The First Day of Hillel's Career

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #22: The First Day of Hillel's Career

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Our Rabbis taught: This halakha was forgotten by the sons of Beteira (the family of the patriarchs of the supreme Rabbinical court). One time, the fourteenth of Nissan fell on a Shabbat. They forgot whether or not the service of the Pesach offering overrides the Shabbat. They said: "Does anyone know if Pesach overrides Shabbat?"

They said to them: "A man came up from Babylon by the name of Hillel ha-Bavli. He attended upon the great sages of our generation, Shemaya and Avtalyon, and he knows if Pesach overrides Shabbat."

They sent for him and asked him: "Do you know if Pesach overrides the Shabbat?"

He said to them: "Does only one Pesach offering a year override Shabbat? Is it not the case that more than two hundred Pesach[-like] offerings a year override the Shabbat?" …

They immediately sat him at the head and appointed him to be the patriarch. He was expounding all day about the laws of Pesach. He began to vex them with words. He said to them: "What caused this to you, that I came up from Babylon and became the patriarch? Your laziness, that you did not attend upon the great sages of our generation, Shemaya and Avtalyon."

They said to him: "Rebbe, if one forgets to bring the knife (for the paschal offering) on Friday, what is the law?"

He said to them: "This halakha I heard and forgot. Rather, leave the Jewish people be. If they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets."

The next day, those whose Pesach offering was a sheep, inserted the knife in the wool. Those whose Pesach offering was a kid inserted the knife between the horns. Hillel saw the deed and remembered the law. He said: "This is as I received from Shemaya and Avtalyon." (Pesachim 66a)

R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: "If a scholar acts arrogantly, his wisdom departs from him…." From where do we know this? From Hillel. (Pesachim 66b)

Let us begin with the relatively minor issue of chronology. Shemaya and Avtalyon taught Torah in Israel, and so Hillel could have been their student only if he had moved to Israel from Babylon long before this episode. However, this story implies that he had only recently moved from Babylon. A number of commentaries therefore suggest that Hillel made two trips from Babylon. He initially traveled to Israel to learn from the great teachers of his time, Shemaya and Avtalyon. Later, after years of learning, he returned to his place of birth, perhaps to teach his old community, only to move back to Israel just before this story occurs.

Hillel's impressive effort to hear the words of Torah from the finest teachers of his time gives added meaning to his harsh admonition of the local Israeli population (note Maharsha's understanding that his words of vexation addressed all the learned locals, and not just the sons of Beteira). Hillel left the comforts of his hometown and made the difficult trek to another land to hear Torah at its finest. The local population of rabbinic students, on the other hand, had somehow missed the wonderful opportunity that presented itself in their own back yard.

Of course, Hillel's harsh demeanor surprises us. The Talmudic paragon of humility here errs in a most arrogant way and immediately receives his comeuppance. This does not reflect the Hillel we have grown accustomed to learning about. R. Yaakov Reisher, in his Iyyun Yaakov, explains that Hillel had very good intentions in administering this reproach. Sometimes a well-placed jibe can spur others on to greater educational success; for example, a student might remark to his chavruta, "Had you come to seder on time, maybe you would have understood the material!" Hillel intended such a result, but erred nonetheless. His noble intentions notwithstanding, his comment came across as arrogant and self-aggrandizing, and Hillel temporarily lost his wisdom as a result.

The idea that the arrogant person loses his wisdom can be explained in either metaphysical or naturalistic terms. The metaphysical approach would explain, quite simply, that Hashem intervenes to remove the haughty person's wisdom as punishment for his hubris. Alternatively, the boastful fellow will not put in the time and effort needed to arrive at proper conclusions. Assuming that one knows everything often stifles his pursuit of knowledge. Hillel stumbled in this regard and as a result, he could not answer a follow-up question.

The oddity of finding Hillel making a mistake in the area of haughtiness may be the point of the entire story. Hillel eventually becomes the paradigm of humility, able to hear several foolish questions late on a Friday afternoon without feeling that his honor has been affronted. The gemara wanted us to know that Hillel did not begin his career as a perfectly humble individual. On the contrary, he displayed gratuitous arrogance during his first week on the job. However, the ease with which he admitted his lapse in knowledge and the good-natured way in which he turned to communal practice for guidance foreshadowed the great strides he would subsequently make in this area.

In an important letter, Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Iggerot, p. 217) faults us for talking about the great sages only at the height of their achievement, ignoring the struggles they endured in arriving at loftier heights. He writes of one of the saintliest men of the twentieth century: "Everyone talks about, is amazed by, and places on a pedestal the purity of speech of the Chafetz Chayim zt"l. But who knows about the battles, struggles, stumbles, losses and retreats that the Chafetz Chayim experienced along the path of his war with his evil inclination?"

R. Hutner explains the educational fallout from our approach. Any student who struggles in a religious matter immediately assumes that he or she has no potential for great achievements, as the models of greatness seem to never have dealt with such difficulties. An honest approach, which maintains reverence for the sages while recognizing that they were not excellent from birth, would help our students understand that struggles and failures are part of the arduous path to success.

I often think about these ideas when I glance at contemporary rabbinic biographies that rarely talk about the difficulties and errors of their heroes, and instead portray them as saintly from the cradle. How different such works are from the portrait of great individuals in Tanakh and Chazal! These books fail on three levels. On a most basic level, they are simply inaccurate. Secondly, as R. Hutner argues, these books set a standard that gives readers the wrong idea and encourages such readers to feel excessive negativity about their own shortcomings. Finally, these works ultimately shortchange the gedolim, as well, as they make greatness a right of birth more than the product of years of arduous work that includes the ability to overcome mistakes and failures.

Hillel kicked off his career with great drama, solving a national halakhic problem just before Pesach. The excitement of the moment temporarily bolstered his sense of pride and achievement, and he uttered a condescending remark to those who sought his expertise. However, he soon righted himself and became our enduring model of humility. May we all have similar success in correcting the areas of our religious lives in need of improvement.