A Tale of Three Converts

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #14: A Tale of Three Converts

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Our Rabbis taught: A certain gentile once came before Shammai and asked him: "How many Torot do you have?"

"Two," he replied: "the Written Torah and the Oral Torah."

"I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah. Make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only].

Shammai scolded and rejected him in anger. When he went before Hillel, Hillel accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, Hillel taught him, "Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet." The following day Hillel reversed the letters.

"But yesterday you did not teach them to me like this," he protested.

"Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral Torah as well."

On another occasion it happened that a certain gentile came before Shammai and said to him: "Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot."

Thereupon Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit that was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, Hillel said to him, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary; go and learn it."

On another occasion it happened that a certain gentile was passing behind a Beit Hamidrash, when he heard the voice of a teacher reciting: "And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod."

The gentile said: "For whom are these?"

"For the High Priest," he was told.

Then that gentile said to himself, "I will go and become a proselyte, that I may be appointed a High Priest." So he went before Shammai and said to him: "Make me a proselyte on condition that you appoint me a High Priest."

Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit that was in his hand. He then went before Hillel, who made him a proselyte.

Hillel said to him: "Can any man be made a king but he who knows the arts of government? Go and study the arts of government."

The gentile went and read. When he came to, "and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death," he asked, "To whom does this verse apply?"

"Even to David, King of Israel," was the answer.

Thereupon that proselyte said to himself a fortiori argument. If Israel, who are called sons of the Omnipresent, and who in His love for them He designated them "Israel is my son, my firstborn," yet it is written of them, "and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death," how much more so a mere proselyte, who comes with his staff and traveling bag.

Then he went before Shammai and said to him: "Am I then eligible to be a High Priest. Is it not written in the Torah 'and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death?'" He went before Hillel and said to him, "O humble Hillel. Blessings rest on your head for bringing me under the wings of the Shekhina!"

Some time later the three met in one place. They said: "Shammai's impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel's humility brought us under the wings of the Shekhina. (Shabbat 31a)

There are too many aspects of these stories to cover in one shiur, but we will try to address many of the central points. Let us begin with Hillel's strategy for dealing with the gentile who planned on rejecting the Oral Law. Rather than a clever attempt to win a verbal repartee with the gentile, Hillel tries to make a profound point. All learning begins in the context of a tradition and with the choice to trust a given teacher. The budding biologist will not get anywhere if he says "how do you know this" to the professor at every turn. Hillel points this out to the prospective convert as a first step towards getting him to accept our communal traditions.

Let us now turn to the prospective convert who wants to hear the entire Torah while standing on one foot. If we understand this literally, it seems that the man lacks the patience necessary for serious learning. On the other hand, several commentators understand the man's request metaphorically. This gentile wants to reduce Judaism to a single principle. However, Torah includes too many different ideals to be reduced to a single mitzva. According to Maharsha, the builder's cubit represents the fact that a good structure always relies upon more than one supporting pillar. Shammai was communicating that reductionist accounts of Torah all ultimately fail. The last convert exhibited the same misunderstanding as he though of Torah purely in terms of the priesthood. Therefore, Shammai also rejected him with the builder's cubit. The first fellow, on the other hand, though he too misrepresented Torah, did not reduce it to a single mitzva and Shammai does not employ the builder's cubit in sending him away. The problem of narrowing Torah should be a reminder to various contemporary Jewish groups who would like the grand mosaic of Torah to revolve solely around a single ideal such as Talmud Torah, Chessed or Yishuv Eretz Yisrael.

R. Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer on Shabbat) also explains that the "standing on one foot" refers to a single principle. According to R. Sofer, the gentile argued that a religious person must choose between two conflicting ideals. Such a person must either excel in the interpersonal realm or work on his relationship with Hashem in splendid isolation from the rest of humanity. Shammai, a well-known scholar, employed his building tool to show that his own search for understanding Torah had not led him to abandon the rest of the community. Shammai studied Torah assiduously even as he dedicated time to building houses for human habitation. Indeed, few traditional Jewish sources hold up the hermit as a religious ideal.

Why does Hillel not respond just as Shammai did? Wouldn't he also oppose a stark choice between bein adam la-makom and bein adam la-chavero, with no chance of integrating the two? R. Sofer explains that the answer: "That which is hateful; to you, do not do to your friend," addresses both other human beings and God. There is an interpersonal quality to our relationship with our Maker as well, and those who follow the Golden Rule will also forge a more successful relationship with Hashem. For example, those would want gratitude expressed to them should be full of gratitude to the God who made and sustains them. Thus, Hillel found a principle that unites the two opposing options held up by the gentile.

Another approach to the builder's cubit appears in Maharal's Chiddushei Aggadot. He argues that the measure represents the character traits of a Shammai: exacting, precise and refusing to budge even slightly. Just as the architect cannot afford to be off even by a fraction of a centimeter, Torah should not be diluted in the slightest. Therefore, Shammai rejects these three prospective converts with their unusual requests.

The various commentators we have sent thus far point in a direction that many readers may already be heading towards, namely that Shammai has good justification for rejecting all three fellows. Most of us would reject a convert who wanted the Torah to be acquired on the cheap, who rejected the Oral Law or who converted for an ulterior motive, such as the high priesthood. It seems that elementary school versions of this story that portray a mean Shammai who never learned to act nicely like Hillel are doing Shammai a disservice. Perhaps it is Hillel who stands in need of justification.

Several commentators question Hillel's behavior in light of the gemara that explicitly calls for rejecting a prospective convert motivated by the desire to marry a Jew or to sit at the king's table. How could Hillel accept a convert motivated solely by the nice garments of the kohen gadol? Maharsha argues that Hillel did not initially convert them, but merely accepted them as candidates for conversion. Only at a later point was Hillel able to convert them with confidence. While Maharsha's reading nullifies the problem, it is not the simplest translation of the gemara. Tosafot (Yevamot 24b) explain that Hillel converted them immediately because he saw that these converts would ultimately come to a more noble motivation. According to Rav Uziel (Mishpetei Uziel Yoreh Deah 2:53), Tosafot differentiate between two different scenarios of ulterior motives. In one case, the ulterior motive is all there is and the gentile must be turned away. In the other scenario, the ulterior motive leads the person to truly become attached to yahadut per se, and a conversion is possible.

We should recall that the introduction to the previous Hillel story (see Aggada shiur 11) and the concluding line of this story do seem to fault Shammai and praise Hillel. It may be that Shammai had every right to reject these people as converts but no right to get angry with them. In support of this theory, we note that the final convert comes back to have a word with Shammai. Maharsha understands that this fellow asks Shammai why Shammai did not explain the matter carefully instead of getting angry. Perhaps we can take the point one step further. Shammai may even have had a right to get angry. Yet Hillel reveals just how much one can accomplish by not getting upset even when the anger would be justified. To realize that he could get angry without any qualms and yet hold back in the cause of helping others is the mark of Hillel's special personality.