Hillel the Elder

We all know that the patience, gentleness, and humility of Hillel the Elder has become proverbial. It was only on one occasion that he was seen getting angry, and it was precisely his humility – the feeling that he had of his own lowliness – that had ignited his anger in front of the idleness of so many competent men. In brief, the story goes that Hillel had been questioned on a law, yet had to admit that he once knew it, but had since forgotten. This had happened to him under the influence of anger. Later, he remembered what he had forgotten (see Pesachim 66a for details). Yet anger should be censured.

The Sages bring remarkable examples of the unfailing patience and gentleness of Hillel the Elder.

One day, someone wagered that he could make him get angry. The bet was 400 pieces of gold. It was just before Shabbat and Hillel the Elder was preparing for its arrival. The man therefore rushed to Hillel’s home and cried, “Hillel the Elder! Where’s Hillel the Elder?” At the time, Hillel was washing himself, and so he interrupted his preparations, wrapped himself in his clothes, and went to the one who was calling him. “What do you want, my son?” he asked.

“I have a question to ask you.”

“Ask me then.”

“Why are the heads of Babylonians so round?”

And Hillel the Elder, himself Babylonian, answered him with a smile. “You have asked a profound question, my son, and I will answer you. It is because they have bad midwives that don’t know how, when a baby is born, to give the head a good shape.”

The man didn’t reply. Later, he again asked Hillel a question: “Why are the people of Tadmor weak-eyed?”

“Because they live in a sandy country,” Hillel the Elder replied.

After a certain time, the man came back and asked, “Why do Africans have such wide feet?”

With inexhaustible patience, Hillel the Elder answered: “Because they live in a marshy land.”

“I still have many questions to ask you,” said the man, “but I am afraid of making you angry.”

“Ask on, my son,” said Hillel the Elder, “ask me everything you want to know.”

Although Shabbat was arriving, Hillel the Elder sat down in order to be more attentive to the anthropological and ethnographic questions that this stranger, a man that he had never before seen, wanted to ask.

“Are you really Hillel,” said the man, “whom they call a prince in Israel?”

“Yes, that is correct my son,” he replied.

“Well, I hope that here are not many more in Israel like you!”

“And why not, my son?” asked Hillel.

"Because of you," said the man, "I have lost 400 pieces of gold, for I wagered that I could make you angry.”

"Be warned for the future," said Hillel the Elder. "Better that you should lose 400 pieces of gold, and 400 more after that, than it should be said of Hillel that he lost his temper!"

In that time of trouble and distress, it was Israel’s great fortune to have a man as kind and gentle as Hillel the Elder as a prince. He could thus guide the young though all of life’s pitfalls by means of Divine teachings and preserve the Torah for generations to come. Herod, the descendant of Idomean slaves, had been raised to royalty with the support of the Romans and had assassinated the remaining offshoots of the Hasmonean dynasty. As for the members of the Sanhedrin, he had them executed, as Shemiah had foretold them. All Israel was filled with hatred for the abhorred tyrant, yet the rage of Herod was broken by the gentleness of Hillel.




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