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Religion Library: Judaism


Written by: Marc A. Krell

School of HillelSchool of Shammai
more lenient, pragmatic approach to the halakhastrict and more legalistic observance of halakha
accepted by the majority of future sages 

Hillel immigrated to Palestine in the 1st century B.C.E. following the dissolution of the Hasmonean priesthood by King Herod. Hillel became the model sage in the sense that he was found worthy of the "Holy Spirit" based on his personal attributes of humility, patience, love of neighbor, and pursuit of peace. These ethical attributes are exemplified in his fundamental precept promoting personal responsibility while not endangering the welfare of the community: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet if I am only for myself, what am I?"

Hillel demonstrated this balance between self and other in his important legal enactment, "the Prosbol," which annulled the biblical law requiring the release of all debts every sabbatical or seventh year. He felt it was being abused by creditors who refused to make loans prior to the sabbatical year for fear that they would never be repaid. Hillel's takanah or legal emendation benefited both the lender who would not lose personal property and the borrower who could always obtain a loan.

Hillel's humility was also highlighted in his relationship with the sage Shammai, whose strict and seemingly legalistic observance of halakha often served as a foil for Hillel's more lenient, yet pragmatic approach to Jewish observance. While both sages had legitimate schools of thought established in their names, the opinions of Hillel and his school were ultimately accepted by the majority of future sages. The school of Hillel demonstrated respect for the opinions of Shammai and his school even in the midst of heated debate and expressed their general concern for the larger community.

The stark difference between Hillel and Shammai is most dramatically demonstrated in the story of an obnoxious pagan who came to Shammai and asked him to explain the meaning of the Torah while standing on one foot. While Shammai shooed him away with his stick, Hillel told him that the central message of the Torah is contained in the following maxim: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Go study." This early pharisaic rendition of the "Golden Rule" and its emphasis on Torah study would characterize the ethos and religious identity of Judaism.

Second Temple Period 516 BCE-70 CE
Period of the Tannaim 70-200 CE
*Tannaim: Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah
*leaders: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabban Gamaliel

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