As a near contemporary with Jesus, Hillel was considered the most important figure in pre-70 c.e. Pharisaism. Hillel was born in Babylonia around the first century b.c.e., during the time of Roman occupation and control in Israel. During this time four major religious sects or parties were present in Israel: the Essenes, Herodians, and the two prominent parties, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees were the major of the two prominent parties focusing on the primacy of the Torah and their leaders offering expertise in interpreting the Torah. As a Pharisee, Hillel contributed to the transformation of the Pharisees from a political party to what Jacob Neusner describes as a “table-fellowship sect.” As a pioneer for the Pharisaic tradition, Hillel is attributed with particular interpretations of the Law pertaining to the image of God and the human body.
In this post I explore Hillel’s teachings on caring for the body and loving others as they are directed from his view of humans being made in the image of God. Furthermore, I hope to accentuate that Hillel derived his instructions from the book of Genesis that sees the human body as reflecting the goodness of God in creation. This study is presented in three parts: 1) Hillel’s predecessors and background, 2) Hillel’s teachings on caring for the body and loving others based on the image of God, and 3) Hillel’s influence and differences in interpretation.
I. Hillel’s Predecessors and Background
Desiring to continue his study of the Torah, Hillel moved from Babylonia to Jerusalem around 60 b.c.e. and studied under two Pharisee sages, Shemaya and Avtalyon. Shemaya the Nasi (“the Prince”) and Avtalyon the Av Beit-din (the Head of the Supreme Religious Court) were considered the two great interpreters of the Torah during this time, dual leaders of the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees, and over the popular religious community.
According to legend, Hillel studied under Shemaya and Avtalyon for a period of forty years then returned to Babylonia for a period of time. Upon Hillel’s return to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, there was controversy over interpreting the Torah because the festival of Passover fell on the Sabbath that year. Through the prestige of studying under the two sages, Shemaya and Avtalyon, Hillel was elevated to Nasi because he interpreted the Torah to solve the dilemma asserting that precedence of the festival of Passover was to be practiced over the Sabbath.
II. Hillel’s Teachings on Caring for the Body and Loving Others Based on the Image of God
Having considered Hillel’s predecessors and background, I now turn to Hillel’s teachings on caring for the body and loving others based on the image of God.
Hillel viewed the human body as a sacred gift from God. Jonathan Schofer notes in his work Confronting Vulnerability: The Body and the Divine in Rabbinic Ethics that, “Hillel’s teachings center on humans being in the image of God, a highly influential motif that builds on Genesis 1:26-28 and 9:5-7.” Israel Knohl, in his book The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls, notes Hillel’s appreciation for human dignity and equality based on humans being in the image of God. Knohls says, “the source of Hillel’s spiritual audacity was his awareness of the religious implications of the creation of human beings in the image of God.”
For Hillel, humanity being created in the image of God necessitates his love for others. Yitzhak Buxbaum, in his book The Life and Teachings of Hillel, details Hillel’s view in saying, “love of neighbor is itself derived from an even greater principle: that man is made in the image of God; and a religiously inspired love of man flows from the more fundamental love of God.” Buxbaum says, “That Hillel considered the commandment to love people as based on their being made in God’s image can be seen in two ways: first, by his use, in his theme-saying, of ‘loving the creatures’ (briyot), rather than other possibilities, to refer to people in general. This Hebrew word briyot directly suggests that man is created in the image of God.” The second reason Buxbaum identifies is Hillel’s teaching that a person should lovingly treat and care for their own body since they are made in the image of God. With these two reasons Buxbaum concludes, “If he [Hillel] taught about the image of God in connection with this somewhat unusual duty of love, it seems certain that he based the more straightforward obligation to love one’s neighbor on his being made in God’s image.” Buxbaum’s rational is seen and developed through two different accounts in Hillel’s teachings on humans being made in the image of God.
“The Story of the Bathroom and the Bathhouse”
In his story of going to the bathroom to wash his hair and the bathhouse to bathe in preparation for the coming Sabbath, Hillel expresses his concern for the body as representing the image of God. Paul Patterson notes in his book Visions of Christ: The Anthropomorphite Controversy of 399 Ce that, “when asked why he regarded bathing a religious duty, Hillel refers to the imago Dei: ‘If the statues of kings are scoured and washed by the man appointed to look after them …[and who as a result] is exalted in the company of the great – how much more shall I, who have been created in the image and likeness; as it is written, “For the image of God made he man.’” Buxbaum notes, “Hillel considered attention to body cleanliness as being a part of one’s service of God and as showing honor to the image of God. As an old Rabbinic teaching states: ‘A person should wash his face hands and feet everyday for the honor due to his Creator, as it says: ‘For his own sake did the Lord create every thing.’ (Proverbs 6:14).’” Buxbaum notes that cleanliness has spiritual aspects and that Hillel’s motives were probably complex; nevertheless, Hillel’s motive was his understanding that he was to care for his own body because it did not belong to him, but to God.
“The Parable of the Statues”
In his “parable of the statues,” Hillel reflects on the reimbursement of those who maintain statues and relates their care for the statues to caring for the human body that is the “seat” of the human soul. Buxbaum explains this idea of the body being the “seat” of the human soul in saying, “Hillel’s point was not that the body itself is in the image of God (who is incorporeal), but that a person’s soul is in God’s image, and the body must be honored because it is the ‘seat’ of the soul. Essentially, the concepts of the image of God and the human soul are referring to the same thing.” Hillel referred to his soul as a “house guest.” Buxbaum acknowledges that, “when Hillel said each time that he was ‘going to do a kindness (hesed) for the house guest,’ his soul, what that was in any particular instance is not stated, but his intention was exactly the same as when he said at other times: ‘I am going to do a mitzvah.’ Every deed should be a mitzvah, and every mitvah is a kindness to the soul and benefits the soul (and sometimes also the body).” Hillel’s view of the body differed from the Essenes who viewed the body as a prison for the soul. Buxbaum says, “The more moderate and life-affirming Pharisee Hillel saw it [the body] as a ‘temporary home’ where the soul is somewhat an uncomfortable ‘guest.’ When Hillel spoke of the ‘poor’ soul, he probably meant that, although the body provided poor ‘lodging,’ the heavenly soul is still able to receive ‘good hospitality’ if a person is righteous and cares for it properly.”
For Hillel, “the story of the bathroom and the bathhouse” and “the parable of the statues” exemplifies his understanding and teaching that humans were created in the image of God and because of this, care for the body is essential. Buxbaum notes that, “Hillel’s parable about the statues and his lesson show his appreciation for the teaching that humans are made in the image of God. The Torah says, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ –a person must love himself, since he too is made in the image of God.” Hillel’s understanding of his own body being made in the image of God influenced how he treated Gentiles. Hillel viewed all of humanity as sharing the status of equality and commonality in being made in the image of God. Joseph Telushkin notes in his book Hillel: If Not Now, When? that, “[Hillel’s] justification—that we are made in the image of God—is also of course a key to understanding the basis of his treatment of outsiders. He reasoned from his own body outward—the opposite of narcissist—and recognized that caring for others is also caring for God.”
III. Hillel’s Influence and Differences in Interpretation
Having explored Hillel’s teachings on caring for the body and loving others that derives from his view of humans being made in the image of God, I now turn to Hillel’s influence and differences in interpretation concerning care for the human body and others.
An individual that represented a different interpretation of the Torah than Hillel was Shammai. According to Stephen Wylen, “Shammai was the strict constructionist of the Pharisees while Hillel was the loose constructionist.” Hillel and Shammai had different views concerning the human body. In the story of the bathhouse, Hillel was concerned with caring for his body, while Shammai was concerned with fulfilling his duty. Buxbaum details this difference in saying that, “Hillel was pious from love of God and was kind even to his own body. Shammai was pious from fear of God and his excessive fear of sin made him wary of the body’s attraction to sense-pleasures.” Wylan explains that, “The Mishnah contains many disagreements between beit Hillel and beit Shammai. In almost every instance, the Hillelites give a lenient interpretation to the Torah law, and the Shammaites give a stringent interpretation.”
Other differences of interpretation extended beyond the Pharisees and involved other religious parties. In regards to slave ownership and liability of the owner if one’s slave were to damage someone else’s property, the Pharisees and Sadducees had varied interpretations of rights and responsibilities. Louis Finkelstein details that the Pharisees “respect for the dignity of man as homo sapiens made it impossible for them to countenance a law which made one man answerable to another’s deeds. To compare the slave to an ox or an ass was in itself a judicial insult: the one was human, the other a chattel.” In contrast to the Pharisees, the Sadducees were in favor of holding a slave’s owner responsible for damages and were unsympathetic to the principle of human equality. Another concern connected to human reverence was allocating work during the Sabbath to Gentiles. The Shammaites would not appropriate work to a Gentile on behalf of themselves during Sabbath. Their view was that if a Gentile worked on behalf of a Jew on the Sabbath, it was like the Jew was breaking the law to rest on that holy day.
In this post I have explored Hillel’s teachings on caring for the body and loving others as they are directed from his view of humans being made in the image of God. Hillel taught that by loving humanity one was expressing love towards God. This teaching reflects Hillel’s view of humans being created in the image of God. By caring for his own body in the examples given above, Hillel taught his disciples that they should love their bodies so that they may also love others.
Hillel is known for the saying, “What is hateful for you, don’t do to your fellow man – that’s the whole Torah and the rest … is just a commentary on it. Go then and learn it!” Although Hillel is known for particular sayings such as this, there has been scholarly research done tracking the tradition of Hillel and Pharisaic presence prior to 70 c.e. In Neusner’s work The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70 Part I: The Masters, he offers a detailed description of texts attributed to Hillel and evaluates Hillel’s teachings. Neusner says, “Despite the rich and impressive Hillel-tradition, however, we can hardly conclude that with Hillel the pre-70 Pharisees enter the pages of history. The traditions on Hillel do not lay considerable claim to historical accuracy about the life and sayings of Hillel himself. They provide an accurate account of what later generations thought it important to say about, or in the name of, Hillel.” Neusner continues, “If Hillel is the first Pharisee to emerge in the model of the later first-century Pharisees and later rabbis, that is because the rabbis adopted him and made him their own, not because in his day he managed effectively to transmit his sayings in the way in which later masters did.”
Although we do not know specifically the sayings of Hillel, we do recognize truth in the sayings that have been passed down through teachers who have been influenced by the Pharisaic tradition. Hillel’s teachings instruct us that to love and care for our bodies is to love and cherish the gift that God has given to all of us. To desecrate or defame another human being through violence or slander is to desecrate or defame someone who shares the image of God. If we truly care for our bodies like they are gifts from God that reflect his image, then it will not only affect how we treat our own bodies, it will also affect how we care for others.
Belford, Annie. A Teachers Guide To A Taste of the Text: An Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. New York, NY:UAHC Press, 2003.
Buxbaum, Yitzhak. The Life and Teachings of Hillel. Lamhym, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publisher, Inc., 2008.
Finkelstein, Louis. The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962.
Knohls, Israel. The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
Neusner, Jacob. From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.
——. The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70 Part I: The Masters. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1971.
Patterson, Paul. Visions of Christ: The Anthropomorphite Controversy of 399 Ce. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Seibeck, 2012.
Schofer, Jonathan. Confronting Vulnerability: The Body and the Divine in Rabbinic Ethics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Telushkin, Joseph. Hillel: If Not Now, When?. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2010.
Wylen, Stephen. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Scriptures. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005.