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Shabbos 31


QUESTION: Why did Hillel answer the fool who was trying to arouse his anger? The Gemara (30b) just taught that one should not respond to a fool when he provokes one with worldly matters! Certainly the questions that this fool was asking Hillel were nothing more than trivial, non-Torah, matters!

ANSWER: The only time one is not allowed to answer a fool is when he is questioning with mockery. Hillel, in his humility thought that the person was genuinely curious and sincere, and therefore he answered him (MAHARSHA). This may also explain why Hillel exclaimed after each question, "You have asked a very important question" -- to show that Hillel thought that the inquirer was sincere. (Y. Shaw)

QUESTION: Why did the man choose these questions of all the other inane subjects he might have chosen? And Hillel, for all his modesty, could have simply said, "I am sorry, my son, but I am a rabbi and I do not specialize in these areas. Perhaps you have another question which I am more qualified to answer." Why did Hillel see fit to spend time answering these questions so earnestly? Besides, did Hillel really believe that the shape of the Babylonian's heads was a product of poor midwifery?

ANSWER: Perhaps there is more to this lesson in humility than meets the eye. If we further contemplate the questions that were posed, they may be seen to have a deeper significance. Hillel himself was from Bavel (Pesachim 66a, Sukah 18a). The question, "Why do Babylonians have elongated heads?" was thus a direct insult to Hillel himself. But rather than just an insult to Hillel's physical appearance, the insult was directed at Hillel's leadership qualities. The man was not talking about the physical condition of the Babylonians' heads, but about what is *inside* their heads. What he meant to say was, "Why is it that while we Israelis have a conventional, straightforward manner of thinking, you Babylonians have an "elongated," or lopsided, manner of thinking? How do you dare to take your crooked, Babylonian methods of thought and rule over sages whose background is so much more intellectually sound than yours!" This was meant to be a particularly harsh insult to the man who was the spiritual leader of the nation. (The insult is seen to be particularly vicious when we bear in mind that Hillel was only granted his lofty post through proving himself more worthy than the Israeli scholars in an intellectual challenge -- Pesachim 66a.)

To this disparaging remark Hillel replied modestly, "You are right. Perhaps our minds are not as keen as those of the people of Israel. But even if that is so, we are not to be blamed. It happened due to a lack of professional `midwives.' The people who brought us into the world of Torah and nurtured our development were not as learned as the great rabbis of Israel. If you believe that my intellectual capabilities are inferior to those of my colleagues, it is due to a flaw in my early education."

HAGAHOS YA'AVETZ suggests a similar approach, taking it further and fitting it into the next two questions. Loosely based on his words, we can reconstruct the following dialogue between Hillel and the bettor.

The Gemara tells us in Yevamos 17a that the source of most people with dubious derivation is Tarmod, which, in turn, derived its families of poor lineage from Bavel. The bettor asked Hillel why the eyes of Tarmodians are round -- round eyes being an expression reserved for lewdness (see for example, Ta'anis 24a). The man was questioning Hillel's ancestry, saying, "Why are the Tarmodians so lewd? Did they that trait not begin in Bavel? Who is to say that your lineage may be trusted, and that you are a descendant of King David who is worthy of being a leader of Israel?" Hillel answered, "They live among the sands." That is, it is only once they arrived in Tarmod, an oasis in the desert, that the Babylonians picked up this bad trait under the influence of the surrounding nations.

We are told in Divrei Hayamim (I:4:42) that the tribe of Shimon went to live in Kush (= Africa), after being exiled from Israel with the destruction of the first Temple, and that they did not return with the rest of the nation when the second Temple was eventually built. The bettor was asking Hillel, "Why is it that the people of Africa (= Shimon) has such flat feet," that is, they stayed put despite the rebuilding of the Temple. What he really meant was, why were you and your fellow Babylonians still living in Bavel, even though there is now a Temple in Yerushalayim? What business do you have leading the flocks of Israel, after having lived most of your life in the void of Chutz l'Aretz? Hillel answered modestly that the people in Bavel have a hard time leaving because they are stuck in its "quicksand," that is, in the comfortable lifestyle that they are living, and they are therefore not to blame.

(Condensed from "Torah from the Internet" by Rabbi Mordecai Kornfeld, Parashat Beha'alotcha -- available through Judaica Press, JudaicaPr@aol.com. See also Hagahos Ya'avetz here.)


QUESTION: A gentile came to Hillel, wanting to convert on the grounds that he wanted to be a Kohen Gadol. Hillel converted him, and told him to go learn the laws of Kehunah Gedolah.

How could Hillel convert him? The Gemara in Yevamos (24b) states that it is forbidden to accept converts who want to convert only to receive the benefits that a Jew receives!


(a) The MAHARSHA explains that Hillel did not actually convert the gentile at first; Hillel only converted him *after* he went and learned that he cannot become a Kohen Gadol. Hillel told him to learn about the laws of Kehunah Gedolah *before* he converted.

However, this poses another problem. Why was Hillel allowed to teach a gentile Torah before he converted? The Gemara in Chagigah (13a) states that it is forbidden to teach Torah to a gentile! Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (59a) states that a gentile who learns Torah is Chayav Misah! The Maharsha answers that for purposes of converting, it is permitted for a gentile to learn Torah.

(b) TOSFOS in Yevamos suggests another answer. Hillel saw that the gentile was sincere and that he would convert even if he could not become a Kohen Gadol, and therefore he converted him.

(REBBI AKIVA EIGER points out that it may be inferred from Tosfos that Hillel specifically waited to convert the gentile before teaching him Torah, for otherwise he would not have had to "take chances" by converting the gentile before knowing whether he would change his mind after learning that he could not be a Kohen Gadol. If so, this Tosfos refutes the supposition of the Maharsha, and proves that it is not permitted to teach Torah to a gentile even if he has plans to convert.


QUESTION: The Gemara cites a verse that says, "Only the fear of Hashem is wisdom (*Hen* Yir'as Hashem Hi Chachmah)". The Gemara says that "Hen" means "one" in Greek ("henos"), and thus the verse is saying that the one and only wisdom is the fear of Hashem. Why did the Torah teach us this principle by using a Greek word?

ANSWER: The Greeks excelled in and prided themselves in their great wisdom (see, for example, Sotah 49b, "Chachmas Yevanis," and other places). The Gemara wants to use the Greek word for "one" to teach most emphatically that all wisdom is nothing without the fear of Hashem. Even those who think they excel in wisdom, like the Greeks, are really lacking any wisdom because they have no fear of Hashem. (M. Kornfeld, heard from Rav Moshe Shapiro)

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