Before we join Hillel at the academy, a little about Shemaya and Avtalion
As mentioned in a previous segment, Hillel left a loving family, a comfortable life, and the glorious options for secular scholarship in Babylonia. He headed for the unknown – possibly a life of poverty and deprivation in distant Judea – and risked a highly dangerous journey where robberies and murders were common. In addition, he had decided not to accept his brother’s Shebna offer to support him for life, as a scholar and a partner. This lifestyle, where two brothers made a pact of sharing the wealth of one and the scholarship of the other (by their belief system, honorable for both parties in this world and the world to come) was a common practice in those days when family ties were close and brothers often faced life together. He did all that so he could complete his Torah studies to his satisfaction, since he knew he had learned all he could in Babylonia. At the time, Torah study in Babylonia did not reach the lofty heights it acquired later, when the famous academies were opened in the cities of Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea. One must remember that the Talmud, that great repository of the Oral Law was not yet written. Once it came into being, a Jew could be just as learned in a small town in Galicia or Morroco, as the one who lived in the learning centers of Jerusalem or Yavne. In a strange way, the Talmud supplied a similar situation to Distance Learning on the Internet – you could be a scholar wherever you are. But at Hillel’s time, the Oral Law was not written down, and if one had to settle a scholarly question, one had to hear it from the Teachers. And Hillel’s teachers were not able to answer his questions anymore, he went far beyond them. So was it worthwhile to tear himself from all he loved, and to go to Judea?
In a word, the answer is a resounding YES. Hillel was obsessed with leaning, and trying to deny his obsession and couch it in religious terms, pretending he had done everything to please the veiled wishes of God, would be addressing his life as a hagiography. There are too many hagiographies about him out there now, and have been there for two thousand years, and I do not mean to write another one. Hillel was not only Hillel the Elder, a figure of legends. He was also a real human being – a much more complex being than what we have been accustomed to hear. He had to find the answers or his heart and soul would have shriveled. And in Judea, he was going to study with the masters of Jewish learning. He
could do no better – no one would argue about the worth of Shemaya and Avtalion.
Mostly we know about them from the ancient book, the Pirke Avot (in English, Wisdom of the Fathers). This is one of the sixty-three tractates found in the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the code of Jewish Law, complied in writing early in the third century C.E. by Yehudah ha-Nasi, but was developed for at least five hundred years before it. There may have been some attempts before to put it down in writing, but this became the official version and the previous ones vanished. Yehudah ha-Nasi organized the material into six Sedarim (orders) divided into sixty-three tractates, themselves divided into chapters and statements. Pirke Avot is attached to the forth order, called Nezikim. It is hardly obscure – actually in can be said it is the most approachable and fun part of the Mishnah since it does not deal with the Law, but with sayings and legends and opinions. It has been quite popular for two thousand years, and can be read online in many versions. It really is a lot of fun for anyone who enjoys history or early literature, and it even contains some humor.
Pirke Avot tells us very early how the Oral Law was transmitted over the centuries, a grand bridge leading from Moses to Judah ha-Nasi. This beautiful tradition claims that it was given to the Moses on Mount Sinai, together with the Written Law – The Torah itself. It makes it clear that the importance of the Oral Law, therefore, is equal to the Torah, since it has a divine origin, a point quite important to the early Jewish scholars.
The succession goes in this order:
Moses to Joshua
Joshua to the Elders
The Elders to the Prophets
The Prophets to the Great Assembly
The Great Assembly to Simon the Righteous (actually, he was the last of the Great Assembly)
Simon the Righteous to Antigonus of Socho
Antigonus of Socho to Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose by Yochnan of Jerusalem (at this moment, the tradition of the “Zugot” (pairs) started. Two scholars shared the responsibility. One was the president of the Sanhedrin, called the Nasi, and the other the head of the Law Court, and titled Av
Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose by Yochnan of Jerusalem to Joshua ben Prachyah and Nittai of Arbel
Joshua ben Prachyah and Nittai of Arbel to Judah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach (as mentioned in a previous segment, Shimon ben Shetach was the brother of Queen Salome Alexandra and an important Pharisee)
Judah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach o Shemaya and Avtalion.
So here we are, with the fourth Zug (pair). Shemaya was the Nasi, the president of the Sanhedrin, and Avtalion the Av Bet Din, head of the Law Court. They were in many ways more important to the Jews than even the High Priest. It has been recorded that when they would be at the same place with the high priest, the people would flock to them, ignoring the noble Sadducee priest, perhaps a Hasmonean, and figure of authority. And yet they came from a humble origin –the sons of converts. Not just any converts – they were the descendants of one of the most feared historical enemies of the Jews, the Assyrian king Sennacherib, making their situation extremely difficult. Were they brothers? It’s possible, but there is no proof. They were thought to be inseparable in life and in death, working together for decades, and when they passed away, both were buried in Jish, a small settlement in the Galilee in Israel. Their analysis and interpretation of the Torah and the Oral law were innovative and much admired, and their legal decisions were handed down the centuries. Their sayings were carefully preserved.
Almost nothing is known about Shemaya’s private life. He was a strong proponent of work, and despised laziness. To him, any hard labor was better than no work –and better than holding power as well. He advised everyone to keep away from those in political authority and devote their time to study instead.
A little more is known about the private life of Avtalion. It is thought that he had spent some time teaching in Alexandria, probably taking refuge from the fury of Alexander Janneus (see earlier segments). It was said that he was a strong protector of orphans, since his name, in Hebrew, means “Father of the young. (Av – father. Talya – a lamb, generally used as “young”). He felt strongly about teaching and warned teachers to be very careful in the words they used while teaching, so the young minds would not be corrupted by chance.
Both held learning for its own sake in high esteem and were eager to teach. So much so, that their habit of charging a small sum for teaching at their Academy was criticized. It is thought, however, that they simply had to do so to avoid a huge crowding in their academy. From a later story about Hillel it is clear that they made exceptions and some students were taught for free.