Hillel was a leading Jewish hakham, sage, of the second Temple period, living in the late first century BC and early first century AD. He was born in Babylonia in a family that claimed Davidic descendant; later moving to Jerusalem where he studied under Shemaiah and Avtalyon. He supported himself and his family, and was often in dire straits.

One Friday, not having the fee for instruction but so eager to learn, he crawled onto roof to listen through the skylight and was seen in the morning blocking the light because he was nearly frozen to death and could not move.

Shemaiah and Avtalyon brought him in and ordered a fire lit, even though it was the Sabbath, saying he was worthy of the Sabbath being broken for his sake. He rapidly emerged as an interpreter of the Torah, developing his seven rules of hermeneuties. He became nasi, president, of the Sanhedrin, and, with Shammai, formed the last of the pairs, zugot, of scholars.

In general Hillel developed a less rigorous interpretation of the Torah, though B.Shab.77a refers to six issues were Hillel was more rigorous. In a famous contrast, a proselyte came to both, asking each to teach him the Torah while he stood on one leg. Shammai drove him away saying that he asked the impossible.

However, Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole of Torah; the rest is commentary on it. Now go and learn.” This negative form of the Golden Rule is thus an instance of kelal. His teaching was often elliptical, challenging the hearer (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?”), but equally, his interpretations and style left behind him a school, Bet Hillel. At his death, it was said of him: “It was fitting that the Shekinah should rest on him, but his generation was unworthy of him.” A.G.H.


Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 429