Tonight, I would like to return to the primary sources that back up the previous segment, which included the struggle Hillel experiences regarding accepting help from his brother. The story about Shebna and Hillel and their sharing of wealth and learning is surrounded by many legends and there are numerous interpretations of the meaning of the behavior of the two brothers. However, in the Talmud itself it is mentioned only in passing, at the last paragraph of Folio 21a, Tractate Sotah. To me it seems that it is not pretending to be historically accurate, but that rather it is meant to show that the merit of learning cannot be bought.
Tractate Sotah, Folio 21a
if there may be a lengthening of thy tranquility,1 and it is written: All this came upon king Nebuchadnezzar,2 and it is written: At the end of twelve months!'3 — [The teaching is] certainly R. Ishmael's and he found a verse which mentions [the period] and repeats it; for it is written: Thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions of Edom.4 But why [was it said] that although there is no proof of this, yet there is some indication?5 — It may be different with heathens upon whom [God] does not execute judgment immediately.
AND ANOTHER FOR THREE YEARS etc. What sort of merit? If I answer merit of [studying] Torah, she is [in the category] of one who is not commanded and fulfils!6 — Rather must it be merit of [performing] a commandment. But does the merit of performing a commandment protect as much as that? — Surely it has been taught: The following did R. Menahem son of R. Jose expound: For the commandment is a lamp and Torah is light7 — the verse identifies the commandment with a lamp and Torah with light; the commandment with a lamp to tell thee that as a lamp only protects temporarily, so [the fulfilment of] a commandment only protects temporarily; and Torah with light to tell thee that as light protects permanently, so Torah protects permanently; and it states: When thou walkest it shall lead thee etc.8 — 'when thou walkest it shall lead thee', viz., In this world; 'when, thou sleepest it shall watch over' thee, viz., in death; and when, thou awakest it shall talk with thee, viz., in the Hereafter. Parable of a man who is walking in the middle of the night and darkness, and is afraid of thorns, pits, thistles, wild beasts and robbers, and also does not know the road in which he is going. If a lighted torch is prepared for him, he is saved from thorns, pits and thistles; but he is still afraid of wild beasts and robbers, and does not know the road in which he is going. When, however, dawn breaks, he is saved from wild beasts and robbers, but still does not know the road in which he is going. When, however, he reaches the cross-roads, he is saved from everything.9 Another explanation is: A transgression nullifies10 [the merit of] a commandment but not of [study of] Torah; as it is said: Many waters cannot quench love!11 — Said R. Joseph: A commandment protects and rescues12 while one is engaged upon it; but when one is no longer engaged upon it, it protects13 but does not rescue. As for [study of] Torah, whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects and rescues. Raba demurred to this: According to this reasoning, did not Doeg and Ahitophel engage upon [study of] Torah; so Why did it not protect them?14 — But, said Raba, while one is engaged upon [study of] Torah, it protects and rescues, and while one is not engaged upon it, it protects but does not rescue. As for a commandment whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects but does not rescue.
Rabina said: It is certainly merit of [the study of] Torah [which causes the water to suspend its effect]; and when you argue that she is in the category of one who is not commanded and fulfils, [it can be answered] granted that women are not so commanded, still when they have their sons taught Scripture and Mishnah and wait for their husbands until they return from the Schools,15 should they not share [the merit] with them?
What means 'the cross-roads' [in the parable related above]? — R. Hisda said: It alludes to a disciple of the Sages and the day of his death. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: It alludes to a disciple of the Sages and his fear of sin.16 Mar Zutra said: It alludes to a disciple of the Sages when the tradition cited by him is in accord with the halachah.17 Another explanation is: A transgression nullifies [the merit of] a commandment but not of [study of] Torah. R. Joseph said: R. Menahem son of R. Jose expounded that verse18 as though [it were Interpreted] from Sinai, and had Doeg and Ahitophel expounded it [similarly], they would not have pursued David, as it is written, saying: God hath forsaken him, etc.19 What verse did they expound?20 — That he see no unclean thing in thee etc.21 They did not know, however, that a transgression nullifies [the merit of] a commandment but not of [study of] Torah.22
What means He would utterly be contemned?23 — 'Ulla said: Not like Simeon the brother of Azariah nor like R. Johanan of the Prince's house24 but like Hillel25 and Shebna. When R. Dimi came26 he related that Hillel and Shebna were brothers; Hillel engaged in [study of] Torah and Shebna was occupied in business. Eventually [Shebna] said to him, 'Come, let us become partners and divide [the profits]'. A Bath Kol27 issued forth and proclaimed. If a man would give all the substance of his house etc.28
Original footnotes renumbered.