Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rabbi Hillel, samplers, and memories from childhood

I finally figured out what I'd like to put on the traditional sampler I've been in the process of planning for over a year. (In case people haven't figured it out yet, I have a tendency to take my time with projects.)

In looking at old samplers from the 18th and 19th centuries, I noticed how often girls would include prayers, or Bible excerpts, or quotes with religious orientation. The samplers available to see on the web are invariably done by Christian girls because there are very few extant samplers by Jewish girls left in the world. Jewish girls did make samplers... Fine sewing was the same for them as for their Gentile neighbors, but for some reason few survive to be displayed today. All I've been able to find out is that they often included Hebrew letters and Jewish design motifs (menorahs, lions of judah, trees of life, seven spices, festival icons, etc). Much of the information was found at http://www.needleworksamplers.com/ , but not all of it.

Anyway, so I wanted something or several somethings to write on my sampler too... Something meaningful and unique... Or, at least, to me. It finally came to me. Some of the sayings of Rabbi Hillel! Duh... So obvious, if it had been a snake, it would have bitten me.
These are the ones I want to use, really his most famous:

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" Rabbi Hillel, Pirkei Avot 1:14, Mishnah

"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it." Rabbi Hillel, Shabbat 31a, Babylonian Talmud

"Judge not your neighbor till you are in his place." Rabbi Hillel, Pirkei Avot 2.4, Mishnah

Now, it's quite true that until the last, oh, 50 years or so... maybe less... it was against the rules for women to study the Talmud and the Mishnah... This comes from the exemption of women from fulfilling the commandment to study the Torah or attend services (connected to the "traditional role of women," as keepers and caretakers of the home), as set out in these same writings. See, some people take it a bit too far... Technically, it is an "exemption," as in "they don't have to, but they can," not a "prohibition." Some, for reasons that are beyond me, turned it into the latter, rather than the former. So women of the 18th and 19th centuries would have been unlikely to have been familiar with the sources of these quotes. I would venture to guess, however, that fathers when teaching their daughters about Judaism would have mentioned something of Hillel, since he is one of the cornerstone Rabbis of the last 2000 years of Jewish thought, and they would have to have been taught because Jewish girls had to know about Judaism to keep a good Jewish home... and that was pretty much their entire reason for being until recent years. And besides this, I have the example of my great-grandmother, Miriam. Her family lived in the little shetle of Zvenygrottky, Russia (now Ukraine) in the 1870s and 1880s. They were reasonably well off because her father held a local government job. She was sent to the local Orthodox Christian school to learn arithmetic and how to read and write Russian. At home, she learned to read and write Yiddish, and when they moved to America, when she was 18 in 1889, she taught herself to read and write English, while working as a seamstress in a Detroit sweatshop. My grandmother said that Miriam knew a lot about the history of Judaism for a woman in those days, and she often surprised their Catholic neighbor lady with her knowledge of Christianity (as I said, she went to an Orthodox Christian school). I know that Miriam's story is a fairly unusual one, but it does prove that Jewish girls *could* learn a lot, despite the restrictions placed upon their education by tradition. And besides... I'm not trying to recreate a 18th century sampler... just the style of one. So I think those sayings will do fine.

So all this I got me to thinking about Hillel's most famous saying, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" This has been in my head for a very long time. When I was very young, about 3 years old or so, I had a cassette tape with a song on it about Hillel. This is what I remember of it:

Hillel was a rabbi and he taught us what to do.
The first part of his lesson said you must be true to you.
You have to love yourself if you expect that others should.
Having self-respect is something special, something good.

Im ein ani li, mi li?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Ukh'she'ani l'atsmi, mah ani?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
V'im lo akhshav eimatai?
And if not now... if not now, when?

There were several other verses, one for each part of his saying, but I can't remember them now. But I want to find that tape now! It's in my head and driving me crazy. I can't find it online. I doubt I could find it even if I could remember the name of the tape. It's really old. The first song has the Alefbet sung out so that kids can learn it. I still remember the entire thing. It's how I remember all the Hebrew letters to this day. We used that song through 4th grade to remember them in Sunday School. And on the B-side, it had the Chanukah and Purim stories by people who did all the different characters with different voices and dramatic music. The last time I know I had that tape was when I came across it when I was in high school. Amazingly, it was still working as good as new. I don't think anyone would have thrown it out. It's just misplaced.

For general interest: Rabbi Hillel lived from approximately 70 BCE to 10 CE. He grew up in an affluent family of Babylon and moved to Jerusalem when he was of age so that he could devote his life to the study of Torah. He did this against the will of his father and lost the significant inheritance that his father would have otherwise left to him. To support himself before he gained a following, he worked as a servant in the households of rich Judeans. The title of "Rabbi" was ascribed to him almost a century after his death, during the early days of Rabbinic Judaism, when the Mishnah and Talmud were being compiled. He was sometimes referred to as "Ha-Nasi," meaning "the prince," because this was the title held by the elected president of the Sanhedrin, the judicial body of ancient Judea. It is said that Hillel served as the "Nasi" of the Sanhedrin during the last decades of his life. (Hillel's grandson Gamaliel was the teacher of Paul, mentioned in Acts 22.3. Hillel's son Shimon [or Simon] was probably Nasi of the Sanhedrin when Jesus was crucified.) "Rabbi" was used as a title in Judea, first as the title of the head of the Sanhedrin, then by those ordained by the Sanhedrin, and finally for those ordained as religious scholars and community leaders, beginning in the mid-to-late 1st century.

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