This segment might interest not only those who wish to read about Hillel, but also people who want to know more about what life was really like in Judea around the time of Jesus Christ. Jesus was born during the lifetime of Hillel, and as I mentioned before, very likely was his student for a while. Life in those days did not change as quickly as it does now; it was very much the same during Hillel’s young adulthood as it was during Jesus’ youth.
In the past I had described life in Babylonia in detail (and I will have much more on that subject in the future) but since in our narrative Hillel and his family are now living in Judea, I would like to tell what life was like there in those days. As you can see, today’s segment is marked “History.” On the April 15 segment I introduced the structure of the book in its completed form, when it will emerge from being a blog and become a hard copy and an e-book. To make the entries clearer to the readers at this stage, I decided to mark the entries according to the part they will be included in. If the title mentions “Primary Sources” then it comes from the Talmud or other formal Judaic sources. If it is marked“History,” it comes from various sources, such as Josephus, the ancient historian, Jewish and Israeli materials, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and modern archaeological research. If it is marked “Narrative,” it is what I call my "connect the dots," where I superimpose the primary sources and the historical sources on each other, and create a narrative about Hillel's exciting life and times, including my own analysis and some speculation.
As in so many cultures and times in history, the differences in the lifestyle of the rich, the middle class, and the poor were immense, and it showed itself strongly in the area of housing. In Jerusalem, where there are hills and valleys, the wealthy merchants, Roman officials, and the higher priesthood lived in splendid houses that were located on the highest regions. Some of the wealthiest neighborhoods included enormous palaces. Others had mostly elegant stone villas, built from the beautiful pink stone of the area, and had enclosed gardens or spacious courtyards. The major house was for the family, and separate guest rooms for visitors were built next to the stone walls that surrounded the courtyard or garden. The upper stories were reached by outside staircases, which allowed the rooms to be very big. The level of luxury of these houses is surprising. They had hot and cold running water, large baths, toilets, and even central heating, all supplied through the possession of large water cisterns under the courtyard. Frescoes decorated the walls, and intricate mosaics graced both floor and walls. The furniture was beautiful and the houses were well lit by oil lamps. They used elegant serving and eating dishes, including glass and well made clay tableware, and ritual objects made of carved stone. I will describe fashions, jewelry, accessories and food in later segments.
The middle class, such as small landowners, craftspeople/artisans and shopkeepers lived in smaller, but comfortable houses. The houses were built of stone, solidly made with limestone chips and mortar filling the gaps. The interior walls were covered with white plaster. The needed space for the domestic animals was provided by the clever way the room was built over a stone arch, so the family room was in reality a second story. The floor was made of crushed limestone, mixed with sand and small pebbles. The wealthier middle class could afford a two-story house of the same built, providing the luxury of separating the dining and the sleeping areas.
The working poor, such as shepherds, day laborers, and poorer farmers, lived in small one or two level mud homes. The house contained one upper room that served all the living and working necessities, and the lower room housed the domestic animals. The house had a foundation of stone, but the walls were made of mud bricks, constantly eroding and needing replacement, only thinly whitewashed on the outside. Inside, they were covered with lime plaster. It is interesting to note that the lime plaster was waterproof, and it is hard to understand why they did not put it on the outside as well, but perhaps not enough evidence remained and some did create such a barrier to erosion. The floor was simply hardened dirt floor, sometimes spread with vegetable matter. The roof was made of wood beams and branches, placed across thickly and covered with clay. Another style of poor housing was the “Insula.” It consisted of a few houses clustered around a shared courtyard. The walls and the floors were made of black basalt stones, with mud and pebbles mixed together and packed in the spaces between the stones. It was not considered strong enough for a second story, and had a roof made of beams, branches and mud.
All houses, rich or poor, did not have many windows facing the street. Invariably, they preferred the safety of being insulated from the outside. As a result, the inside was often dark, and in the poorer houses, smoky, because of the indoor fires. The poor and the middle class generally retired early, right after the evening meal, shutting whatever windows and doors securely until morning, when their long and hard day would start again. The rich, however, was known for having luxurious and elegant evening parties where enough lamps were lit to banish the darkness – but more on their surprisingly modern lifestyle will be discussed in later segments.