Relaxed Hillel – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


One of the most beloved figures in Chazal is the great Hillel HaZakein. Among the reasons he is so well loved is his famed affection for and patience with people in all circumstances. This series will analyze and outline the contours of Hillel’s golden character that makes him the very special Jew whose appeal extends to all Jews in all generations.

Attempting to Anger Hillel for Profit

Hillel’s reputation for being gentle and kind spread to the extent that an individual wagered a large amount of money that he would be able to bring Hillel to anger.

The Gemara (Shabbat 30b-31a) relates:

There was an incident where two individuals made a wager with each other, saying, “He who goes and makes Hillel angry shall receive 400 Zuz.” Said one, “I will go and anger him.” That day was Erev Shabbat, and Hillel was washing his head. He went, passed by the door of his house, and called out, “Is Hillel here, is Hillel here?” Thereupon he [Hillel] dressed and went out to him, saying, “My son, what do you require?” “I have a question to ask,” said he. “Ask, my son,” he responded. Thereupon he asked: “Why are the heads of the Babylonians round?” “My son, you have asked a great question,” he [Hillel] replied, “Because they have no skillful midwives.”

He [the man] departed, waited a while, returned, and called out, “Is Hillel here; is Hillel here?” He [Hillel] dressed and went out to him, saying, “My son, what do you require?” “I have a question to ask,” said he. “Ask, my son,” he responded. Thereupon he asked: “Why are the eyes of the Palmyreans soft?” “My son, you have asked a great question,” he [Hillel] replied, “Because they live in sandy places.”

He [the man] departed, tarried a while, returned, and called out, “Is Hillel here; is Hillel here?” He [Hillel] dressed and went out to him, saying, “My son, what do you require?” “I have a question to ask,” said he. “Ask, my son,” he responded. He asked, “Why are the feet of the Africans wide?” “My son, you have asked a great question,” he [Hillel] said, “Because they live in watery marshes.”

[The man then said,] “I have many questions to ask but fear that you may become angry.” Thereupon Hillel dressed, sat before him and said, “Ask all the questions you have to ask,” “Are you the Hillel who is called the Nasi (leader) of Israel?” “Yes,” he replied. “If that is you,” he retorted, “May there not be many like you in Israel.” “Why, my son?” Hillel asked. “Because I have lost 400 Zuz through you,” he complained. “Be careful of your moods,” Hillel answered, “Hillel is worth it that you should lose 400 Zuz and yet another 400 Zuz through him, yet Hillel shall not lose his temper.”


Maharsha (ad loc.) notes the multi-pronged strategy to irritate Hillel. First the instigator chose Erev Shabbat, a time when Jews are preparing for Shabbat and things can become somewhat stressful as everyone rushes to make the Shabbat deadline[1]. Moreover, the questioner stood outside and yelled for Hillel instead of going to the door like a gentleman and asking for Hillel. In addition, yelling, “Is Hillel here; is Hillel here?” is particularly provocative since it was well known that Hillel was there. Furthermore, it is grossly inappropriate to address a leading rabbinic figure with a worldwide reputation in such a manner. Finally, the questions posed to Hillel were utterly pointless and inane[2].

The Benefit of Patience and Kindness

Most people would burst with anger to have their pre-Shabbat preparations interrupted by pointless questions on three separate occasions, yet Hillel maintained his composure and equanimity. We must emphasize, though, that Hillel was not a “pushover.” When it was appropriate, Hillel acted assertively. In fact, at the conclusion of the story, he states, “Hillel is worth it that you should lose 400 Zuz and yet another 400 Zuz through him, yet Hillel shall not lose his temper.”

What does Hillel mean that it is worth it for the provocateur to have lost 800 Zuz? An answer may be derived from a stunning comment reportedly made by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Rav Elyashiv, who died in 2012 at the age of 101, was asked what was enabled him to live such a long life. He reportedly responded, “Because I never became aggravated or upset[3].” I reported this to a physician who responded that stress indeed does negatively impact one’s health. Thus, from a health perspective alone, it is worth training oneself to follow the role model of Hillel in not permitting oneself to be aggravated by irritating behavior. One who is able to ignore irritating behavior greatly increases his quality of life, as he avoids the aggravation of having to deal with the irritants.

Moreover, Hillel is renowned for teaching (Avot 1:12), “Be from among the students of Aharon; one who loves peace, one who pursues peace, one who loves others and brings them closer to Torah.” In our story, Hillel seems not only have to avoided irritation but also to have genuinely enjoyed the interaction with the gentleman who tried to provoke him to anger. Hillel refers to him as “my son” and even generously offers him to pose any question he would like to ask.

Hillel practiced his teaching and truly loved people and interacting with them. Such an attitude is priceless. Not only does it avoid the negative effects of stress, it increases quality of life by transforming a potentially irritating situation into a pleasant one. The spiritual benefits are great as well, since people want to be appreciated and liked. When a Torah Jew is perceived as open, friendly, and loving, it motivates people to want to draw near the person and the Torah he observes. A Kiruv professional once observed that outreach is successful when performed by “fun” and happy people. Hillel certainly modeled this behavior and those who follow his example reap the rewards of its manifold benefits.

The Relevance of Humility

The Gemara precedes the aforementioned story with the statement that one should be an “Anavtan,” a modest individual, as Hillel was. The question one must raise is what modesty has to do with Hillel’s behavior. Patience, tolerance, and love seem to be the relevant character traits in our story, not modesty.

To answer this question, we refer to Zechariah Ben Avkulus, another individual whose behavior was referred to as Anavtan.

The following story is recorded in the Gemara (Gittin 55b-56a):

There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,” but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead.

The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, “Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!” Bar-Kamtza said, “Since I'm here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.” The host responded, “No!” “I will pay for half the cost of the feast.” “No!” “I will pay the entire cost of the feast!” “No!' And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!

Bar-Kamtza thought, “Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I’ll go now, and slander the Jews to the king.” Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, “The Jews have rebelled against you!” The Caesar responded, “Who said so?” Bar-Kamtza said, “Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.”

The Caesar sent (with Bar-Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal. Some say that it was a blemish on the upper lip; others say that it was a blemish in the eye; in any case, a place where for us it is a disqualifying blemish while for the Romans it is not. The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabi Zechariah Ben Avkulos objected, “People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’”

The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar-Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to the Caesar. But Rabi Zechariah Ben Avkulos objected, “People will say, ‘One who makes blemishes in sacrifices is killed!’”

Rabi Yochanan said, “‘Avtanato,’ the modesty, of Rabi Zechariah Ben Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.”

In the case of Rabi Zechariah Ben Avkulos, Anavtan refers to his casual attitude towards his momentous decision regarding Bar-Kamtza and the disposition of his Korban. This mistaken behavior is corrected by the Pasuk (Mishlei 28:14) cited at the beginning of the Sugya, “Fortunate is one who is always fearful.” Tosafot (Gittin 55b s.v. Ashrei) explain that Mishlei and Chazal do not encourage constant anxiety. Instead, fear has its place when making decisions about matters of great importance, such as the one made by Rabi Zechariah Ben Avkulos. In such situations one should not act casually as Rabi Zechariah did; one should not be relaxed and unconcerned about the potential harmful results of his actions.

However, regarding most of our everyday interactions, such as the one Hillel experienced in the other story, we should adopt a relaxed and casual attitude, the Anavah, modesty, referred to at the beginning of the story. A common mistake is to act casually when we should be exercising prudence and fearing negative results. On the other hand, many also err by overreacting and taking too seriously our more casual interactions. The key to success is discerning which situations to adopt a relaxed, ‘Hillel,’ stance, and when to adopt a more sober and cautious stance. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is the lesson imparted by Hillel. The Gemara in Gittin 55b-56a cautions us, though, that we should “sweat the big stuff” – and failure to do so can lead to catastrophic results. May Hashem grant us the wisdom to discern between that for which we should relax and that which we must fear and exercise great caution towards.

Next week, we shall examine two other situations in which Hillel adopted a relaxed attitude and emerged as a great leader as a result.

[1] See Bava Kama 32 which cites Isi Ben Yehudah who rules that although one who runs in public is responsible for damage he causes since it is abnormal behavior, if the one who is running is doing so on Erev Shabbat at twilight he is Patur (excused from damages) because he is running with permission in order to be ready for Shabbat.

[2] See Maharsha who explains that the questions were not simply innocent and neutral but pointedly provocative.

[3] Rav Eliashiv, we should note, did have reason to become aggravated. He lost children during his lifetime including a daughter who was killed during the Arab violence of 1948. 

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