This segment is taken from Pirkei Avot, one of the most famous Jewish literary classics. The version I use is the translation of the Soncino Talmud, which is a specific edition. This is where the ethics of the elders (“avot” means “fathers” or “ancestors”) and their sayings are recorded. In a way, it’s how we should meet Hillel in person, since the first chapter of Pirkei Avot records the way the Oral Law was transmitted from the moment it was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, down the centuries. It also records a couple of Hillel's most famous sayings. It is not the first book of the Talmud – it is just one of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah – but the Talmud, it is said, has no beginning and no end. It’s a magical book – no matter where you open it for the first time you encounter it, it’s the beginning. Like the Internet, perhaps?
Moses received the Torah(1) at(2) Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua,(3) Joshua to the elders,(4) and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue.(5) The latter used to say three things: (6) be patient in the administration of justice, rear many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.(7)
(1) Scripture and its complementary Oral Instruction, with special reference to the latter.
(2) Lit., ‘from’.
(3) Ch. I, ‘Joshua received from Moses’. The transmission and reception were done orally. All evidence goes to show that there was a continuous succession of ‘schools’ headed by the elders, prophets and scribes of their respective generations, which maintained and developed the theoretical study and practical application of the Torah.
(4) The elders that outlived Joshua, Judges II, 7. ‘Elders’ in this Mishnah includes the Judges.
(5) Kenesseth Hagedolah: A body of 120 men founded by the leaders of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian captivity.
(6) Whereby reverence for, the knowledge of, and the inviolability of the Torah might be secured
(7) The Torah is conceived as a garden and its precepts as precious plants. Such a garden is fenced around for the purpose of obviating willful or even unintended damage. Likewise, the precepts of the Torah were to be ‘fenced’round with additional inhibitions that should have the effect of preserving the original commandments from trespass.
From here the Law was passed on to:
Simeon the Righteous and Antigonus of Socho
Jose ben. Jo'ezer of Zeredah and Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem
Joshua ben Perahiah and Nittai the Arbelite
Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetah
Shemaiah and Abtalion
Hillel and Shammai received the oral tradition from them [i.e. the foregoing]. Hillel used to say: be thou of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace,(46) [be thou(47) ] one who loveth one's fellow creatures and bringeth them nigh to the torah.
(46) For the qualities of the ideal priest
(47) This is not a continuation of the description of Aaron, or of Aaron's disciples, but a further admonition by Hillel.
He [also] used to say: a name that is widespread loses its fame; one who does not add [to his knowledge] causes [it] to cease;(48) whoever does not study(49) the torah deserves death; whoever makes unworthy use of the crown(50) of learning passeth away.
(48) Or, himself ceases to be.
(49) Another reading ‘teach’, i.e., one who refuses to impart the knowledge he has.
(50) 1. The Shem Ha-meforash, the Name of God in
its full form 2. ‘The Crown of God’, i.e., a man who claims divine honors and
He [also] used to say: if I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am for my own self only,(51) what am I, and if not now, when?(52)
(51) One must be self-reliant and not accustom oneself to depend on others; but, being exclusively for oneself is an unworthy attitude for a human being.
(52) If I do not act in accordance with these reflections now that I realize them (or now whilst I am young, or alive), then, when? Later it may be too late.
Shammai used to say: make thy study of the torah a matter of established regularity; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance.
After Hillel and Shammai, the Law passed on to other great teachers, but they are beyond the scope of this book. However, stay tuned for more primary material!