“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.”
“Of course it would. Shemaya and Avtalion are the descendents of converts, but their ancestors converted willingly. The Idumeans were forced to do so by our king, when he conquered them, and they never had the call, or the desire, to convert. Antipater sees himself as a Jew, but half the Jews do not agree, and indeed, he does not think like one nor does he have the Torah education…”
“Yes, I see,” said Hillel. “Indeed, the whole value of conversion depends on the will to do so… but I am sure some Idumeans are now Jews in their heart and soul.”
“That may very well be, but not Antipater,” said Menahem. “He is using it to his advantage and his gain. Anyway, at the time, he told me that if my prophecy would come true, and his son would be a ruler, he would reward me most generously. But if it fails, he would kill me.”
“Talking to him was a very bad idea…” Hillel said gently. “We should not bother with divinations and predictions. The prophets of old could do it, but not these days. It smacks of magic and sorcery, which I had to study a little but I abhor.”
“I know it now… the Essenes taught me ways to stop the habit, to ignore the voice when it comes. I try, but it never died away entirely. Ever since I met you, for example, I have a strong feeling about you… don’t be angry, I know it means nothing. But may I tell you? Maybe it will just leave me alone if I do.”
“Of course you may tell me, I will never hold it against you, or even take it seriously,” said Hillel. “By all means, relieve your mind of it.”
“Thank you, Hillel. I had a vision that you will become an extremely important man,” said Menahem, and sighed. “Despite your hatred of public life, you will lead our people.”
Hillel laughed. “That alone must prove to you that the voice lies,” he said. “What do I have to offer as a leader? I am young, poor, and a Babylonian… no one will ever take me seriously enough to even suggest such a thing, least of all myself. I am no leader.”
“I don’t know,” said Menahem. “I hope I am wrong, for your sake. I realize you wish to continue to be a scholar and to live quietly with your family. But when you told me that you studied the secular Laws of Babylon as well as the Torah, I was struck by the vision and it was very strong.”
“Well, we shall not worry about it,” said Hillel, as they started back on their way to the Academy. “And why be concerned about Antipater? Since he is so important, his son will be too, I am sure. What is the child’s name?”
“His name is Herod,” said Menahem. “He is grown up now, and yes, I believe he will be most successful and he is already going in his father’s footsteps, but I don’t want Antipater to remember me, just in case. Herod might be killed in battle, and then what?”
“Yes, I see no need to attract his attention… or the attention of any of those who hold worldly power,” said Hillel. “We serve other purposes, I hope. I would rather avoid anyone who holds authority over men.”
“And that is what I say to all my students,” said a gentle voice behind them. They both turned. “Avoid all authorities, as much as you can!”
“Rabbi!” said Menahem, embarrassed, and stood in awkward silence. Hillel saw a tall, thin old man, wearing a simple robe and sandals, and bowed respectfully to the distinguished stranger.
“Menahem, you might wish to introduce your friend,” said the old man.
“Rabbi Shemaya, this is your new student I told you and Rabbi Avtalion about,” said Menahem, recovering and regaining his good manners. “His name is Hillel ben Gamaliel.” Hillel bowed again, and smiled.
“I am happy to greet you, Hillel,” said Shemaya. “Do I detect a very mild Babylonian accept to your Aramaic?”
“Yes, Rabbi,” said Hillel. “I have come from Babylon to study with you.”
“I hope you will enjoy your studies, and welcome. Will you come every day, or are you in need of working?”
“I am grateful to Menahem for finding me work as a wood chopper,” said Hillel. “I believe I would be able to manage two or three days at the Academy each week.”
“Work is good for all of us,” said Shemaya. “I advise everyone to engage in some work even if they have no financial need for it; laziness is one of the worst sins, since it hurts the one who commits it as well as others. And coming two or three days to the Academy will be quite enough for you. After so many years of teaching and meeting new students, I can tell as soon as I meet someone if he is going to be a worthy student, and you will be. Come, let us go in.”
At the entrance stood an extremely tall, strong man. He stood aside to let Shemaya in, and then held out his hand. Menahem and Hillel each put the daily fee in his hand, and the giant stood aside again to let them enter. Hillel shook his head with sorrow. He simply could not understand how great men like Shemaya and Avtalion could break tradition and charge for teaching. Shemaya, who was just a few steps ahead of them, talking to another student, noticed Hillel’s discomfort, and smiled to himself. “My friend,” he said to Hillel, “I know what you are thinking. But believe me, there is a good reason for this custom.” Hillel nodded. “I do not doubt you, Rabbi. I just don’t understand…”
“You will understand eventually, be assured of that,” said Shemaya. “You may not agree even then, but you will understand. Well, it is time to start the day.”
In the large but simple, almost empty room, about forty students stood talking quietly to each other. Another old man, who looked so remarkably like Shemaya he could easily have been his brother, came in from a back room, carrying a few scrolls. The teachers sat on benches that stood at opposite sides
of the room, and the students divided themselves into two groups, and sat on the floor at the feet of the rabbis. Hillel sat next to Menahem near Rabbi Shemaya. The rabbi unrolled a scroll, smiled at his students, and said, “In honor of our new student, who had just come from Babylonia to study with us, today we will read and analyze the chapter about Jacob’s journey.” Hillel thought, sadly, that Jacob would meet Rachel, his beloved wife to be, in that particular story. Not like himself, who had to leave his wife behind… Penina’s face, always at the back of his mind even when he was engaged in other thoughts, rose before his inner eye. He sighed, missing her as strongly as ever, but he shook his head resolutely and concentrated on listening to Shemaya. The beautiful, familiar words, spoken in the pure Hebrew of the Torah, began to register in his mind. Slowly, softly, the world swirled, evaporated and vanished into a glowing golden light infused with sheer joy and intense pleasure that nothing else on earth could ever match. Even Penina’s face drifted back into the back of his mind, his inner eye seeing only the strong, square letters of the written language he knew so well. He sighed with supreme contentment, knowing that he was in the only place he needed to be, studying Torah with the masters. Nothing else mattered.