Hillel and the Snow

יומא דף לה/ב

לעני אומרים לו מפני מה לא עסקת בתורה אם אומר עני הייתי וטרוד במזונותי אומרים לו כלום עני היית יותר מהלל אמרו עליו על הלל הזקן שבכל יום ויום היה עושה ומשתכר בטרעפיק חציו היה נותן לשומר בית המדרש וחציו לפרנסתו ולפרנסת אנשי ביתו פעם אחת לא מצא להשתכר ולא הניחו שומר בית המדרש להכנס עלה ונתלה וישב על פי ארובה כדי שישמע דברי אלהים חיים מפי שמעיה ואבטליון אמרו אותו היום ערב שבת היה ותקופת טבת היתה וירד עליו שלג מן השמים כשעלה עמוד השחר אמר לו שמעיה לאבטליון אבטליון אחי בכל יום הבית מאיר והיום אפל שמא יום המעונן הוא הציצו עיניהן וראו דמות אדם בארובה עלו ומצאו עליו רום שלש אמות שלג פרקוהו והרחיצוהו וסיכוהו והושיבוהו כנגד המדורה אמרו ראוי זה לחלל עליו את השבת

They say to the poor: Why have you not occupied yourself with the Torah? If he says: I was poor and worried about my sustenance, they would say to him: Were you poorer than Hillel? It was reported about Hillel the Elder that every day he used to work and earn one tropaik, half of which he would give to the guard at the House of Learning, the other half being spent for his food and for that of his family. One day he found nothing to earn and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter. He climbed up and sat upon the window, to hear the words of the living God from the mouth of Shemayah and Abtalion — They say, that day was the eve of Sabbath in the winter solstice and snow fell down upon him from heaven. When the dawn rose, Shemayah said to Abtalion: Brother Abtalion, on every day this house is light and to-day it is dark, is it perhaps a cloudy day. They looked up and saw the figure of a man in the window. They went up and found him covered by three cubits of snow. They removed him, bathed and anointed him and placed him opposite the fire and they said: This man deserves that the Sabbath be profaned on his behalf.

There are a number of issues in this incident that I would like to amplify.

What is the issue that Hillel not pay the guard? Since it was Friday night and the money is muktze, when was he supposed to pay? The Benayahu Ben Yehoyada answers that they would come early on Friday to pay to be able to enter Friday night. HaShem arranged that Hillel should not earn enough that Friday in order that Hillel should be forced to climb on the roof. As a result all the ensuing events occurred and HaShem’s plan was that Hillel’s greatness would be revealed.

This fits very well with another aspect of what the Benayahu Ben Yehoyada says. He points out that the language of the Gemarra is unusual: and snow fell down upon him from heaven. Where else does snow fall from, if not from the heaven? In addition there is a major problem with the whole incident. Why was Hillel allowed to put himself in danger to learn Torah? Firstly, it is not a Mitzvah which you can do that for? And in addition the Gemarra says in Bava Kamma that anyone who puts himself in danger for the Torah you cannot say Divrei Torah in his name. So how can Hillel put himself in danger, and for generations we continue to say Torah in his name?

He answers that Hillel based on Friday afternoon’s weather assumed that that night there would be no snow. When Hillel went up on the roof it was perfectly safe, and he was not putting himself in danger. HaShem then arranged an unusual snowfall that buried him, but since he was so involved in listening to Shemayah and Abtalion he did not realize that it was snowing and was buried. This is similar to the Gemarra in Shabbos that Rava was so involved in learning that he sat on his fingers and did not realize that blood was coming out. That is also why Shemayah says to Abtalion: is it perhaps a cloudy day. If it was snowing of course it was cloudy! But since when they entered the Bais Midrash it was not cloudy, they could not figure out why the skylight was dark.

This is also the explanation for an unusual term used in the Gemarra. It says that Hillel went to learn כדי שישמע דברי אלהים חיים. What are those “words of the Living God”? Says the Benayahu Ben Yehoyada that these are the secrets of the Torah which they would learn after midnight of the night of Shabbos. That is why his greatness was revealed by the snow. שלג is Gematriya 333. The internal letters of the of the letter א are ל and פ (what is called the מילוי). Therefore the internal Gematriya of א is 111. שלג is 3*111. The word  אלפ means to teach- אאלפך בינה. This is the highest level of teaching parallel to חכמה. There are three parts of the Torah. 1) The laws. 2) The discussion. 3) The secrets of the Torah. Each one is an א and since Hillel was learning all three with Mesiras Nefesh his greatness and dedication deserved to be revealed through the snow.

I would like to add another aspect. The phrase “דברי אלהים חיים” is used in one other context in Shas. That is in describing the idea that an argument among Talmidei Chochomim both sides are the words of HaShem. Specifically this was a Bas Kol which came out and said this about the argument of Bais Shamai and Bais Hillel. Since Hillel put himself in danger for דברי אלוקים חיים he merits that his words are on that same level. This is even more clear since it is well known in the name of the Ariz”l that in עולם הבא the Halacha will be like בית שמאי. So therefore why did הלל merit that till then the הלכה was like him? So the Gemarra answers since he was humble. But I would like to posit that the source in this incident of Hillel’s Mesiras Nefesh for Torah which shows his humility and Bitul to learning Torah, so his words are the words of the Living Torah.

There is one other place that this phrase is used in the Avos D’Rabbi Natan. R Masya Ben Cheresh uses the phrase “”דברי אלוקים חיים when he gives תוכחה to someone who left learning to be involved in דרך ארץ. He says, “Why are you leaving דברי אלוקים חיים”?” What is interesting is the parallel to here, when Hillel even though he earn cannot sufficient money to enter the Bais Midrash still he does what he can to learn. That is the meaning of the Words of the Living Elokim.

Why was there a guard and a need to pay him? The Maharsha answers that the Batei Midrash were in the field and needed to be guarded. The other possible answer is that as is stated in Berachos  that there was a guard at the entrance to the Bais Midrash, that only those whose internal level in Yiras Shamayim was equivalent to their external were allowed to enter.

However the Benayahu Ben Yehoyada disagrees  and says that the money was that they used to learn all night Friday night and there was need to guard the door all night. The other possibility was that it was in order to pay for light and heat for the learning through the night.

Lastly what does it mean: This man deserves that the Sabbath be profaned on his behalf. Every Jew deserves that? Answers the Ben Yehoyada  that even though you are permitted and obligated to save someone on Shabbos, it is still better to not have to be Mechalel Shabbos for someone. Therefore all the things they did for Hillel were D’Rabbanon, but they announced that people should know the greatness of Hillel. What he did was not put himself in danger, but praiseworthy and he deserved that the Shabbos should be broken for him.

There is an idea in R Tzadok which also fits well, but that I will just bring:

ספר פרי צדיק פרשת ויקהל – אות יא

ואומרים שהשלום שלו על פי מה שאמרו (מדרש רבה נשא פ’ יב) המשל זה מיכאל שהוא של שלג ופחד גבריאל של אש מהו עמו מושלמים לו לא זה מזיק זה כו’, והיינו מפני שהמכון א’ ע”ד אמת לא זה מכבה זה. וכן בית שמאי ובית הלל שנקראו אבהן דעלמא בזוהר הקדוש (ח”ג עג א) וכן במשנה (פ”א דעדיות מ”ד) נקראו אבות העולם, והיינו דבית שמאי מדת הגבורה פחד יצחק והלל מדת חסד דרגא דאברהם כמו שאמרו בזוהר הקדוש (שם רמה א) וכמו שכ’ מהאר”י הקדוש שלעתיד יהיה הלכה כבית שמאי מהאי טעמא. ואמרו עליהם (יבמות יד ע”ב) ללמדך שחיבה וריעות נוהגין זה בזה לקיים מה שנאמר והאמת והשלום אהבו וזהו שהשלום שלו שעושה שלום במרומיו הוא ישים עלינו ברכה בתורה שבעל פה ושלום

Here he says that the peace between Hillel and Shamai is comparable to the peace HaShem makes between Michael and Gavriel. What is interesting is that he brings a Midrash that Hillel is compared to Michael the angel of snow!

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