[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.