Two youth once made a bet and said: Anyone who is able to aggravate Hillel the Elder to the point that he reprimands him, will win 400 zuz from the other. One of them said: I can aggravate him. The day that he chose to bother Hillel was Friday, and Hillel was washing his hair, in preparation for Shabbos. Passing the entrance to Hillel’s house, he shouted: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. Hillel said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked him: Why are the heads of Babylonians oval? He said to him: My son, you have asked an important question. The reason is because they do not have skilled midwives.
The young man waited a short while, and then returned to look for Hillel, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. Hillel said to him: My son, what do you seek? The man said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why are the eyes of the residents of Tadmor bleary? Hillel said to him: My son, you have asked an important question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes.
Once again the man went, waited a little while and returned, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why do Africans have wide feet? Hillel said to him: You have asked an important question. The reason is because they live in marshlands and their feet widened to enable them to walk through those swampy areas.
That man said to him: I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid lest you get angry. Hillel wrapped himself and sat before him, and he said to him: All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them. The man got angry and said to him: Are you Hillel whom they call the Prince of Israel? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: If it is you, then may there not be many like you in Israel. Hillel said to him: My son, for what reason do you say this? The man said to him: Because I lost four hundred zuz because of you. Hillel said to him: Be vigilant of your spirit and avoid situations of this sort. Hillel is worthy of having you lose four hundred zuz and another four hundred zuz on his account, so long as Hillel will not get upset (Shabbos 31a).
אָמַר רַבִּי אִילְעַאי, בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים אָדָם נִיכָּר: בְּכוֹסוֹ, וּבְכִיסוֹ וּבְכַעְסוֹ. וְאָמְרִי לֵיהּ אַף בְּשַׂחֲקוֹ.
Rabbi Eli said: In three matters a person’s true character is ascertained: koso (his cup), kiso (his wallet), kaaso (his anger). And some say: also his laughter.
Three symbols identify a person’s character. ‘His cup’ refers to his behaviour after imbibing one too many. ‘His wallet’ refers to his financial dealings. ‘His anger’ refers to his ability to control his emotions. Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (C16 Poland) explains that these three symbols correspond to a person’s relationship with himself, his fellow man, and God.
The way an individual handles his alcohol reflects his ability to deal with life and its issues. Do they drink frequently? Or as the UK National Health Service puts it: How many units do they have per week? And when a person does drink, do they know when to stop? And “when wine enters (and) the secrets emerge,” what comes out of their mouth? Is it Torah and spiritual fervour or is it an animalistic version of their sober self? Of course, it’s not only about your ‘cup’. The cup is symbolic of everything that enters your body. Are you in control of what you eat and drink? Do you look after your health and engage in regular exercise and self-care? All of these attitudes and behaviours characterise an individual’s self-esteem and relationship with themselves.
Next, we have the way a person conducts their wallet, which says a lot about their social interaction. Do they deal honestly in business? Do they treat their employees well? Do they give back to the community? Do they give charitably? Are they generous with their possessions? There are two general approaches to power and wealth. Historically, kings and queens would amass wealth and grow their royal coffers. Nowadays, democratic governments tax their citizens, but redistribute the wealth almost immediately. If you believe in democracy, that’s how you should view your finances. If the Almighty has blessed you with wealth, you could choose to line your coffers with it. Or you could view yourself as the democratic ruler who seeks to redistribute the money fairly and expeditiously. When you act benevolently, Heaven quickly returns the monies to you, trusting you once again to redistribute them appropriately.
And the way a person controls his emotions says much about his relationship with Heaven. Our Sages compare one who gets angry to an idol-worshipper. If you believe that everything that happens comes from God and that He is in control, there’s no reason to get angry. Whatever happens is part of His grand plan, or perhaps He is testing you. Getting angry implies that He is not in control of the situation. In other words, getting angry implies that there’s a portion of the universe where His dominion is absent. That’s idolatrous thinking. The true believer acknowledges God’s power over the entire universe all the time.
That’s why the youths could not get Hillel angry. He saw everything that happened in his life as a message from Heaven.
Our Gemara concludes with a potential addition to the list of defining symbols: laughter. The Ein Eliyahu explains that there are times for joy and there are times that laughter may be considered an exhibition of inappropriate levity. On the one hand, King David entreats us to “serve God with joy.” On the other hand, Pirkei Avot warns that “laughter and levity lead a man to lewdness.” A key determinant of an individual’s character is their ability to strike the right balance of happiness temperament. Life must be joyful, but at the same time, seriously focused. How do you recognise a wholesome person? They’re the ones who are full of joy, but focused on making every moment in life count.
Three and a half aspects define your character: your self-esteem, your generosity, your emotional control, and your ability to strike the right happiness balance. May you constantly strive for perfection in each of these key areas!