Hillel said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary; go and learn it." - Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

This is similar to the Torah where it says, "Love your neighbour as yourself." - Leviticus 19

except that Hillel's statement is negative (not to hate), whereas the Torah's statement is positive (to love). Is there a reason why Hillel formulated the Golden Rule in this way? Furthermore, does it matter in halacha whether the Golden Rule is formulated negatively or positively? Is the positive version stronger than the negative version?


1 Answer 1


The basic story is that a goy approached Shamai and Hillel to convert if they could tell him the basic meaning of Judaism "on one foot". Shamai, having the impression that the goy was being sarcastic (as I interpret the gemoro) and asking for the impossible, chased him away with a "builders measure". That is Shammai saw that he was not sincere and chased him away with something that symbolized Hashem created the universe with mishpat. Hillel gave his famous statement (ending with "now go and study") which convinced the goy to actually convert properly and study.

@CraigFeinstein pointed to this

Shammai, feeling that he wasn't serious, chased him away.

The Kli Yakar explains that this gentile was not mocking the Rabbis at all but was, in fact, being very sincere. He, who hadn't studied Torah from a young age, was looking for a single foundation upon which he could base and thereby remember the entire Torah.

The point is that a general philosophical statement does not lead to proper understanding until an actual practical understanding has been reached. The way Hillel expressed it showed the goy that one needs to understand what one is doing and have a specific method of carrying it out.

What does it mean "Love your neighbor as yourself" and what practical means are there to actually carry it out? Hillel's formulation is designed to allow someone who has not studied Halacha to be able to start with concepts that he can understand and have a practical means of carrying it out without getting into meaningless philosophical arguments. One can say that many of the prohibitions of the Torah are formulated this way for similar reasons.

We can see this by examining the history of those who say "Love your neighbor as yourself" and never actually create laws and procedures to carry it out properly. They acted like the modern leftists that base everything on "feelings" and not on actions. Note that Hillel does not speak of feelings (he does not say "do not hate") but instead points out a specific way of acting. That is, those things that you would find "hateful" or wrong if someone else does it to you should not be done to others. This allows people who live in a society to begin to understand their responsibilities rather than concentrating on the "rights" that other people must grant them.

The prohibition against stealing shows the responsibility to ensure that others are "secure in their persons and property". On the other hand, the right to "be secure in one's own person and property" has not prevented people from stealing while at the same time enforcing their own rights.

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    I think your answer could be enhanced by providing some of the context that the O.P. left out. (Perhaps, O.P. was trying to focus on the main issue, here, which is why the context was eliminated.) In particular, since you mentioned "meaningless philosophical discussion", it may be helpful to include that the discussion / question came from a heretic who requested a simple answer, but asked somewhat scoffingly, as well.
    – DanF
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 19:46
  • @DanF was what I added adequate to explain the difference. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 23:50
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    Where does it say it the Talmud that the goy was being sarcastic? And if he was sarcastic, then why did Hillel even answer him? The interpretation I have heard from Rabbi Gershonfeld is that "standing on one foot" meant that the goy had an unstable foundation of Judaism and wanted to understand it better. Shammai's approach scared him away, while Hillel's approach helped him. Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 14:53
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    @CraigFeinstein I added that this is the way I read Shammai's reaction. I made that clearer. Since Hillel's reaction is included with the other goyim who asked improperly (and the story of the man who tried to make Hillel lose his temper) I always considered it as showing how Hillel's modesty and patience changed the attitude of those goyim from sarcastic to sincere. Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 16:53
  • I see. I found this, which is similar to what I heard about the interpretation of what the goy wanted: torah.org/learning/parsha-insights/5761/achareimos.html# Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 17:43

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