Ethics – Now & Then 11 – Avot 1:12

Avot 1:12 Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them. Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron: a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace; love all people, and bring them near to the Torah.

Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from [Shema’yah and Av’talyon].

Hillel and Shammai were the last of the zugot, the ‘pairs’ of spiritual leaders. They were in office during the reign of Herod the Great. Hillel’s grandson, known as Rabban Gam’liel HaZaken (the Elder), functioned as Nasi without an Av Beit Din during the decades before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE/AD. It is this Gam’liel to whom the apostle Paul proudly refers as his teacher (Acts 22:3).

Hillel was renowned for his humility and is considered one of the greatest of the Sages. He also was noted for his devotion and dedication to the Written and Oral Torah. No doubt his influence impacted the life of the young Yeshua as he grew and learned. It is possible that Hillel and Shammai were among the group of Sages with whom the twelve year old Yeshua was discoursing when his worried parents found him in the Temple courts (Lk. 2:42ff).

Hillel was a descendent of King David. According to tradition, like Moses he lived until age one hundred and twenty. He grew up in Babylonia and at age forty, when he desired to study under the acclaimed teaching of Shema’yah and Avtal’yon, he returned to Jerusalem with his family. Although the move left them impoverished, Hillel was content to work as a menial laborer. He would give half his daily earnings to the support of his family and the other half to gain entrance into the Beit Midrash (study hall) of the Sages.

A famous story recounts how, one cold and snowy Friday, Hillel had not found work and in the late afternoon when he approached the study hall the guard would not allow him to enter without payment. He then climbed up on the roof and lay next to the skylight in order to hear the teaching. It started to snow heavily but he remained. On Shabbat morning, when Shema’yah and Av’talyon entered the Beit Midrash, they noticed it was darker than usual and, looking up, they noticed the silhouette of a man on the skylight. It was Hillel, frozen and covered with snow. They had him brought down, washed, and revived next to the fire. They also ordered that he be allowed entrance to the Beit Midrash at any time without paying a fee. Hillel studied for forty years, after which time, for another forty years – roughly from 30 BCE to 10 CE/AD – he served as Nasi and was recognized as the leading and most beloved scholar of his generation.

The school of study Hillel founded is known as Beit Hillel, the ‘House’ of Hillel. He was aware of the political uncertainty of the times and, in order to safeguard the balanced study of the Hebrew Scriptures for future generations, he was the first to establish a method of scriptural interpretation that came to be called “the seven rules of Hillel”.[1] The interpretations of Hillel and his students were generally more flexible and lenient than those of Shammai, who also had a following of students and a house of study called ‘Beit Shammai.’ The Talmud records 316 arguments between the two schools of thought. Of these the rulings of Beit Shammai were less strict only 55 times. In general, Jewish halacha (lit. ‘way to walk’ or practical rulings) has continued in the spirit of Beit Hillel; that of study and devotion coupled with kindness.

An illustration is given of an incident when, after Shammai had chased off a would be convert who wanted to study Torah quickly, al regel echad – standing on one leg, he appealed to Hillel who received him patiently and gave him the now famous answer: “What you would hate done to you, don’t do to someone else. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”[2] This key teaching of Hillel’s is also expressed in a positive form by Yeshua in his Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets” (Matt.7:12).


Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron: a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace; …

We find a beautiful eulogy to Aaron given by God through the prophet Malachi: “The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many away from sin” (2:6).

It is a good thing to “love peace” but to be a disciple of Aaron, to learn from his example, one must also be a “rodef shalom” – a pursuer of peace. We should be proactive in establishing peace in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, whether among friends and family members, at work, within the community, or even on a national level. Whenever God gives the opportunity in our walk with Him, we should be prepared and willing to act, with His words of truth, and attempt to effect reconciliation and to maintain shalom.

Aaron received a powerful tribute from God; one we can consider in light of the fact that it was Aaron, in his role as leader when Moses was meeting with God at Sinai, who allowed the forming of the idol of the Golden Calf. This affirmation of his character and God’s later appointing and anointing of Aaron as High Priest, enable us to view his actions in a more kindly light – to judge favorably and to “give him the benefit of the doubt!”

Aaron understood the people on a personal level, more so than Moses did. Moses grew up as prince in Pharaoh’s palace and then was in exile in Midian. He loved his people and would fight and sacrifice for them, but it was Aaron who knew the bitterness of slavery; who had endured the long years of hard labor and had tasted hopelessness with them. He understood their fear when Moses seemed to have disappeared in the cloud, perhaps never to return, and that they needed something tangible to look to, like the gods of Egypt. He also knew that he would be unable to withstand them if they rose up against him physically and in anger. If he died they would be left without a leader.

We can appreciate his wisdom in attempting to calm them – to bring peace – by suggesting they all return to their own tents and wait until the next day to celebrate a feast (Ex. 32:5). This might give them pause, a time to rethink, and would also gain time during which Moses may well return and the catastrophe be prevented. Sadly, this did not happen and many proceeded with the sinful and idolatrous revelry. Many, however, including the Levites, chose to stand with Aaron and were spared the later fate of the idolators.

Aaron was a forerunner of Yeshua, who is now our High Priest before the Throne of God (Heb.4:14-15). During his ministry on earth, Yeshua, like Aaron, knew men’s hearts. Aaron said to Moses, “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Ex.32:22). Yeshua saw right through any outward show or action into the depths of a person and the motives of the heart. He did not try to sway or persuade people with emotional oratory or great intellectual argument, but our Sar Shalom, Prince of Peace, in loving patience and with “the Torah of truth in his mouth” constantly spoke words of repentance and reconciliation and demonstrated righteousness through his own life.

…love all people, and bring them near to Torah.

With regard to Aaron, who went out of his way to reconcile married couples, Midrashic literature recounts that “…in gratitude, couples whose marriages he had strengthened, would often name their next son after him. At Aaron’s funeral, there were eighty thousand other “Aarons” that walked behind his bier” (Kallah Rabah 3).[3] It was fitting, therefore, that Aaron would wear over his heart the Choshen, the breastplate of the High Priest, with its twelve precious stones representing the tribes of Israel. The breastplate symbolized unity and Aaron was very instrumental in maintaining that unity and the blessing of peace that it brings.

This juxtaposition of ‘loving people’ and of drawing them near to Torah, the Word of God, and thereby to God Himself, captures the heart of any ‘evangelistic’ outreach. We see the first shining example of reaching out to others to share the light of the truth of God in the father and mother of the household of faith, Abraham and Sarah. They did not stand on soapboxes and preach, but pitched their tent wherever God directed and then simply shared their lives and lovingly served whomever He brought their way. The deep motivation for sharing one’s faith, as illustrated by Abraham and Sarah and continued throughout the generations, is to share with others the knowledge of God conveyed through the revelation of Himself and the Word He gave and to “draw them under the wings of the Shekhinah” – into the place of His Presence, lovingkindness and protection. As personified and exemplified by Yeshua, this can only be done in love and with a heart of peace.



1. L. Kravitz and K. Olitzky; Pirke Avot; 8
2. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
3. The Pirkei Avot Treasury; Artscroll; 38

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