Three Questions Posed to Hillel

Aseret Yemeh Teshuba- The Three Questions Posed to Hillel

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (31a) tells a remarkable story of two men who wagered a large sum of money to be awarded to the one who could get Hillel angry. Hillel, the leading Rabbi of his time, was known for his extraordinary patience, and the two men bet on who could disturb Hillel to the point where he lost his cool.

One of them went to Hillel’s house on Friday as Hillel was bathing. He called out to Hillel, and Hillel wrapped himself in a robe and came to the door. The man told Hillel that he had a question to ask: “Why are the Babylonians’ heads round?”

Hillel replied, “You asked a great question,” and explained that the midwives in Babylonia were inept, and their incompetence when delivering infants resulted in the awkwardly-shaped heads.

Hillel returned to the bath, and the man again knocked on the door. This time, he asked Hillel why the people of Tarmud had poor eyesight. Hillel again complimented the man for his “great question,” and explained that these people lived “by the sands” which affected their eyes. The man knocked a third time, to ask Hillel why the people of Africa had wide feet. Hillel answered that these people lived by the water, and this made their feet wide.

At first glance, this story is told simply to demonstrate Hillel’s limitless patience and humility, calmly and respectfully answering ludicrous questions posed to him as he was rushing to complete his Shabbat preparations on Friday afternoon. This itself would be inspiring and instructive for us, particularly during the period of the Aseret Yemeh Teshuba, the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Upon further reflection, however, these three questions are deep and profound, and Hillel’s answers were especially directed toward this critical time of year.

When the Gemara tells that this story occurred on Ereb Shabbat, it may very well mean that it took place on the eve of the great Shabbat – Yom Kippur, which the Torah calls “Shabbat Shabbaton.” In the final hours before Yom Kippur, Hillel was “bathing” – he was undergoing the process of cleansing which is to occupy all of us during this time. And it is from the perspective of this context, his intensive preparations for Yom Kippur, that Hillel responded to this man’s questions.

The first question related to the “round heads” of the Babylonians. Elsewhere (Besa 16a), the Gemara calls the Babylonians “foolish” because they ate “bread with bread.” This has been explained to mean that the Babylonians lived their lives as an endless cycle of working and eating. They worked to eat and ate to work; they worked to earn a livelihood which sustained them so they had the energy to work the next day. Their lives were “round,” spinning around endlessly in this cycle, without any meaning, purpose or goal. Hillel explained that this was the result of the incompetent “midwives” – a euphemism for the Rabbis, those who are to guide the people’s development much as a midwife guides the infant out of the womb. The Rabbis failed in their responsibility to lead and inspire the people to find a loftier meaning to their lives, and so the people found themselves mired in an endless rat race, without pausing to reflect upon and contemplate the meaning of it all.

The people of Tarmud are described as a promiscuous and hedonistic society (Yevamot 16), and thus the question was asked why their “eyesight” – their perception of life – was so poor. They viewed life as nothing more than an opportunity for pleasure, and this is what they spent their time pursuing. Hillel explained that this is because they lived in “Hol” (“sand”), which also means “workday.” These people did not have the benefit of Shabbat, which refocuses our attention onto G-d and spirituality, reminding us that life is about far more than pleasure and indulgence. One who lives only in “Hol,” without experiencing the spiritual delight of Shabbat, has a skewed perspective on life, thinking that fulfillment and satisfaction can be achieved only through physical indulgence.

Finally, Hillel addressed the question of the Africans’ “wide feet,” a euphemistic reference to wealth. Hazal elsewhere note that “feet” are symbolic of one’s material possessions, as they enable him to “stand” and support himself. The Africans had “wide feet,” Hillel explained, because they lived near the “water” – meaning, Torah, which is often compared to water. The secret to material success is regular involvement in Torah learning, as the Mishna in Abot famously exhorts, “If there is no Torah, there is no flour” (“Im En Torah En Kemah”). Of course, we must work for a living, but the key to success lies in the time devoted each day to Torah.

This is what we need to think about as we “bathe” and try cleansing ourselves in preparation for Yom Kippur. As we reflect and take stock of our lives, we must consider whether we are living for a higher purpose, whether we have our priorities straight, and whether we set aside enough time each day for Torah. Hillel is teaching us that too many of us squander our lives, spending it in an endless pursuit of wealth and pleasure, without taking time to think about a higher meaning and purpose. Now, before Yom Kippur, is when we need to take a step back, consider what our real goals ought to be, and what changes we need to make in order to achieve them.