Before we join Hillel at the academy, a little about Shemaya and Avtalion
As mentioned in a previous segment, Hillel left a loving family, a comfortable life, and the glorious options for secular scholarship in Babylonia. He headed for the unknown – possibly a life of poverty and deprivation in distant Judea – and risked a highly dangerous journey where robberies and murders were common. In addition, he had decided not to accept his brother’s Shebna offer to support him for life, as a scholar and a partner. This lifestyle, where two brothers made a pact of sharing the wealth of one and the scholarship of the other (by their belief system, honorable for both parties in this world and the world to come) was a common practice in those days when family ties were close and brothers often faced life together. He did all that so he could complete his Torah studies to his satisfaction, since he knew he had learned all he could in Babylonia. At the time, Torah study in Babylonia did not reach the lofty heights it acquired later, when the famous academies were opened in the cities of Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea. One must remember that the Talmud, that great repository of the Oral Law was not yet written. Once it came into being, a Jew could be just as learned in a small town in Galicia or Morroco, as the one who lived in the learning centers of Jerusalem or Yavne. In a strange way, the Talmud supplied a similar situation to Distance Learning on the Internet – you could be a scholar wherever you are. But at Hillel’s time, the Oral Law was not written down, and if one had to settle a scholarly question, one had to hear it from the Teachers. And Hillel’s teachers were not able to answer his questions anymore, he went far beyond them. So was it worthwhile to tear himself from all he loved, and to go to Judea?
In a word, the answer is a resounding YES. Hillel was obsessed with leaning, and trying to deny his obsession and couch it in religious terms, pretending he had done everything to please the veiled wishes of God, would be addressing his life as a hagiography. There are too many hagiographies about him out there now, and have been there for two thousand years, and I do not mean to write another one. Hillel was not only Hillel the Elder, a figure of legends. He was also a real human being – a much more complex being than what we have been accustomed to hear. He had to find the answers or his heart and soul would have shriveled. And in Judea, he was going to study with the masters of Jewish learning. He
could do no better – no one would argue about the worth of Shemaya and Avtalion.
I must temporarily stop the narrative and devote one segment to the Essenes, since they are going to be important to this book. Most of what is known about the Essenes is taken from the works of the historian Josephus, who was their contemporary. Unfortunately, a raging feud had developed in recent years among distinguished historians and archaeologists regarding the possibility that not only the Essenes did not write the Dead Sea Scrolls, as the common assumption used to be, but that they did not even exist! I side with the group who maintains that Josephus knew his contemporaries well enough, and had no reason to invent the Essenes, which I believe had influenced both Hillel the Elder and Jesus Christ.
As discussed in a previous segment, the Jews of that time were not all of one mind; well, Jews never are of one mind, and everyone knows the old joke that says that if you put three Jews into a room, they will have six opinions no matter what the subject of discussion happens to be. But at that time there was a clear separation into three groups. The feuds between the Sadducees and the Pharisees have been described. However, Josephus maintains that the third group, the Essenes, had just as much influence.
This is thought to be the statue of the goddess Mylitta, the Babylonian representation of the Greek Aphrodite.
At the end of the day Hillel left the workshop with Menahem, after arranging with the Master that he should come back tomorrow. He wanted to have a few days worth of pay in his hands, so that he could comfortably arrange for his studies with Shemaya and Avtalion but still keep enough for rent and food. Menahem promised to tell the Teachers that a new student would arrive on Yom Rishon, the first day of the week, after the Sabbath day of rest was over.
They stopped on their way to purchase cheap garments for Hillel from one of the merchants of old clothes, and then went to the baths. Entering the house, Hillel saw there were two staircases – one that was used to go down into the pools, and the other that was used after bathing, so a man who had already bathed would not be contaminated by those who had not yet purified themselves. The baths were dug into the rock itself, quite deeply. The water in them was constantly refreshed by “living water,” a continuous stream that flowed from a large reservoir containing water collected from various sources – rain water, river water, or any water that was never stored in a vessel. Additional shallow basins had several purposes, such as washing the hands or purifying containers. There were also places where one could wash his clothes.
Hillel took off his tunic and loincloth, laid them in a shallow basin full of soapy water to soak, and entered the water. His aching muscles responded to the comfort of the water, and he sank in with a sigh of content and closed his eyes. The cool “living water” that dripped into the warm water of the bath made him feel as if he were back at home, in the beautiful bath the family had owned. For a few seconds he drifted into a half sleep and a pleasant dream mixed with his thoughts. He felt that maybe, if he opened his eyes, he would see his beloved Penina, holding a soft, thick cloth for him to dry himself, as she used to do so often… he woke up with a start when an attendant brought him a piece of soap made of ashes and olive oil; unlike the soap in Babylon, this was a simple one, lacking the fragrant herbs or the pine oil added, and the strong odor of olive oil banished Penina’s dream presence. He sighed again, this time with sorrow. In the bath next to him Menahem was busily washing himself.
In Part One: Coming to Jerusalem (Chapter Three), the year 55 B.C.E. is incorrect. It should be 53 B.C.E.. I would like to note that as the research progresses, there may be many changes made in the time line as new facts emerge.
“Indeed, there is always a way,” said the man. “My name is Menahem, by the way.”
“Menahem… he who comforts,” said Hillel, smiling. “The name fits you. I feel a lot better now, since you gave me hope. My name is Hillel.”
“So shall we meet tomorrow morning? Where do you sleep? I will fetch you since you don’t really know your way around Jerusalem. Just be up as soon as the sun rises, we start early at the workshop.”
“That will be very kind, since I will then learn my way there, if your employers would indeed give me work,”said Hillel, and described his landlord’s location. They parted in good will, and Hillel went back to his lodgings. The few coins he had left after paying his landlord afforded him a dinner of dry bread and a few olives, but what of it? Tomorrow will bring him work, he already made a friend, and most important, his way to the academy now seemed clear enough. He was very tired though, and ready to go to bed. His landlord directed him to the flat roof, where people often slept on during the hot summer nights, so Hillel climbed up there, and went to sleep quite happily.