Last week we noted how Hillel could not be provoked to anger. We saw that Chazal encourage us to emulate Hillel and adopt a similar “chilled” attitude towards most situations in life, which we mistakenly take too seriously. In this week’s essay, we seek to demonstrate two other situations where Hillel refrained from acting aggressively. Instead, his calm demeanor and patience vaulted him into a position of leading the entire Jewish People and positively impacting them for future generations.
Hillel and the Snow
The Gemara (Yoma 35b) relates that Hillel used to work each day to earn a bit of money, half of which was spent to support his family, and half of which was paid to the guard at the Beit Midrash to allow him to enter and learn from the great teachers inside. One Friday, he failed to earn the money necessary to be admitted to the Beit Midrash, and was therefore barred from entering. Undaunted, Hillel climbed up to the roof of the Beit Midrash just before Shabbat and listened through the skylight to the Torah Shiurim delivered inside by the great Shemayah and Avtalyon. Snow fell on him throughout the extremely cold winter night. The next morning, he was discovered virtually frozen beneath three cubits of snow, and the people in the Beit Midrash put aside the laws of Shabbat to save his life.
Hillel’s equanimity and composure is quite evident in this story. Not once does Hillel complain, even after nearly freezing to death, about the fee for admission and the failure to waive the fee for indigent individuals who deeply desire to learn Torah, that all but caused him to die. Not once did Hillel complain to Shemayah and Avtalyon about their restrictive admission policy. This restraint benefitted Hillel in the long run, as such a bitter response may have prevented the special relationship between Hillel and his teachers Shemayah and Avtalyon from developing.
Hillel’s unplanned demonstration of his extraordinary commitment to Torah learning brought himself to the attention of Shemayah and Avtalyon and the Jewish leaders in Eretz Yisrael. Hillel did not actively promote himself to be regarded as a leading Talmid of Shemayah and Avtalyon. Hillel is a living example of his teaching that appears in the Mishnah (Avot 1:13), “One who promotes his name will lose his name.” The implication is that if Hashem wants someone to rise in prominence, He will create the opportunities for that individual to emerge as the leader. A prime example of this is Hillel’s ancestor David HaMelech, who did not promote himself to become king. Instead, Hashem presented the opportunities, such as Shmuel’s anointment and Golyat’s challenge, to allow for David to emerge as leader.
Hillel adopted a relaxed approach and did not make himself noticed in the Beit Midrash of Shemayah and Avtalyon. Instead, Hashem orchestrated a situation in which Hillel’s devotion to Torah learning was innocently advertised and brought to the attention of Shemayah, Avtalyon, and other leaders.
Hillel and the Benei Beteirah
The next story reveals how even after rising to prominence in the Beit Midrash of Shemayah and Avtalyon, Hillel adopted a relaxed attitude and did not push to become the Halachic leader of our people.
The Gemara (Pesachim 66a) relates the following incident:
On one occasion, the 14th of Nissan fell out on Shabbat. The Benei Beteirah forgot the Halachah and did not know if the Shechitah (slaughter) of the Korban Pesach overrides Shabbat. They proclaimed: ‘Is there anyone who knows whether the Korban Pesach overrides Shabbat?’ The Benei Beteriah were told that a man who made Aliyah from Bavel, named Hillel the Bavli, who studied with the two leading Torah sages of the generation, Shemayah and Avtalyon, knows the answer. They summoned him and asked him if he knew whether the Korban Pesach overrides the Shabbat.
Hillel proceeded to prove that just as the Korban Tamid is offered on Shabbat, so, too, the Korban Pesach is offered on Shabbat. To their credit, the Benei Beteirah recognized that Hillel was more worthy than they to lead our people and they abdicated their position and appointed Hillel as Nasi, head of the Sanhedrin.
Hillel once again embodies the teaching of Chazal (Berachot 64a) that one who is “Docheik Et HaSha’ah,” prematurely pushes ahead, will be pushed away, but one who is “Nidcheh Mipnei HaSha’ah,” patiently waits for Hashem to present an opportunity for advancement, will emerge as the leader. Hillel did not lobby to replace the obviously less qualified Benei Beteirah. Rather, he waited for the opportunity where he could gracefully assume the leadership position without having to force his way past the Benei Beteirah.
Hillel once again follows the example of his ancestor, Yehudah. While Reuven prematurely and ineffectively pushes to lead the brothers back to Mitzrayim at a time when Ya’akov Avinu was not at all receptive to this offer, Yehudah waits until the food runs out before asking Ya’akov to lead the delegation to Mitzrayim to obtain food. Hillel’s patient and relaxed approach to assuming the leadership proved highly effective and well-received.
Hillel Slips and Recovers
It is encouraging to know that even Hillel was not perfect, and even the famously calm Hillel overreacted on one occasion.
The Gemara (ad loc.) continues telling that:
Hillel castigated the Benei Beteirah, saying, “What caused me, an immigrant from Bavel, to succeed you as Nasi? Your indolence in your failing to study with the two premier teachers of the generation, Shemayah and Avtalyon.”
The Gemara then describes the consequence of Hillel’s overreaction:
[Hillel was asked] What should one do if [when Erev Pesach falls on Shabbat] he forgot to bring his slaughtering knife for the Korban Pesach. Hillel responded that he heard [Shemayah and Avtalyon address this issue], but forgot the answer. Hillel advised, ‘Leave it to the Jewish People, for if they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets’ [and we will know what to do by watching the actions of the holy Jewish People]. The next day, those who brought a lamb for the Korban Pesach placed the knife in the sheep’s wool. Those who brought a goat for the Korban Pesach positioned the knife in between the goat’s horns. Hillel observed this and recalled the Halachah and announced that this is precisely what he had heard from Shemayah and Avtalyon.
Hillel forgot the Halachah apparently as a result of his being upset with the Benei Beteirah (see Rashi to BeMidbar 31:21 for a similar idea regarding Moshe Rabbeinu – see the postscript for details). We can, however, understand Hillel’s castigating Benei Beteirah, as he may have been infuriated at them for spurning the opportunity to learn Torah with Shemayah and Avtalyon. They may have been mistakenly motivated by the fact that these two great Torah leaders were descendents of converts (Gittin 57b).
Hillel might have felt his anger to be justified based on the no less than 36 times that the Torah warns us to be kind to converts. Nonetheless, Hashem felt Hillel’s words of rebuke were unwarranted, and thus Hillel suffered a negative consequence, his temporarily forgetting a teaching of Shemayah and Avtalyon.
Hillel gracefully recovered from his error and found an effective manner in which to resolve the problem that was posed to him, despite his forgetting the teaching. In attempting to model our behavior after Hillel’s patient and relaxed manner, we are reminded that we are not perfect and will occasionally revert to unproductive behavior. Hillel serves as a model for calmly redirecting our behavior in a positive direction.
Hillel’s kind and patient behavior recorded in Shabbat 30b-31a was not a unique event in Hillel’s life. He also exhibited patience with his teachers Shemayah and Avtalyon as well as the Benei Beteirah. As a result, Hillel was able to rise to become the leader of the Jewish people in a graceful and elegant manner that facilitated his becoming one of the most beloved figures in all of Jewish History.
Next week, IY”H and B”N, we will conclude this series with a discussion of how Hillel’s patient demeanor impacted his Halachic teachings and practices.
The aforementioned Rashi regarding Moshe Rabbeinu committing a Halachic error due to his becoming angry states:
“Since Moshe fell into a state of anger (BeMidbar 31:14), he fell into a state of error: The laws of Kashering non-kosher vessels were concealed from him. We find a similar incident occurred on the eighth day of inauguration of the Mishkan, as the Pasuk states, “He became angry with Elazar and Itamar” (VaYikra 10:16) — he fell into a state of anger, so he fell into a state of error [criticizing them for burning the sin-offering]. Likewise [when Moshe said]: “Listen, you rebels!” (BeMidbar 20:10), “he hit the rock.” Through anger, he came to err.
 The Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) expresses the point as follows: “One who pursues leadership, the leadership position runs away from him; one who flees a leadership position, the position pursues him.”
 As stated by Rav Sherira Ga’on in his famous letter.
 The leaders who succeeded Shemayah and Avtalyon. As is clear from this story, their scholarship did not match that of their predecessors. Their limited scholarship and wisdom is also demonstrated in an interaction with Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai that is recorded in Rosh HaShanah 29b.
 Megillat Rut presents David’s ancestry as stemming from the tribe of Yehudah.