Hillel and the Geir Who Wanted to be a Kohein Gadol by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


One of the Gemara’s most charming and well-known stories involves a non-Jew who sought to be converted on condition that he be appointed as Kohein Gadol. Careful examination of this anecdote, however, yields many questions that are most troubling. The answers to these questions present a much deeper and richer message than the simple reading of the story. I acknowledge the debt owed to my students at Torah Academy of Bergen County, my congregants at Shaarei Orah – the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck - and those who attended a Shiur on this story that I delivered at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in memory of Aliza Esral Z”L.

The Story

The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) relates:

A gentile was passing by a Beit Midrash and heard a scribe reading the verse, “And these are the clothes that they should make” (Shemot 28:4). The gentile came to the scribe to request an explanation of this Pasuk. The gentile asked, “Who is going to wear these clothes?” The scribe answered, “The Kohen Gadol.” The gentile said to himself, “I will convert so that I can become a Kohen Gadol.” He came to Shammai and told him why he wanted to become a Jew, and Shammai pushed him out of the house with a measuring stick for building that he had in his hand. The gentile then came to Hillel and said to him, “Convert me so that I shall become a Kohen Gadol.” Hillel converted him on the condition that he had requested. Afterwards Hillel said to him, “Is it possible to serve as King without knowing the royal protocols? Go and learn the royal protocols (i.e. the Torah).”

The gentile began learning Chumash. When he arrived at the verse, “Any stranger [who is not a Kohen] that shall come near [to serve in the Temple] shall die (Bemidbar 18:7),” he asked, “To whom is this verse referring?” He was told, “Even to someone as important as King David.” The gentile came to the following conclusion: The Jews are so precious in God's eyes that they are called “sons,” as it is written, “My son, my firstborn, O Israel” (Shemot 4:22), and nevertheless it is written, “Any stranger that shall come near shall die;” thus, for a convert who comes with his staff and his pack, will this not be so much more the case [that he will die]?

The gentile subsequently complained to Shammai for rejecting him without informing him of the aforementioned Pasuk and expressed his gratitude to Hillel for being patient and allowing him to “enter beneath the wings of the Shechinah.”

Rashi and the Maharsha

Maharsha (ad loc. s.v. Amar Leih) clarifies that Hillel did not convert this gentleman before he realized he could not become the Kohein Gadol. Hillel merely accepted him as a viable candidate for conversion. Had Hillel not accepted him as a feasible candidate, it would have been forbidden to teach him Torah, as it is forbidden to teach Torah to a Nochri (Chagigah 13b) unless he is doing so in contemplation of conversion[1]. Maharsha explains that Hillel converted the gentleman only after he came to recognize that he was ineligible to become the Kohein Gadol.

Rashi (s.v. Gayarei) seems to disagree. He implies that Hillel converted the gentleman even before he understood that he could not become the Kohein Gadol.

Three Questions on This Story

Thoughtful reflection on this story yields three major questions. First, Shammai appears to be entirely correct in his rejection of this gentile as a convert. A convert must accept the entire Torah unconditionally (see Bechorot 30b, which states that a convert must accept the entire Torah without exception, and Yevamot 24b, which states that we do not accept those who convert for ulterior motives such as marriage or political advancement) and certainly may not stipulate that he will convert only to become the Kohein Gadol! The motivation driving this conversion is hardly suitable for a lasting commitment to Torah life. This question is most acute according to Rashi who understands that Hillel converted this gentleman even before he recognized he could not become Kohein Gadol.

A second question may be posed regarding the convert’s behavior. If he converted simply to become the Kohein Gadol, why did he not retract his commitment to Judaism when he discovered that his goal could not be realized.

A third question is why Hillel specifically refers to King David and not to the monarchy in general. Hillel could have simply responded that even a king could not do the service. Why specifically mention David? Moreover, Hillel could have cogently cited the negative example of the successful Judean King Uziah who was struck with a lifetime of leprosy when he sought to perform the Kohein’s service in the Beit Hamikdash (Divrei HaYamim 26:16-19), instead of mentioning David HaMelech.

The Torah Temimah (BeMidbar 1:51, note 2) answers the third question by citing I Divrei HaYamim 15:2 where David HaMelech declares that only the Levi’im can carry the Aron. The convert realized that if regarding the work of the Levi’im King David would not overstep his boundaries, then he, for sure, could not be the High Priest. If a king is bound to his specific role - which he cannot exceed even as king - then the convert’s duty must also be to meet his specific role.

We may add that Hillel specified David HaMelech in order to communicate to the convert that one can be a great Jew such as David HaMelech (whose great grandmother Rut constitutes the paradigm of a proper convert) even if one is not the Kohein Gadol. Moreover, with this added insight, we can answer our other two questions. It sheds light onto Hillel’s decision to convert this gentleman. Hillel recognized that the gentile was not fundamentally interested in becoming the Kohein Gadol. Rather, Hillel discerned that the man was essentially seeking to serve Hashem in the highest manner possible. His request, as bizarre as it seemed, revealed an ambitious spiritual agenda.

Hillel recognized that patience with this gentleman would yield outstanding results. He intuited that in time, he could gently reveal that there are many portals and pathways for one to scale the heights of spirituality without serving as the Kohein Gadol, as taught by the example of David HaMelech.

Hillel’s message resonates with the convert, since it expresses his true motivations. Hillel, as a talented analyst of the human psyche, was able to reveal to the convert his subconscious motivations at the appropriate moment using a most appropriate method of communication.

A Mashal

A story can help us understand Hillel’s wisdom. Parents have great joy when they hear a child declare that one day he/she is going to grow up to be the president of the United States. From a child’s perspective, it is understandable why he/she would set this as a goal. The glamour of this office would clearly be an attractive life objective for a child. The reality is, though, that this office is not actually about celebrity and demands a commitment to intense work and the acceptance of overwhelming responsibility. It is positive for a child to declare that he/she is going to be the president, despite the fact that this dream will almost certainly not be fulfilled, because it’s constructive for a child to harbor lofty goals and high ambitions.

Similarly, Hillel perceived the positive aspect of the gentile’s ambition to become Kohein Gadol. Although it was an unrealistic expectation, Hillel recognized the positive nature of the ambition and in his wisdom redirected the ambition to a more reasonable direction.

Conclusion – VeHeyei Berachah and High Ambitions

Hashem blesses Avraham Avinu (BeReishit 12:2) that he and his children will bring Berachah to the world. Indeed, the Jewish People historically has been a nation of high ambition which has brought blessings to the world in manners that are entirely disproportionate to its small numbers.

Hillel recognized that someone of high spiritual ambition is a most worthy of becoming a Geir – an ideological child of Avraham Avinu. Moreover, Hillel identified with passionate ambitions to rise from the bottom to the top. Indeed, the Gemara (Yoma 38a) describes how Hillel was willing to sit on the roof of the Beit Midrash on a cold winter Friday night so he would not miss the Torah learning of the great Shemayah and Avtalyon. Thus, Hillel had empathy for the ambitious but misguided gentile who wished to become the Kohein Gadol. By redirecting his ambition instead of rejecting it, Hillel facilitated the addition of a great Jew to our community.

[1]Unlike Maharsha, Rav Akiva Eiger (Teshuvot number 41) prohibits teaching Torah to even a viable candidate for conversion. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:104), Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 2: Y.D. 17), and Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 3:98) all rule in accordance with Maharsha. Indeed, common practice follows the approach of Maharsha. In fact, Rav Hershel Schachter told me that a viable candidate for conversion should be invited for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals in order for him to learn how to conduct himself as a proper Jew after conversion. 

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