To fully appreciate Hillel’s personal heritage, one must remember that the Jewish aristocracy carefully preserved their family trees. Even today, many families can trace their lineage extremely far back. While much Jewish history was lost in Eastern and Central Europe during the Holocaust, some Jews still maintain family trees that go back hundreds of years. This knowledge was based on various factors, including, for instance, how family names represented professions or ranks. For example, anyone named Levi, Levine, Levin and other such names is descended from the tribe of Levi through the male line. Long before Exodus, when God was still referred to by His proper name, they were employed as His servants. Later they served in the Temple. Anyone named Cohen or Katz[i] is a descendant of the Cohanim, which is the title of the Temple priests. These two lines go back thousands of years.
Tradition claims that Hillel was a descendant of King David. One of Hillel’s descendants, Rabbi Judah the Nasi[ii] in the 2nd Century C.E., confirmed the lineage. To the modern reader it may sound like a charming myth, but there is really little reason to doubt it. King David was the founder of an extremely large family, had many descendants, and as one of the most important and most beloved figures in Judaism, had his line well documented for centuries. There are still people today who claim to be his descendants, as can be seen in genealogical charts maintained in private homes, libraries, and even on the Internet, though of course many cannot be trusted. About three hundred years after Hillel’s death, a short time by historical standards, a certain Rabbi Levi claimed that he received a genealogical scroll, which was found in Jerusalem, and in it was written “Hillel was descended from King David.” The scroll is no longer in existence, which is not surprising after 1700 years. Of course, it is difficult to determine if the story is correct without the evidence, but there is little reason to suspect Rabbi Levi in formulating a deliberate fraud, which would have not benefited him in any way. Genealogical scrolls were common, and any person descended from King David’s family would be proud of it and make sure that the knowledge would pass on to his sons. Oral tradition is often surprisingly accurate. Interestingly, the tradition adds Hillel was descended from David on his mother’sside. This may be the truth, but it can also be pure rabbinical caution. If Hillel were descended from King David on his father’s side, he could have been accused of having pretensions to the throne of Israel as the legitimate heir. Hillel, who did not love politics and avoided notoriety, never challenged the Hasmonean dynasty or even Herod. He would not have liked being accused of such intentions.
Hillel’s early years in Babylonia passed in ease and comfort. His father, a merchant, could afford supporting Hillel as a full-time scholar. Hillel’s brother, Shebna, worked in the father’s business. They also had a sister, but as was customary with women, we know little about her, and only meet her through her son, who later became a famous scholar and lived in Judea. The son’s name was Abba Hilkiah.[iii]
We are accustomed to think that the Babylonian exile was a vale of tears for all Jews involved. This assumption, based on beautiful poetry and sad songs, is not the whole truth. When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judea after a bloody revolt and siege, he decided to exile part of the population to prevent addition uprisings. The group consisted of the aristocracy, and included people related or attached to the royal house, the priests, the Levites, the physicians, the skilled artisans, the teachers, and the scholars. He left only the peasants in Judea. Nebuchadnezzar treated the king and his family with incredible cruelty, characteristic of the age; he considered the horrors he inflicted on them a just punishment for their betrayal of the pact they had made with him, and which he felt he had fully honored. However, he had no quarrel with the mobilized population, and intended to treat them well. The citizens of Babylon, which was a true melting pot, saw the removal of an entire population from a conquered country as a commonplace event after a major war, and accepted the newcomers easily.
Nebuchadnezzar was a practical king who knew how to make use of good resources, and he considered the displaced Jews a very good resource indeed. They were intelligent, skilled people, whose intellect was a commodity that could help Babylon. Therefore, they received good houses, land, opportunities for trade, and free run of the city. No one pushed them into any form of restricted residence, no one treated them as inferiors.
Of course the blow of the loss and exile saddened them. Naturally they missed their country and the old lifestyle. But Jews had always been the quintessential survivors. Here they were, in a country that was known to them from their own journeys and from reputation. Their old ancestor Abraham came from this area, so it was not entirely alien to their souls. They relieved their feelings by mourning for a while and by writing those plaintive songs and nostalgic poetry. Then they shook themselves and put their sharp minds to the practical matters of survival. They had a lot of work to do.
Once adjusted, they slowly found themselves enchanted with the city’s sophistication, the great libraries that offered them their favorite pursuit – study – and enjoyed the luxuries only a large and cosmopolitan city could offer. Babylon was an international, magnificent city, the center from which kings ruled the entire known world for centuries, the place where Hammurabi wrote his Laws, so similar to the later Mosaic Laws. It was elegantly designed, too. Wide streets, beautifully tiled and painted palaces and houses, awe inspiring sculptures everywhere; the gardens alone, lush and planted with many exotic plants, were so lovely that they became legendary.
The Jews adapted very quickly to the splendor and made it their own. They learned mathematics and astronomy, and used the new knowledge to develop excellent systems of financial credit that allowed them connections in many countries. They moved away from agriculture as their main source of income and engaged in extensive, high level trade. They tested new routes by land and sea, and traveled all over the known world as merchants of spices, perfumes, gems, pearls and silk. Some remained in the foreign lands, settled down and created new Jewish centers that kept in touch with the Babylonian Jews and enriched their culture. It was in Babylon that the Jew had become a true citizen of the world.
It is an amusing historical fact that when Cyrus (II) the Great allowed the Jews to return to Judea in 538 B.C.E., only a small portion returned. The rest elected to remain in Babylonia. Naturally, they maintained an excellent relationship with the Judean community. Certainly, they kept a constant exchange of teachers, scholars, and doctors, who went back and forth at their convenience. They even sent extensive, regular financial aid to the struggling state. They always mentioned Judea, and their desire to be there again, in their prayers. But besides a small trickling of people wishing to move to Judea for mostly religious reasons, the Jewish population of Babylon stayed put, enjoying their comfortable, cosmopolitan life. The situation was curiously reminiscent of the relationship between American Jewry and modern Israel.
The magnificent Babylonian libraries, and the pagan scholars the Jews associated with, taught them intriguing natural sciences, and they developed new and efficient herbal medicines. Their skills as doctors increased and they were in great demand in that profession. The new medicine also helped them live longer and healthier lives. They had more time and leisure, and they could use them to record their newly found knowledge and write it down. All secular learning flourished.
But religion mattered too, particularly since the Jews were confused by leaving the abode of God and moving away from what they thought of as His area of influence, while at the same time unable, emotionally, to give Him up. They expanded and developed their religion to such an extent that many scholars see the results as a true religious revolution. This revolution, with the shift from local to universal God, will be treated in detail in a later chapter, since Hillel’s philosophy and character were greatly influenced by it. For the moment, suffice to say that it has been determined by scholars that the Babylonian Diaspora gave the impetus and helped the Jews to change the face of God from a fierce desert entity into the merciful and omnipresent deity worshiped by today’s Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
[i] An acronym for the words Cohen Tzedek (righteous priest in Hebrew).
[ii] Nasi means Prince in Hebrew. It was the title of the Patriarch during Roman rule in Judea. All the Jewish Nesiim (plural for Nasi) claimed descent from Hillel, and since they accepted Hillel as a descendant of King David, the fact made them into legitimate princes.
[iii] Information about Rabbi Abba Hilkia came from a single source, a 14th Century book called Menorat ha-Maor (The Lighted Lamp). Some scholars claim Rabbi Hilkia was not connected to Hillel, but was the grandson of the famous miracle making rabbi, Honi the Circle Maker.