Chapter One: Between Two Worlds
“To the place that my heart loves, there do my feet lead me.”(Tosefta Sukka 4:3)
The dusty road stretched into the distance in both directions. The solitary young man trudged on, leaning on his sturdy cane. A few acacia trees, some shrubs, rocks and dry soil stood in sharp contrast under the deep blue sky and bright sun, but the monotony of the scene did not bother him. After being robbed by a gang of thieves who took everything he owned, Hillel ben Gamaliel did not desire human company.[ii]
He did miss his hired donkey, which the robbers took away. Walking all the way from Babylonia to Judea was no laughing matter. But the thieves spared his life, and even let him keep the water and food he could carry on his body, and for that he felt grateful. One must not dwell on what happened yesterday, he firmly reminded himself. When his wife and child join him in Jerusalem, as soon as he is settled, he would tell the story of the robbery to little Simeon, and turn it into an exciting tale, with a simple moral teaching point that would be easy for the child to understand. He smiled when he thought of Simeon’s big brown eyes growing larger with the suspense of the story. The edge of his own anger and helplessness will thus be taken away, evaporating under the child’s sense of wonder and adventure. The image of his wife came before his inner eye and he pushed it away resolutely. He could not allow himself to dwell on how much he missed her, since being away from her felt like an open wound he could not bear to touch; it was the first time they were parted since their wedding day, and even before that, they were childhood friends. Life without Penina[iii] did not seem entirely real. He could not shake her face away, the brown eyes, so much like their son’s, the soft, long black hair neatly tied up in a knot under her silk scarf, the pearls she always wore since they were her namesake, luminous and softly white like her skin… Enough! Almost brutally, he chased the beloved image away.
The trip started well, as Hillel joined a caravan that would lead him from Babylonia to Jerusalem. The roads were well kept, and when near settlements and towns they were often full of traffic. People rode donkeys, camels, mules, and occasionally horses. Wheeled vehicles, mostly wagons and carts, were quite common, and every so often a luxurious harmamaxa[iv] would leisurely go by, the pampered occupants hidden from curious eyes. The poor simply walked. Inns lined the major roads, offering a choice of accommodations suitable for every purse, and when the travelers stopped in towns along the way, many taverns and restaurants welcomed them, offering food, wine, and female companionship for those who were willing to pay for it. Travel for both business and personal reasons thrived, and the throng swelled with the addition of mail couriers, soldiers, and other officials engaged in various services and errands for their rulers. Even leisurely travel for sightseeing existed, the tourists visiting monuments, museums and art exhibitions; many travelers brought sketch books to draw pictures of interesting scenes. Others carried written information to educate themselves as they viewed historic sites or beautiful art. Pilgrimage to holy places was available since religion became part of human lives. The roads presented a cheerful sight, but since robbers lurked in rural locations, caravans always employed armed guards. Since their caravan was large and well protected, Hillel and his travel mates did not expect trouble along the way. They were mistaken.
The bandits swept over them like locusts. Before Hillel could even grasp the situation, men were dead or wounded, property was seized, and a huge bandit riding a horse swept him off his donkey with one blow of a spear. Hillel did not resist. He sat on the ground and waited for whatever God prepared for him, his thoughts lingering lovingly on his family back in Babylonia. His shoulder hurt and he saw some blood seeping through his sleeve, but for the moment, there was nothing to be done, and the wound seemed superficial. As quickly as they came, the robbers vanished, taking all property except for the food and water that they left with the surviving members of the caravan, and the clothes on their backs. This was, surprisingly, a common practice.
Jewish robbers in Mesopotamia had their own ethics, which may seem unusual to the modern reader. The historian Josephus[v] writes about a pair of brothers, Anileus and Asineus, who functioned as joint chiefs of a notorious gang of robbers. These fierce, indomitable brigands refused to fight on Saturday, their Sabbath and day of rest. Josephus tells of an anomaly that occurred under great duress. A strong enemy who knew the brothers’ habits decided to ambush them on the holy day. The brothers, forced to defend themselves, nevertheless had grave doubts whether this was the right thing to do and considered hiding instead! These “ethical” robbers preferred to leave their victims with enough supplies so they could reach safety; that is to say, those victims that they had not murdered… This complicated, bizarre behavior was accepted as normal and even appreciated by many. For example, the king of Parthia was so impressed by Anileus’ and Asineus’ exhibition of bravery and strong faith, that he offered them amnesty and employment in his service, and the brothers rose to great distinction, at least for a while.
When the robbers disappeared from site, Hillel’s caravan’s survivors helped each other dress their wounds. They buried the dead by the side of the road and prayed over them. Then, they sadly turned back to the nearest town, where they could rest and decide on their next step. Hillel did not go with them. He quietly shouldered his package of food, picked a cane that was left on the ground, and walked on. If he possessed nothing of value, if he went alone and by foot, the next gang of robbers would pay little attention to him. He would come to Judea a pauper, but what did it matter?
He was proven right. The rest of the journey was indeed long and arduous, but he walked safely from town to town, working as a day laborer whenever his food ran out, and earning enough to buy more for the next stretch of the road. And finally he was much nearer his destination.
Hillel sighed and sat under a tree by the side of the road; experience taught him that one must not walk during the hottest time of day. He drank some water and examined his worn out sandals, doubting that they would last the trip. No matter. One must not dwell on the future any more than on the past. Tomorrow will take care of itself; developing a total trust that God would provide was an important virtue, particularly when one was put to the test.
Many would have been discouraged in his situation. Hillel, the son of a wealthy and distinguished family, did not experience physical hardship before setting on this journey…
[i]. See Appendix 1: Time Line. (To come later)
[ii]. Discovering or even speculating on Hillel’s mother’s name is not possible. Women’s names were never recorded, not because they were of no importance, but on the contrary, they were given the right of privacy as a sign of respect; it was considered very bad taste to discuss them or their names in public. This habit lasted well into the late middle ages.
Hillel’s father’s name can be deduced. Males’ names ran in families with regularity and consistency. A boy would be named after a relative that has passed away, not a living one. This may cause some misconceptions. For example, Hillel is often mentioned as “Hillel the Elder,” but this is not because he was the father of “Hillel the Younger,” but because it was his title as a member of the Sanhedrin (The Great Council). The following list, consisting of Hillel’s descendants, begins with Hillel’s son: Simeon, Gamaliel, Simeon, Gamaliel, Simeon, Judah, Gamaliel, Judah, Gamaliel, Judah, Hillel, Gamaliel, Gamaliel. There are only four names here; Hillel, Simeon, Gamaliel, and Judah. Since Hillel’s father’s name could not be Hillel, then his name was Simeon, Gamaliel, or Judah.
Simeon, Hillel’s eldest son, was probably born when Hillel was very young, as was the custom. It is generally assumed that the father died later, when Hillel’s brother, Shebna, offered to support his brother financially and share the blessings of Hillel’s Torah study. Therefore, the father’s name would not be Simeon, as Hillel would not call his son after a living relative. Simeon must have been Hillel’s grandfather’s name, as he would be the nearest paternal relative. So we can eliminate the name Simeon as Hillel’s father. That leaves Judah and Gamaliel. In the list, the name Judah appears for the first time much later, seven generations after Hillel; this shows that this name was added either after a maternal relative or a secondary paternal one. When Simeon had a son, he did not call him Hillel, because Hillel the Elder lived a very long life and had to be alive when Simeon’s first son was born. From the list, we see that Simeon called his son Gamaliel. He must have called his son after Hillel’s father, who would be the closest deceased relative. Hillel’s father’s name, therefore, must have been Gamaliel.
[iii] In Hebrew: Pearl.
[iv]. A four-wheeled closed carriage, with a roof, and with sides that could be enclosed by curtains. It afforded privacy and was much favored for the transfer of harems.
[v].Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 9