of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


Hillel and Shammai received [the tradition] from them. Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron - loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

According to a passage in the Talmud of Eretz-Israel [Pesaĥim 39b-40a] what decided Hillel to study in Jerusalem was the fact that in his studies in Babylon he had found what seemed to him to be irreconcilable contradictions in the biblical text, and he hoped that the new method of midrash ha-Torah as developed by Shemayah and Avtalyon would help him resolve these difficulties. (See Avot050 for further remarks on the system of midrash ha-Torah.)

Upon arriving in Eretz-Israel Hillel found life very difficult. There is a very moving passage in the Gemara [Yoma 35b] which describes his situation very nicely:

Every day he would seek jobs from which he would earn one Tarapik [a small coin]. Half of what he had earned he would give to the doorman of the Bet Midrash [as an entrance fee] and the other half would serve for the daily keep of himself and his household. On one occasion he couldn't find a job and the doorman would not let him in, so he climbed up and settled himself next to the chimney outlet so that he would be able to hear from Shemayah and Avtalyon the words of the living God. That day happened to be a Friday and it was also mid winter; snow fell upon him. When morning came Shemayah said to Avtalyon, "Brother Avtalyon, most days there is light in the Bet Midrash, but today it is dark; maybe it's very cloudy." They looked up and saw a human shape by the chimney. They climbed up and found him covered by three cubits of snow. They rescued him, washed him, and sat him by the fire. They said, "This Hillel is worthy that for him we desecrate Shabbat."

Such were the circumstances in which Hillel studied Torah upon his arrival in Eretz-Israel. According to another and unrelated passage in the Gemara [Ketubot 64a] a Tarapik was worth half a dinar (half a zuz); professional craftsmen (carpenters, for example) could expect to earn three or four dinars each day. Thus the amount charged for entrance to the sessions of the Bet Midrash was quite minimal (one quarter of a zuz), but for the impoverished Hillel it was half his income. It seems that the request for payment to attend the sessions of the Bet Midrash was in order to make sure that those attending were really serious. This payment was eventually abolished about a century later.

Hillel's great knowledge came to public attention one year when the 14th Nisan fell on Shabbat. This was a comparatively rare occurrence. In our own times this has occurred only twice in the past twenty years and will occur only twice in the next twenty years. As we learned when we studied Tractate Pesaĥim, on the day before Pesaĥ thousands of people would throng to the courtyard of the Bet Mikdash to have their paschal offering slaughtered in readiness for the Seder service which would be held during the following evening. After the deaths of Shemayah and Avtalyon the leadership of the Pharisaic movement had passed to (unnamed) scholars of the Beteyra family, and when the time came they did not know what to do. The question at issue was whether the duty of slaughtering the paschal lambs was more important than the Shabbat prohibitions, or whether the sanctity of Shabbat should prevent the slaughter of the paschal lambs. What happened next is recounted in the Gemara [Pesaĥim 66a]:

They were told that there was a certain Hillel who had immigrated from Babylon and who had studied under the greatest scholars of the age, Shemayah and Avtalyon, and he would know whether the [slaughter of the] paschal lamb overrides Shabbat or not.

The Beteyra family sent for Hillel and asked him whether he knew what everyone needed to know, whether the slaughter of the paschal lamb overrides Shabbat restrictions or not.

He responded, "Is there only one such lamb each year? We have more than two hundred such lambs every year, that override Shabbat!" They said, "How come?" He replied, "The term at its appropriate time is used in connection with the paschal lamb and the same term is used in connection with the daily sacrifice. We know that the appropriate time concerning the daily sacrifice overrides Shabbat, so the appropriate time in the case of the paschal lamb must indicate that it overrides Shabbat."

Here Hillel is using the new technique introduced by Shemayah and Avtalyon: making logical inferences from what part of the biblical text to another. There is a certain term that is used by the text of the Torah in connection with the daily sacrifice, and we also know that the duty to slaughter the daily sacrifice overrides the Shabbat prohibitions. Now, that same term, at its appropriate time [in Hebrew just one word: be-mo'ado, Numbers 28:2], appears also in connection with the paschal lamb [Numbers 9:2]. Therefore we can infer that what applies in the known case also applies in the other case, and therefore it is permitted to slaughter the paschal lamb on Shabbat.

But Hillel wants to hammer home the efficacy of this novel system. He tells his audience that one can reach the same conclusion also by using another mode of logical inference, 'inference from minor to major' [in Hebrew kal va-ĥomer].

Not to offer the daily sacrifice does not involve the punishment of excision yet it overrides Shabbat; is it not then logical that the paschal lamb, the omission of which does incur the punishment of excision, must override Shabbat?

We know that the punishment for not slaughtering of the paschal lamb is excision [Numbers 9:13] and we also know that there is no such punishment for omitting to offer the daily sacrifice. The daily sacrifice is therefore 'minor' compared with the more severe case of the paschal lamb. We know that the daily sacrifice must be slaughtered on Shabbat. If this is the case with the 'minor' element in our logical equation must it not be quite obvious that the paschal lamb must be slaughtered even on Shabbat?

This display of midrashic brilliance impressed all who heard it.

To be continued.