Biography of Hillel the Elder, Jewish Scholar and Sage

Inventor of the Golden Rule

Tomb of Hillel the Elder in Meron, Israel.
Tomb of Hillel the Elder in Meron, Israel.

Wikimedia Commons / Attribution-Shareallike 4.0 International / User:Djampa

Hillel the Elder (110 BCE to 10 CE) was a Jewish scholar and teacher whose wisdom and scholarship are still revered today. Rabbi Hillel, as he is often called, is best known as the "inventor" of the Golden Rule and a Talmudic scholar.

While Hillel lived at the same time as Jesus, the two men did not know one another. Their teachings, however, are comparable and reflect a similar ethical outlook.

Fast Facts: Hillel the Elder

  • Known For: Renowned rabbi and scholar; creator of the Golden Rule
  • Also Known As: Rabbi Hillel
  • Born: 110 BCE in Babylon
  • Died: 10 CE in Jerusalem
  • Education: Attended Jewish study groups in Jerusalem
  • Published Works: Extensive commentaries on Jewish law
  • Children: Simeon ben Hillel
  • Notable Quote: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

Early Life

Hillel was born in 110 BCE in Babylon, which was then part of the Parthian Empire (ancient Iran). While there are no official records of his birth or younger years, the Talmud (commentaries on the Torah) states that Hillel's mother was a descendant of the House of David and his father was a descendant of the Tribe of Benjamin. Hillel's brother, Shebna, was a merchant.

Before leaving his home, Hillel received both an early and secondary education. Attracted by the scholarly life, he is said to have left home at about the age of 40 (around 70 CD) and headed to Palestine, where he intended to pursue his studies of scripture and Jewish law with the greatest Jewish scholars of the time—the Pharisees Shemaya and Avtalyon. He arrived in Jerusalem during the reign of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Hillel as a Student

According to the Talmud, Hillel was very poor when he arrived in Israel, so he went to work as a woodcutter. The fee he earned was very small, but he spent most of it on his studies and never considered taking another path.

According to legend, there was one day when he found no work and did not have the entrance fee to study with Shemaya and Avtalyon. To hear the lecture, he climbed onto the roof to listen in through the skylight. He stayed on the roof all night while it snowed, and in the morning he was buried in snow and blocking the light to the lecture hall. When he was brought down from the roof he was freezing to death. The men who rescued him lit a fire to warm him, disobeying the Jewish law regarding lighting a flame on the sabbath (Shabbat).

Hillel's brother, who was wealthier, offered to support Hillel in exchange for some of the merit Hillel would learn through his studies. Hillel turned him down, saying that learning was worth far more than money.

Rabbi Hillel and the gentile. Stained glass window in the lodge of Bnai Brith in Hamburg.
Rabbi Hillel and the gentile. Stained glass window in the lodge of Bnai Brith in Hamburg.  Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Leader and Scholar

According to the Talmud, the leaders of the Jewish study halls got into a debate over a question of Jewish law. They asked Hillel the Elder to resolve the issue and he did so, using inarguable proofs and logic from the Torah. This achievement raised his prestige so high that he was appointed Nasi, or president, of the Sanhedrin (Assembly of Rabbis). Over time, he became head of a great school and the highest authority among the Pharisees.

Hillel's colleague and rival was Shammai, another rabbi whose perspective was stricter than Hillel's. Although the two men disagreed on only three points of Jewish law, this disagreement was enough to cause a split and the creation of two schools of Jewish law: Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The two schools continued for more than 200 years after their founders' deaths and, over time, debated hundreds of topics. In general, these legal questions were resolved in favor of Beit Hillel.

The Golden Rule

Hillel the Elder is credited with having "invented" the Golden Rule, usually stated as "do unto others as you would have others do unto you." According to the Talmud, a gentile (non-Jew) asked Rabbi Shammai to teach him the Torah while he (the gentile) stood on one foot. Shammai angrily refused him, and so he came to Hillel with the same request. Hillel is said to have told the gentile: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its commentary. Now go and study.”

A very similar saying is attributed to Jesus in the Book of Matthew: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." The saying originated in the Book of Leviticus in the Torah: "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD."

The Seven Rules of Hillel

Hillel was the first to codify seven rules of exegesis (critical interpretation of Biblical texts). These rules are ancient—they actually appear in the Old Testament—, but they had never been written down before. These rules include, for example, the process of deducing from a special situation to a general situation. Also referred to as "hermeneutical norms," they became the accepted procedures for interpreting Jewish law. They were later adopted and expanded upon by Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, a scholar of the first and second centuries CE.

Sayings of Hillel

Hillel is well known for his sage teachings, many of which survive to the present day. A few include:

  • “Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place.”
  • "Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world."
  • "Where there are no men, strive to be a man!"
  • "My humiliation is my exaltation; my exaltation is my humiliation."
  • "Don't trust yourself until the day you die."
  •  "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
  • "Learn where there are teachers, teach where there are learners." 

Death

Hillel died in the year 10 CE in Jerusalem, but there is no information available about the cause of death. He is said to be buried, along with some of his disciples, in a cave in the northern Israeli city of Meron.

Legacy

Hillel was admired not only for his scholarship and wisdom but also for his kindness and generosity. He was the founder of academies of learning which lasted for centuries in Israel. The last of his dynasty, Hillel II, died in 365 CE.

In addition to his scholarship and kindness, Hillel is remembered for the creation of the "Hillel Sandwich." This is the layering of haroset (a dish representing mortar which is eaten at the seder dinner) between two pieces of matzoh. It is believed that the matzoh eaten in Hillel's day was soft rather than crackerlike, so the resulting "sandwich" might be closer to a soft taco or wrap.

Sources

  • Adelman, Mendel. “Hillel the Elder.” Judaism, 25 May 2018, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4042931/jewish/Hillel-the-Elder.htm#footnote6a4042931.
  • Hillel and Shammai, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hillel-and-shammai.
  • “Who Was Hillel?” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, 23 May 2008, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hillel/.