A Selection from my Favorite Jewish Sources
By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells the following story about Hillel (30 BCE – 20 CE).
Two men bet against each other, wagering that whomever was first to make Hillel angry would win 400 zuz. One of them said: “I will go and anger him.”
That very day was the Sabbath eve, and Hillel was bathing. The man entered Hillel’s house, saying: “Who here is Hillel?” Hillel wrapped himself up, went out to greet this person and asked: “What do you desire?”
The man replied, “I have a question to ask.”
“Ask, my son, ask!” Hillel said.
“Why are the Babylonians’ heads so round?” the man asked.
Hillel answered, “My son, you have asked a great question — because they do not have skilled midwives to shape their heads correctly at birth.”
The man went away, returned later and asked: “Who here is Hillel?” Hillel robed himself and went out to met him. He said, “My son what do you desire?”
“I have a question to ask,” said he.
“Ask, my son, ask!”
“Why are the eyes of the Tarmodin blurry?”
“My son, you have asked a great question,” replied Hillel. “Because they live in sandy places.”
Once again the man went away, returned and said: “Who here is Hillel?” Hillel robed himself and went out to met him. He said to him, “My son what do you desire?”
The man answered, “I have a question to ask.”
“Ask, my son, ask!”
“Why are the feet of the Africans wide?”
“My son, you have asked a great question,” Hillel said. “It is because they live in watery marshes.”
The man said to Hillel, “I have many questions to ask, but I feel afraid lest you become angry.” Hillel robed, sat down before him and said, “All the questions that you have to ask, ask.”
“Are you the Hillel who is called the Prince of Israel?”
“Yes,” Hillel answered.
“If you are he, may your like not increase in Israel.”
“If you are he, may there be few more like you in Israel.”
“My son, why?”
“Because I have lost four hundred zuz on account of you.”
Then Hillel said, “Remember this for the future. You may lose four hundred zuz today — and another four hundred zuz tomorrow, but I still will not lose my temper.”
The Rabbis of the Talmud taught: One should always be gentle like Hillel.