Avot Highlights, Chapter Two: Let the Real Hillel Stand Up

Hillel is one of the most popular rabbis of the time of the Mishnah. What has long seemed odd about his portrayal in popular consciousness is its incompleteness. Because Avot, one of the most read of Jewish texts, offers a fuller picture of Hillel than most of us know.

The Regnant View, In My Experience

Here are some of the most popular of Hillel’s statements:

1) His urging us to be one of the students of Aaron, loving peace and chasing peace (that’s Avot 1;12);

2) If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I’m only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when? (Avot 1;13);

3) Don’t separate from the community (Avot 2;4);

4) One who is bashful will never learn; one who is too exacting cannot be a good teacher (Avot 2;5), and

5) The story, in Shabbat 31a, about the convert who wanted to learn the Torah on one foot, and Hillel told him “What is hated to  you don’t do to others; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, go study.”

Truthfully, I think that last source is the most widely quoted or, actually, misquoted. The story is often told with Hillel saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule. That he did not say that is only the beginnings of how I think we shape the Hillel we want instead of meeting the Hillel the texts show us.

In my We’re Missing the Point, I discussed the story about Hillel, so I won’t repeat it here.  I will note that the idea does not appear in Avot, where they were collecting his major sayings.  It seems likely that the Mishnah did not know this to be central to Hillel’s thought.

Of the other four sayings, three appear in a longer series, so that plucking them out of context carries the danger of missing their full import. Let’s go through all of Hillel’s sayings in Avot, to see what we learn.

Hillel of the First Chapter

In a not fully explained decision, Avot separates Hillel’s statements between the first and second chapter. 1;12, as we saw, has the statement about peace and the students of Aaron, but goes on to say, “love other people and bring them close to Torah.”  In 1;13, Hillel says, “He who achieves prestige should expect (or worry about) losing it, someone who does not add to his Torah knowledge  should be killed by Hashem, someone who doesn’t learn at all deserves death at human hands, and someone who makes use of Torah, either for monetary gain or for honor, will pass from the world.

In 1;14, he says the line about being for myself, etc..

This is a Hillel who is, yes, concerned with others, in fostering peace and in caring not only for oneself, but is also insistent on personal achievement, particularly in the realm of Torah study. Any achieved successes, too, should be seen as ephemeral, and cannot lead to any lessening of one’s working on greater study, which can also never be used for personal benefit.

Hillel of the Second Chapter

2;4 tells us not to separate from the community, not to believe in ourselves until the day we die (meaning: to always worry that our past righteousness will not stop us from major missteps in the future), not to judge our fellow until we experience exactly what he did, not to say something, thinking it won’t get out, because it will, and not to say, I’ll study when I’m free, because we may never find ourselves free.

Are you feeling that combination of interest in the community along with concern about how to achieve and yet protect that achievement? There’s more to come.

In 2;5, Hillel says a complete ignoramus (a bur) cannot fear sin (because s/he has no idea of what sin is), an ordinarily unlearned Jew cannot be a Hasid (because such piety can only be achieved with study and thought—it’s not a set of simple directives), a bashful person cannot become learned, a too-exacting person cannot teach, anyone who engages excessively in business cannot become wise, and in a place where there are no people of stature, try to be such a person.

Here again, we see Hillel wrestling with the necessary steps to religious excellence including, especially, acquiring Torah knowledge. Some knowledge is a prerequisite for the basic level of fearing sin, more for becoming a Hasid, and the path to that knowledge requires a student and teacher ready for the endeavor. According to Hillel, that precludes too much business involvement (because wisdom takes time), and there’s something to be said for striving to be what we’re not, when no one else is that, either.

Action and Reaction, Deed and Consequences

In 2;6, the Mishnah tells us that Hillel saw a corpse’s head floating, and said to it  “Because you killed, you were killed, and the end of those who killed you is that they will be killed as well.”

Finally, in 2;7, Hillel lists a series of items or endeavors and the downsides of too much.  Much flesh leads to much worms (when we are buried); much possessions leads to much worry (we have to keep track of, maintain, and protect them from theft or damage); many wives lead to much witchcraft (a statement about the women of his time); many maids leads to much lewdness (I think then and perhaps now, men tended to see service staff as available for sexual favors); many slaves leads to much theft.

What to Strive to Acquire

In contrast to possessions, there are endeavors where much is better than less. Much Torah leads to much life, much sitting to much wisdom (note that the sitting is necessary, in addition to Torah, for wisdom), much advice leads to much insight (we nurture our insight by seeking and learning from others’ advice), much charity leads to much peace.

He closes the list by speaking of a good name as a true acquisition, but outshined by the acquisition of Torah, which brings us to the World to Come.

A Truer Hillel

Hillel as represented in Avot was concerned with peace and community, as has always been known, but with a laser-like focus on Torah, wisdom, hasidut, and a rejection of excessive involvement in business and possessions of various sorts that is much less well known.

Sure, Hillel was a nice, welcoming guy, but he was a nice, welcoming guy with a pretty serious focus on aspects of life that are often neglected today. Torah matters to Hillel, and matters deeply. Wisdom matters to Hillel, and matters deeply. Understanding the world, and not allowing ourselves to become caught up in that which doesn’t matter, were deep concerns of his.  This is the Hillel of Avot, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Love Hillel, love all of him, not just the parts that are already attractive to us.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.