The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
Hillel, "the chief of Israel," was the descendant of a renowned family; his father was of the tribe of Benjamin, while his mother was a lineal descendant of King David. He lived about a hundred years before the destruction of the second temple, and was called Hillel the Babylonian, having been born in Babel.
He was forty years of age before he left his native city to commence his studies of the law; he continued studying under Shemaiah and Abtalyon for forty years, and from then until his death, forty years after, he was chief of the college.
During the period of his life as a student, Hillel was often cramped for means to pursue his studies. There is a generally accepted legend, to the effect that upon one occasion, when he lacked the fee demanded by the porter for entrance to the college, he climbed up upon the window-sill, hoping to hear the lectures through the panes. It chanced to be snowing, and the student became so intensely interested that he was quite covered with the snow without being aware of it, and became insensible through the cold. The attention of those inside was called to his state by the early darkening of the room, and by them he was carried in and restored to consciousness.
Hillel's elevation to the presidency of the college occurred in a remarkable manner. The eve of the Passover fell upon the Sabbath. The two chief Rabbis of Jerusalem were the sons of Bethera, and they were asked to decide whether it would be right and lawful to prepare the paschal lamb upon
the Sabbath. They were unable to decide the point, when it was mentioned to them that a man of Babel, who had studied under two renowned teachers, Shemaiah and Abtalyon, was then in the place, and might be able to aid their decision. Hillel was appealed to, and he met the question with such wisdom and clearness that the sons of Bethera exclaimed, "Thou art more worthy and competent to fill the office than we are," and through their means Hillel was elected chief of the college in the year 3728 A.M. Hillel was a man of very mild disposition, but he soon found in Shamai a rival of high and hasty temper. Shamai founded a college, which was called Beth Shamai, and between that institution and the Beth Hillel the controversies were sharp and prolonged, though in the great majority of the cases Hillel and his disciples had by far the best of the arguments.
Hillel's students numbered eighty; the most noted of whom was Jonathan, the son of Uziël.
Upon one occasion an unbeliever approached Shamai and mockingly requested the Rabbi to teach to him the tenets and principles of Judaism in the space of time he could stand on one foot. Shamai, in great wrath, bade him begone, and the man then applied to Hillel, who said:
"Do not unto others what you would not have others do to you. This is the whole law; the rest, merely commentaries upon it."
Many silly students were fond of asking plaguing questions.
"How many laws are there?" asked one of these.
"Two," replied Hillel, "the oral and the written law."
"In the latter I believe," said the student; "but why should I believe the other?"
Hillel then wrote the Hebrew alphabet upon a card, and pointing to the first letter, he asked;
"What letter is that?"
"Aleph," replied the student.
"Good," said Hillel; "now the next," pointing to it.
"Good again; but how knowest thou that this is an 'aleph' and this a 'beth?'"
"Because we have learned so from our teachers and our ancestors."
"Well," said Hillel, "as thou acceptest this in good faith, so accept the law."
As an evidence of Hillel's practical mind and his thorough appreciation of the demands and wants of his day, the following enactment is of interest.
According to the Biblical laws, all debts were to be remitted in the Sabbatical year; as it is written: "At the end of every seven years shalt thou make a release; . . . the loan which he hath lent to his neighbour," &c. (Deut. 15: 1-2). This measure, intended to adjust the inequalities of fortune, and well qualified for its purpose under some circumstances, was in the Herodian age the cause of much trouble. The wealthy man was loth to loan his money to those most in need of it, fearing to lose it by the provisions of this law. To remedy this evil, Hillel, without directly abrogating the statute of limitation, ordained that the creditor might make a duly signed deposition before the Sabbatical year, reserving the right to collect his outstanding debts at any time that he might think proper. This enactment was beneficial alike to rich and poor, and became a law with the approval of the elders.
Hillel died about the year 3764.