Hillel and the Hebraists

for Kevin P. Edgecomb

This is Hazal’s legendary anecdote illustrating Hillel’s incredible commitment to the study of Torah:

אמרו עליו על הלל הזקן שבכל יום ויום היה עושה ומשתכר בטרפעיק 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 אלקים 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 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 השבת1

And here’s Marilynne Robinson’s version, from her sublime, magical and wonderful Gilead:

Once, to make the point that I should study while I was young and learning came easily, my grandfather told me about a man he know when he first came to Kansas, a preacher newly settled there. He said, “That fellow just was not confident of his Hebrew. He’d walk fifteen miles across open country in the dead of winter to settle a point of interpretation. We’d have to thaw him out before he could tell us what it was he had on his mind.” My father laughed and said, “The strange part is, that may even be true.”2

Later in the novel, she gives us the measure of this class of men:

My grandfather seemed to me stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn’t actually sleeping. He was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew, except for certain of his friends. All of them could sit on their heels into their old age, and they’d do it by preference, as if they had a grudge against furniture. They had no flesh on them at all. They were like the Hebrew prophets in some unwilling retirement, or like the primitive church still waiting to judge the angels. …

They had been to Lane and Oberlin, and they knew their Hebrew and their Greek and their Locke and their Milton. Some of them even set up a nice little college in Tabor. It lasted quite a while. The people who graduated from it, especially the young women, would go by themselves to the other side of the earth as teachers and missionaries and come back decades later to tell us about Turkey and Korea. Still, they were bodacious old men, the lot of them. It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.3

In the same vein, in an interview in The Atlantic, she champions the deep but overlooked intellectualism of such men:

[Jenny Rothenberg Gritz:] Reverend Ames is an interesting character. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone like him in the modern world. He’s too rural and religious to be taken seriously by today’s intellectuals but, at the same time, he’s very educated and worldly in his way. Why does “intelligent Iowa preacher” sound like an oxymoron to contemporary ears?

[Robinson:] I don’t know. That’s another thing that I was really struck by when I was reading up on early settlers in Iowa. A lot of them were highly educated people from Yale and Andover. They came out here to found colleges like Grinnell. So there’s been a very ambitious intellectual culture in the Midwest from the beginning. It’s a shame that people don’t think about it in this way. When you look at all the schools out here, there’s a long list of very fine old colleges.

As for the measure of Robinson herself, a recent Times article is titled Marilynne Robinson: world’s best writer of prose; this is not hyperbole.

  1. יומא דף ל”ה ע”ב []
  2. Gilead, p. 16 []
  3. ibid. pp. 49 – 50 []
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