given its finest expression in the answer which he made to a proselyte who asked to be taught the commandments of the Torah in the shortest possible form: “What is unpleasant to thyself that do not to thy neighbour; this is the whole Law, all else is but its exposition.” This allusion to the scriptural injunction to love one’s neighbour (Lev. xix. 18) as the fundamental law of religious morals, became in a certain sense a commonplace of Pharisaic scholasticism. For the Pharisee who accepts the answer of Jesus regarding that fundamental doctrine which ranks the love of one’s neighbour as the highest duty after the love of God (Mark xii. 33), does so because as a disciple of Hillel the idea is familiar to him. St Paul also (Gal. v. 14) doubtless learned this in the school of Gamaliel. Hillel emphasized the connexion between duty towards one’s neighbour and duty towards oneself in the epigrammatic saying: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am for myself alone, what then am I? And if not now, then when?” (Aboth, i. 14). The duty of working both with and for men he teaches in the sentence: “Separate not thyself from the congregation” (ib. ii. 4). The duty of considering oneself part of common humanity, of not differing from others by any peculiarity of behaviour, he sums up in the words: “Appear neither naked nor clothed, neither sitting nor standing, neither laughing nor weeping” (Tosef. Ber. c. ii.). The command to love one’s neighbour inspired also Hillel’s injunction (Aboth, ii. 4): “Judge not thy neighbour until thou art in his place” (cf. Matt. vii. 1). The disinterested pursuit of learning, study for study’s sake, is commended in many of Hillel’s sayings as being what is best in life: “He who wishes to make a name for himself loses his name; he who does not increase [his knowledge] decreases it; he who does not learn is worthy of death; he who works for the sake of a crown is lost” (Aboth, i. 13). “He who occupies himself much with learning makes his life” (ib. ii. 7). “He who has acquired the words of doctrine has acquired the life of the world to come” (ib.). “Say not: When I am free from other occupations I shall study; for may be thou shalt never at all be free” (ib. 4). One of his strings of proverbs runs as follows: “The uncultivated man is not innocent; the ignorant man is not devout; the bashful man learns not; the wrathful man teaches not; he who is much absorbed in trade cannot become wise; where no men are, there strive thyself to be a man” (ib. 5). The almost mystical profundity of Hillel’s consciousness of God is shown in the words spoken by him on the occasion of a feast in the Temple—words alluding to the throng of people gathered there which he puts into the mouth of God Himself: “If I am here every one is here; if I am not here no one is here” (Sukkah 53a). In like manner Hillel makes God say to Israel, referring to Exodus xx. 24: “Whither I please, thither will I go; if thou come into my house I come into thy house; if thou come not into my house, I come not into thine” (ib.).

It is noteworthy that no miraculous legends are connected with Hillel’s life. A scholastic tradition, however, tells of a voice from heaven which made itself heard when the wise men had assembled in Jericho, saying: “Among those here present is one who would have deserved the Holy Spirit to rest upon him, if his time had been worthy of it.” And all eyes turned towards Hillel (Tos. Soṭah, xiii. 3). When he died lamentation was made for him as follows: “Woe for the humble, woe for the pious, woe for the disciple of Ezra!” (ib.)

Hillel II., one of the patriarchs belonging to the family of Hillel I., lived in Tiberias about the middle of the 4th century, and introduced the arrangement of the calendar through which the Jews of the Diaspora became independent of Palestine in the uniform fixation of the new moons and feasts.

The Rabbi Hillel, who in the 4th century made the remarkable declaration that Israel need not expect a Messiah, because the promise of a Messiah had already been fulfilled in the days of King Hezekiah (Babli, Sanhedrin, 99a), is probably Hillel, the son of Samuel ben Naḥman, a well-known expounder of the scriptures.  (W. Ba.)