One of the most commonly cited verses of the Torah is a verse in this week’s reading. “…and you shall love your fellow as yourself, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) For the Talmudist this phrase is also well known, as the great sage Rabi Akiva noted that this is a great principle of the Torah.
The Kli Yakar discusses here the story of the conversion candidate who appeared before Hillel the Elder and asked to be taught the entire Torah (everything he needed to know in order to convert) while he was standing on one foot. Hillel did not disappoint. He quoted this verse and said, ‘what is annoying to you don’t inflict upon others. The rest of the Torah is commentary; go and study.’
It makes for a nice story and this particular passage in the Talmud is repeated often. However, it really does beg explanation. No legitimate Jewish court today would regard this candidate seriously. The course of study for conversion takes at minimum a year of intensive study, usually considerably longer, and even then Jewish learning is a work in progress. Did Hillel seriously instruct his court to convert a fellow who was essentially clueless about the laws of the Torah, knowing only this rule of treating others as he would like to be treated?
Clearly there is more to the story and more to this convert. The Kli Yakar asserts that this convert was unquestionably a sincere person and he would never have mocked Hillel or the Jewish religion by suggesting the Torah could be taught in a few moments. Rather, the Kli Yakar states, he was looking for an underlying principle to the Mitzvot of the Torah. “Give me a rule that applies to all Mitzvot, a common thread that runs through all of the Torah. Teach me a principle which I can carry with me and which will remind me always of the spirit of the Torah,” was this man’s request.
In good faith Hillel cited this verse.
The Prophet Habakuk is also known to have summarized all of the Torah in one fast rule: “A righteous man lives by his faith.”
These two rules, that of Hillel and that of the Prophet Habakuk, do not contradict one another, rather they are complementary. The Kli Yakar continues, explaining that there are two types of Mitzvot in the Torah. There are laws relating to the duties of man to God and there are laws relating to man’s duties to his fellow men. The Prophet was speaking to the former and Hillel to the latter. In fact, the verse Hillel quotes, “Love your fellow as yourself,” ends with the words “I am the Lord.” The last words of the verse address the duties of man to God and therefore this verse covers both elements of the Torah.
On one foot, the man was asking for a leg upon which the Torah stands. He was seeking the foundational spirit,
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