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.