Hillel Street veers off from King George Street, running near Mamilla Cemetery, Independence Park, and the pedestrian mall known as Ben Yehuda. But my favorite thing about Hillel Street is the fact that it runs parallel to – wait for it – Shammai.
If this fact does not fill you with as much delight as it does me, that’s either because I need to get out more – or, to give myself the benefit of the doubt, perhaps because you have not been acquainted with the great stories of this sage. And just in case it’s the latter, please let me fill you in!
Even if you don’t recognize Hillel’s name, you surely know his work. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” – that’s Hillel, quoted in Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Ancestors. The fact that we light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah, then add one candle on each subsequent night, rather than lighting the entire menorah on night one and taking away one candle over the next seven nights? That’s because of Hillel’s ruling that “one should always increase in matters of holiness.” And the amazing saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah, and all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it!” Yes, that’s Hillel, too.
For such an influential sage – he served as leader of the Sanhedrin, founded the most significant house of study of (arguably) all time, and gave rise to a dynasty of Jewish scholars whose legal authority lasted nearly four hundred years – we might expect Hillel to come from noble stock, from exalted roots. But we would be wrong. And it may well be that Hillel’s humble beginnings were the key to his greatness.
Hillel was born in Babylonia in about 110 B.C.E. – he lived in the days when the Second Temple still stood, but when King Herod’s rise to power was bringing oppression and trouble to the Jewish people. Yearning to study Torah in the celebrated academies of Jerusalem, Hillel came to the Land of Israel and endeavored to support himself as a woodcutter. Unable to pay the fee required to study – a fee that would later be abolished in his honor – Hillel on one cold Shabbat evening climbed to the roof of the academy, pressing his ear to the skylight in hopes of hearing the words of the era’s great rabbis Shemaiah and Avtalion. Not even the snow – three cubits worth – that fell all night induced Hillel to leave his place; and when Shemaiah and Avtalion found him the next morning, he was nearly dead from cold.
Although it was Shabbat – a day upon which such work is forbidden – Shemaiah and Avtalion “removed the snow from him,” the Talmud relates, “bathed and anointed him – and, as they seated him in front of an open fire, they said, ‘This man deserves to have the Sabbath profaned on his behalf.’”
That was the beginning of Hillel’s ascendance.
And even as Hillel won the regard of his fellow disciples and teachers, as he became the head of his own academy, as he rendered rulings that conflicted with – and triumphed over – those of the prominent sage Shammai, he never lost the devotion and the humility that drove him to the rooftop of the house of study that snowy night. Hillel was known for his kindness, his gentleness, his concern for his fellow human beings – even when these qualities might contravene the strictest interpretation of Jewish law. It was Hillel who decided that a woman whose husband was missing and presumed dead could be remarried even without definitive proof of his demise; Hillel who counseled that wedding guests should praise every bride as “beautiful and graceful” – contradicting Shammai, who grumbled that lame or blind brides should not be so complimented; and Hillel who interrupted his Sabbath preparations to answer ludicrous questions posed by a visitor rather than lose his patience. It was Hillel who reminded his generation – and who reminds us – that even in a place where no one is behaving with human decency, we “must strive to be a (mensch).”
It’s not a coincidence that the street named for Hillel runs parallel to that named for his frenemy Shammai – and it’s also probably no coincidence that Hillel Street is longer and more central. Not that Hillel would have wanted it that way – for it was, in fact, not only Shammai but also Hillel that kept Shammai’s teachings alive. “Kindly and modest,” the Talmud tells, the School of Hillel “taught both their own statements and those of the School of Shammai.
“Further,” the Talmud adds, “they [were even so humble as to] offer the words of the School of Shammai before their own words.”