For a change of pace, I thought I should bring out a bit of the original source material. As I have mentioned before, Hillel’s legends and sayings are not concentrated in one source, but are spread over the huge Talmudic literature. Some are his sayings, some are his rules and laws, and some are legends about him. Previous books about Hillel dealt with the story from the religious, not historic angle. I am doing the exact opposite – I am attempting to string the scattered literature on a thread of accurate history – so it is hard to decide how to present the three parts of the book as I am developing it. It may change as I go along, but for the moment, I see the parts done in this manner:
1. The historical material about the time of Second Temple I am getting from Josephus, other primary sources, and secondary historical works, some available to anyone interested, some rather obscure.
2. The legends/sayings/laws from the Talmudic literature. Many exist in the wonderful Pirke Avot, some have been collected by amazing scholars such as Nahum N. Glatzer, Yitzhk Buxbaum, and some fascinating articles by Judah Goldin in the Chicago Journals. I promise to have every single bit listed in the bibliography, even if it exists only in Hebrew.
3. The story line that I am developing as a “speculative” biography where I connect the dots and try to understand how a magnificent human being such as Hillel would react to his challenging time and place.
So here is a little Talmudic literature that is related to the narrative I have put up on the book-in-progress, up to this point.
The first saying is for the segment about the public baths. Hillel often said his body was a temple, housing his soul, and always made it clear that he felt strongly about cleanliness and health.
Once when Hillel concluded his studies with his students, he walked along with them. His disciples asked him: "Master, where are you going?" He answered: "To perform a holy duty.” "What is this religious duty, Master?" they asked. "I am going to the bath house, to wash myself," he replied. "Is that a religious duty?" they asked. "Yes," he replied, "if the statues of kings, which are erected in theatres and circuses, are scrubbed and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, how much more so it is my duty to care for the body that was created in the Divine image?”
The next saying is for the segment that told how Hillel was robbed on his way to Judea. Despite being left with absolutely nothing, he refused to worry about the future. This story is complicated, since the writers used the metaphor of the Sabbath as the key to Hillel’s views. They compared his views to those of Shammai (who was later to become Hillel’s partner in teaching and leadership). They tried to show that Shammai felt that one must prepare for all eventualities, but Hillel, on the other hand, believed that one must live one day at a time; the Lord would take care of the future.
It was told about Shammai the Elder: Whenever he found a good portion to eat, he said,“This will be for the Sabbath.” If later he found a better one, he put that one aside for the Sabbath and ate the first. In this way, whatever he ate was meant to honor the upcoming Sabbath. Hillel the Elder had a different view. All his work, at all times, was for the sake of Heaven. He used to say, “Blessed be the Lord, day by day He bears our burden.”
The third saying is for the part where Shemaya meets Hillel and Menahem on their way to the academy, and agrees with Hillel that it is best to avoid those who are in authorities. The segment was based on one of the most famous sayings attributed to Shemaya.
“Shemaya said: “Don’t try to become the familiar friend of government.” Wherever Jews lived, they saw themselves as a separate entity, and feared the authorities, which often persecuted them to at least some degree. Many sages, including Rashi, the great commentator, and even Maimonides, who had to spend much of his life dealing with governments on behalf of his people, fully agreed that it was best to associate with them as little as possible. They strongly felt that the authorities never had the benefit of the Jews at heart, only their own aggrandizement.
The last saying is again about Shemaya, who tells Hillel that he would do well to work while he studies. That was a rule that was held even by famous scholars, who refused to take money for teaching the Torah, but instead supported themselves doing other work.
Shemaya said: “Love labor.” Many sages believe that even the most menial work (they have used the awful imagery, “It is better to flay carcasses in the market-place than to claim that even such labor is beneath one’s dignity.” They felt that idleness led to stupidity. Some argued that even if the person was wealthy, he should work, for the benefits that work bestows on the worker.
Stay tuned, I’ll be inserting these sayings and legends every so often as the book develops.