Why does Hillel choose “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor” as his version of “the entire Torah?” Why not “Love God” or “Keep mitzvoth.” HiIlel’s tenet is never actually mentioned in the Torah itself.
This is a great question! Thank you so much for sharing it. I love this teaching of Hillel Hazaken. In fact, it is how I try to live my life. And I think that Hillel’s famous teaching is an important part of what it means to be a Jew.
You are correct that Hillel’s teaching itself is not mentioned in the Torah, although similar teachings exist. Just a few weeks ago we read the command in Deuteronomy “Do what is right and good in God’s eyes.” And while I appreciate this biblical teaching, I have always struggled with the idea of having to know what is good in someone else’s (or in this case God’s) eyes. Who am I to pretend to understand what God wants in its entirety? For me to believe that I know the will of God is to take away some of the inherent humanity from those who believe differently. In American discourse, it is President Lincoln’s famous teaching that the “concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”
Hillel’s teaching is a starting point for a conversation about what Judaism demands of us. And it is a great place to begin because it does not require us to know what God wants - to have the vision which takes the humanity from others who disagree; it only asks us to know what is hateful to us and then to not do that to anyone else – a fairly low bar. It also does not require us to be Biblical or Talmudic scholars in order to be Torah observant. This easy entry is great for humans, who by our very nature are best served with reminders of the need for positive action in the world. Remember that Hillel was speaking to a non-Jew who was inquiring for the first time about the nature of Jewish tradition. Finally, I believe that Hillel is trying to universalize the Torah in some way; to make it accessible to everyone. In today’s world, just as in the world of Hillel, having that universal message of brotherly love is helpful to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Is this teaching the entirety of the Torah? Certainly not. However, it makes for a wonderful beginning point. Just think of how wonderful the world would be if everyone could live to this simple standard that Hillel sets down for us!
While the essence of this question is a good one, there are a few assumptions that are made within the question that need to be identified and corrected first in order to fully respond to it. Indeed T.B. Shabbat 31a records this statement as the response of Hillel to the potential proselyte who wished to be taught the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. What, though, did Hillel really mean with this answer? Did he actually believe that this idea represented “the entire Torah”? What actually was the essence of the non-Jew’s request? Finally, does it really matter that this tenet is “never actually mentioned in the Torah itself”?
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (generally known by his acronym Maharsha), a major Talmudist of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, points out that the essence of the non-Jew’s request was a desire to find the one fundamental principle upon which the whole Torah system was based. Hillel’s answer, thus, was not an expression of the entire Torah but rather his understanding of this one singular, fundamental principle upon which the whole Torah is built. The challenge still exists, though: how could this be a statement of the Torah’s fundamental principle given that it seems to ignore the commandments related to the religious side of Torah such as loving God. Seemingly bothered by this very concern, Rashi actually presents one understanding of the statement as not referring to one’s human neighbour but rather one’s Divine neighbour. Essentially, according to this view, Hillel is basically saying that the fundamental principle of Torah is, actually as you suggest, “Keep mitzvot.” As you would not like something hateful done to you -- as you would not like to be ignored -- do not do to your Divine neighbour -- namely do not ignore God through not observing His mitzvot. Hillel is, according to this view, informing the non-Jew that the fundamental principle of Torah is to follow the Will of God through the observance of all mitzvot, both those between Man and God as well as those between Man and Man. With this explanation, the statement could indeed be understood as reflecting a principle fundamental to the entire Torah.
A problem with this explanation, however, may exist in that it could be argued that it is a bit of a stretch to understand the word neighbour as the Divine neighbour. A simple reading of the statement would seem to better imply that Hillel was talking about human neighbours. There is a general principle that when Rashi presents two explanations it is usually because he finds there to be a weakness in each one independently. In this case, Rashi actually does present a second explanation, implying that he too had some difficulty with his first answer perhaps because of this stretch. Maintaining the simple meaning of the words, namely that neighbour means human neighbour, in his second explanation, though again raises the problem of how could this principle regarding human relations serve also as the fundamental principle for the specifically, religious mitzvot. One possibility is that Hillel, recognizing that he could not give one fundamental principle for all the mitzvot of the Torah, was really only trying to present the fundamental principle for the societal mitzvot. The weakness with this answer is, obviously, in that it did not truly meet the non-Jew’s request. This would explain why Rashi also presented his first explanation although he felt that with that answer there was the weakness of the stretched language.
Is there, though, a possible way of understanding the gemara as referring to human neighbours while still also maintaining that this principle can serve as the singular, fundamental principle of the entire Torah. Maharsha queries why Hillel presented his statement in the negative – don’t do to your neighbour what you would not like done to yourself – and doesn’t just quote the positive verse of “love your neighbour as yourself” found in Vayikra 19:18. He explains that a true investigation of this verse would reveal that it actually is also only presenting what we may term the negative demand; what Hillel was actually doing was presenting the real essence of the idea. The call upon the human being cannot be in the positive to treat another just like oneself for one has an obligation to take care of oneself first. (See Vayikra 25:36 as explained in T.B. Baba Metzia 62a.) It is also contrary to human nature to demand an individual to treat everyone as one treats oneself. If I buy myself a car, am I expected to buy everyone else a car? If I give a present to my child, am I expected to give similar presents to all children? Reality demands that we accept a responsibility for self and act within the parameters of this concern. While the Torah clearly perceives there to be a value in chessed and demands of us to exhibit this quality and assist others to the proper extent possible, its first and foremost demand is that we respect the other’s responsibility for self and not impede upon it just as we would wish others to respect our responsibility for ourselves and not impede upon it. This latter demand is actually Hillel’s fundamental statement – not to do to the other what you do not want done to yourself.
Within this context, Hillel’s statement could actually be understood in a much broader way as to encapsulate the proper attitude that one should have within life. There is clearly a value in chessed, in helping others. But there is a more primary value in sensitivity, in being aware of the world around you and ensuring that you, at least, do not harm others. Viewed this way, we can understand how this perspective could affect all aspects of life, not just what we may term the societal areas of the law but even within the areas of our religious endeavours. Be sensitive to ensure that you do not cause harm, is the fundamental principle upon which all else is built.
This now leads to the final phrase of Hillel’s statement (which was actually not included in the original question posed on this site). Hillel concludes by telling the potential proselyte, after articulating that one should not do to others what one would find harmful to oneself, that all else is commentary, now go study. It is one thing to have a simple statement of a fundamental principle; it is another thing to think that one can apply such a statement simplistically in the reality of this complex world. Hillel is adding in his very formulation of his fundamental principle that to fully understand this principle one must accept the challenge of study, with the recognition of the further challenge that one continuously faces in balancing one’s rights and obligations with another’s rights and obligations. This takes a lifetime of study and application.
This would also explain why Hillel’s statement is not “actually mentioned in the Torah itself”. The Written Torah is not the end statement of Jewish Thought or Ethics. It is the beginning statement from which we are, through the study of the Oral Law (also a product of the Divine origin of Sinai) to advance these teachings. Hillel’s statement was such a step. His end charge was then to take his step and further build upon it within the edifice of Torah.
Hillel chose “What is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor” as his version of “the entire Torah” because at heart, Judaism is a religion based on a system of laws created to build community. All people need some rules and regulation to help them get along with each other, and most of Jewish law has to do with “ben adman l’chavero,” laws between two people. If you boil down the essence of all of these laws, you get, “what is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor.” By following this simple advice, people would get along better with each other, fights and wars would not break out, and communities would flourish and grow. Now, if only we could always follow this simple wisdom!
What more can I add? I say “amen” to all my colleagues’ answers. I will only elaborate upon a couple of points already made:
“What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor” is not, accurately speaking, Hillel’s “version of ‘the entire Torah.’” It is, in part, Hillel’s response to a proselyte’s rather impudent request that he teach all of Torah while the inquisitor stands on one foot—in other words, succinctly enough that Hillel can finish before the other gentleman loses either his balance or his strength. The remainder of Hillel’s response—“The rest is commentary; now, go and study”—is fully as important to an understanding of his teaching as is the first part.
Once one undertakes to study “the rest” (which in this context, I would argue, includes all of Tanakh if not the Talmud and other teachings of chazal, our rabbinic sages), even a casual student would quickly discover that we best show our love for God by treating others with compassion and dignity, and that the ritual mitzvot have no value when performed by one who does not take the needs of others to heart. See, for example, Isaiah 58, which we read on Yom Kippur morning, where the prophet represents Israel crying out, “Why, when we fasted, did you not see?” and God replying, “Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! …Is such the fast I desire?” (Is. 58: 3, 5).
I invite you to try to live by Hillel’s behavioral tenet while also engaging in Torah study, and see whether you think it not a brilliant response to the proselyte’s question!
Wishing you and your loved ones shanah tovah umetukah, a sweet and good New Year.
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