Before we return to the story and relate how Hillel’s wife and son joined him in Judea, we must look into the marriage customs and the place of women in society in Judea and Babylon. It is easy to lump ancient society’s approach to women under one distastefully male-dominated, woman-abusive state of affairs, but it is not the way things were. Generalizations are never entirely true, and when one examines the history of those two countries, many surprises surface.
This segment is by no means the entire story. Much more research is needed, and will be added as the book develops, since the subject is extremely important if one is to understand Hillel’s views of marriage, family, and women in general. There are many sources that are easily obtained, but also some unpublished dissertations about the subject I happened to see more than ten years ago in the wonderful New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division room. At the time, I was researching my biography of Maimonides, and the material I needed was 11th and 12th centuries, so I did not study those papers. I plan to go back there and see if they can still be accessed.
Two months later.
The late afternoon sun that poured into the room, illuminating the peaceful scene, suddenly disappeared in the startling way it happens during Judea’s long summer. With the habit of a lifetime of teaching, Shemaya and Avtalion anticipated the exact moment it would happen, and finished the lesson just on time. The students rose from the floor, preparing to leave for the day. Hillel slowly extricated his mind from the absorbing glow of the studies, a process that for him was much like emerging from a deep sleep into the morning, through layer upon layer of consciousness.
The giant door keeper walked into the room. “A messenger left a letter for Hillel ben Gamaliel,” he declared, handed it to Shemaya, and left. He did not know any of the students by name, and refused to have any personal contact with them. Most of the students resented him, but Hillel felt that the giant did not want to befriend the people he might be asked to turn away if they did not pay.
Shemaya gave the scroll to Hillel, who looked at it for a long moment without breaking the seal. “It has my brother’s seal,” he said at last, rolling it between his hands. “I can see the small chip on the side of the letter…”
For a change of pace, I thought I should bring out a bit of the original source material. As I have mentioned before, Hillel’s legends and sayings are not concentrated in one source, but are spread over the huge Talmudic literature. Some are his sayings, some are his rules and laws, and some are legends about him. Previous books about Hillel dealt with the story from the religious, not historic angle. I am doing the exact opposite – I am attempting to string the scattered literature on a thread of accurate history – so it is hard to decide how to present the three parts of the book as I am developing it. It may change as I go along, but for the moment, I see the parts done in this manner:
1. The historical material about the time of Second Temple I am getting from Josephus, other primary sources, and secondary historical works, some available to anyone interested, some rather obscure.
2. The legends/sayings/laws from the Talmudic literature. Many exist in the wonderful Pirke Avot, some have been collected by amazing scholars such as Nahum N. Glatzer, Yitzhk Buxbaum, and some fascinating articles by Judah Goldin in the Chicago Journals. I promise to have every single bit listed in the bibliography, even if it exists only in Hebrew.
3. The story line that I am developing as a “speculative” biography where I connect the dots and try to understand how a magnificent human being such as Hillel would react to his challenging time and place.
“Duck!” cried Menahem, and grabbing Hillel’s garment, dragged him into a dark entryway to a shop. Hillel, startled, did not struggle and stood quietly in the dark little corridor. “What is it?” He asked. “What did you see?”
“Antipater. I recognized his chair, being carried at the end of the street. Thank God, he did not see me.”
“But…why should such an important man even notice you?” asked Hillel, for a moment doubting his friend’s sanity. Antipater was a highly placed, extremely wealthy Idumean, and a close friend of Hyrcanus, the High Priest. Certainly not someone Hillel would imagine within the sphere visited by Menahem.
Menahem laughed, a little hysterically, visibly relaxing from his momentary terror. “No, don’t worry, I am not insane… usually I would not assume that important men would pay attention to me… but I once I met him in the street just as he was descending his chair to go to the baths. I looked at him and said something very stupid.”
“You talked to Antipater? Why didn’t you just step backwards, respectfully, and let him pass?” asked Hillel, bewildered by his friend’s behavior.
“It happened some years ago… I was younger, and I had the gift of prophecy,” said Menahem, "or if you prefer, the curse of prophesy. At that unhappy moment, Antipater had his young son with him. My eyes fell on the child. He was extraordinarily handsome, and there was something about him that triggered the prophetic voice; I could not control it. So I blurted it out – saying that the child would become a ruler among men. The child laughed happily, but his father took it seriously. You know the Idumeans are superstitious to the core, despite the fact that they have been converted to Judaism, if you accept enforced conversion as real, which most of the Pharisees do not...”
“I should think it would depend on the convert,” said Hillel. “If he wanted to convert, it could be quite all right.”