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.