Shabbat 31 - Shammai and Hillel

One should always be humble and gentle like Hillel, and not stern and unyielding like Shammai. Once two people made a bet if one of them could anger Hillel. The man came to Hillel on Friday afternoon, when Hillel was washing his hair for Shabbat. He screamed, "Is there a Hillel there?" Hillel put on his cloak and said, "My son, what do you seek?" The man said, "I have a question, why are the heads of Babylonians oval?" Hillel answered, "This is a great question! Because they don't have skillful midwives." The man returned two more times with similar questions but could not anger Hillel. Finally, he confessed that he lost a large amount of money. Hillel told him, "One should always guard his temper. It is better to loose money, but Hillel will not take offense."

A prospective convert came to Shammai and asked him, "How many Torahs do you have?" Shammai answered, "Two, one in writing and one oral, transmitted from teacher to student." The man said, "I will accept only the written one," and Shammai drove him away. However, Hillel converted him, and started teaching him the alphabet, aleph, bet, etc. The next day Hillel told him that bet was aleph and aleph was bet. The man said, "But yesterday you taught me otherwise!" Hillel told him, "You see, you rely on my words anyway, so accept the rest of my words."

Another time a man wanted Shammai to teach him the whole Torah while the man would stand on one foot. Shammai refused, but Hillel told him, "Don't do to others what would be hateful to you, and now go and learn the rest of the details."

Another man came to Shammai to be converted on the condition that he will be appointed High Priest, but Shammai drove him away. Hillel, however, converted him and said, "Now you need to know the laws of the ceremony." As the man was learning, he saw that any non-kohen, even king David, would be liable to death by the hand of Heaven if he served in the Temple. He told Shammai, "Why didn't you explain this to me?" and to Hillel he said, "Let blessing come upon you, for you brought me to the knowledge of God."

Some time later the three men met. They said, "The sternness of Shammai sought to drive us away from true devotion, but the humble and patient manner of Hillel brought us under the wings of divine presence."

Art: Vincent Van Gogh - The Midwife