Tag Archives: Sanhedrin

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.”

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

In Memory of a “Once-in-a-Millennium Scholar”

Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (1937-2020) was born in Jerusalem to parents who had made aliyah from Eastern Europe a decade earlier. His father was completely secular, and a devoted socialist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of Communist International. Nonetheless, his father wanted his son to know what Judaism was all about, and made sure to have him tutored by a rabbi. Meanwhile, young Steinsaltz studied math and science at Hebrew University. He then took up rabbinical studies at Chabad’s Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination), Steinsaltz tried to establish a neo-Hasidic community in the Negev, but was unsuccessful. He then became a school principal and, being just 24 years old, was the youngest principal in Israel’s history. In 1965, he embarked on a life-long journey to translate the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, along with composing a detailed commentary to explain its complexities. He finished the massive 42-volume set in 2010, after which it was translated into English, too, and shared freely online to make Talmudic learning accessible for everyone. Rabbi Steinsaltz also wrote profusely about topics that span the gamut of Judaism, including bestsellers on Kabbalah and Hasidism. Altogether, he penned over 60 books and some 200 other original texts of Jewish thought. (He even wrote an unpublished science fiction novel!) Meanwhile, Rabbi Steinsaltz helped found several yeshivas in Israel, as well as the Jewish University in Russia, with campuses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He had spent several years in the former Soviet Union to help re-establish Jewish life there, and in 1995 was given the title of Russia’s duchovny ravin, the “spiritual head” of Russian Jewry. In 2004, a large gathering of rabbis in Israel sought to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Steinsaltz accepted the nomination to head the court, being given the title nasi, “president”. Before he suffered a stroke in 2016, he was known to regularly give classes until two in the morning. He spent time at Yale University as a scholar-in-residence, and received honourary degrees from five universities. Among his many awards is the prestigious Israel Prize. His motto was “Let my people know!” and he has been compared to a modern-day Rashi and Maimonides. Sadly, Rabbi Steinsaltz, one of the Jewish world’s most beloved public figures, passed away last Friday.

Words of the Week

The Bible is the record of when God talks to Man. The Talmud is Man talking to God.
– Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Rabbi Kook

Rabbi Kook

Avraham Itzhak Kook (1865-1935) was born in what is now Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire). Recognized as a young prodigy, he spent only a year and a half at the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, and yet, it was said that it was worthwhile for the yeshiva to have been founded just for him. After serving as head rabbi of several European towns, in 1904 Kook settled in Israel to become rabbi of Jaffa (Yafo), overseeing predominantly secular Zionists, whom he was able to inspire with Torah, and lead them to incorporate more observance into their lives. World War I broke out while he was on a trip to Europe, preventing him from returning to the Holy Land. Wasting no time, he served as a rabbi in London, England until the end of the war, then returned to Israel and took up the post in Jerusalem. He was instrumental in establishing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and saw it as a stepping stone towards reinstating the Sanhedrin. In 1921 he was appointed Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine.

Rabbi Kook wrote excessively on Jewish law and exegesis. Many of these profound writings were only published after his death, and continue to make a powerful impact on people around the world. Kook founded Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav (“Centre of the Many”), Israel’s central academy for religious Zionists. He was beloved as a figure who tried to bridge the gaps between various sectors of Jewish society, especially between secular and religious. He also tried to win over the non-Zionist religious groups, and often preached that the re-establishment of the state of Israel was a necessary precursor for the coming of Mashiach. Kook remained totally apolitical, and refused to join any parties, working to unify groups instead of separating them into even smaller factions. His love for the Torah, the land of Israel, and the Jewish nation was renowned, and at his passing, over 20,000 mourners attended his funeral in Jerusalem (out of a total population of roughly 130,000!) He commanded a photographic memory and it was said there was no mystical secret he did not know. Some consider him to be the most influential religious Jewish thinker of the 20th century.

 

Words of the Week

The truly righteous do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.
– Rav Kook