Teach Me All of the Torah On One Leg

In his commentary on Parshat Shmot, the Pri Ha’Aretz (Rav Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk) brings a passage from the Gemara, Tractate Shabbat, that refers to the well-known story of the non-Jew who wanted to convert.

First, he went to Shammai, and said to him: “Teach me all the Torah on one leg!” Shammai used a spirit-level to bat the man away and told him to stop wasting his time.

So the non-Jew went to Hillel instead, and said to him: “Teach me all the Torah on one leg! Hillel said to him: Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do to others. This is the essence of all the Torah on one leg, now go and finish learning about the rest of it.” And in truth, the non-Jew went and converted.

Many different people have commented on this story because the Tzaddikim understood that this wasn’t just a story, but that it contained allusions to some very deep secrets.

The Maggid of Mezritch commented on this story, and the Pri Ha’Aretz brings some of his words.

Shammai and Hillel were the leaders of Israel. So what was Shammai doing with a spirit-level in his hand?! What was the building? What this means is that when the Gemara tells us that he batted him away with an emet-habinyan, or spirit-level?

The deeper meaning is that Shammai wanted to teach this non-Jew something very profound: the spirit-level hinted to the foundation of the world, i.e. the way in which Hashem built the word.

The Maggid explains that the non-Jew asked Shammai to teach him just one secret of the Torah and that he – and his commitment to Judaism would ‘stand’ on just this one secret.

This non-Jew was a wise man. He knew that he would experience tests and that he would have difficulties and confrontations, and he was scared of these trials.

He asked Shammai to teach him one secret, which he could use to ensure that he wouldn’t have any ‘downfalls’ in his service of Hashem, so he could go wherever he’d go in the world without falling, spiritually.

Shammi shooed him away with a spirit-level, the meaning of which is that he was telling this non-Jew that he was contradicting a founding principle of the world. The whole foundation of the world rests upon the fact that a Jew will have failures and descents, and hardships and confrontations.

Shammai told him: “You are asking for something that completely contradicts the founding principle of the world!”

But if we look at this question more deeply, we’ll come to see that each of us is also asking for that one thing. That we can hold onto, and not ‘fail’.

And this is the right thing to want! Because a Jew doesn’t want to fall spiritually.

OK, so I don’t need to have the biggest spiritual uplift every day, but the essence is that I shouldn’t fall down, spiritually. A Jew doesn’t want to experience a spiritual descent and to experience the ‘hidden face’ of Hashem. But Shammai shooed him away.

When the non-us areJew came to Hillel, Hillel said to him: ‘Practically speaking, there is such a secret, and this is it: whatever is hateful to you, don’t do that to other people.

The Pri Ha’Aretz tells us that Hillel is teaching us a very deep principle here. The whole Torah of the Pri Ha’Aretz comes to explain to us what Hillel actually was telling this non-Jewish convert.

Hillel was telling this convert: The more you can grasp the principle of loving your fellow as yourself, the less you will have spiritual falls and descents.

And there are two levels to this concept: Firstly, you have to sur mey ra – or flee from evil. The meaning of this is what is hateful to you, don’t do it to anyone else. This is the foundation of the of rules that apply bein adam l’chavero, between man and his fellow man. And then after this, there is another level which is called ‘love your fellow as yourself’.

This is what Hillel was telling the non-Jew.

In order to really grasp this idea, you have to study it for 120 years, and go through this world with its hundreds of thousands of ups and downs. As Rebbe Natan said, before you can really understand the depth of the concept of what is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow.

But we can take a very big rule from this, nevertheless, which is just how strict Hashem is about the matter of bein adam l’chavero, or how we treat our fellow man.

The whole essence of the days of Counting the Omer revolves around this issue of bein adam l’chavero. In as much as 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in this time period, and they were all very big tsaddikim.

The Gemara tells us that they were ‘complete’ in the laws governing man and Hashem, but they ‘lacked’ the proper level of bein adam l’chavero, or how they treated their fellow.

In the next post, we’ll explore a little more about what this actually meant, in practice.

Translated and adapted from Rav Ofer Erez’s teachings in the Ohr HaDaat newsletter, #125

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