Doctor of the Law at Jerusalem in the time of King Herod; founder of the school called after him, and ancestor of the patriarchs who stood at the head of Palestinian Judaism till about the fifth century of the common era. Hillel was a Babylonian by birth and, according to a later tradition, belonged to the faimly of David (Lévi, in "R. E. J." xxxi. 202-211, xxxiii. 143). Nothing definite, however, is known concerning his origin, nor is he anywhere called by his father's name, which may perhaps have been Gamaliel. When Josephus ("Vita," § 38) speaks of Hillel's great-grandson, Simeon ben Gamaliel I., as belonging to a very celebrated family (γένους δφόδρα λαμροῦ), he probably refers to the glory which the family owed to the activity of Hillel and Gamaliel I. Only Hillel's brother Shebna (Soṭah 21a) is mentioned; he was a merchant, whereas Hillel devoted himself to study. In Sifre, Deut. 357 the periods of Hillel's life are made parallel to those in the life of Moses. Both were 120 years old; at the age of forty Hillel went to Palestine; forty years he spent in study; and the last third of his life he passed as the spiritual head of Israel. Of this artificially constructed biographical sketch this much may be true, that Hillel went to Jerusalem in the prime of his manhood and attained a great age. His activity of forty years is perhaps historical; and since it began, according to a trustworthy tradition (Shab. 15a), one hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem, it must have covered the period 30 B.C. -10 C.E.

His Position.

According to an old tannaitic tradition founded upon Hillel's own words, Hillel went to Jerusalem with the intention of perfecting himself in the science of Biblical exposition and of tradition (Yer. Pes. 33c; Tosef., Neg. i.; Sifra, Tazria', ix.). Shemaiah and Abṭalion, the "great Scripture expositors" ("darshanim"; Pes. 70b), became his teachers. The difficulties which Hillel had to overcome in order to be admitted to their school, and the hardships he suffered while pursuing his aim, are told in a touching passage (Yoma 35b), the ultimate purpose of which is to show that poverty can not be considered as an obstacle to the study of the Law. Some time after the death of Shemaiah and Abṭalion, Hillel succeeded in settling a question concerning the sacrificial ritual in a manner which showed at once his superiority over the Bene Bathyra, who were at that time the heads of the college. On that occasion, it is narrated, they voluntarily resigned their position in favor of Hillel (Tosef., Pes. iv.; Pes. 66a; Yer. Pes. 33a). According to tradition, Hillel thereupon became head of the Sanhedrin with the title of "Nasi" (prince); but this is hardly historical. All that can be said is that after the resignation of the Bene Bathyra Hillel was recognized as the highest authority among the Pharisees and the scribes of Jerusalem. He was the head of the great school, at first associated with Menahem, a scholar mentioned in no other connection, afterward with Shammai, Hillel's peer in the study of the Law (Ḥag. ii. 2; Gem. 16b; Yer. Ḥag. 77d). Hillel's only title was "Ha-Zaḳen" (the elder), a title given not to distinguish him from another of the same name, as some have held, but either to express his position among the leading scribes or to indicate his membership in the Sanhedrin.

Whatever Hillel's position, his authority was sufficient to introduce those decrees which were handed down in his name. The most famous of his enactments was the Prosbul, (προσβολή), an institution which, in spite of the law concerning the year of jubilee (Deut. xv. 1 et seq.), insured the repayment of loans (Sheb. x. 3). The motive for this institution was the "amelioration of the world" ("tiḳḳun ha-'olam"), i.e., of the social order (Giṭ. iv. 3), because it protected both the creditor against the loss of his property, and the needy against being refused the loan of money for fear of loss. A like tendency is found in another of Hillel's institutions, having reference to the sale of houses (Lev. xxv. 30, 'Ar. ix.). These two are the only institutions handed down in Hillel's name, although the words which introduce the prosbul (Sheb. ib.) show that there were others. Hillel's judicial activity may be inferred from the decision by which he confirmed the legitimacy of some Alexandrians whose origin was disputed, by interpreting the marriage document ("ketubbah") of their mother in her favor (Tosef., Ket. iv 9; B. M. 104a). Of other official acts no mention is found in the sources.

Entrance to the Traditional Tomb of Hillel the Great.(From a photograph by Dr. W. Popper.)Hillel and Shammai.

In the memory of po sterity Hillel lived, on the one hand, as the scholar who made the whole contentsof the traditional law his own (Soferim xvi. 9), who, in opposition to his colleague, Shammai, generally advocated milder interpretations of the Halakah, and whose disciples as a "house," that is, as "Hillel's school," stood in like opposition to Shammai's disciples. On the other hand, he was known as the saint and the sage who in his private life and in his dealings with men practised the high virtues of morality and resignation, just as he taught them in his maxims with unexcelled brevity and earnestness. The traditions concerning Hillel's life harmonize completely with the sayings which are handed down in his name, and bear in themselves the proof of their genuineness. No wonder that the Babylonian Talmud is richer in traditions concerning Hillel than the Palestinian, since the Babylonians were especially careful to preserve the recollection of their great countryman; and in the Babylonian schools of the third century was proudly quoted the saying of the Palestinian Simeon ben Laḳish—on the whole no friend of the Babylonians—in which he placed the activity of Hillel on a level with that of Ezra, who also went up from Babylon to Jerusalem. Hillel's sayings are preserved partly in Hebrew, the language of the school, partly in Aramaic, the language of the people, or, as it is said in Ab. R. N. xii., in the language of Hillel's home ("the Babylonian language").

The Golden Rule.

The saying of Hillel which introduces the collection of his maxims in the Mishnaic treatise Abot mentions Aaron as the great model to be imitated in his love of peace, in his love of man, and in his leading mankind to a knowledge of the Law (Ab. i. 12). In mentioning these characteristics, which the Haggadah then already ascribed to Moses' brother, Hillel mentions his own most prominent virtues. Love of man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching. When a heathen who wished to become a Jew asked him for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, Hillel said: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary" (Shab. 31a). With these words Hillel recognized as the fundamental principle of the Jewish moral law the Biblical precept of brotherly love (Lev. xix. 18). Almost the same thing was taught by Paul, a pupil of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel (Gal. v. 14; comp. Rom. xiii. 8); and more broadly by Jesus when he declared the love of one's neighbor to be the second great commandment beside the love of God, the first (Matt. xxii. 39; Mark xii. 31; Luke x. 27). It may be assumed without argument that Hillel's answer to the proselyte, which is extant in a narrative in the Babylonian Talmud (comp. also Ab. R. N., recension B., cxxvi. [ed. Schechter, p. 53]), was generally known in Palestine, and that it was not without its effect on the founder of Christianity.

It has been remarked that Hillel did not, like Jesus, state the love of God to be the principal commandment of the Jewish teaching (see Delitzsch, "Jesus und Hillel," p. 17); but it must not be forgotten that Jesus gave his answer to a scribe, whereas Hillel answered the question of a prospective proselyte, to whom it was necessary first of all to show how the teachings of Judaism are to be practised by him who wishes to accept them. That the love of God had also a central position in Hillel's conception of religion needs not to be proved; this position had long been assigned to it in Judaism—since the Scripture passage in which this precept is joined immediately to the confession of the unity of God (Deut. vi. 4 et seq.) had been made the principal portion of the daily prayer. Moreover, the Pharisaic scribes who approved of Jesus' answer evidently belonged to Hillel's school. Hillel seems to have connected the precept of brotherly love with the Biblical teaching of man's likeness to God, on which account he calls the love of man "love of creatures" ("oheb et ha-beriyyot"); and it is worthy of note that the term "creatures" for men was then already the common property of the language.

From the doctrine of man's likeness to God Hillel ingeniously deduced man's duty to care for his own body. In a conversation with his disciples (Lev. R. xxxiv.) he said: "As in a theater and circus the statues of the king must be kept clean by him to whom they have been entrusted, so the bathing of the body is a duty of man, who was created in the image of the almighty King of the world." In another conversation Hillel calls his soul a guest upon earth, toward which he must fulfil the duties of charity (ib.). Man's duty toward himself Hillel emphasized also in the first sentence of his saying (Ab. i. 14): "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?" The second part of this sentence expresses the same idea as another of Hillel's teachings (Ab. ii. 4): "Separate not thyself from the congregation." The third part contains the admonition to postpone no duty—the same admonition which he gave with reference to study (Ab. ii. 4): "Say not, 'When I have time I shall study'; for you may perhaps never have any leisure."

The precept that one should not separate oneself from the community, Hillel paraphrases, with reference to Eccl. iii. 4, in the following saying (Tosef., Ber. ii., toward the end): "Appear neither naked nor clothed, neither sitting nor standing, neither laughing nor weeping." Man should not appear different from others in his outward deportment; he should always regard himself as a part of the whole, thereby showing that love of man which Hillel taught. The feeling of love for one's neighbor shows itself also in his exhortation (Ab. ii. 4): "Judge not thy neighbor till thou art in his place" (comp. Matt. vii. 1). In the following maxim is expressed also his consciousness of his own insufficiency: "Trust not thyself till the day of thy death." How far his love of man went may be seen from an example which shows that benevolence must act with regard to the needs of him who is to be helped. Thus a man of good family who had become poor Hillel provided with a riding horse, in order that he might not be deprived of his customary physical exercise, and with a slave, in order that he might be served (Tosef., Peah, iv. 10; Ket. 67b).

That the same spirit of kindness prevailed in Hillel's house is shown by a beautiful story (Derek Ereẓ v.). Hillel's wife one day gave the whole ofa meal, prepared in honor of a guest, to a poor man, and at once prepared another. When she excused herself for the delay and explained its cause, Hillel praised her for her action. How firmly Hillel was persuaded that peace was ruling in his house, the following tradition teaches (Ber. 60a; Yer. Ber. 14b): When one day he came near his house and heard a noise, he expressed, in the words of Ps. cxii. 7 ("He shall not be afraid of evil tidings"), his confidence that the noise could not be in his house. His trust in God was such that whereas Shammai provided for the Sabbath already on the first day of the week, Hillel referred to Ps. lxviii. 19: "Blessed be the Lord who daily loadeth us with benefits" (Beẓah 16a).

Love of Peace.

The exhortation to love peace emanated from Hillel's most characteristic traits—from that meekness and mildness which had become proverbial, as is seen from the saying: "Let a man be always humble and patient like Hillel, and not passionate like Shammai" (Shab. 31a; Ab. R. N. xv.). Hillel's gentleness and patience are beautifully illustrated in an anecdote which relates how two men made a wager on the question whether Hillel could be made angry. Though they questioned him and made insulting allusions to his Babylonian origin, they were unsuccessful in their attempt (ib.). In the anecdotes about proselytes in which Hillel and Shammai are opposed to each other, Hillel's mildness and meekness appear in a most favorable light. In a paradoxical manner Hillel praised humility in the following words (Lev. R. i. 1): "My humility is my exaltation; my exaltation is my humility" (with reference to Ps. cxiii. 5).

The Study of the Law.

The many anecdotes, resting doubtless on good tradition, according to which Hillel made proselytes, correspond to the third part of his maxim: "Bring men to the Law." A later source (Ab. R. N., recension B., xxvi., toward the end) gives the following explanation of the sentence: Hillel stood in the gate of Jerusalem one day and saw the people on their way to work. "How much," he asked, "will you earn to-day?" One said: "A denarius"; the second: "Two denarii." "What will you do with the money?" he inquired. "We will provide for the necessities of life." Then said he to them: "Would you not rather come and make the Torah your possession, that you may possess both this and the future world?" This narrative has the same points as the epigrammatic group of Hillel's sayings (Ab. ii. 7) commencing: "The more flesh, the more worms," and closing with the words: "Whoever has acquired the words of the Law has acquired the life of the world to come." In an Aramaic saying Hillel sounds a warning against neglect of study or its abuse for selfish purposes: "Whoever would make a name [glory] loses the name; he who increases not [his knowledge] decreases; whoever learns not [in Ab. R. N. xii.: "who does not serve the wise and learn"] is worthy of death; whoever makes use of the crown perishes" (Ab. i. 13). Another group reads (Ab. ii. 5): "The uneducated has no aversion to sin; the ignorant is not pious; the timid can not learn, nor the passionate teach; he who is busied with trade can not become wise. In a place where there are no men, study to show thyself a man" (ib.). In this last sentence Hillel may have recalled how he, overcoming his modesty, manfully came forward in Jerusalem after the death of Shemaiah and Abṭalion and gave a new impulse to learning, then threatened with decay. To his own activity no doubt refers the saying preserved in Aramaic (Yer. Ber. 143) and Hebrew (Tosef., Ber. vii.; Ber. 63a): "Where some gather, scatter; where they scatter, gather!" that is, "Learn where there are teachers, teach where there are learners" (another form is given in Sifre Zuṭa on Num. xxvii. 1; Yalḳ., Num. 773).

Mystical Utterances.

The epigrammatic and antithetic form of Hillel's sayings, as well as the almost mystic depth of his consciousness of God, may be seen from the words spoken by him at the festival of water-drawing, when, filled with a feeling of God's presence, he said: "If I am here—so says God—every one is here; if I am not here, nobody is here" (Suk. 53a; Ab. R. N. xii., without stating the occasion of the utterance). In like manner, with reference to Ex. xx. 24, and applying a proverb, Hillel makes God speak to Israel: "To the place in which I delight my feet bring me. If thou comest to mine house, I come to thine; if thou comest not to mine, I come not to thine." (Suk. l.c.; Tosef., Suk. iv. 3).

In an epigrammatic form Hillel expresses the moral order of the world, according to which every sin is punished (Ab. ii. 6). Seeing a skull floating on the water, he said (in Aramaic): "Because thou didst drown, thou art drowned; and in the end they that have drowned, shall be drowned." Hillel was perhaps thinking here of the misdeeds of Herod and of the retribution which he could not escape.

No indications exist of Hillel's relation to the rulers of his time; but his love of peace and his devotion to study as the most important part of his life, no doubt showed the way which his disciple Johanan ben Zakkai, under the yoke of the Romans and amidst the strife of parties which brought about the catastrophe of Jerusalem, pursued for the salvation of Judaism. A panegyric tradition concerning Hillel's pupils (Suk. 28a; B. B. 134a), which glorifies the master in the disciples, recounts that of the eighty disciples whom Hillel had (probably during the last period of his activity), thirty were worthy that the glory of God (the spirit of prophecy) should rest upon them as upon Moses; thirty, that for their sake the sun should stand still as for Joshua. It is possible that this figure, which may have had a historical basis, was a reference to the fact that among Hillel's disciples were those who, like Joshua, were ready to fight against Israel's enemy and were worthy of victory; perhaps, also, that to them belonged those distinguished and beloved teachers whom Josephus mentions ("Ant." xvii. 6, § 2), Judah ben Sarifai and Mattithiah ben Margalot, who shortly before Herod's death led a revolt directed against fixing the Roman eagle on the Temple gate. This tradition concerning Hillel's disciples mentions, moreover, two by name: Jonathan ben Uzziel and Johanan ben Zakkai (comp. also Yer. Ned. v., toward the end).

His Influence.

In the history of tradition Hillel's disciples are generally called "the house of Hillel" (see Bet Hillel), in opposition to Shammai's disciples, "the house of Shammai." Their controversies, which no doubt included also those of their masters, concern all branches of tradition—Midrash, Halakah, and Haggadah. Only a few decisions, belonging to these three branches, have been handed down under Hillel's name; but there can be no doubt that much of the oldest anonymous traditional literature was due directly to him or to the teachings of his masters. The fixation of the norms of the Midrash and of halakic Scripture exposition was first made by Hillel, in the "seven rules of Hillel," which, as is told in one source, he applied on the day on which he overcame the Bene Bathyra (Tosef., Sanh. vii., toward the end; Sifra, Introduction, end; Ab. R. N. xxxvii.). On these seven rules rest the thirteen of R. Ishmael; they were epoch-making for the systematic development of the ancient Scripture exposition.

Hillel's importance as the embodiment of the religious and moral teachings of Judaism and as the restorer of Jewish Scripture exegesis is expressed in a most significant manner in the words of lamentation uttered at his death: "Wo for the meek one! Wo for the pious! Wo for the disciple of Ezra!" (Tosef., Soṭah, xiii. 3; Soṭah 48b; Yer. Soṭah, toward the end). One day while he and the sages were assembled at Jericho, a heavenly voice is said to have exclaimed: "Among those here present is one man upon whom the Holy Spirit would rest, if his time were worthy of it." All eyes were thereupon fixed on Hillel. No miracles are connected with Hillel's memory. He lived, without the glory of legend, in the memory of posterity as the great teacher who taught and practised the virtues of philanthropy, fear of God, and humility.

  • Comp. the respective sections in the works of Frankel, Grätz, Geiger, Weiss, Hamburger, Renan, Derenbourg, and Schürer;
  • Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 4-14 (2d ed., 1-11);
  • Kämpf, Hillel der Aeltere, in Orient, ix.-x;
  • Goitein, Das Leben und Wirken des Patriarchen Hillel, in Berliner's Magazin, xi.;
  • Franz Delitzsch, Jesus und Hillel, Erlangen, 1866 (3d ed., 1879);
  • Strack, in Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. viii. 74-76, s.v. Hillel.
S. S. W. B.