Jerusalem, 55 B.C.E.
As he emerged from the dark, almost cold shade of the massive gate in the northern wall, Hillel’s eyes were hit by the bright light; at noontime in summer, the light in Judea could be blinding under the cloudless blue sky. He did not notice how the custom officer ignored him, seeing that Hillel was a very poor young man with nothing to interest the authorities. Slightly dazed by the noise and chaotic activity in the market that stood right next to the gate, he looked at the massive structures, walls, towers, and houses made of the beautiful pink stone of the region. Babylon was much bigger and had an extremely impressive architectural style, but lacking stone, everything was built with bricks made of clay that were baked in the sun and later covered with stucco. Jerusalem was made entirely of stone.
Both living and commerce areas were clearly divided to accommodate the level of the wealth of the population. The valley of Tyropoeon, a ravine in the middle of the city, with the temple mount and the City of David on one side, the lower, very poor city in the valley itself, and the residential area of the upper city high up on the western side. The area around the marketplace was comprised of the residences of middle and upper class merchants, shopkeepers, and landowners, but they shared the place with the shops, restaurants, and workshops. The place was packed with people going about their business, but also with many pilgrims visiting the holy city. Hillel was unpleasantly aware that the throng also included Roman soldiers that were placed there by Pompey and helped Antipater keep the nervous and always fragile state of peace. He disliked looking at displays of military power.
Hillel wandered around the city. He reached the ancient City of David, the oldest part of Jerusalem. It was completely walled, and inside lived wealthy and important individuals, occupying highly luxurious palaces and mansions. Hillel had no intention of trying to go in, and would have been stopped by guards had he tried. On the western side was another wealthy area, the upper city. The Romans who had recently started to move into Jerusalem liked to live there, along with some well-to-do Jews. It was a quiet and comfortable location, with relatively wide boulevards.
He moved on to the lower area were the poor people lived, down in the Tyropoeon Valley. It was congested, dirty, and an aura of squalor hovered over it. Containing many small houses on narrow streets and alleyways, full of tiny shops and workshops, it extended to the Pool of Siloam in the south of the Jerusalem. This was the right place to look for lodgings, since he had very little money left from his last job on the road. It was not difficult because the poverty of the people made them rent out a bed for a few nights quite willingly, and for cheap prices. Finding work would be a little more complicated, but day laborers were probably needed since construction was always in progress ever since the Romans started moving in. He would do that tomorrow, though; at that moment he longed to see the Academy. His new landlord directed him back to the market place, not far from the Northern Gate.
It was a modest building, so it did not surprise Hillel that he did not notice it before, but for him it was the
heart of the city, the place for which he sacrificed so much and probably would do so even more in the future. It had a few windows, a single door, and a rickety ladder leaned on the side of the house, leading to the flat roof. It had no garden and no trees to give it shade; how different from the cheerful schools in Babylon where the students could sit under a tree to study. He approached the door, intending to go in and arrange for his studies, then stopped in shock, staring at the sign hanging on the door. With a neat, orderly handwriting, the price for each day, each week, or each months was clearly stated. Shemaya and Avtalion charged for teaching the Torah!
How could that be? You did not charge for teaching the holy writ. It was a privilege, an honor to teach it. And Shemaya and Avtalion were the greatest living teachers of the Torah, famous all over the Jewish world, the fourth of the five pairs of sages, where one would be the president of the Sanhedrin, called the Nasi, and the other the head of the Law Court, and titled Av Bet Din. They were unusual in many ways, but most of all because they were the descendants of one of the fiercest historical enemies of the Jews, the Assyrian king Sennacherib. As sons of converts, they had much to overcome to become the greatest Jewish leaders of their time, proving to the whole world that if you truly wanted to achieve something, you could. Hillel admired them from afar, dreamed of studying with them, and here he found this note – he had to pay? How would he be able to keep body and soul together, do hard labor that paid so little, and yet manage to go to the Academy? Were all the other students rich men?
For the first time since leaving Babylon, Hillel felt a sense of despair envelope his entire being. He had no idea what to do, so he leaned against the wall of the Academy, and waited. He was not sure what he was waiting for, but something in his mind told him to stay there. He closed his eyes and rested, thinking of nothing at all, experiencing deep sadness. An hour passed, the sun was lower in the sky, when suddenly the door opened and a group of students left the Academy. Hillel opened his eyes and looked at them. They did not all look like wealthy men, and some wore clothes as poor as his. No one noticed him. A second group came out, again not seeing him. Then a third group, seemingly the last ones to leave the room, came out, and one of them looked at Hillel and approached him.
“Are you a stranger?” said the man, whose eyes were kindly and his clothes poor.
“Yes, I come from Babylon,” said Hillel. “I wanted to study at the Academy…”
“It is excellent teaching. Welcome to Jerusalem.”
“But I do not have money to pay for it,” said Hillel plainly, too tired to think of good manners.
“In Babylon you do not pay for your schooling?” ask the man.
“Not for Torah studies,” said Hillel. “For some secular studies, yes, but the Torah is taught for free. I had
money in Babylon, anyway, but I am very poor here. I was robbed on my way to Judea.”
“You will need work, then,” said the man calmly.
“I am looking for work,” said Hillel. “But would any work that I can do pay the half tropaik a day they request, and still allow me to survive?”
“They pay me a full tropaik a day where I work,” said the man, “and I pay half of it here. I work many days in the month, and the other days, I come to the Academy.”
“What do you do?”
“I am a wood cutter, and there is a need for more at the place I work at. Why not come with me tomorrow? Then once you are assured of some pay, you can come and talk to the Teachers. They
are used to students coming when they can. ”
Hillel smiled at the man. “My friend, you have already given me my first lesson,” he said. “There is always a way. I should not have forgotten it.”