[Note: This essay relates to both the HSC optional study of Hillel and the Year 11 study of the Jewish Oral Law, and also to Christian-Jewish relations]

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1.14)

This is one of the sayings of Hillel the Elder (c.60 BCE – c.10CE) included in the collection of aphorisms known as the “The Ethics of the Fathers”. This is a tractate, or section, of the Talmud which comprises a few hundred wisdom sayings by 72 sages between the first century BCE and the second century CE.

Other sayings of Hillel recorded in the tractate are similarly thought-provoking:

“Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; be one who loves his fellow men, and draws them near to the Torah.” (1.12)

“Do not keep aloof from the community; be not sure of yourself until the day of your death; do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his place; do not say anything which cannot be understood at once, in the hope that ultimately it will be understood; and do not say: ‘When I have leisure I shall study’, for you may never have leisure.” (2.5)

Every child with a Jewish education also knows Hillel’s version of the ‘golden rule’ common to most religions. Asked by a non-Jew to summarise the Torah “while standing on one leg”, Hillel responded, “Do not do to others what would be hateful if done to you. That is the whole of the Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Hillel was born in Babylonia (present-day Iraq), and moved to Jerusalem in order to study. According to the Talmudic account he earned his living as a woodcutter, and since he was too poor to pay the academy’s fee, it was decided that fees would be abolished for all students. Certainly he studied under the famous Jewish intellectual ‘twins’, Shemaya and Avtalyon, and he was himself to become a ‘twin’ with the learned Shammai, with whom he was in constant friendly disputation.

In about 20 BCE, during the reign of Herod the Great, Hillel became the ‘nasi’ (president) of the Sanhedrin, an assembly of 71 sages which operated both as a political assembly and as the superior court of the nation. It was in his capacity as President of the Sanhedrin that Hillel played a central role in the enterprise of creating a coherent system of legal and ethical interpretation, and became known as one of the great architects of the Oral Law. Those who were engaged in this enterprise, or who supported the philosophy behind it, are the people who eventually became known as the Pharisees.

The origin of the term ‘Pharisee’ (‘Perush’ in Hebrew, possibly implying ‘separated’) is unclear. Apart from the New Testament, the earliest surviving written use of the word appears in The Jewish War by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, written in Rome but in the Greek languge, towards the end of the first century – around the time of the earliest Gospel writers. Writing for an audience raised on Greek philosophy, Josephus neatly classifies the Judaism of the beginning of the Common Era into schools of thought which also operate as political movements.

In the framework described by Josephus and generally accepted in modern Jewish thinking, the Pharisees are seen by way of contrast to the Sadducees. The Sadducees, representing a privileged hereditary priestly caste in charge of the Temple rituals, insisted on a literal application of the written law. The Pharisees, on the other hand, held that in addition to the written law there is a supplementary oral law, equally divine in its origins, which is ascertained by the sages by a process of interpretation. The Pharisees in the narrative of Josephus are supported by the general mass of the people and they are usually (but not always) opposed to the Roman power and to the Judean monarchy.

While Josephus portrays the schools of thought in simplified terms, the political events are presented as a bloodthirsty and complex narrative designed to appeal to the tastes of his Roman readers and not easily summarised. Suffice to say that by the end of the first century BCE the Pharisaic sages were effectively in control of the Sanhedrin.

It was at this time that the Sanhedrin was developing rules of evidence which ensured that leniency prevailed and that the death penalty was rarely if ever imposed. Adultery, for example, could be proved only by the evidence of two eyewitnesses to the event. The Court was also opposed to the Herodian puppet kings and the Roman procurators who sold the right to collect the Roman taxes to “tax-farmers” who used ruthless force to oppress the population with confiscatory taxation. Indeed the Court made a point of simply refusing to accept the evidence of a tax-collector.

As President of the Sanhedrin, Hillel played his part in the foundation of the system developed by the Pharisaic sages by contributing to the development of general principles for interpretation and codification of the Oral Law. This was part of a process which culminated at the beginning of the third century CE in the compilation of the Mishnah. (lit. “repetition”) in Galilee. (It is in this work that the Hebrew word ‘perush’ first appears in writing.) The Mishnah is a collection in logical order of the legal and ritual rulings of the leading commentators, often differing and recorded side by side, and interspersed with history, legend and moral and religious philosophy.

Thus Hillel is credited, for example, with codifying the existing rules of scriptural interpretation, and producing what became known as the “Seven Rules of Hillel”. These set out principles which judges or lawmakers can apply in a particular case where the Biblical law is ambiguous or silent. He is also credited with originating the division into the separate areas of law, the six “Orders”, into which the Mishnah came to be organised.

Hillel’s significant practical contribution, however, was to adapt Biblical law to meet the current social and economic needs of the time. One example of such a reform related to the rule that the vendor of real estate in a walled city had a “cooling-off period” of up to twelve months to redeem the property sold. In order to overcome the practice of purchasers disappearing for the twelve-month period, Hillel instituted a procedure which enabled the vendor to enforce his right to recover the property by making a deposit of the price for re-purchase with the Temple treasury.

This right, which applied to land in a walled city, differed from the rules which applied to rural land in the countryside. There the Biblical law was that the family land could never be permanently alienated, and that even after a sale, all land must be returned to its original owners in the Jubilee Year, which occurred in every fiftieth year. The result that what appeared to be a sale was really a lease, and the families of the original owners would eventually regain their agricultural land.

Another reform credited to Hillel was an improved draft of the ‘prosbul’, a document which enabled commercial borrowers to obtain finance for terms which passed through the Sabbatical Year

The tradition is that in developing the law Hillel favoured flexible, or ‘liberal’ interpretations, while his fellow judge Shammai preferred a stricter approach. After Hillel’s death in about 20CE, he was succeeded as President of the Sanhedrin by Shammai, who occupied the position for about ten years. We have one example of a ruling by Shammai in a non-ritual matter: a decision that one who sends another to kill is as guilty as the actual perpetrator. A saying of Shammai is interesting: “Make your study of the Torah a regular habit; say little but do much; and receive all men cheerfully.”

In later generations the differences of opinion between strict and lenient rulings came to be ascribed to the “School of Hillel” and to the “School of Shammai”, and the School of Hillel was almost always held to prevail.

The website of the Jewish Virtual Library records the view of the kabbalist mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria (the “Ari”), who wrote in Safed in Galilee in the sixteenth-century. He said that the words of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel both endure, but each has its time and place. The Ari believed that in our present reality, where divine commandments must be imposed upon an imperfect world, the rulings of the House of Hillel represent the ultimate in conformity to the divine will, while the rulings of the House of Shammai represent an ideal that is too lofty for our present condition, and can only be realized on the conceptual level. In the era of the Messiah, which is yet to arrive according to Judaism, a perfected world will embrace the more exacting application of Torah law expressed by the House of Shammai, while the Hillelian school of interpretation will endure only conceptually.

By the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, the Pharisaic sages had come to receive the title of ‘rabbi’ (‘my teacher’), and after the Temple was destroyed Rabbinic Judaism eventually became the normative practice of the Jewish people. That is one of the reasons why the negative portrayal of the Pharisees in the New Testament remains a source of deep misunderstanding between Christians and Jews. In recent years, however, the Christian churches have made a serious effort at religious reconciliation, and this has included a willingness to engage in scriptural re-interpretation.

The Roman Catholic Church led the way with a Declaration of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, known as “Nostra Aetate”, which withdrew the charge of deicide against the Jews and recognised the validity of a Jewish covenant. In November 1992 the Catholic Church formally launched the “Australian Guidelines for Catholic Jewish Relations”, and this was followed by similar statements issued by the Uniting and Lutheran churches.

Recommended Activity 10(d) in the Catholic Guidelines calls for an “explicit rejection” of the “notion that the Judaism of that time, especially Pharisaism, was hypocritical and nothing more than an empty observance”. The Gospel accounts of episodes denigrating alleged Jewish attitudes and practices of the time are countered in paragraph 10(b) which acknowledges the “richly diverse and creative religious, social and cultural life of the Jewish community in the first century of the Common Era.” Paragraph 10(f) makes a generalised call for “further analysis” of “such expressions as ‘the Jews’ by St. John and of other New Testament references”.

It is to be hoped that the development of such positive attitudes, and the opportunities for students in the Studies of Religion course to gain introductory impressions of the richness of the various religious traditions, will make a special contribution to communal understanding in Australia.

© Ian Lacey AM 2006