One of the great heroes of the Jewish People. He was the “Nasi,” a perhaps untranslatable term which has been translated “Prince,” “President,” etc. It was actually a position that combined religious and secular leadership, and was the highest position of leadership in Jewish Society during the several centuries preceding and several centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple. Hillel himself lived at the beginning of the century preceding the Destruction. Sitting opposite him at the head of the “Sanhedrin,” Jewish “Supreme Court,” and filling the role of the “Av Beit Din,” “Chief Justice,” was his colleague, Shammai, with whom he had, and their respective groups of students, had numerous classical disagreements recorded in the Talmud.
In addition to his contributions to the understanding of Jewish Law referred to above, he is famous for a number of incidents in his personal life, and “ethical” pronouncements that he made:
1. Most famous perhaps is the incident which occurred before his rise to leadership, when he was not yet a scholar, but had a burning desire to study Torah. At that time, Torah study was tightly controlled and limited only to those of the highest caliber and to those who could pay for it. Hillel, working then as a woodchopper, did not have enough money to pay for entry into the Beit Midrash. On a freezing cold snowy day, he climbed onto the roof of the Study Hall, and lay at the “skylight” listening to the lecture, until he froze. When the scholars below observed his form above, they retrieved him, and changed the policy such that anyone who wished to study Torah could come in and do so.
2. A certain non-Jewish “wise-guy” came to scoff at the Torah, first to the home of Shammai, then to the home of Hillel. He said, “Teach me the Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai, sensing his true intention, had him thrown out forthwith. (From this story, probably mostly, Shammai has received the bad “rep” of being a short-tempered, person who “did not suffer fools” lightly. However, this is certainly not the case, since it is Shammai himself who teaches “Receive everyone with a smiling face.”
When the individual came to the home of Hillel with the same request, Hillel responded. “No problem! The main idea of the Torah is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else is commentary. Now, if you’re really interested, go and study the commentary.” So impressed with Hillel’s response, according to Jewish Tradition, was the visitor, that he took Hillel up on his instructions, began to study the Torah seriously, and became a Jew.
3. Hillel says in Pirkei Avot (1:12), in line with the story above, “Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving G-d’s creatures, and bringing them close to the Torah.”
4. Hillel says in Pirkei Avot (2:5), among other extremely important things, the following, “Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place.” This, from the Prince of the Sanhedrin – that it is fundamentally impossible for one human being to judge another, because no one ever occupies the same “place.” That is, no person ever experiences exactly the same circumstances as another – yet the Torah commands us to in fact judge others, playing by its rules, which are designed to reach the ultimate level of fairness that a human being can reach.