The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hillel and Shammai

Rabbi Hillel the Elder was one of the most important sages of the Mishnah, the first redaction of the Oral Torah written down in the Talmud. Emmanuel Bronner, the soap-maker, regarded Hillel as one of the teachers of Jesus Christ. While that is debatable, they lived at the same time, and their ethical teachings have a lot of parallels. Considering that Jesus was a gifted student of Torah in the time of Hillel, it is impossible for Jesus not to have been influenced by Hillel.

At the time of Hillel, the latter days of the Second Temple, the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people was in the hands of pairs of scholars, called Zugot. Hillel, and his arch-rival, Shammai, were the last of the Zugot. Hillel had a liberal, loving interpretation of the Torah, while Shammai was harsh, strict, and exacting. The two were involved in many disagreements, and both formed Houses of Study that continued to be rivals. The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed on many points of law, and their dispute was so polarizing that their houses could find no compromise. The Babylonian Talmud tells us that their dispute was solved when "a voice issued from Heaven announcing, 'The teachings of both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the School of Hillel.'"

Hillel believed conversion to Judaism should be easy, divorce should be easy (Hillel ruled that a man can divorce his wife for burning a meal), that anyone should be allowed to study Torah, and differed with Shammai on many technical aspects of worship. In the Pirkei Avot, from the Mishnah, Hillel is quoted as saying, "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?".

Shammai made it very difficult for non-Jews to convert to Judaism, felt that divorce should be severely restricted, demanded that even tiny children fast on Yom Kippur, and usually interpreted the law in the most severe way. And yet, in Pirkei Avot, Shammai is quoted as saying, "greet every man with a cheerful countenance." Despite this last saying, the Talmud warns us "to be as humble as Hillel, and not short-tempered like Shammai." Later on in the Talmud, it is added, "Shammai's strictness could drive us out of the world; Hillel's humility brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence."

My favorite story of Hillel and Shammai has a masonic component to it. In the Tractate Shabbat in the Talmud, the following story is told:

Another story of a non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him: "Convert me [to Judaism] on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai pushed him away with a builder's ruler that was in his hand. The non-Jew came before Hillel who converted him. Hillel said to him, "What you hate, do not do to your friend. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!"
Everyone who has taken the Entered Apprentice degree pricks up his ears at the mention of the builder's ruler, the 24-inch gauge. As I am preparing to perform my first Entered Apprentice degree as an officer, I am thinking about the 24-inch gauge and the common gavel. I may save the common gavel for another post, but right now I am considering why Shammai used a 24-inch gauge to strike the potential convert.

The language of the Talmud is often cryptic and eccentric. This should not intimidate a mason. Why did the convert want to stand on one leg while being taught? At a first pass at an answer, it is more difficult to stand on one leg than on two, and one can only stay balanced on one leg for a short period of time. The convert is challenging the rabbis to be as succinct as they can be. The convert is demanding a sharp time constraint upon the Torah lesson. If I were going deeper, I would consider why the Tarot card of the Hanged Man has the hanged man suspended by one leg, why the angels in the vision of Ezekiel appear standing on one leg, study the letters of the Hebrew word leg to see if the numbers associated with them add up to a significant number, find scriptural passages that refer to one leg, and continue from there.

For the purposes of this post, the time constraint is my focus. The convert wants to learn the whole Torah, the law of the Jews, which many devote their entire lives to study, in a very brief period of time, much shorter than the time period we refer to as "at a sitting". Shammai is clearly convinced that one cannot learn the Torah that way. Shammai understands that the Torah takes a lifetime of daily study, and that a serious student of the Torah will schedule hours of study into his day. The rabbis of this period were lay people. They held secular jobs as well as being sages. Some of the rabbis of the Talmud were doctors, blacksmiths, brewers of beer, many different occupations. How were they able to do this, study Torah, and be the heads of households, father children, and hold court and judge legal cases?

The operative tool of the builder's ruler, the 24-inch gauge, is divided into three segments of eight inches each, representing a 24-hour period divided into three periods of eight hours each. This metaphor is used in exactly the same way by other groups than the masons, such as the eight-hour-day movement among labor unions of the last century. so this knowledge can be acquired outside a masonic lodge. Therefore I am not betraying any obligations if I discuss this metaphor further.

Eight of the hours of the day are to be devoted to the service of God, and a worthy distressed Brother. Labor unions regarded these eight hours as eight hours of recreation. Eight hours are to be devoted to one's usual vocation, or labor, and eight hours are to be devoted to sleep and refreshment, or rest. Shammai was teaching the convert to schedule time among his daily hours of recreation to study Torah.

As a modern working man, I struggle to balance the three parts of the 24-inch gauge. I am in my office for more than eight hours most days. I commute by public transport, and I give myself an hour in each direction to get to work. These eat away at the time devoted to the service of God and a worthy distressed Brother.

The Jewish religion asks its adherents to pray three times a day, for Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma'ariv. On the Sabbath, a fourth time, the Musaf, is added after Shacharit. Both Shacharit and Ma'ariv include the Sh'ma prayer and the Amidah prayer, and Minchah includes the Amidah but not the Sh'ma prayer. These are the modern parallels of the ritualized animal sacrifices scheduled daily in the Temple. When sacrifice was replaced with prayer, the prayers were aligned to the times in which the sacrifices were mandated to occur.

I do not pray as often as I am commanded to, and my prayers are somewhat abbreviated. On weekdays, I wake up, don a tallit and kippah, and recite a half-hour version of the Shacharit prayers: usually Ashrei, the Sh'ma, the Amidah, and then Aleinu, punctuated by Kaddish. I usually skip the Minchah entirely, except on Sunday, where I will often skip the Shacharit, and only recite the Minchah, with just Ashrei, the Amidah, and then Aleinu, punctuated by Kaddish. On weekdays, I recite a bedtime Sh'ma, but usually not a full Ma'ariv prayer.

I don't own tefillin and don't know the prayers associated with them. I've been meaning to visit a Chabad House and learn how to use them. They are expensive (about a thousand dollars), and I'm not sure that my level of commitment to this particular mitzvah is up to the task of owning tefillin and tying them daily.

I visit my synagogue almost every Friday evening and almost every Saturday morning for their services. On Saturday mornings, I don't recite the Amidah a second time during the Musaf (to be perfectly honest, I often visit the bathroom during Musaf, since I've been in the synagogue for three hours at that point), but only a few people in my synagogue do recite the Musaf Amidah.

When I was unemployed, I made an effort to recite Shacharit and Minchah, and to include a bedtime Sh'ma at night. The commandment to recite Sh'ma at night and in the morning is part of the Sh'ma prayer, and is in the Torah, whereas the commandment to recite the Amidah prayer three times a day is rabbinical. When I'm not working, I pray more. It's funny: compared to my friends who are secular or non-observant, I do a lot of religious activity, but compared to an Orthodox Jew, I'm hopelessly lax in my observance. Living with non-Jews means a kosher kitchen is impossible (and I would not demand that of them), and a mezuzah is not going to happen. My girlfriend is Buddhist, so I don't often pray in front of her. I brought her to Friday night services once, but I'm not sure that they speak to her condition. My Hebrew is not good enough to know most of the Berakhot. I recite Modeh Ani when I wake up alone.

Sometimes I feel bad that I don't do more, but to be honest, I've only been observant to any degree for one year, and I've learned an enormous amount in that time. I was raised without religion, and only started my religious practices in March of last year. I figure that if God lets me live a full life, I have plenty of time to learn Hebrew (and possibly Aramaic and Yiddish) and expand my practice.

An astute observer will notice that "what you hate, do not do to your friend" is the converse of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." While Christians believe that this maxim, called the Golden Rule, is theirs, it actually appears often in the Jewish tradition. Leviticus tells us to "love your neighbor as yourself," and later, "The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God." A similar sentiment also appears in Buddhism, the Baha'i faith, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Taoism. It comes as close to a universal ethical creed as probably exists among humankind.

My girlfriend came with me yesterday to buy a tuxedo. It was a lot of fun. I went with a conservative, tasteful outfit, and got a business suit for free for buying the tuxedo (although I had to buy a shirt and tie for the business suit, and ended up buying a second shirt and tie, and a few other accessories--- these men's shops know what they're doing). We have degree work on the 29th of April, where I will debut my tuxedo. I sponsored one of the candidates, a neighbor, who was elected in our last lodge meeting. I'm really looking forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice JG! I learned a lot here. I think it;s lovely that you are allowing religion to become so integrated into your daily life.