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Hillel's Rule

Raphael Jospe
The Jewish Quarterly Review
Vol. 81, No. 1/2 (Jul. - Oct., 1990), pp. 45-57
DOI: 10.2307/1455253
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1455253
Page Count: 13
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Hillel's Rule
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Abstract

The late Mordecai M. Kaplan suggested that the term ‮רגל‬ mentioned in the story in BT (bShab 31a) of Hillel's conversion of a Gentile to Judaism "while I stand on one foot" (‮על רגל אחת‬) may be a bilingual pun, if ‮רגל‬ is understood as the Latin regula, rather than literally as the Hebrew word for "foot." The term regula could have been known to first-century Jews through both Greek and Latin usage. Although a literal reading of ‮רגל‬ as "foot" here is certainly justified, and gives the story much of its charm, there are also literary, if not historical or etymological, grounds for Kaplan's reading of the story. First, the Latin connotations of regula might make sense to a Gentile speaker. Second, Hillel is associated in several rabbinic passages with formulating seven hermeneutic "rules" (‮מדות‬), and this association could underlie our story's portrayal of Hillel as interpreting the Torah in terms of one basic rule (regula) of behavior. Third, in addition to the metaphoric usage of "foot" as a principle or foundation of the Torah in our story, "standing" may also be employed metaphorically. Other rabbinic statements refer to basic principles on which the world "stands," i.e., the ethical foundations of the world. Fourth, our story clearly contrasts Shammai, who angrily rejects the challenge posed by the Gentile and pushes him away with his builder's cubit, whereas Hillel welcomed the challenge and employed his regula (= ‮מדה‬ = rule, ruler, or rod) to bring him to the Torah.

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