There was a kind Jewish rabbi, Hillel, who lived in the generation before Jesus who has often been compared to Jesus. Often in the Talmud the teachings of Hillel are contrasted with the teachings of another rabbi, Shammai, as in this famous story:
There was an incident involving a Gentile who came before Shammai and requested:
“Convert me to Judaism on condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”
Shammai pushed the man away with the building rod he was holding.
Undeterred, the man then came before Hillel with the same request.
Hillel said to him, “That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.”[i]
Similarly, Jesus exhorts us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
Likewise, Jesus answers the rich young man who asked Him: “’Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 19:16-19)
St Augustine also echoes these thoughts in On Christian Teaching, also called On Christian Doctrine, St Augustine teaches that a biblical interpretation is correct only when it deepens in our heart our Love of God and our love for our neighbor, for you cannot have the one love without the other, they intertwine.
Hillel warns us, “Do not say, ‘When I have free time, I will study,’ less you will never have free time.” There is so much to study! Those who believe they can only read the Bible, without commentaries, are like the tourist who only wants to see the Statue of Liberty when they visit New York City, and they will not receive those messages their prejudices block out from their soul. There is so much to study! The Bible, with the commentaries from St Augustine and the Philokalia and the other Church Fathers. Where can you start? The Catholic Catechism is heavily footnoted evenly between the Eastern and Western Church Fathers and the Bible, and these footnotes are so you can go back and read the sources yourself.
The Talmud has two other stories where Shammai chases away potential converts with a stick. One fellow whom Shammai chased away with a stick declared that he wanted to one day be appointed high priest. He then goes to Hillel who accepts him as a convert, and suggests that if he wants to one day be a high priest he should study the laws regarding the position. The young convert then discovered on his own that if he were not of the tribe of Levi he would be struck down dead if he deigned to be priest. Hillel thought it was wiser for him to learn humility on his own.
Another fellow whom Shammai chased away with a stick. After asking how many Torahs there were, he declared he could only believe the written Torah, that he only wanted to study the written Torah. He then goes to Hillel who accepts him as a convert.[ii]
Asking whether the teachings of Hillel influenced Jesus is futile, again since so few of the Hillel teachings are extant, but we can say that they both sprung from the same Jewish tradition. Both Hillel and Jesus believe in the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Both would agree that the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life, as St Paul exhorts. Shammai, who prefers to follow the letter of the law, is the foil for Hillel, the rabbi who is more concerned with the spirit of the law. But Shammai is not incorrect for insisting that the Word of God be respected. Shammai’s teaching on divorce is closer to Jesus: Hillel taught that a husband could divorce his wife for any reason, whereas Shammai insists that infidelity should be the only grounds for divorce.
There is another story about how someone made a bet that he could make Hillel lose his patience. One Friday when Hillel was preparing for the Sabbath he shouted for him at his house to ask, “Why do Babylonians have round heads?”
Hillel answered, “My son, you have asked a great question. The answer is, they have no skilled midwives.”
Awhile later he returns to his house to disturb him to ask, “Why do Palmyreans have bleary eyes?”
Hillel answered, “My son, you have asked a great question. The answer is, they live in sandy places.”
Awhile later he returns to his house to disturb him to ask, “Why do Africans have wide feet?”
Hillel answered, “My son, you have asked a great question. The answer is, they live in watery marshes.”
The man said he had many more questions, and Hillel answered, “Ask all the questions you have to ask.” The man informed how he lost the bet, and Hillel told him to be more careful, because he does not like to be angry with anyone.[iii]
In the book on Hillel we read by Rabbi Telushkin had a few more stories and sayings by Hillel, including “do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” and “caring for others is also caring for God.” Some are technical stories illustrate how Hillel adjusted the interpretation of the Law to benefit the ordinary Jew. We scanned another book of essays from a conference on Hillel and Jesus with discussions and footnotes for hundreds and hundreds of pages that comment on the same stories that our Rabbi discusses, so we can surmise that this is about all we know about Hillel.
[i] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” (New York: Schocken Books of Random House, 2010) p. 19, from Shabbat 31a.
[ii] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” pp. 29-34.
[iii] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” pp. 60-63.