Hillel and Shammai

These two great scholars born a generation or two before the beginning of the Common Era are usually discussed together and contrasted with each other, because they were contemporaries and the leaders of two opposing schools of thought (known as "houses"). The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). In almost every one of these disputes, Hillel's view prevailed.

Rabbi Hillel was born to a wealthy family in Babylonia, but came to Jerusalem without the financial support of his family and supported himself as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity. One of his most famous sayings, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah), is "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" The Hillel organization, a network of Jewish college student organizations, is named for him.

Rabbi Shammai was an engineer, known for the strictness of his views. The Talmud tells that a gentile came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a builder's measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the gentile by telling him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was the youngest and most distinguished disciple of Rabbi Hillel (see above). He has been called the "father of wisdom and the father of generations (of scholars)" because he ensured the continuation of Jewish scholarship after Jerusalem fell to Rome in 70 C.E.

According to tradition, ben Zakkai was a pacifist in Jerusalem in 68 C.E. when the city was under siege by General Vespasian. Jerusalem was controlled by the Zealots, people who would rather die than surrender to Rome (these are the same people who controlled Masada). Ben Zakkai urged surrender, but the Zealots would not hear of it, so ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his disciples smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. They carried the coffin to Vespasian's tent, where ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin. He told Vespasian that he had had a vision (some would say, a shrewd political insight) that Vespasian would soon be emperor, and he asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavneh (near modern Rehovot) where he could move his yeshivah (school) and study Torah in peace. Vespasian promised that if the prophesy came true, he would grant ben Zakkai's request. Vespasian became Emperor and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. The yeshiva survived and was a center of Jewish learning for centuries.

Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (approx. 15-135 C.E.)

A poor, semi-literate shepherd, Rabbi Akiba became one of Judaism's greatest scholars. He developed the exegetical method of the Mishnah, linking each traditional practice to a basis in the biblical text, and systematized the material that later became the Mishnah.

Rabbi Akiba was active in the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome. He believed that Bar Kokhba was the Moshiach (messiah), though some other rabbis openly ridiculed him for that belief (the Talmud records another rabbi as saying, "Akiba, grass will grow in your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.") When the Bar Kokhba rebellion failed, Rabbi Akiba was taken by the Roman authorities and tortured to death.

Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (approx. 135-219 C.E.)

The Patriarch of the Jewish community, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi was well-educated in Greek thought as well as Jewish thought. He organized and compiled the Mishnah, building upon Rabbi Akiba's work.

Saadia Gaon (882 to 942 C.E.)

Babylonia was the primary locus of Jewish learning for many centuries. The heads of the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita were called Gaon and were widely recognized as the preeminent scholars of their day. With this distinction came the authority to promulgate religious decisions for the community. Saadia was the the greatest Gaon of all times. He lived from 882 to 942 C.E., during the time that the Muslims ruled Asia Minor.

In Saadia's day, he sought to reconcile the philosophical perspective of Islam, to which Jews living in Islamic countries were exposed, with the Torah. Much of Islamic philosophy at this time was grounded in the thinking of Aristotle and Plato, and so Saadia wrote about this, as well. His most famous book is entitled "The Book of Beliefs and Opinions" and it was written originally in Arabic, later translated into Hebrew by the Ibn Tibbon family. In this book, Saadia attempts to reconcile Judaism with the philosophical thinking of Aristotle and Plato, his goal being to bring assimilated Jews back to Torah and halakhah. Saadia accept the notion that reason is a legitimate standard for truth and set out to demonstrate that the Torah is compatible with philosophical reason. Jewish religious beliefs, according to Saadia, pass the test of reason. What is more, Saadia contended, the Torah is the finest source of truth available and the study of Torah further develops one's rational judgment.

In addition, Saadia wrote the first Arabic translation of the Bible, which included commentaries and grammatical notes. He also wrote the first Hebrew dictionary, and a book about Hebrew grammar. Muslims at this time were involved in Arabic language and grammar studies and Saadia hoped to inspire Jews to explore their own religious roots more deeply. Moses Maimonides said of Saadia, "If not for our master Saadia Gaon, Torah would have been forgotten in Israel."

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) (1040-1105 C.E.)

A grape grower living in Northern France, Rashi wrote the definitive commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud and the Bible. Rashi pulled together materials from a wide variety of sources, wrote them down in the order of the Talmud and the Bible for easy reference, and wrote them in such clear, concise and plain language that it can be appreciated by beginners and experts alike. Almost every edition of the Talmud printed since the invention of the printing press has included the text of Rashi's commentary side-by-side with the Talmudic text. Many traditional Jews will not study the Bible without a Rashi commentary beside it.

Judah Halevi, known as the "Sweet Singer of Zion" was a poet and philosopher who lived from 1075 until 1141. He was born in Toledo, Spain, lived much of his life in Cordova, Spain, but died in Egypt, attempting to reach the Land of Israel. His primary occupation throughout his life was as a physician to the king of Spain. In his free time he wrote magnificent poems, many of which were paeans to the Land of Israel and mourning the loss of the Land to Jews. In Halevi's day, Jews were caught in the incessant wars between Christians and Muslims for control of the Iberian Peninsula. Halevi became convinced that the safest and most appropriate place for Jews to live was in the Land of Israel where they could lead a full and meaningful Jewish life. He himself felt constrained to remain in Spain most of his life, however, because of family attachments.

His poems extolling the virtues of Eretz Yisrael remain a beautiful legacy, and in particular "Ode to Zion" is chanted in many synagogues on Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destructions of the First and Second Temples on the 9th of Av each summer. The poem speaks both of the poet's sorrow over Jerusalem's destruction and his hope for its resurrected future. The popular Israeli song "Yerushalayim shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold), composed by Naomi Shemer in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, echoes Halevi's poem by employing the refrain "Halo le'chol shir-a-yich ani kinor" (I am a harp for your songs).

Rambam (Maimonides; Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) (1135-1204 C.E.)

A physician born in Moorish Cordoba, Rambam lived in a variety of places throughout the Moorish lands of Spain, the Middle East and North Africa, often fleeing persecution. He was a leader of the Jewish community in Cairo. He was heavily influenced by Greek thought, particularly that of Aristotle.

Rambam was the author of the Mishneh Torah, one of the greatest codes of Jewish law, compiling every conceivable topic of Jewish law in subject matter order and providing a simple statement of the prevailing view in plain language. In his own time, he was widely condemned because he claimed that the Mishneh Torah was a substitute for studying the Talmud.

Rambam is also responsible for several important theological works. He developed the 13 Principles of Faith, the most widely accepted list of Jewish beliefs. He also wrote the Guide for the Perplexed, a discussion of difficult theological concepts written from the perspective of an Aristotelian philosopher.

Ramban (Nachmanides; Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) (1194-1270 C.E.)

Ramban was the foremost halakhist of his age. Like Rambam before him, Ramban was a Spaniard who was both a physician and a great Torah scholar. However, unlike the rationalist Rambam, Ramban had a strong mystical bent. His biblical commentaries are the first ones to incorporate the mystical teachings of kabbalah.

He was well-known for his aggressive refutations of Christianity, most notably, his debate with Pablo Christiani, a converted Jew, before King Jaime I of Spain in 1263.

Ramban could be described as one of history's first Zionists, because he declared that it is a mitzvah to take possession of Israel and to live in it (relying on Num. 33:53). He said, "So long as Israel occupies [the Holy Land], the earth is regarded as subject to Him." Ramban fulfilled this commandment, moving to the Holy Land during the Crusades after he was expelled from Spain for his polemics. He found devastation in the Holy Land, "but even in this destruction," he said, "it is a blessed land." He died there in 1270 C.E.

Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575)

Popularly known as the Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, eponymously for his major works. Born in the city of Toledo, Karo's family was forced to flee Spain in 1492, in the wake of the great expulsion of Spanish Jewry. After protracted wanderings, they settled in Constantinople, Turkey. He gained repute as an eminent Torah scholar at an early age, and at age 24, while living in Adrianople, he began writing his famous work, the Beis Yosef (the House of Joseph). It is a commentary on the Arba Turim, and took him 20 years to complete.

In the Beis Yosef, he compiles all the variant views on each halachah and renders a decision as to which opinion is to be the authoritative law. It is printed alongside the text of Arba Turim and he followed a cardinal rule in arriving at his decisions. If on a given issue Rif, Rambam, and Rosh are in agreement, then that matter becomes Halachah (Law). If they disagree, the halachah is decided according to majority opinion. His rulings reflect his Sephardi background in that they favor Sephardi customs over Ashkenazi practices.

After the completion of Beis Yosef, he then wrote the Shulchan Aruch. As its title implies, Shulchan Aruch -"The Set Table" - presents all Jewish laws and customs relevant to the present time in clear and concise Hebrew, arranged systematically according to topics. This work, consisting of four sections, is the cornerstone of authoritative Halachah to this very day. Initially, the Shulchan Aruch met with resistance on the part of German and Polish rabbinical authorities because its rulings favored Sephardi practice, disregarding Ashkenazi traditions. Foremost among his critics was Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) of Cracow, Poland, whose critical comments have been incorporated as glosses into the running text.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi ben Shlomo (1534-1572)

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is commonly known as the Ari, an acronym standing for Elohi Rabbi Yitzchak, the Godly Rabbi Isaac. No other master or sage ever had this extra letter Aleph, standing for Elohi [Godly], prefaced to his name. This was a sign of what his contemporaries thought of him. To this day among Kabbalists, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is only referred to as Rabbenu HaAri, HaAri HaKadosh [the holy Ari] or Arizal [the Ari of blessed memory].

By the time he was fifteen, his expertise in Talmud had overwhelmed all the sages in Egypt. Although he married his uncle's daughter at this time, he spent seven years in almost total seclusion with Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi. It was around this time that a priceless copy of one volume of the Zohar came into his hands. With this Zohar, he was alone for another six years. He then added to this, secluding himself for two years straight in a house near the Nile.

During these last two years, Luria revolutionized the study of Kabbalah and its integration into mainstream before his untimely death at age 38. Luria was perhaps the most influential Kabbalist of all time, but his teaching was entirely oral and primarily comes to us through the writings of his disciple Rabbi Chaim.

Baal Shem Tov (the Besht, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) (1700-1760 C.E.)

The founder of Chasidic Judaism. Although many books of his teachings exist, the Besht himself wrote no books, perhaps because his teachings emphasized the fact that even a simple, uneducated peasant could approach God (a radical idea in its time, when Judaism emphasized that the way to approach God was through study). He emphasized prayer, the observance of commandments, and ecstatic, personal mystical experiences.

The Vilna Gaon - Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720 - 1797)

The word "gaon" means genius and on no person could this title be more appropriately bestowed than on Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. Rabbi Eliyahu was probably the most influential Jewish leader in modern history. Rabbi Eliyahu's great abilities began to show at a very early age. At the age of seven he gave his first public discourse and displayed a fully developed intellect. By the time he was ten he had advanced to the point where he no longer needed a teacher.

When he was still a young man, Rabbi Eliyahu accepted upon himself "galus," self-imposed exile (a not unheard of practice at that time), in which he wandered from community to community as a beggar. This lasted for a period of some years whereupon he returned to the city of Vilna. Despite efforts on his part to hide his great righteousness and phenomenal knowledge, he was soon famed as a great tzadik (righteous man) and Torah scholar. At the age of 35 he was approached by one of the leading sages of that time, Rabbi Yonason Eybschutz, to act as an intermediary in the conflict between him and another great sage, Rabbi Yakov Emden.

The Gaon's son testified that for fifty years his father did not sleep for more than two hours in a twenty-four hour period. His breadth of knowledge was amazing - he was capable of stating from memory the number of times any sage was mentioned in any particular book of the Talmud. The Gaon considered secular knowledge to be a vital adjunct to Torah study. He was knowledgeable in almost all secular fields and authored books on grammar and mathematics. His righteousness and kindness were also legendary.

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900)

Bohemian born, Isaac Mayer Wise received a traditional Jewish education in Prague and Vienna, and absorbed Western culture as well. A job as teacher and rabbinic functionary in a small Bohemian town did not offer much of a future for this enormously energetic and gifted man, so he set out for the New World. After his arrival in New York in 1846, a rabbinic career in Albany, New York, and then for almost half a century in Cincinnati, Ohio, provided Wise with extraordinary opportunities. In 1854, the year he arrived in Cincinnati, he founded the weekly The Israelite, and for many years thereafter wrote most of its articles, as well as historical and polemical works and popular novels.

In post-Civil War America, he was the best-known Jew and a well-regarded leader in American liberal religious circles. He believed that in time Judaism would become the religion of all enlightened men, but first it had to be modernized, democratized, and most important of all, Americanized. Wise was a leading exponent of a moderate, pragmatic Reform Judaism, responsive to the exigencies of contemporary American life. His signal contribution was the institutional structure he bequeathed to Reform Judaism by founding its Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873 to 1956)

Rabbi Leo Baeck, a great scholar and compassionate soul, was born in Lissa, Poland in 1873, the son of a rabbi. He attended the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, followed by the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, simultaneously studying philosophy at both the universities of Breslau and Berlin. Baeck occupied pulpits in Oppelm, Dusseldorf, and Berlin, and also taught at the Hochschule. When the Nazis came to power, Baeck was given numerous opportunities to escape, but he refused to leave his people, Finally, in 1943 he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp where he worked tirelessly to teach, counsel, support and inspire his fellow inmates. Baeck survived the Holocaust. After the war, he moved to London where he served as the chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and taught intermittently at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Until his death in 1956, Baeck maintained a rigorous schedule of teaching and scholarship.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in 1907, was descended from a distinguished line of rabbis, including Dov Baer of Mezhirich, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, and Levi Isaac of Berdichev. His background and education both combined a remarkable array of intellectual talents, from Talmud to Kabbalah. Heschel earned his doctorate from the University of Berlin and went on to teach at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. In 1937 he became Martin Buber's successor at the Judisches Lehrhaus of Frankfurt-am-Maim, a Jewish adult education organization. Heschel was deported to Poland the following year, in 1938, and there he taught at the Warsaw Institute of Jewish Studies. >From Poland, he emigrated to London, and from there moved to the United States, where he taught rabbinics and philosophy at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He moved on to the Jewish Theological Seminary of American in New York City, where he taught until his death in 1972.


Based on text © Copyright 5756-5760 (1995-1999), Tracey R Rich and significantly expanded by Jonathan Hirshon


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