Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Jew of the Week: Hillel the Elder

Greatest of Sages

Hillel (c. 110 BCE-10 CE) was born in Babylon to a poor Jewish family, descended from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. To make a living, Hillel worked as a lumberjack. At the age of 40, he decided to move to Israel and further his Jewish studies. He went to work each morning and earned just enough to pay for his family’s needs, and for the tuition to the Jerusalem yeshiva of the sages Shemaiah and Avtalion. One winter, when he didn’t have the funds to pay the yeshiva fee, Hillel climbed up to the roof to listen in to the classes from the chimney. He was so engrossed in the learning that he didn’t realize the snowstorm that began to brew around him. In the morning, the yeshiva students noticed the clogged chimney and went up to find Hillel frozen on top of it. For his dedication, he was granted free tuition for life. Hillel went on to become the greatest rabbi in the world. He headed the Jerusalem yeshiva, and was also elected president (nasi) of Israel, and chief of the Sanhedrin. He had eighty pairs of disciples, including the famed rabbis Yonatan ben Uziel and Yochanan ben Zakkai. Hillel was famous for his incredible patience. In one account, a man made a bet that he could get Hillel angry so he bothered Hillel incessantly on the eve of Shabbat, yet Hillel remained calm and pleasant. When the man admitted to the bet and told Hillel how he lost 400 zuz, a huge sum of money, Hillel replied: “It is better that you lose 400 zuz, and even another 400 zuz, than that I should get angry!” The school of Hillel became the dominant school in Judaism, and to this day Jewish law always rules according to Beit Hillel. He is one of the most-oft cited sages in the Mishnah, the ancient corpus of Jewish law. Among his most well-known teachings is the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, and “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?” Finally, it was Hillel who instituted the prozbul: In the sabbatical Shemitah year (such as the one beginning next week), the Torah commands that all personal debts between Jews must be cancelled. Because of this, Jews started to avoid handing out loans in the months before the sabbatical, worried that they would never be repaid. To ensure that the needy could still draw loans, Hillel crafted an important legal loophole known as the prozbul, still widely used. According to tradition, Hillel lived 120 years. He stood up for the poor and oppressed, and was beloved for his kindness, charity, and positivity. The Sages would later remark that each person should strive “to be humble and patient like Hillel.”

Shana Tova u’Metuka! Have a Wonderful 5782!

The Kabbalah of Hillel and Shammai

Words of the Week

Gems from Hillel the Elder:

“Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

“Whoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.”

“Where there are no men, strive to be a man!”

“Do not say ‘When I have free time I shall study’ – for you may never have any ‘free time’.”

“Be like the disciples of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creations, and drawing them closer to the Torah.”

Jews of the Week: Zalman Shazar and Reuven Rivlin

Two Israeli Presidents

Reuven Rivlin (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem to a family descended from the great Vilna Gaon, that made aliyah in 1809. His father was a Hebrew University professor who first translated the Koran into Hebrew. Not surprisingly, Rivlin speaks Arabic fluently. That made him a key asset during those years when he served in the IDF Intelligence Corps. In the Six-Day War, Rivlin fought with the Jerusalem Brigade. He later studied law at Hebrew University, and served on Jerusalem’s City Council. In 1988, he was elected chairman of Likud and took his first seat in the Knesset. In 2003, he became Knesset Speaker, a position he held until 2014, when he was elected Israel’s tenth president. In that election, he had the support of Arab MKs, despite the fact that he has always been very right-wing, heavily criticized the withdrawal from Gaza, declared that “West Bank settlements are as Israeli as Tel Aviv”, and continues to push for a one-state solution. Nonetheless, he has been praised for building bridges in Israel, and being an eloquent spokesperson on the state’s behalf. Rivlin is a vegetarian and a big supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which he once managed decades ago. Earlier this month, his term as Israel’s president came to an end, and he has been replaced by (former Jew of the Week) Isaac Herzog.

Schneur Zalman Rubashov (1889-1974) was born in the Belorussian town of Mir, near Minsk, to a deeply religious Chabad family, and was named after Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. From a young age, he was drawn to Zionism and was also a member of Jewish self-defence organizations in Eastern Europe. He regularly wrote articles for a number of Yiddish publications. After being released from the Russian army in 1924, he made aliyah and settled in Tel-Aviv, changing his last name to “Shazar” (an acronym of his full name). There he worked for the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) and also as a journalist. In 1947, Shazar was part of the Jewish delegation to the UN during the critical Partition Plan vote. He was elected to the first Knesset in 1949 and became the new state’s Minister of Education. In 1963, Shazar was elected Israel’s third president. He wrote a goodwill message that was taken by the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, where it still rests. On it he wrote: “From the President of Israel in Jerusalem with hope for ‘abundance of peace so long as the moon endures’ (Psalms 72:7).” Shazar was a devoted member of the “Chein Circle” for Hasidic study in Jerusalem, often hosting the group in his presidential residence. He became a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and later helped him produce his renowned translation and commentary of the Talmud. Shazar kept a regular correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and often visited him in Brooklyn. He co-founded Kfar Chabad in Israel. Shazar passed away shortly after completing his second term as Israel’s president. Today, his portrait appears on the Israeli 200 shekel note.

Words of the Week

I have no doubt, and my positions are known, that the status of Judaism according to halachah is what has kept us going for 3,800 years.
– Reuven Rivlin

President Shazar toasts the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad headquarters (770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn)

Jew of the Week: Natan Sharansky

The Refusenik

Anatoly Borisovich Sharansky (b. 1948) was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. He was a child chess prodigy, and won his city’s chess championship as a teenager. He went on to study math in Moscow and later worked in a secret Soviet research lab. In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel and was refused. Henceforth, he became a vocal activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and became the world’s most famous refusenik. He soon expanded his scope to work for all human rights, and was the spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, today Russia’s primary human rights organization. In 1977, Sharansky was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, and sentenced to 13 years of hard labour. He was tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. (He would later remark that one of the things that helped him through it was playing chess in his mind.) After ceaseless activism from his wife, mother, and countless international supporters, Sharansky was finally released in 1986. Shortly after, he received a Congressional Gold Medal from the US government. He moved to Israel and started going by his Hebrew name, Natan. A couple of years later, he published a bestselling memoir, Fear No Evil. (This book was passed on by Helen Suzman to Nelson Mandela, then still in prison, and inspired his ongoing struggle.) In 1995, Sharansky co-founded the Yisrael BaAliyah political party to advocate on behalf of hundreds of thousands of new Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel. They won seven seats in their first election. Sharansky served as Minister of Industry and Trade, then Minister of Internal Affairs, and even Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. In 2003, as chairman of his party, he merged it with Likud, and became Minister of Jerusalem Affairs. In 2005, Sharansky resigned in protest of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He is a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements, and co-founded One Jerusalem, an organization that works to keep the Jewish capital from being divided ever again. President Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2006, and he won the Israel Prize in 2018. Last year, he won the prestigious Genesis Prize, and donated all $1 million of it for coronavirus relief. Currently, Sharansky heads the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, and continues to serve on the board of the Jewish Agency.

Sharansky: The Dangerous Rise of the Un-Jews

Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict in 5 Easy Points

Words of the Week

Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state… but not at the expense of the state of Israel.
– Natan Sharansky