One of Hillel’s major contributions to the Law, the customs, and the lifestyle of Judea was the ordinance of the Prozbul. The economy of Judea was based on agriculture. During hard times, such as during the many droughts that occurred in this area, the poor had always relied on loans from the rich. High interest rates and loss of land to the wealthier citizens created intolerable inequality, both economic and social. The Torah, attempting to prevent the total deterioration of society, had cancelled all debts by the final year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle.
Hillel cancelled this compassionate law on his own authority. How can that be? Hillel, the soul of charity, the one who constantly helped the poor, cancelled the law that would save them from starvation, or from permanently losing their land? This sounds inconceivable; could he have possibly turned on his people in order to pacify the rich? In addition, how could he bring himself to object to a Mosaic Law, stated in the Torah – literally annul a sacred command? This could not be
done lightly – there had to be a very good reason for such behavior. Besides, the Prozbul is included in the collection of ordinances of Mipnei Tikkun haOlam, which mean, “for the welfare of the world/community.” So it could not be meant to benefit only the rich, who did not particularly require welfare.
I have one principle in life. It is patterned after a statement included in the teachings of my hero, Hillel the Elder. His statement goes: “Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” After saying it, he added that the rest of any teachings is mere commentary, which we should go and study. Naturally, it must be simplified into a short statement so as to fit into our modern lives, since Hillel lived about two thousand years ago. So I did simplify it, and here it is: “Do Not Hurt.” I try to follow it as much as I can, and to my knowledge, I never hurt anyone or anything voluntarily. I am sure I do it by accident sometimes, but it is not intended and one can only do one’s best.
When the old year was softly replaced by the new, I was already home. It was a cold night, very peaceful, the cats were sleeping in their warm places after their midnight snack, and I was making a cup of tea. I reflected that I had a very pleasant, busy, and happy holiday season, and that even though I was really tired, I was also unusually relaxed, and my tendency to rush and do everything at once obsessively, was for once gone. I could think clearly.
So in a lazy sort of way, over my very nice Earl Grey tea with just a bit of almond milk (as it should be prepared) I examined my principle of not hurting and how it fitted into my current existence. To my disgust, I realized that I was hurting someone after all. I was pushing this someone to the limits, denying her rest and relaxation, forcing her to do many things she does not like to do instead of concentrating on the things she loved, and the truth is, for no real reason. This someone is me, as you probably realize, and I tried to decide whether I had the right to do so.
In some cases, yes, it is entirely legitimate to hurt myself. If being kind to myself is based on hurting others, I should take their needs into consideration before doing anything at all because I don’t have the right to hurt anyone just to further my own happiness. But if no others are involved, I think it is just as reprehensible to hurt oneself as it is to hurt someone else. This must stop.
I am stopping it right now. I don’t need to make a New Year Resolution to do so. I just have to continue to follow the principle I have followed for so many years. Do Not Hurt. Thank you again, Hillel the Elder.
Okay, the time has come to get out of hibernation and get back to my beloved Hillel the Elder. What other man would be as forgiving when neglected for four full months? I apologize to him and to all the wonderful and amazing readers of this book/blog who kept coming back to the site (unless my host is lying) day after day. I appreciate it greatly.
This posting is not about Hillel himself, but about a subject that is closely related – the Talmud. As I am sinking deeper and deeper into this amazing work, the more I realize that the scholars are right. There is no beginning and no end to the Talmud. The saying that “no matter where you open the Talmud, you are at the beginning” is absolutely correct, it seems to me. And taking it one step further, I firmly declare that the Talmud is not a book. It’s the ancient version of the Internet – an early Google, maybe – covering all knowledge of the time in no specific order.
The Talmud includes many hilarious, unrealistic discussions of situations that cannot happen, used as pedagogic tools. Some of them, though, seem almost eerie. Almost two thousand years ago, how could they have the idea of surrogacy? They did not have the knowledge or tools of complicated surgery. And yet, they coolly discussed surrogate motherhood, in detail!
The reason for discussing it at all had to do with the value placed on being first born, be it an animal or a human. With humans, being first born meant much in questions of inheritance and other benefits. With cattle, in Jewish law, the first-born calf has special status and belongs to the priests. So here is how it is presented in the Talmud:
“What is the law if a weasel inserts its head into a pregnant animal’s womb, takes the fetus into its mouth and pulls it out of the womb and then the weasel reinserts its head into the womb of another animal and spits out the fetus, who then emerges naturally [and is now the first-born]? What is the law if the wombs of two animals become attached and the fetus leaves one womb and enters the other womb, and then emerges from the latter womb [is it a first-born or not]? (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 70a)”
When I stopped laughing after reading (and visualizing the busy weasel doing its bizarre job) I realized that this is really eerie. Both questions relate to today’s technology, which allows the transfer of a fetus to a surrogate mother. If an egg donated by one woman is fertilized in vitro and implanted in another woman’s womb, who is the mother?
The Aggadah goes further. Dinah, Jacob’s eleventh child, seemed to have been in this situation. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 30:21, relates that Leah was pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with Dinah. Leah prayed that Rachel would give birth to a male and God switched the embryos. Nonetheless, Dinah who was conceived by Rachel and born to Leah was considered Leah's child; and Joseph who was conceived by Leah but born by Rachel was considered Rachel's child. Even though this is legend, not Law, it shows that these rabbis believed that the child's identity is determined by the birth mother and not by the ovum donor.
But the legality of the issues is of less interest to me than the fact that such possibilities even crossed the minds of these sages. And most important: why a
weasel? Why not an angel? Proof positive that the sages had a wonderful sense of
I imagine many of you heard about this wonderful exhibit in Israel, "Herod the Great: The King`s Final Journey" and I have some nice things to show you. Below is a link for information in English about this event, which is named "Herod the Great: The King`s Final Journey," and I also have some additional great pictures. Enjoy!
The view of Herodion, which stands about eight miles south of jerusalem.
Herod Aggripa, the grandson of Herod the Great
Mark Antony. I have never seen this bust before. Looks a bit like Marlon Brando in the wonderful movie...
An ossuary: a depository for the bones of the dead
Friends, Romans, country... hmmm, countrypeople, lend me your ears. I came to
discuss my personal Ides of August. Each year, I forget what they bring so I
don’t beware them... So I am going to disappear for August from the social media
sites, and be back in September. I might hop in once because I discovered a
highly humorous Talmudic bit about 2000 years old options concerning surrogate
motherhood, which involves not only people, but cows and weasels, but it needs
more research. Stay tuned and have a wonderful August! If anyone wants to write
to me, my e-mail is email@example.com
Multitasking pays. I am working simultaneously on three different books, each with its own connected blog. When you are done shaking your head with pity and concern for my mental health, you will see that strange and wonderful things can happen as a result of my aberrant behavior.
Having no interest in our own sad and mundane culture, my three books are placed in the past. Nice, you are saying; this sneaky woman thinks she can do one research and use it for three projects. Perhaps you are not sure if you admire my resourceful spirit or look down on my obvious deceit. However, no matter how you feel about it, you are wrong, Oh Gentle Reader! We are talking about three different dates and a mixture of places. The first book takes place during Second Temple, two thousand years ago, in Judea and Babylonia, which are modern Israel and Iraq. The second books happens during the twelfth century, in Spain, the Maghreb (better known as North Africa), and Palestine, which is, again, modern Israel. The third takes place in 1921, in London, with a few side trips to Paris, Constantinople and Russia.
But you wonder what kind of advantages I am thinking about when I say that multitasking pays. Here is one example. Studying the Cairo Geniza papers for the Maimonides biography, which takes place in the twelfth century, I came across absolutely fascinating information about fashion – with stunning revelations about (gasp) embroidery!!!!! Can you see how it fits with the Madame Koska book, which even though is a mystery, has plenty of information about high fashion and Russian embroidery? And would you believe both cultures loved to use PEARLS? Tears must come to your eyes when you consider the magnificent serendipity here. Kismet! If you stay tuned long enough, there will be a posting about it sooner or later in the Madame Koska blog, or the Maimonides blog, not quite sure yet…
Herod refused to take the position that Cleopatra offered him. As mentioned in a previous posting, it is not clear what the position was, exactly, but some scholars agree with Josephus that she probably wanted Herod to command an expedition she was preparing to aid Antony in his fight against the Parthians. If Herod had agreed to take the position, the history of Judea would have been quite different. But it is clear that he did not want to be involved with Cleopatra in any capacity, be it personal or official. His famous refusal to have an affair with her, if it really happened, is quite surprising when one considers how attractive Cleopatra was to most men, but such aversions do happen. And on professional and political levels, he never quite trusted her. So he refused the mission and elected to sail to Rome.
Every young bride knew that the command “Be fruitful and multiply” was not an empty ritual. The purpose of her marriage, any marriage, was having children. Such things we take for granted, such as love, attraction, happiness, often existed, but they were secondary and unimportant. A girl, in her early teens, was ready to accept reproduction as her duty and her destiny. The very reason for such early marriages was to give the woman as much opportunity and time to have as many children as she could.
The young man was informed of his duties as well. Abstinence, which under some conditions was permitted to a woman, was totally forbidden to a man until he had children. The House of Shammai advocated that a man had to have two sons before he could practice abstinence. The more tolerant House of Hillel allowed a son and a daughter.
Since the previous post described Hillel’s happy marriage, I thought it would be interesting to give some information about betrothal, the marriage contract, and the ceremonies involved. By the time of Hillel, the ancient idea of selling a bride to her husband as the accepted betrothal have changed into a symbolic act of transferring a tiny sum of money from the hand of the bridegroom to the hand of the bride’s father. “Market value” had nothing to do with it, particularly since the level of class consciousness changed dramatically. The higher classes in antiquity were the priestly families and the very wealthy, often both. During Hillel’s time, it already started the shift, which would last two thousand years. The new status was based on spiritual wealth and Torah scholarship. Even the name of the betrothal changed – it was no longer “Acquisition of the Bride” (Kinian in Hebrew), but “Consecration of the Bride” (Kiddushisn in Hebrew and Aramaic. The word lasted to this day and is still in use. This ceremonial agreement led to the next, involving the Marriage Contract. It may have been done on the same day, or on a separate date.
I saw this picture on Facebook, placed there by my friend Wendy M. Reis. “There should be no yelling in the home unless there is a fire,” said by David O. McKay. Somehow, it brought to my mind a wonderful story about Hillel the Elder, which seems to have more than one interpretation, as is usually the case with any story about this interesting and unusual man.
“Our Rabbis taught: It once happened with Hillel the elder that he was coming from a journey, and he heard a great cry in the city, and he said: I am confident that this does not come from my house.”
Why did Hillel show no anxiety? Surely, at the turbulent, violent time he lived in, anything could have happened. His house may have been on fire, or Roman soldiers might have been breaking in, or Herod’s emissaries could have been trying to cause damage – among many other options. And yet, Hillel remained calm.
Naturally, the Talmud and several scholars say that it was because Hillel was a deeply religious man, and trusted God under any circumstances. Here is the Talmud’s quotation: “Of him Scripture says: He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”
But trusting God does not mean that an intelligent man would not acknowledge the many disasters, personal or national, that God allows very often. Did he not care? Was Hillel indifferent to the fate of his family? Of course that was not the case, as Hillel is known for his great love for his family. Therefore, the interpretation I agree with is that Hillel trusted his wife implicitly. When everything was in order, she would never raise her voice, create disorder and trouble, or get excited over trivial occurrences. But even if calamity threatened, such as fire, she would cope with it in as practical and sane fashion as she coped with everything else. Therefore, while he could not know if all went well in his house, he could be certain that everything would be done calmly and intelligently, and under his wife’s wise conduct, no one in his house would sink into disorderly behavior.