1) HILLEL AND THE PROVOCATEUR
QUESTION: A certain fool attempted to arouse Hillel's anger by asking him ridiculous questions on Erev Shabbos as Hillel prepared for Shabbos. Hillel answered all of the fool's questions calmly and patiently.
Why did Hillel respond to the fool who was trying to arouse his anger? The Gemara (30b) just taught that one should not respond when a fool provokes him with worldly matters! Certainly the questions that this fool was asking Hillel were worldly, trivial matters!
ANSWER: The only time one is not allowed to respond to a fool is when he questions with an attitude of mockery. Hillel, in his humility, thought that the person was genuinely curious and sincere, and therefore he answered his questions (MAHARSHA). This may also explain why the Gemara records that Hillel exclaimed after each question, "You have asked a very important question" -- this shows that Hillel thought that the inquirer was sincere. (Y. SHAW)
2) THE THREE QUESTIONS ASKED TO HILLEL
QUESTION: A certain fool attempted to arouse Hillel's anger by asking him ridiculous questions on Erev Shabbos as Hillel prepared for Shabbos.
The first question he asked was, "Why do Babylonians have elongated heads?"
The second question was, "Why do the people of Tarmod have round eyes?"
The third question was, "Why do the people of Africa have flat feet?"
Why did the man choose these questions of all of the possible inane subjects he could have asked about? Why did Hillel, who was very modest, not simply reply that he is unlearned in those areas? Why did he spend time answering the questions so earnestly? Moreover, how did Hillel know for certain that the shape of the Babylonian's heads was a result of poor midwifery?
ANSWER: There seems to be more to this lesson in humility than meets the eye. The questions posed to Hillel may have a deeper significance.
Hillel himself was from Bavel (Pesachim 66a, Sukah 18a). The question, "Why do Babylonians have elongated heads?" was thus a direct insult to Hillel himself. However, it was not merely an insult to Hillel's physical appearance. The insult was directed at Hillel's leadership qualities. The man was not asking about the physical condition of the Babylonians' heads, but about what is inside of their heads. His true intention was to ask, "Why is it that while we residents of Eretz Yisrael have a conventional, straightforward manner of thinking, you Babylonians have an 'elongated' or irregular manner of thinking? How do you dare take your crooked, Babylonian method of thought and rule over sages whose background is so much more intellectually sound than yours?" This was meant to be a harsh insult to the man who was the spiritual leader of the nation. (The insult seems even more vicious when we bear in mind that Hillel was granted his lofty post only through proving himself more worthy than the scholars in Eretz Yisrael in an intellectual challenge, as described in Pesachim 66a.)
To this disparaging remark Hillel modestly replied, "You are correct. Perhaps our minds are not as keen as those of the people of Eretz Yisrael. However, even if that is so, we are not to be blamed. It is a result of a lack of professional 'midwives.' The people who brought us into the world of Torah and nurtured our development were not as learned as the great Chachamim of Eretz Yisrael. If you believe that my intellectual capabilities are inferior to those of my colleagues, it is due to a flaw in my early education."
The YA'AVETZ suggests a similar approach. He applies this approach to the next two questions as well. Based on his words, the underlying intentions in the dialogue between Hillel and the provocateur may have been as follows.
The Gemara in Yevamos (17a) teaches that most people with dubious lineage come from Tarmod, and most of the families of questionable lineage in Tarmod, in turn, derive from Bavel. When the provocateur asked Hillel why Tarmodians have round eyes, he was alluding to their marital infidelity. Round eyes are an allusion to immorality, as the Gemara in Ta'anis (24a) says. The man was questioning Hillel's lineage, saying, "Why are the Tarmodians so lewd? Did that trait not begin in Bavel? Who can be sure that your lineage is pure and that you are a descendant of David ha'Melech and worthy of being a leader of the Jewish people?" Hillel answered, "They live among the sands." That is, only when the Babylonians arrived in Tarmod, an oasis in the desert, did they Babylonians acquire this bad trait from the influence of the surrounding nations.
The verse (Tzefanyah 3:10, see Targum) states that some of the Jewish exiles during the time of the Churban of the first Beis ha'Mikdash went to Kush (Africa). These Jews did not return with the rest of the nation when the second Beis ha'Mikdash was built. The provocateur was asking Hillel, "Why is it that the people of Africa (the Jews who did not return to Eretz Yisrael) have such flat feet," that is, why did they stay in Africa even when the Beis ha'Mikdash was rebuilt? He was taunting Hillel, asking why Hillel stayed in Bavel so long, and why his fellow Babylonians were still living there, even though the Beis ha'Mikdash was now standing in Yerushalayim. Hillel answered, in his modesty, that the people in Bavel have difficulty leaving because they are stuck in its "quicksand," in the comfortable standard of living of Bavel, and they do not mean to slight the Beis ha'Mikdash. (Adapted from "Torah from the Internet" by Rabbi Mordecai Kornfeld, Parshas Beha'aloscha; see also Hagahos Ya'avetz here.)
3) IMPURE MOTIVES
QUESTION: A Nochri came to Hillel and asked to be converted on the grounds that he wanted to be a Kohen Gadol. Hillel converted him, and told him to go learn the laws of Kehunah Gedolah.
Why did Hillel convert him? The Gemara in Yevamos (24b) states that it is forbidden to accept a convert who wants to convert only to receive the benefits that a Jew receives!
(a) The MAHARSHA explains that Hillel did not actually convert the Nochri right away. Hillel converted him only after he went and learned that he cannot become a Kohen Gadol. Hillel told him to learn about the laws of Kehunah Gedolah before he converted.
However, this poses another problem. Why was Hillel allowed to teach Torah to a Nochri before he converted? The Gemara in Chagigah (13a) states that it is forbidden to teach Torah to a Nochri! Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (59a) states that a Nochri who learns Torah is Chayav Misah! The Maharsha answers that for purposes of converting, it is permitted to teach Torah to a Nochri.
(b) TOSFOS in Yevamos suggests another answer. Hillel saw that the Nochri was sincere and that he would convert even if he could not become a Kohen Gadol, and therefore he converted him.
(REBBI AKIVA EIGER points out that the words of Tosfos imply that Hillel specifically waited until after he converted the Nochri in order to teach Torah to him, for otherwise he would not have had to "take a chance" by converting the Nochri before knowing for certain that the Nochri would not change his mind after learning that he could not be a Kohen Gadol. Accordingly, this approach of Tosfos refutes the supposition of the Maharsha and proves that one is not permitted to teach Torah to a Nochri even when the Nochri plans to convert.
4) THE ONLY WISDOM IS FEAR OF G-D
QUESTION: The Gemara cites a verse that says, "Only the fear of Hash-m is wisdom" -- "Hen Yir'as Hash-m Hi Chochmah" (Iyov 28:28). The Gemara says that "Hen" means "one" in Greek ("henos"), and thus the verse is saying that the one and only wisdom is the fear of Hash-m. Why does the Torah teach us this principle by using a Greek word?
ANSWER: The Greeks excelled and prided themselves in their great wisdom (see, for example, Sotah 49b, "Chochmas Yevanis," and other places). The Gemara teaches that the verse uses the Greek word for "one" in order to emphasize that all wisdom is worth nothing without the fear of Hash-m. Even those who think they excel in wisdom, like the Greeks, are really lacking any wisdom because they have no fear of Hash-m. (M. KORNFELD, as heard from ha'Gaon Rav Moshe Shapiro)