I received an excellent question in the “comments,” showing how good it is to write the book in public and get such useful feedback. I am duplicating it here with my answer.
Sat, 17 Sep 2011 00:00:25
If possible can you clear up the following for me.
The Sadducees insisted on the bible as a guide.
The Pharisees followed the Torah.
What is the difference between the two? I thought the Torah and the Bible were the same really except the bible (Old Testament) was in book form for the house and the Torah the laws in the form of a scroll used in the Temple (Synagogue)?
The confusion comes from the definition of the Torah and the Bible. In the narrowest sense, the Torah is the name given to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In a broader sense, the Torah is the entire Jewish Bible, or the Old Testament (Tanach), which includes the above mentioned Torah – the five books – and also the many books included in Nevi'im (the Prophets) and Ketuvim (the Writing). This is the entire Written Torah, which is believed by the Jews to be given to Moses by God, on Mount Sinai. The New Testament, which is part of the Christian Bible, is not part of the Tanach, which is a bit ironic, since there is fascinating evidence that Hillel the Elder was Jesus’ teacher – but more of this in a future chapter.
However, in the broadest sense the Torah is the entire content of Jewish teachings – and that includes the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah consists of legal and interpretative matter, traditionally believed to be directly transmitted by God, together with the Written Torah, at the meeting between Him and Moses on Mount Sinai. The material was passed down orally to subsequent generations. Jewish Law, as we know it, is not based only on the Written Torah, but also on the Oral Torah. It was memorized – but was not inflexible. As an interpretive tradition, it was free to evolve and discover the hidden meanings of the Written Torah that were gradually revealed as time went by – since God did not intend the Torah to be for one generation only, but forever.
Not everyone agreed. The Pharisees went by the Oral Torah. The Sadducees, and a few other groups, went by the Written Torah only. In the end, the Pharisees won, and the Oral Torah remained the governing law. It was eventually written down, in what we now call the Talmud. Even as a written document, it allows constant interpretation, questioning and debate – the cornerstone of Jewish intellect.
And indeed, why leave all that? Why should Hillel wish to sacrifice his comfortable life, separate himself from the family he loved and from all he knew, and go to unknown Judea, all alone and without real prospects? The reason was simple: Torah study. Hillel reached the point in his scholarship at which he had to go to Judea if he wished to continue with it. Babylonia, strangely enough, lacked a great Torah academy. Such centers would be developed in Babylonia a few centuries later, in the cities of Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea, but during Hillel’s life, the opportunity for advanced Torah study existed only in Judea, where the great teachers, Shemaya and Avtalion, operated a famous academy. For Hillel, this gave reason enough to sacrifice the good life. No one, however, could pretend it was an easy decision. In addition, he turned down an offer which most men would not have had the moral courage to refuse.
Among Jews, there was a widespread custom of a partnership between two brothers. One would pursue business, and support the other by sharing all profits. The other would be a full-time scholar, and share the spiritual rewards in the world-to-come with the working brother. This custom went back to antiquity, based upon the legend of the Jacob’s sons Yissaschar and Zebulun, who supposedly started this tradition. It continued well into the middle ages.
As mentioned before, Hillel’s father supported him as a full-time scholar, and his brother, Shebna, pursued business at their father’s establishment. When the father passed away, and both brothers had to reevaluate their prospects and their future, Shebna kindly and generously suggested this type of partnership to Hillel. It would be the perfect life for both, Shebna rightly maintained; he truly and wholeheartedly wanted to pursue it. Most people would have gratefully accepted. Hillel, however, flatly refused. Considering that the brothers had a loving and friendly relationship, there are many ways to interpret this incomprehensible and unexpected refusal.
The traditional explanation is that Hillel felt that one should not seek an easy life, and that pursuing the Torah in poverty would bring greater spiritual rewards. One must remember that Hillel was an extremely religious man, and these spiritual rewards meant a lot to him; there may be an element of truth in this assumption. Later rabbis held that this type of partnership, while perfectly honorable, still was not the best way, since a man should not consider financial hardship as a detriment to study. However, much of this later opinion of these rabbis was based on Hillel’s precedent, so it cannot really explain his own behavior.
Another interpretation centers on one of Hillel’s later sayings, which states that a man should not make the Torah into his livelihood. He believed Torah study should be a labor of love, and that one must make a living independent of it. Generations later, many rabbis refused to be paid for their services, despite enormous workload, because of Hillel’s words. Maimonides, or as the Jews refer to him, The RAMBAM, is a shining example, as he served the community tirelessly while earning a living as a court physician, all the while not only pursuing his studies, but producing a huge body of scholarly work. [i]
A third interpretation is that he simply wanted to be personally independent. Relying on God for his daily bread was one thing. He knew it to be a blessing, highly regarded by the Torah. Relying on a fellow man, even a brother, was another. He might have also felt that since Shebna alone worked with their father to develop the business, no financial reward was due to himself at all. Shebna would not accept such a view, but Hillel’s level of personal ethics was more than the usual even among extremely honest men.
In the end, Shebna must have outfitted Hillel for the long trip to Judea, and promised to look faithfully after Hillel’s wife and child until they could join him in Jerusalem. Shebna would have seen this as a sacred obligation and be happy to oblige, as would most people living in a society that valued family relationships and connections above most things.
Hillel knew life would not be easy in Judea (or as it was called then, The Kingdom of Judah) which was still under Hasmonean rule. The Hasmonean dynasty, with its incredible heroism, madness, cruelty, supreme faith, and sweeping grandeur, will be discussed in detail in a later chapter. Most people know the founders of the dynasty, the five Maccabean brothers, for their connection with the holiday of Hanukkah, the bravery of their fighting and liberating the land from the yoke of Hellenism,[ii] and their cleansing of the Temple. There is much more to the Hasmonean dynasty than just that, and understanding its complicated, perhaps schizoid nature is essential for grasping later events, particularly those relating to the fall of their kingdom, the relationship with Rome, and the reign of Herod the Great.
The Judean population was divided into political and religious sects and experienced great conflicts. During earlier, biblical times, the main source of conflict within the state and the religion was the worship of Canaanite gods in addition to that of God. During the Maccabean times, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes demanded that the Jews worship in a style that was not purely monotheistic. At Hillel’s time, monotheism was no longer debated, and the Torah was the supreme source. Hellenism took a milder form. The conflicts largely revolved around the degree that Hellenism and assimilation would be accepted by the Jews, and much of it was political as well as religious in nature.
Members of one of the most important sects were called the Pharisees, or Perushim in Hebrew. The word means “those who are separate.” The reason for this name is not entirely clear and many explanations have been offered, including separation from the uneducated, from impure food, from Hellenism, and from a vast array of other concepts. Scholars find their origin hard to pinpoint, but most consider them to be the followers to the sect of the early Hasidim, of whom we know very little. The Pharisees were highly educated members of the middle and lower classes. They shunned Hellenism, refusing any form of assimilation and recognizing only the Torah and the “wisdom of the fathers”[iii] as their guides. Much of their views was later incorporated into rabbinic literature. One concept divided them into two groups. The first group maintained that they could accept any government, Jewish or foreign, if it allowed them to practice Jewish tradition in their own way. The second group claimed that only a government practicing the Pharisaic Torah rule should be obeyed, and any other must be rebelled against. According to Josephus, the Pharisees were highly popular among the Jews.
The Sadducees (Zedukim in Hebrew) were members of the other important sect, named after Zadok, a famous high priest during King Solomon’s time. They came from the ranks of the aristocracy. Many were Temple priests, or at least related to them by marriage; they favored Hellenism in its mild form. They objected to the “wisdom of the fathers” and any other form of Oral Law, and insisted on the Bible alone as a guide. As a result, the two groups deferred on many points of Law.
The Pharisees were less rigid than the Sadducees. They accepted, for examples, such mystical notions as life after death and angels, while the Sadducees denied all that and preferred orderly, traditional, and ceremonial ways. The Pharisees believed that God intervened in human affairs, while the Sadducees claimed that free will was total and that God exercised no control over human affairs.
The Dead Sea Sect was created, strangely enough, by a small group of Sadducees who could not accept the replacement of the traditional high priest by a Hasmonean king-priest. They settled in Qumran, by the Dead Sea, and proceeded to live as a commune and change their mind set entirely from their original Sadducee origin. The Dead Sea Sect believed that the messiah was about to appear, after a battle between the powers of good and evil. Some scholars tend to identify them with the Essenes, described below, but it has not been proven.
The Essenes were members of another group devoted to communal life. They spread over the land, but avoided large cities. The origin of their name cannot be traced, despite many attempts. Much had been revealed about them when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and that knowledge can be added to the material reported by Philo and Josephus. They were ascetic and highly religious, believed in total predestination and immortality of the soul, and lived a life of moderation and simplicity.
While it is necessary for us to understand the background if we wish to follow Hillel’s life and times, the truth is that conflicts, political or religious, did not appeal to Hillel at that stage of his life. By nature, thoughts and religious inclinations, he favored the Pharisees; later he would associate closely with the Essenes and deal directly with the Sadducees. But as yet politics failed to attract him. He was interested in his own modest affairs, and anyway, worrying about what must be faced in Judea would be tomorrow’s task. The important matter at hand in the new country would be survival, study, and reuniting with his family, and there was no need to complicate matters. If one lived modestly and without offending the authorities, much could be accomplished. So Hillel dismissed all thoughts and apprehensions, ate some bread, and drank a little more water. The sun sank lower in the horizon, the dark trees stood sharply against the purple sky, the road stretched into the distance, and he resumed his weary journey. The lonely traveler, suspended between two worlds, could have no idea what the future had in store for him. Nor could it possibly cross his mind that two thousand years later, not only his own people, but the entire Western civilization would view him as one of the greatest people to have ever graced the world.
[i] See my book Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. It is found in libraries, can be ordered in bookstores, and is also available on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Maimonides-Lives-Legacies-Irbil-Arbel/dp/0824523598/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316217137&sr=1-6
[ii]. Hellenistic means Greek-like. It was a combination of Greek culture with the native cultures of the Near East. It was caused, mostly, by the Macedonians, following Alexander the Great’s conquests in the area.
[iii]. Traditions and rules passed down the centuries.
I know many people will find this article highly objectionable. Even the mention of the name of God is distasteful for many, and for some, a serious taboo. The reason it is here on the site of The Golden Rule is because the changed nature of Yahweh greatly influenced Hillel the Elder and his way of thinking and acting. This is exactly as the article appears in Encyclopedia Mythica, and the links should take you to other articles. If they do not take you there directly, just go to this link http://www.pantheon.org/areas/mythology/middle_east/judaic/articles.html and request the Yahweh article. Please feel free to leave a comment -- good or bad, all are welcome.
This article is not intended as a religious discussion. It relates only to the mythological and historical aspects of the use and development of the name of God. No attempt will be made to discuss the values and strengths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three great religions that hold God as their core. Such an attempt will be well above the scope of one article; the interested reader is encouraged to pursue the wealth of material available to everyone.
The name YHVH or YHWH is written with four consonants only; it is the holy Tetragrammaton, or in Hebrew, Shem Hameforash. Hebrew has no vowels. In ancient times, it didn't even have vowel points. These were added much later, and at that time pronouncing the name was already forbidden for generations. So no one knows how the most ancient name of God was pronounced. The vowel points make it sound like Yehova, and later it was anglicized to Jehovah. The reader may not say it. He or she must say instead the name Adonai, which means "My Lord." The name occurs about seven thousand times in the Bible.
Every taboo has a reason. In ancient times, names had power. If you knew the real name of an entity, you had power over it. Often, an entity had two names, one widely-known and one secret. It is quite possible that in the very early stages, Yahweh was God's secret name and was used to influence or even control Him. Later use of the Shem Hameforash in the Kabbalistic tradition points to this direction, and will be discussed later in the article.
This practice is close to magic and idol worship, so as monotheism developed and broadened, the magical use of God's name was objected to. So while the name Yahweh remains written in Jewish liturgy, Jews felt that an invisible, omnipresent, omniscient part of reality cannot have a name. Only titles are allowed: God, Most High, Holy one, etc. Today, among the Jews, Yahweh or Jehovah is never used.
To understand the relationship of the name to the entity, one must pay attention to the historic and mythic development of the concept of God, and particularly to the development of monotheism in Judaism. The most important document for such a review is the Bible. It is the core, the major source of Judaic mythology. It covers a period in the development of Judaism which was transitional between Polytheism and monotheism. The Bible is full of demigods, monsters, giants, and larger than life heroes. Animals talk and angels roam the earth, discoursing with common people. God is supreme - there is no argument that He is the Almighty, but he is not alone. This is not only part of Genesis, where creation myths would allow it, but even in the books of the prophets and in the poetry. Nor did the myths stay there. They went on into the two Talmuds, completed around 400 and 500 CE, and on to the midrashic literature and the mystical literature, all the way to the thirteenth century. These later traditions actually allow more latitude than Genesis, being considered less sacred. In Genesis, God creates the entire world by speaking. In the later literature, he commits heroic deeds and battles with such evil entities as "The Prince of Darkness," "The Prince of the Sea," and various monsters that actively object to His creation. He either kills or imprisons them, thus sealing His supremacy as the fiercest warrior God; he is not, however, the only one.
The opening act in the great epic drama of the Jews as a separate nation was the original encounter between Abraham and Yahweh. A covenant was declared. Abraham and his descendants would follow Yahweh's instructions and obey His commandments. The only commandments requested at this stage were the circumcision of all males, and the taboo on human sacrifice, as later expressed by the significant story of the Binding of Isaac. More divine demands would come later, eventually leading to the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Yahweh would treat Abraham's descendants as his Chosen People -- not better than any other nation, but certainly different. This difference is the intangible reward. The tangible reward would be the eternal possession of land of Canaan, later named the land of Israel, after Abraham's grandson, Jacob-Israel.
It was understood that other nations worshiped various gods. Idols often existed even in the households of the patriarchs, though generally ignored by them and worshiped only by other members of the household. Eventually, Yahweh won over all other gods, and became first among them, but they didn't really go away. He issued the command that He would be the only God - but the struggle with other gods and their priests and priestesses continued not only in the early and the desert years, but even later, with the Jews settled again in the land of Israel, long after Exodus. The Bible mentions them often - Asherah, Baal, Anath, El, Dagon, and many others; their temples existed side by side with the worship of Yahweh. Some even had special relationships with Him.
When Moses took the Israelites out of Egypt, each tribe was gathered under its own banner -- illustrated with an image of a god. A lion was depicted on the banner of Judah, probably looking much like the Egyptian Sphinx. A serpent, named Nechushtan, was depicted on the banner of the tribe of Dan. Later, a bronze image of Nechushtan was placed in Solomon's temple -- and stayed there until much later, when King Hezekiah melted the bronze from which the idol was made. It is possible that the tribes adopted these gods during the hundreds of years they spent in Egypt. Or perhaps the tribes were never part of the descendants of Abraham that accepted Yahweh during the covenant, and only joined this loose alliance of tribes later. Possibly, the covenant never happened and was only a later myth, added to the cycle of origin stories in the Bible. No one really knows. But the images on the banners were there, showing the tribes' alliances to other gods.
The tribe of the Levites, with whom Moses was associated, was another matter altogether. They worshiped a thundering, fierce god, whose location was either Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai. Very likely the two mountains are one and the same -- there is no proof either way. Was this god the same Yahweh, the God of Abraham? Very possibly. If not, the two entities, Yahweh of Abraham and the warrior god of the Levites were combined into one impressive entity that Moses, very likely a full-blooded Levite himself, had adopted as his own God. That is proven by the fact that later, only the Levites acted as priests to Yahweh in the various Temples.
The Israelites had to physically leave Egypt to worship Yahweh. They could not, under any circumstances, worship Him in Egypt, because they could not even see him there. Exodus is very specific as to what they had to see: "They took their journey from Succoth and encamped at Etham, in the edge of the wilderness. The Lord Yahweh went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night (Exodus 13:21)." This is a clear and simple description of an active volcano- - smoke by day, fire by night.
Then, to fully prove this assumption, they gathered around this mountain, and were told that they were never to climb or touch it, on danger of death. "Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever touchesth the mount shall be surely put to death (Exodus 19:12)." The mountain must have been dangerously hot to the touch. The passage continues: "And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord Yahweh descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly." Another clear description of an active volcano. And at this emotionally impressive location Moses gave the Israelites a Code of Law, and reforged a covenant which was to become the basis for the development of monotheism.
Time passed. Judges, kings and prophets presided over the Israelites. Yahweh continued side by side with the other gods. The first attempt to create pure monotheism, one God without an image, was conceived by the prophet Isaiah. Philosophically inclined, Isaiah was extremely advanced in his views about monotheism, well ahead of his time. His vision could not tolerate other gods next to the one, universal God. He prompted King Hezekiah to remove the image of the serpent, Nechushtan, out of the Temple, and melt it down. They also removed all the lion-shaped idols, gods of the tribe of Judas, and shattered them to pieces. The Temple lost all the images and remained empty of anything but the invisible and all pervasive presence of Yahweh. Isaiah even claimed that although Yahweh preferred his Chosen People, the Israelites, He must be also the God of all other nations, because other gods simply could not exist.
Two other prophets continued to develop the concept. Habakkuk claimed that Yahweh was a righteous, loving God, not the fierce volcano God of fire and war, and the God of all men. There was no war between Yahweh and other gods, because no other gods could exist.
Jeremiah went even further with that philosophy, reemphasizing the covenant and denouncing war. He saw God as a loving entity, more concerned about justice and peace among men than with burnt offerings -- a new and advanced concept at that time. Jeremiah went as far as to beg the Israelites to refrain from fighting the Babylonians, who were also God's children. He did not succeed in his peace mission. The Israelites rebelled, and the Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, conquered Jerusalem. He did not waste time killing the entire population, as is sometimes assumed. He destroyed the walls instead, and from the population, estimated to be about a quarter of a million, took approximately 35,000 captives straight to Babylon. The people taken were the aristocracy, including teachers, physicians, and very significantly -- priests. The tribe of the Levites must have constituted a large part of the people who went into the Babylon exile. In Israel, Nebuchadnezzar left the peasants to fend for themselves.
What happened in the seventy years of the Babylonian Diaspora shaped the change in Yahweh. Until then, the Israelites, like all other nations, believed that each god had a locality. A god belonged to a country, a city, a mountain, a river. He or she dwelled in a temple built in this special location. Any captive, merchant, immigrant, or traveling physician worshiped in the town or village where he now lived, because his former gods were simply out of touch. The Israelites, who were treated quite well in Babylon, were invited to worship any Babylonian god they wished, as was the custom. But the Israelites could not do that. Perhaps if the peasants, and other simple people were driven to Babylon they would have willingly changed -- but not the Levites. They simply could not give up their connection to the God they so loved, were so connected to, identified themselves with. It was unthinkable.
Instead, an equally unthinkable, unprecedented religious revolution took place. The Jews transformed God. They made him omnipresent, liberated Him from His location, and made him a universal God. They no longer really needed a temple, though eventually a new temple would be built, as a national symbol. Instead, they built synagogues, where people could congregate and pray together to a God that was omniscient, omnipresent, had no location, no shape or form, and no rivals. As a result, the Jews had to accept the fact that He must be the God of every other person on Earth. The Jews were still God's chosen people -- but only chosen to spread His word and suffer for the sake of the rest of the nations so that the world can be redeemed, an honor and a burden given to them by God. With such immense presence, He also had to mature psychologically. Obviously, he was no longer a warrior God, a fierce volcano God, fighting for his chosen people. The vision of Isaiah, Habakkuk and Jeremiah took the final stride toward a merciful, righteous God, whose love permeated the entire universe.
In Babylon, the Jews put together all their lore and laws and codes into a book -- The Torah, knitting together all the preexisting narratives. An incredibly significant point of that book is that the word Elohim, which once meant the "other gods" became one of Yahweh's many titles. In other words, any other divinity was nothing but an aspect of this unseen presence of Yahweh. The transformation was complete.
But God's ancient name, now taboo, was not forgotten. For a group of people so strongly wrapped up in their religion, it was not likely to happen. So when Jewish Mysticism came into being, a whole new body of myth followed it. The mystics believed that God's name reflected the hidden meaning and totality of all existence. Through the Shem Hameforash, everything acquired its existence. A specific sub-discipline was created, called Hokhmat-ha-Tseruf, meaning The Science of the Combining Letters. It was a guide to a form of meditation, with the use of the letters in Yahweh's name and their many configurations. The method is extremely complicated. Some compare it to music, because of its approach to the power of sound. Others compare it to modern physics because of a major system it employed for moving from one concept to another. The term is "dilug and kefitza," which mean "jump and leap," bringing the idea of quantum leaps to mind.
The Jewish mystics, however, strongly objected to the frivolous use of God's name, and believed that only under some circumstances the power gained by using it properly was justified. Mostly it was accepted as a means to save lives. An interesting paragraph taken from a major work bears witness to all that was discussed in this article. This is copied from a book written by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, a famous thirteenth-century Kabbalistic philosopher in Spain. Rabbi Joseph's work is considered one of the most systematic approaches to Jewish mysticism:
"It is within the parameters of our historical covenant, however, that those who want their needs fulfilled by employing the Holy Names should try with all their strength to comprehend the meaning of each Name of God as they are recorded in the Torah, names such as EHYE, YH, ADoNaY, EL, ELOH, ELoHIM, SHADAY, TZVAOT. One should be aware that all the names mentioned in the Torah are the keys for anything a person needs in the world. When one contemplates these Names one will understand that all the Torah and the Commandments are dependent upon them. Then when he knows the purpose of every Name he will realize the greatness of "He who spoke and thus the world came into being." He will be fearful before Him and he will yearn to cleave to Him through His blessed Names. Then he will be close to God and his petitions will be accepted, as it is written: 'I will keep him safe, for he knows My Name. When he calls on Me I will answer him.' The verse does not promise safety by merely mentioning His Name but by knowing His Name. It is the knowing that is most significant. Only after the knowledge does the verse present the petition, '...when he calls on me I will answer.' This means that when the time comes he should know the Name that is intrinsically tied to what he needs, then when he calls, 'I will answer.' ...Know that all the Holy Names in the Torah are intrinsically tied to the Tetragrammaton, which is YHVH. If you would contend, however, that the name EHYEH is the ultimate source, realize that the Tetragrammaton is like the trunk of the tree from which the branches grow and the Name EHYEH is like the root from which grow the other roots. It is the trunk of the tree that nurtures the branches which are the other Names of God, and each one of these branches bears a different fruit. Know too that all the words in the Torah are connected to one of the unerasable Divine Names just as the other cognomens [for the different Names of God] are intrinsically tied to a specific Name... Just as EL, EloHIM and the Tetragrammaton have Cognomens, their Cognomens also have Cognomens until one finds that all the words of the Torah are intrinsically woven into the tapestry of God's Cognomens with are tied to God's Names which, in turn, are tied to the ineffable Tetragrammaton, YHVH, to which all the Torah's words are inextricably linked. Thus, all the Torah is woven with all the strands of YHVH and it is for this reason it is stated: "The Torah of YHVH is complete. (Psalm 19:8)"
This does not have much to do with The Golden Rule, but it’s too good to hide and I must tell the entire known universe about it, and this is the best I can do. Well, as everyone says, it’s who you know, not who you are. There is not a shred of a possibility that I could have a coat of arms. My East European Jewish ancestors were not known to possess them, and would not have acquired them in Israel, where I was born. So how come I have a heraldic coat of arms? (You will never guess…). A mysterious person who would not reveal his/her name designed one for me!!!!!! Specially made in order to suit me in today’s world! The leopard does not need an explanation. He is a CAT, and that is enough. The ostrich is a part of a project I am not yet at liberty to divulge but will eventually be revealed. The book and legend (Writing is my life) is pure flattery, which is something I never resist and totally approve of. So here we are and I must learn to put on airs. How do I start? Would wearing really elegant hats be a good beginning?
Many would have been discouraged in his situation. Hillel, the son of a truly distinguished family, did not experience physical hardship before setting on this journey. 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, through the male line, from the tribe of Levi. 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 loved 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 on the Internet, though of course many cannot be trusted. About three hundred years after Hillel’s death, a short time by historical standards, 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 benefitted him in any way. Genealogical scrolls were common, and any person descended from King David’s family would be proud of it and make certain 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’s side. 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 additional 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 and the shepherds 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 made with him, 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 restricted living situation; no one treated them as inferiors.
Of course they were saddened by the blow of the loss and exile. 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 can 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 the Jews followed. It was beautifully 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 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 became a true citizen of the world.
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; I suspect even then the mothers liked to brag about “My son, the doctor.” The new medicine also helped them live longer and healthier lives. They had more time, and they could use it 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.
It is an amusing historical fact that when Cyrus (II) the Great allowed the Jews to go back to Judea in 538 B.C.E., only a small portion decided to return. The rest elected to remain in Babylon. 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 beside a small trickling of people wishing to move to Judea for mostly religious reasons, the population of Babylonia stayed put, enjoying their comfortable, cosmopolitan life. The situation was curiously reminiscent of the relationship between American Jewry and modern Israel. Every Passover, when modern American Jews recite “Next year in Jerusalem” they do not really mean it more than the Babylonian Jews did when they sang the sad song about the Rivers of Babylon, where they sat and cried remembering Zion… A nice sentiment, but business is business and life goes on, then and now... As Ecclesiastics maintains, there is nothing new under the sun.
And indeed, why leave all that? Why should Hillel wish to sacrifice his comfortable life, separate himself from the family he loved and from all he knew, and go to unknown Judea, all alone and without real prospects?
[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. More research is needed.
Hard as it is to believe, Lord David is not impressed by my historical scholarship, and is adamant that the Duke of Edinburgh looks more like Hillel the Elder than my choice of a candidate, Paul Newman. To prove his point, he insisted on assisting me with a "vote" button, which is now beautifully installed. Would anyone be kind enough to scroll down and vote? Something tells me that most women would agree with my choice...
Chapter One: Between Two Worlds
“To the place that my heart loves, there do my feet lead me.”(Tosefta Sukka 4:3)
The dusty road stretched into the distance in both directions. The solitary young man trudged on, leaning on his sturdy cane. A few acacia trees, some shrubs, rocks and dry soil stood in sharp contrast under the deep blue sky and bright sun, but the monotony of the scene did not bother him. After being robbed by a gang of thieves who took everything he owned, Hillel ben Gamaliel did not desire human company.[ii]
He did miss his hired donkey, which the robbers took away. Walking all the way from Babylonia to Judea was no laughing matter. But the thieves spared his life, and even let him keep the water and food he could carry on his body, and for that he felt grateful. One must not dwell on what happened yesterday, he firmly reminded himself. When his wife and child join him in Jerusalem, as soon as he is settled, he would tell the story of the robbery to little Simeon, and turn it into an exciting tale, with a simple moral teaching point that would be easy for the child to understand. He smiled when he thought of Simeon’s big brown eyes growing larger with the suspense of the story. The edge of his own anger and helplessness will thus be taken away, evaporating under the child’s sense of wonder and adventure. The image of his wife came before his inner eye and he pushed it away resolutely. He could not allow himself to dwell on how much he missed her, since being away from her felt like an open wound he could not bear to touch; it was the first time they were parted since their wedding day, and even before that, they were childhood friends. Life without Penina[iii] did not seem entirely real. He could not shake her face away, the brown eyes, so much like their son’s, the soft, long black hair neatly tied up in a knot under her silk scarf, the pearls she always wore since they were her namesake, luminous and softly white like her skin… Enough! Almost brutally, he chased the beloved image away.
The trip started well, as Hillel joined a caravan that would lead him from Babylonia to Jerusalem. The roads were well kept, and when near settlements and towns they were often full of traffic. People rode donkeys, camels, mules, and occasionally horses. Wheeled vehicles, mostly wagons and carts, were quite common, and every so often a luxurious harmamaxa[iv] would leisurely go by, the pampered occupants hidden from curious eyes. The poor simply walked. Inns lined the major roads, offering a choice of accommodations suitable for every purse, and when the travelers stopped in towns along the way, many taverns and restaurants welcomed them, offering food, wine, and female companionship for those who were willing to pay for it. Travel for both business and personal reasons thrived, and the throng swelled with the addition of mail couriers, soldiers, and other officials engaged in various services and errands for their rulers. Even leisurely travel for sightseeing existed, the tourists visiting monuments, museums and art exhibitions; many travelers brought sketch books to draw pictures of interesting scenes. Others carried written information to educate themselves as they viewed historic sites or beautiful art. Pilgrimage to holy places was available since religion became part of human lives. The roads presented a cheerful sight, but since robbers lurked in rural locations, caravans always employed armed guards. Since their caravan was large and well protected, Hillel and his travel mates did not expect trouble along the way. They were mistaken.
The bandits swept over them like locusts. Before Hillel could even grasp the situation, men were dead or wounded, property was seized, and a huge bandit riding a horse swept him off his donkey with one blow of a spear. Hillel did not resist. He sat on the ground and waited for whatever God prepared for him, his thoughts lingering lovingly on his family back in Babylonia. His shoulder hurt and he saw some blood seeping through his sleeve, but for the moment, there was nothing to be done, and the wound seemed superficial. As quickly as they came, the robbers vanished, taking all property except for the food and water that they left with the surviving members of the caravan, and the clothes on their backs. This was, surprisingly, a common practice.
Jewish robbers in Mesopotamia had their own ethics, which may seem unusual to the modern reader. The historian Josephus[v] writes about a pair of brothers, Anileus and Asineus, who functioned as joint chiefs of a notorious gang of robbers. These fierce, indomitable brigands refused to fight on Saturday, their Sabbath and day of rest. Josephus tells of an anomaly that occurred under great duress. A strong enemy who knew the brothers’ habits decided to ambush them on the holy day. The brothers, forced to defend themselves, nevertheless had grave doubts whether this was the right thing to do and considered hiding instead! These “ethical” robbers preferred to leave their victims with enough supplies so they could reach safety; that is to say, those victims that they had not murdered… This complicated, bizarre behavior was accepted as normal and even appreciated by many. For example, the king of Parthia was so impressed by Anileus’ and Asineus’ exhibition of bravery and strong faith, that he offered them amnesty and employment in his service, and the brothers rose to great distinction, at least for a while.
When the robbers disappeared from site, Hillel’s caravan’s survivors helped each other dress their wounds. They buried the dead by the side of the road and prayed over them. Then, they sadly turned back to the nearest town, where they could rest and decide on their next step. Hillel did not go with them. He quietly shouldered his package of food, picked a cane that was left on the ground, and walked on. If he possessed nothing of value, if he went alone and by foot, the next gang of robbers would pay little attention to him. He would come to Judea a pauper, but what did it matter?
He was proven right. The rest of the journey was indeed long and arduous, but he walked safely from town to town, working as a day laborer whenever his food ran out, and earning enough to buy more for the next stretch of the road. And finally he was much nearer his destination.
Hillel sighed and sat under a tree by the side of the road; experience taught him that one must not walk during the hottest time of day. He drank some water and examined his worn out sandals, doubting that they would last the trip. No matter. One must not dwell on the future any more than on the past. Tomorrow will take care of itself; developing a total trust that God would provide was an important virtue, particularly when one was put to the test.
Many would have been discouraged in his situation. Hillel, the son of a wealthy and distinguished family, did not experience physical hardship before setting on this journey…
[i]. See Appendix 1: Time Line. (To come later)
[ii]. Discovering or even speculating on Hillel’s mother’s name is not possible. Women’s names were never recorded, not because they were of no importance, but on the contrary, they were given the right of privacy as a sign of respect; it was considered very bad taste to discuss them or their names in public. This habit lasted well into the late middle ages.
Hillel’s father’s name can be deduced. Males’ names ran in families with regularity and consistency. A boy would be named after a relative that has passed away, not a living one. This may cause some misconceptions. For example, Hillel is often mentioned as “Hillel the Elder,” but this is not because he was the father of “Hillel the Younger,” but because it was his title as a member of the Sanhedrin (The Great Council). The following list, consisting of Hillel’s descendants, begins with Hillel’s son: Simeon, Gamaliel, Simeon, Gamaliel, Simeon, Judah, Gamaliel, Judah, Gamaliel, Judah, Hillel, Gamaliel, Gamaliel. There are only four names here; Hillel, Simeon, Gamaliel, and Judah. Since Hillel’s father’s name could not be Hillel, then his name was Simeon, Gamaliel, or Judah.
Simeon, Hillel’s eldest son, was probably born when Hillel was very young, as was the custom. It is generally assumed that the father died later, when Hillel’s brother, Shebna, offered to support his brother financially and share the blessings of Hillel’s Torah study. Therefore, the father’s name would not be Simeon, as Hillel would not call his son after a living relative. Simeon must have been Hillel’s grandfather’s name, as he would be the nearest paternal relative. So we can eliminate the name Simeon as Hillel’s father. That leaves Judah and Gamaliel. In the list, the name Judah appears for the first time much later, seven generations after Hillel; this shows that this name was added either after a maternal relative or a secondary paternal one. When Simeon had a son, he did not call him Hillel, because Hillel the Elder lived a very long life and had to be alive when Simeon’s first son was born. From the list, we see that Simeon called his son Gamaliel. He must have called his son after Hillel’s father, who would be the closest deceased relative. Hillel’s father’s name, therefore, must have been Gamaliel.
[iii] In Hebrew: Pearl.
[iv]. A four-wheeled closed carriage, with a roof, and with sides that could be enclosed by curtains. It afforded privacy and was much favored for the transfer of harems.
[v].Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 9
Ladies and Gentlemen: Lord David Prosser disapproves of my idea of what Hillel the Elder looked like. My erudite assumption, based on serious research, fails to convince him. He does not like the photograph I provided, and on my request, sent a photograph he much prefers. I would like to hear your opinions. If I knew how to construct a “vote” button I would, but since I have no idea, please read Lord David’s views on the matter, then scroll down to the previous post and read/view my suggestion. Please leave your selection in the "Comment" section.
Here is what Lord David said: "I hate to argue but are you suggesting that only blue eyes are beautiful? My one redeeming feature is my eyes, in part because I have long lashes and in part because they are dark brown.And red hair would still be in keeping with that colour eye wouldn't it. Though I don't suggest red hair for him, maybe a good model might be the young Duke of Edinburgh who was quite slight and certainly intelligent looking rather than Paul Newman with the stereotypical Hollywood looks? I'm sure many of us can come up with an alternative who conjours up the look of that country."
Buthidar Hugs, David
You could pursue the entire conversation in the "Comments" of the previous post.
The Duke of Edinburgh a little later in life...