What did Hillel look like? We do not know. There is not a single physical description that I can find, anywhere. When I wrote the biography of Maimonides, I had plenty of information about his looks, which made my life easy; he looked a bit like Sean Connery and so I knew where I was, writing about him. I find it essential. Having a visual image is crucial for me, so what was I to do about Hillel? Clearly, I had to build my own image. I had some facts to go by. First, the legends say that he was extremely careful about cleanliness and personal grooming. Second, he most likely wore a beard. Third, since he was extraordinarily intelligent, he could not look stupid. Fourth, and most important, he was a direct descendant of David the King, so there is no reason not to use great-great-something-grandpa’s image as a model.
David is described as extremely handsome and charming. During the fight with Goliath, the Bible makes it clear that David was not very big and was rather slight, despite his physical strength, proven when he defended his flocks from lions and bears. The slightness might be due to his youth, but then much later, he was capable of extremely energetic dancing, which earned him the well known rebuke from his wife Michal, so he probably retained this built for his entire life. His hair is described as red, which makes sense since his great-grandmother was Ruth, the Moabite, and many of her country people had red hair. His eyes are described as beautiful. Well, what would constitute beautiful eyes? I can’t tell, but since most Israelites at the time had brown eyes, I suspect that blue eyes might earn this description. The fact that women found him irresistible is well documented, too, and the loyalty showed by many men brings forward a strong and attractive personality which no doubt showed in his face.
So here we go. A man with strong personality, great charm, intelligent face, blue eyes that must have stood out in a tanned face (since the sun in Judea was very strong), medium height but strong physique, well groomed reddish hair and beard… I don’t know about you, but here is what I see:
To fully appreciate Hillel’s personal heritage, one must remember that the Jewish aristocracy carefully preserved their family trees. Even today, many families can trace their lineage extremely far back. While much Jewish history was lost in Eastern and Central Europe during the Holocaust, some Jews still maintain family trees that go back hundreds of years. This knowledge was based on various factors, including, for instance, how family names represented professions or ranks. For example, anyone named Levi, Levine, Levin and other such names is descended from the tribe of Levi through the male line. Long before Exodus, when God was still referred to by His proper name, they were employed as His servants. Later they served in the Temple. Anyone named Cohen or Katz[i] is a descendant of the Cohanim, which is the title of the Temple priests. These two lines go back thousands of years.
Tradition claims that Hillel was a descendant of King David. One of Hillel’s descendants, Rabbi Judah the Nasi[ii] in the 2nd Century C.E., confirmed the lineage. To the modern reader it may sound like a charming myth, but there is really little reason to doubt it. King David was the founder of an extremely large family, had many descendants, and as one of the most important and most beloved figures in Judaism, had his line well documented for centuries. There are still people today who claim to be his descendants, as can be seen in genealogical charts maintained in private homes, libraries, and even on the Internet, though of course many cannot be trusted. About three hundred years after Hillel’s death, a short time by historical standards, a certain Rabbi Levi claimed that he received a genealogical scroll, which was found in Jerusalem, and in it was written “Hillel was descended from King David.” The scroll is no longer in existence, which is not surprising after 1700 years. Of course, it is difficult to determine if the story is correct without the evidence, but there is little reason to suspect Rabbi Levi in formulating a deliberate fraud, which would have not benefited him in any way. Genealogical scrolls were common, and any person descended from King David’s family would be proud of it and make sure that the knowledge would pass on to his sons. Oral tradition is often surprisingly accurate. Interestingly, the tradition adds Hillel was descended from David on his mother’sside. This may be the truth, but it can also be pure rabbinical caution. If Hillel were descended from King David on his father’s side, he could have been accused of having pretensions to the throne of Israel as the legitimate heir. Hillel, who did not love politics and avoided notoriety, never challenged the Hasmonean dynasty or even Herod. He would not have liked being accused of such intentions.
Hillel’s early years in Babylonia passed in ease and comfort. His father, a merchant, could afford supporting Hillel as a full-time scholar. Hillel’s brother, Shebna, worked in the father’s business. They also had a sister, but as was customary with women, we know little about her, and only meet her through her son, who later became a famous scholar and lived in Judea. The son’s name was Abba Hilkiah.[iii]
We are accustomed to think that the Babylonian exile was a vale of tears for all Jews involved. This assumption, based on beautiful poetry and sad songs, is not the whole truth. When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judea after a bloody revolt and siege, he decided to exile part of the population to prevent addition uprisings. The group consisted of the aristocracy, and included people related or attached to the royal house, the priests, the Levites, the physicians, the skilled artisans, the teachers, and the scholars. He left only the peasants in Judea. Nebuchadnezzar treated the king and his family with incredible cruelty, characteristic of the age; he considered the horrors he inflicted on them a just punishment for their betrayal of the pact they had made with him, and which he felt he had fully honored. However, he had no quarrel with the mobilized population, and intended to treat them well. The citizens of Babylon, which was a true melting pot, saw the removal of an entire population from a conquered country as a commonplace event after a major war, and accepted the newcomers easily.
Nebuchadnezzar was a practical king who knew how to make use of good resources, and he considered the displaced Jews a very good resource indeed. They were intelligent, skilled people, whose intellect was a commodity that could help Babylon. Therefore, they received good houses, land, opportunities for trade, and free run of the city. No one pushed them into any form of restricted residence, no one treated them as inferiors.
Of course the blow of the loss and exile saddened them. Naturally they missed their country and the old lifestyle. But Jews had always been the quintessential survivors. Here they were, in a country that was known to them from their own journeys and from reputation. Their old ancestor Abraham came from this area, so it was not entirely alien to their souls. They relieved their feelings by mourning for a while and by writing those plaintive songs and nostalgic poetry. Then they shook themselves and put their sharp minds to the practical matters of survival. They had a lot of work to do.
Once adjusted, they slowly found themselves enchanted with the city’s sophistication, the great libraries that offered them their favorite pursuit – study – and enjoyed the luxuries only a large and cosmopolitan city could offer. Babylon was an international, magnificent city, the center from which kings ruled the entire known world for centuries, the place where Hammurabi wrote his Laws, so similar to the later Mosaic Laws. It was elegantly designed, too. Wide streets, beautifully tiled and painted palaces and houses, awe inspiring sculptures everywhere; the gardens alone, lush and planted with many exotic plants, were so lovely that they became legendary.
The Jews adapted very quickly to the splendor and made it their own. They learned mathematics and astronomy, and used the new knowledge to develop excellent systems of financial credit that allowed them connections in many countries. They moved away from agriculture as their main source of income and engaged in extensive, high level trade. They tested new routes by land and sea, and traveled all over the known world as merchants of spices, perfumes, gems, pearls and silk. Some remained in the foreign lands, settled down and created new Jewish centers that kept in touch with the Babylonian Jews and enriched their culture. It was in Babylon that the Jew had become a true citizen of the world.
It is an amusing historical fact that when Cyrus (II) the Great allowed the Jews to return to Judea in 538 B.C.E., only a small portion returned. The rest elected to remain in Babylonia. Naturally, they maintained an excellent relationship with the Judean community. Certainly, they kept a constant exchange of teachers, scholars, and doctors, who went back and forth at their convenience. They even sent extensive, regular financial aid to the struggling state. They always mentioned Judea, and their desire to be there again, in their prayers. But besides a small trickling of people wishing to move to Judea for mostly religious reasons, the Jewish population of Babylon stayed put, enjoying their comfortable, cosmopolitan life. The situation was curiously reminiscent of the relationship between American Jewry and modern Israel.
The magnificent Babylonian libraries, and the pagan scholars the Jews associated with, taught them intriguing natural sciences, and they developed new and efficient herbal medicines. Their skills as doctors increased and they were in great demand in that profession. The new medicine also helped them live longer and healthier lives. They had more time and leisure, and they could use them to record their newly found knowledge and write it down. All secular learning flourished.
But religion mattered too, particularly since the Jews were confused by leaving the abode of God and moving away from what they thought of as His area of influence, while at the same time unable, emotionally, to give Him up. They expanded and developed their religion to such an extent that many scholars see the results as a true religious revolution. This revolution, with the shift from local to universal God, will be treated in detail in a later chapter, since Hillel’s philosophy and character were greatly influenced by it. For the moment, suffice to say that it has been determined by scholars that the Babylonian Diaspora gave the impetus and helped the Jews to change the face of God from a fierce desert entity into the merciful and omnipresent deity worshiped by today’s Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
[i] An acronym for the words Cohen Tzedek (righteous priest in Hebrew).
[ii] Nasi means Prince in Hebrew. It was the title of the Patriarch during Roman rule in Judea. All the Jewish Nesiim (plural for Nasi) claimed descent from Hillel, and since they accepted Hillel as a descendant of King David, the fact made them into legitimate princes.
[iii] Information about Rabbi Abba Hilkia came from a single source, a 14th Century book called Menorat ha-Maor (The Lighted Lamp). Some scholars claim Rabbi Hilkia was not connected to Hillel, but was the grandson of the famous miracle making rabbi, Honi the Circle Maker.
And as the bloodshot eyes closed for the last time, a pair of bright, calm blue eyes opened for the first time in faraway Babylonia. The tiny newborn seemed to stare into the face of his older brother. Little Shebna, five years of age, stared back and said nothing.
“I can swear he is looking at Shebna,” said their father. “But of course it’s impossible! Newborns can’t see!”
“Nonsense, Gamaliel” said the mother, a good-looking woman no longer in her first youth. She looked affectionately at her husband and settled herself more comfortably on her pillows. “Of course they can see. I don’t care what all the astrologers and other wise men say. They don’t know what mothers know. Newborns can see, and indeed he is looking at Shebna.”
Shebna was not listening. He stroked the baby’s fuzzy hair gently with one finger. “Red hair,” said Gamaliel, “as it runs in your family, my dear. A sure sign that indeed you are descendants of King David.” The mother smiled and passed her hand over her own red curls. She was, naturally, extremely proud of her heritage, and treasured the family records that were kept carefully for hundreds of years by all of King David’s many descendants.
“Shebna, touch his hand with your finger. See what happens!” said the mother.
The baby grasped the finger, held tight, and went on staring at Shebna. Shebna laughed, delighted.
“Do you know, Shebna, your face is the first thing he had ever seen,” said Gamaliel. “So he is going to love you very much. You must be good friends.”
“I will always take care of him,” said Shebna, unable to take his eyes off the tiny miracle who held him with his little fist. “He is as sweet as my rabbits and kittens.”
“I believe you will,” said Gamaliel quietly.
“What is his name?” asked Shebna.
“Well, the family names available now are Judah and Hillel. Since we don’t use the names of living people, and your grandfather is thankfully very much alive, we can’t call him Simeon. Of course we can go out of the family names, but I rather would like to keep to them. What do you think, Hannah?"
“I think we should let Shebna choose,” said Hannah. “Would you like to do that, Shebna? I know you like to name your pets. Will it be Judah or Hillel?”
Shebna thought, his warm brown eyes concentrating on the baby, now fast asleep. “Hillel,” he said decisively. “Let’s call him Hillel.”
“Very well,” said Gamaliel, well pleased with the quick decision. He took Shebna’s hand. “We must let Mother and Hillel sleep for a while. They are very tired from all the work they did as he was being born. Would you like to come with me to the store?”
Together they left. Hannah smiled as she looked after them. Gamaliel was a large, heavy-set man with a comfortable little paunch. Shebna was a small and delicate child. And yet they closely resembled each other. They had some quality that united them, she thought sleepily, something solid and comforting and lovable. Hillel will probably be just like them, shrewd, reliable, self-sufficient. Two excellent sons, any woman would be proud of them; it would be fun to have a little girl someday, too… She closed her eyes as one of her servants came in and put Hillel in his little cot.
The tired mother could not know that her tiny newborn would never be a comfortable man of business. He would, instead, tower as the most important figure in Judaism since Moses the Law Giver. Against the horrors of his age, he would emerge as a man of wisdom, compassion and courage, and without ever committing a single act of violence, staunchly defend his people against the tyranny and cruelty of an insane king. He would become an influential sage, the head of a famous school named after him, and the creator of some of the most important Judaic laws, instrumental in liberating and infusing life into the ancient traditions. Without his open approach and innovation, Judaism may have developed in a rigid and limited fashion, instead of the living, eternally growing religion it has become. Perhaps it would have even died. In turn, his ways influenced Christianity to a great extent, and many scholars believe he was the teacher of Jesus Christ; certainly the two shared much of their thoughts and feelings.
Hillel’s many sayings are still quoted, his laws still practiced. The stories relating his kindness, intelligence, and love of study are still told. They appear in textbooks, novels, movies, and one of his famous sayings even flashes on the screen as promotion for Public Television. In almost every campus in the United States, a center for the Jewish students is named after Hillel. His Golden Rule has softly drifted down the centuries, never to be forgotten, concisely stating the most positive concept in a strangely negative, humanistic, timeless way: “Do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you. The rest is commentary; go study.”
To fully appreciate Hillel’s personal heritage, one must remember that the Jewish aristocracy carefully preserved their family trees. Even today, many families can trace their lineage extremely far back…
The prologue for The Golden Rule will be presented in three parts (over three days) since I don’t want to burden the readers with long entries. I will end each part with the beginning of the next part which will appear the next day, to make things more fun. I will probably do the same with each completed chapter, breaking it into pieces. If anyone disagrees with this system, let me know! I am flexible with this job.
The dialogue for this segment is not invented by me. It is taken from the report given to, and eventually published, by the great historian Josephus; there is little reason to doubt it, I believe, though I have heard arguments from scholars.
In the next blog, I will tell the fascinating mystery of the identity of Queen Alexandra, and a little background of the horrific reign of blood her husband inflicted on his people. To many of those who enjoy vampires, don’t be surprised if Vlad Dracula comes to mind as you read it…
Salome Alexandra or Alexandra of Jerusalem (Hebrew: שְׁלוֹמְצִיּוֹן אלכסנדרה, first Hasmonean queen of Judea)
Alexander Jannaeus (also known as Alexander Jannai/Yannai). King of Judea. Hebrew: אלכסנדר ינאי
The monster lay dying. A few years ago he stood beside the altar in the Temple looking at the silent, threatening multitude gathered around him. The sun hit the pink stones of Jerusalem mercilessly. Heat waves shimmered over the people, shifting and obscuring their individual faces, but he knew that they were ready to pelt him, one more time, with the heavy citrons they were holding for the festival. They had done it before and he killed thousands of them in retaliation. He did not want another confrontation. “What do you want of me?” he screamed. “What ought I to do to stop your hatred of me?”
A few seconds of silence followed his question. And then, in unison, the crowd roared: “To die! To die! To die! To die! To die!” He turned and fled, surrounded by his foreign bodyguards. He could never turn their hatred into love; not after murdering over fifty thousand of his own people during his reign. Judea swam in the blood he had shed and trembled at the sadistic pleasure he took in others’ pain.
And now, at last, Alexander Jannaeus was indeed dying. Death came as a result of heavy drinking in the middle of a difficult campaign, besieging Ragaba, a fortress near the Jordan River. He was only forty-nine years old, but years of alcoholism, debauchery, endless campaigns, and the streak of madness that tainted the glory of so many of the Hasmonean Dynasty, ravaged the king. His queen, Alexandra, who was fifteen years older than him, seemed younger; she had always been a beauty and remained so in middle age. Realizing that he was about to die, she wept, beat her breast, and lamented, “To whom are you thus leaving me and your children, who are in need of help from others, especially when you know how hostile the nation feels toward you!”
“Listen to me,” he commanded. “Conceal my death from the soldiers until you capture the fortress. And on your return to Jerusalem you will be hailed for your splendid victory.”
“And what then?” Alexandra asked, raising her tear stained face from her hands. “They will quickly forget the victory.”
“Then, yield power to the Pharisees, for if they praised you in return for this sign of regard, they would dispose the nation favorably toward you and the children. The Pharisees have so much influence with their fellow-Jews that they could injure those whom they hated and help those to whom they were friendly. They have the complete confidence of the masses when they speak harshly of any person, even when they do so out of envy. I have come to conflict with the nation because I treated the Pharisees badly.”
Alexandra listened to the dying man’s advice silently. It made sense.
“And so,” he continued, “when you come to Jerusalem, send for them and show them my dead body. Permit them, with every sign of sincerity, to treat me as they please, whether they wish to dishonor my corpse by leaving it unburied because of the many injuries they have suffered at my hands, or in their anger, wish to offer my dead body any other form of indignity. Promise them also that you will not take any action, while you are on the throne, without their consent. If you speak to them in this manner, I shall receive from them a more splendid burial than I should from you. For once they have the power to do so, they will not choose to treat my corpse badly, and at the same time you will reign securely.”
These were his final words. And every word he spoke came true, exactly as he predicted, a brilliant strategist, genius, and madman to the last.
And as the bloodshot eyes closed for the last time, a pair of bright, calm blue eyes opened for the first time in faraway Babylonia…
This handsome guy is Herod the Great. Looked like a Hollywood celeb, and certainly acted like one in his early days. He could have succeeded greatly as a reality T.V. personality because there is no doubt he was terribly narcissistic.
During those days he turned down the attention of Cleopatra. She tried very hard to seduce him, and if you think of her as Elizabeth Taylor, or Claudette Colbert, well, she really was not the glamour girl she is usually described as… a couple of these coins tell the truth.
As an older man, Herod lost his looks as well as his sanity. Raging against his magnificently beautiful wife, Mariamne, who was also a true princess of the noble family of the Hasmoneans, he executed her after a mock trial where her own mother took the stand against her. But it was a short term victory. He was so in love with her (go figure!) that he took to roaming the corridors of his huge palace, calling her name, hallucinating her, forcing himself to believe that she was alive. I could not find a real picture of her (I am not fond of the paintings representing her by later day artists) but I always imagine her like this beautiful woman on the cover of the book of my friend, Gary Morgenstein. It’s a great book, by the way. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/Loving-Rabbi-Thalia-Kleinman-Romance/dp/1442114606/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1313846142&sr=1-4
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The Golden Rule
The Encyclopedia Britannica On-Line claims that it is impossible to write a proper biography of Hillel the Elder because “virtually every narrative about him is encrusted with legend”. I completely disagree. True, it may be impossible to give the exact date of his very happy marriage or the precise day when he left Babylonia for the second time, but dates are not necessarily the most important part of the story of a life. Bringing the man to life, showing him against the time and place in which he lived, putting a face on the myriad of legends is much more important. And that is exactly what I am setting out to do in this new book.
War, conquest, murder, scandal. Hardly the words that come to mind when Hillel the Elder is mentioned. And yet, this gentle soul lived against a most exciting historical background. The era, almost two thousand years ago, is dominated by the very handsome and sexually obsessed king, Herod the Great, a mentally imbalanced man of true genius and great charm, but with homicidal tendencies which come to the surface only too often. Herod is surrounded by a cast of glamorous characters -- Augustus, Cleopatra, Caesar, and all their crafty and influential advisors, murderous families, and dangerous spies.
Fascinating details are supplied by Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote an account of the times in his book Antiquities. Heroes sacrifice themselves on the field of battle. The stunningly beautiful Maccabean Queen Mariamne is murdered by her husband Herod, who then sets out to destroy their two sons. Cleopatra, certainly not the Hollywood glamorous character we are accustomed to, and much more concerned with wealth than with love, greedily plots and counterplots to attain lands. The scene in which she tries to seduce Herod who rejects her as an “ugly middle-aged woman” is priceless, and she retaliates by stealing his lands anyway. Augustus wields his power, sometimes for, sometimes against Herod, once his old childhood friend, now living in terror as his subject.
Against the horrors emerges the image of a man of wisdom, compassion, and courage. Hillel is the most important figure in Judaism since Moses. An influential Talmudic sage, the head of a famous school named after him, and the creator of some of the most important Judaic laws, he is instrumental in liberating and infusing life into the ancient traditions. Without his open approach and innovation, Judaism may have developed in a rigid and limited fashion, instead of the living, eternally growing religion it has become.
His many sayings are still quoted, his laws still practiced. The stories relating his kindness, intelligence, and love of study are still told. They appear in school books, novels, and one of his famous sayings even flashes on the screen as promotion for Public Television.
His kindness and straightforward behavior does not mean meekness or false humility. A truly cosmopolitan man, Hillel came from Babylonia. An international, magnificent city, the center from which kings ruled the entire known world for centuries, and where the Jews changed the face of God from a fierce desert entity into the merciful and omnipresent deity worshiped by today’s Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The place where Hammurabi wrote his Laws, so similar to the Laws Moses gave on the Mount of Sinai. This was a place where a man could grow to be well educated and sophisticated. Hillel knew his own worth and acted decisively when needed, causing quite a few scandals of his own along the way, and showing a certain arrogance at time, totally unexpected. He associated with the most important personalities of his age, acting and feeling as their equal. Some say he had a close association with Jesus, perhaps even acting as his teacher for a short while. The similarity of their views makes it quite possible and there will be a chapter devoted to this fascinating relationship.
A tiny country in a far away land, ruled by a giant empire. The great empire is no more, but it left a great legacy we still follow, images we see every day. The tiny country is still with us, modern and full of life. A story that happened so long ago, and yet is so vibrant that reading about it feels like a page of yesterday’s news. A giant of a man whose wisdom is part of our lives. A strange and fascinating time, full of tainted glory and true greatness. Could it really be two thousand years ago?