The Rabbi's Essays

A TELLING TALE. Insights into Hillel’s Golden Rule


Insights into Hillel’s Golden Rule (1986)

Shammai and Hillel

One of the most familiar of all anecdotes in the Talmud relates of the gentile who came to the Sages Shammai and Hillel with the preposterous request that he be made a proselyte “while I stand on one foot”

Shammai, who was renowned for not suffering fools gladly, showed his visitor the door in none too gentle a fashion. When the same man came before ever-patient Hillel with an identical request, the Sage immediately agreed, replying: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your friend (da’alach s’nei le-chavrach,la ta’aveid). This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it!” (zil g’mor) (Shabbat 31a).

Simple Interpretation

Almost no narrative has suffered more from supperficial interpretation than has this one. It is most commonly quoted in order to demonstrate the virtue of treating our fellow as we would like to be treated – assuredly, the basic lesson of the story. Others unhappily use it for less legitimate ends. One may say that it has become the motto of the Jew who seeks to justify his credo that it is enough to be a decent human being – that is surely all the Creator wants of us (and he might add under his breath if a Creator there be ….)

If we care to examine in just a little more depth what exactly Hillel said – and what he didn’t say – we may grow to a rather more considered appreciation of this remarkable tale.

Our Difficulties

Let us firstly pose four key questions on the response of Hillel to his questioner:-

  1. Why does Hillel feel he has to encapsulate the Torah in a single pithy aphorism? Granted that the Sage wishes to demonstrate that the essence of Torah can be summarised while his challenger “stands on one foot”, an average person is able to balance himself on one foot for as long as it takes to recount quickly, let’s say, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments which, according to our Sages, are actually ten headings for each of the other 603 mitsvot of the Torah. Thus in a very real sense, the Aseret haDibrot could be said to be ‘essence’ of the entire Torah! Why does Hillel not cite the Ten Commandments?
  2. How can Hillel exclude G-D from his formulation? How does the epithet “What is hateful to you don’t do to your friend” embrace kabbalat ohl malchut Shamayim, the acceptance of G-D’s Sovereignty over the earth which is so basic to Judaism – not to mention the man-to-G-D duties like wearing of tsitsit, the keeping of kashrut, etc. which (ostensibly) aren’t observed in order to benefit our neighbour. In this respect, wouldn’t Micah’s celebrated injunction to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your GD” (6:8) have been a more well-rounded summary of the essence of Torah?
  3. On what basis can Hillel call his epithet “the whole Torah” while terming all the rest merely “commentary” or “explanation” (piyrusha)
  4. Perhaps the most perplexing question still remains: Why does Hillel express his ‘Golden Rule’ in the negative rather than the positive formulation of the Torah itself, namely “love your neighbour as yourself (19:18) which Rabbi Akiva was to cite a generation or two later as a “fundamental rule of the Torah” (Sifri). Is Hillel seeking to improve upon the wording of G-D Himself?

Now let us attempt to answer the above questions basing ourselves upon the wisdom of our Sages throughout the generations.

Single Rule

  1. The usual meaning of al regel achat is “while standing on one foot” – and it is fairly obvious from the context that this is what the questioner intended to say. However it is far from inconceivable that Hillel pretends to misunderstand him and – in a clever play-on-words – interprets al regel achat according to the more unusual rendering: “in one rule”. The word regel can mean “rule” – indeed the two words may be etymologically connected – and this indeed is how Me’am Lo’ez (an 18th-century Ladino commentary on the Torah) interprets the word. (In Genesis 33:14, the word regel bears a similar meaning.) What Hillel could be saying is (punning on the word regel): “What’s hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow – this is the single rule, the yardstick by which we can measure the worth of all the other commandments (piyrusha)” As if to tactfully imply: you couldn’t have ben so flippant and disrespectful as to literally mean “standing on one foot”, could you now! This would explain why the Ten Commandments are not quoted. The Ten Commandments do not constitute “a single rule”

Double Meaning

  1. Now that we understand why Hillel was so desirous of imparting the lesson by means of a single rule, it follows that he would not wish to dilute this by citing a plurality of principles, some on the theme of the love of G-D, others preaching love of one’s fellow-man. Thus the threefold injunction of Micah has to be rejected for Hillel’s purposes. He has instead to proffer a maxim where a single word is capable of a double meaning. A verse in Proverbs (27:10) declares” “Do not abandon your friend and the friend of your father” (rei’acha ve-re’a avicha. It will be noted that the “love your friend as yourself” verse in the Torah also uses the word rei’acha). On the basis of the similarity between this phrase and the phrase used so frequently throughout Scripture “the G-D of your father”, the Midrash (also cited by Rashi) comments “your Friend and the Friend of your father” i.e. G-D who is your Friend and was also the beloved Friend of the Patriarchs. Similarly, Hillel’s chavrach (“your friend”) may well carry a double meaning. Hillel thus interprets the Golden Rule as not only addressing the love of one’s fellow but also the love of G-D. If so, question 2 is answered. Hillel does not exclude the Creator from his formulation.

Laced with Irony

  1. We have seen – assuming we are correct in our analysis of the workings of the Sage’s mind – how crucial Hillel considers Torah-interpretation (piyrusha) to be. So much so that Torah and piyrusha are, in Hillel’s mind, virtually inseparable from each other – as they indeed were for all the Sages who considered the Torah without its oral commentaries as akin to a map without a key. Therefore, Hillel’s words “the rest is commentary” are assuredly heavily laced with irony. If so, this would appropriately parallel the lesson Hillel taught to another would-be proselyte who approached him with the request that he be accepted despite affirming only the Written and not the Oral Torah. On the first day, Hillel taught him the Alef-Bet and on the second the Alef-Bet in reverse. When the gentile protested this inconsistency, Hillel retorted: “You see how reliant you are on upon me to teach you the Alef-Bet orally? Why then do you not trust me with regard to the Oral Torah? Can’t you see how the two are inseparable?” So too here, it is highly likely that Hillel is saying: Can you even begin to appreciate the depth of interpretation inherent in the dictum I just taught you, to love your neighbour as yourself? Well – the rest of the Torah consists of such ‘interpretation’ also. Now go away and study it! This would also account for the peremptory, imperative nature of those final too words zil g’mor, “go learn!”. They seem far less out of place when we interpret the whole of Hillel’s reply as leading up to that climax.

Instant Expertise

  1. We have yet to understand why Hillel chose a ‘negative’ formulation of the Golden Rule. Now we shall begin to perceive the full brilliance of his response. How can he, in a single comprehensive rule, answer his questioner directly and – at the same time – deliver such a stinging rebuke that the questioner will learn the dearest lesson of his life? This Hillel succeeds in doing. We shall imagine the full conversation between Hillel and his visitor as having proceeded along the following lines: What are you? Perhaps an itinerant peddler skilled at selling your wares, or possibly a talented artist or craftsman? Have you maybe achieved fame as a philosopher? Or are you an expert in the sciences of mathematics or astronomy? How would you like it if I came to you and requested you to teach me all the skills you have acquired over many years while I stand on one foot? or in one rule? Well – what is hateful to you, don’t do to another! If you wouldn’t like it – neither do I! If your skills cannot be acquired in a single breath, how much less so knowledge of G-D’s Torah! (This is the ultimate irony not only of Hillel’s age but also of our own; only in matters of the spirit do people think they can achieve expertise on one foot; only in matters of religion – and maybe politics – is everyone an instant expert!) And so, my friend, you really had better go away and learn!

Go and Study!

We know from our traditional sources that the gentile agreed; he did go away and study and became a proselyte. Now it is easier for us to understand why. After all, a hardened sceptic is scarcely likely to go away and study just because a rabbi told him to! Not unless he had just learned a lesson he couldn’t ignore.

How closely did we resemble Hillel’s visitor in our belief that we could reach a mature understanding of even this seemingly simplest tale in the Talmud while we would “stand upon one leg”? Perhaps we too had better rest our leg and go away and study some more!