Our Gemara begins with a most puzzling story. Erev Pesach fell out on Shabbat one year and the scholars of Jerusalem, the sons of Beteira, did not know what to do. Does the Passover sacrifice override Shabbat laws or not? They asked around to see if anyone knew the halacha. Who did they find but a person named Hillel who had arrived from Babylonia and had previously been a student of the two prominent Sages of the previous generation, Shemaya and Avtalion. The sons of Beteira call Hillel and he proceeds to dazzle them with logical answers showing that indeed, the bringing of the sacrifice overrides Shabbat. The sons of Beteira are so impressed that they immediately appoint Hillel the Nasi, the head of the scholars, and have him teach them all day.
This story is extremely strange. First and foremost, how could the scholars forget such a basic law? Even if the laws of how you bring the Passover sacrifice on Shabbat had not been stated clearly in the Mishnah, how could it be that there had been no situation in recent memory when Erev Pesach fell on Shabbat? In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud asks that very question and answers that God made them forget in order that Hillel could rise to prominence. The Jerusalem Talmud cannot imagine a situation where a law like that could be forgotten. Second, why does a scholar need to come from Babylonia to teach the Sages of Jerusalem about Temple laws? Why had they not studied with Shemaya and Avtalion (as Hillel himself asks them)?
Let us set the stage for this story. When does it take place and what are the circumstances? Hillel (and Shammai, his constant companion who does not appear in this story) is active in the late first century BCE – early first century CE. The Temple is in its glory days and Jerusalem is at its height of strength and beauty. The rule of King Herod has just ended and the Romans are in charge in the land. This is a very early story for the Gemara; so much of the conversations about the Temple and the sacrifices take place decades, and often centuries after the Temple was destroyed but here we have a story that seems to be recorded in real time. That of course makes the forgetfulness all the more puzzling – these aren’t archaic rituals that were forgotten but the way Passover was currently being celebrated.
Holyland model of the Temple (Wikipedia)
Hillel was a student of the great teachers Shemaya and Avtalion, both converts to Judaism. We do not know much about them but we hear their words in the Ethics of the Fathers:
Shemaya used to say: love work, hate acting the superior, and do not attempt to draw near to the ruling authority. Avtalion used to say: Sages be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and be carried off to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who follow you drink and die, and thus the name of heaven becomes profaned. (Ethics of the Fathers 1: 10-11)
In other words, work hard, teach well and lie low. This is apt advice for their time period, the time when King Herod was in power. While it seems that Herod treated Shemaya and Avtalion favorably (they seem to be the rabbis Samias and Polion mentioned in Josephus), in general staying out of politics was a good idea in Herod’s time. The Gemara in Bava Batra brings a terrifying story of Herod killing all the rabbis except for one Bava ben Buta. Why does he do this? Because the rabbis oppose Herod’s leadership on the grounds that he is not a Jew but rather a slave and the son of a non Jewish woman.
Theater in Caesarea (Wikipedia)
It seems that many of the scholars were killed or frightened into submission and Torah leadership went underground in Herod’s time. Only a few brave survivors continued teaching the traditions and passing them on. Even Shemaya and Avtalion don’t take too many chances. They did not open their study hall to the general public, one had to pay admission to get in. One day, Hillel, who was very poor, could not pay the price and had to illicitly eavesdrop from the roof. It was a cold and snowy day and Hillel was almost frozen before the sages noticed him up there and brought him in.
Which brings us back to our story. Could it be that the sons of Beteira did not know the halacha because they were from a generation where Torah life was largely lost? Herod may have rebuilt the Temple in a magnificent manner but he was not interested in cultivating Torah learning and saw the rabbis as a threat to his power. The generation in his time, with a few majestic exceptions like Shemaya and Avtalion, did not teach or study Torah and therefore did not know the law, even when the threat of Herod had passed. It was a lost generation.
Who was there who could teach these scholars the forgotten Torah? A man who came from Babylonia, where Torah learning was still freely done. And yet, Hillel learned his Torah in the land of Israel, from Shemaya and Avtalion, perhaps at risk to himself. He admonishes the sons of Beteira in the continuation of the story:
“He said to them: What caused this to happen to you, that I should come up from Babylonia and become Nasi over you? It was the laziness in you that you did not serve the two most eminent scholars of the generation living in Eretz Yisrael, Shemaya and Avtalion.” (Pesachim 66)
You sons of Beteira should have studied, even if it may have been dangerous. However, now it is up to a Babylonian to return the Torah to the land of Israel.
Herod brought physical benefits to the land of Israel but neglected the spiritual ones by making Torah learning a dangerous practice. If it were not for Hillel and his retaining of the tradition, the center of Torah life may have moved to Babylonia much earlier. And in fact, the Gemara in Sukkah explains that three times Torah was almost lost in the land of Israel and was rescued by a Jew from Babylonia:
“When some of the Torah laws were forgotten from the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, Ezra ascended from Babylonia and reestablished the forgotten laws. Parts of the Torah were again forgotten in Eretz Yisrael, and Hillel the Babylonian ascended and reestablished the forgotten sections. When parts of the Torah were again forgotten in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Ḥiyya and his sons ascended and reestablished the forgotten sections.” (Sukkah 20)
Torah scroll (Wikipedia)
Another reason to nominate Hillel to the most beloved scholars list.