Pirkei Avot
About JIYF
He who promotes his name, loses his name;
He who does not add, detracts;
He who does not study deserves to die;
And he who exploits the Toga
for his own gain, perishes.

Commentary [1:13]
He who promotes his name...can mean simply that with fame come critics who will spoil your reputation. But here ‘spreading out’ your name seems also to imply an improper effort to inflate your accomplishments in order to impress others and advance your own cause.

He who does not add, detracts... is traditionally interpreted: if you don’t add to your own learning you will lose what you have. It can be taken more broadly: If a generation merely tries to preserve the heritage of the past, the level of culture decays. It must strive to add to its heritage, to make it relevant to its times, just to stay in place.

He who does not study deserves to die... refers probably to the death of the person’s reputation and influence: if he doesn’t study, his teaching will be superficial and his influence die out.

He who exploits the Toga...repeats the warning of Hillel’s teacher Shemaiah (1:10) with even greater force. Many did in fact die at the hands of the Roman govenment. Traditional commentors and a later mishnah(4:5), read toga as “crown”, and interpret this as meaning not to exploit the ‘crown of Torah’ for personal gain.

Of Hillel, the Talmud says: “In ancient days when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and reestablished it. Then it was again forgotten until Hillel the Babylonian came up and reestablished it.” Hillel is the central figure of the Book of Principles, and is a seminal figure in the development of the Classical Judaism of the Mishnah and Talmud. Hillel put forward rules for interpretation of the Torah in order to apply it to later times. He thus give focus and direction to the whole enterprise of Talmud, which develops and applies the Torah to the contemporaneous times.

Hillel also “added”. He effectively nullified the Torah law requiring cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. This nullification was crucially important because people were reluctant to lend close to a Sabbatical year, and by that time trade, which depends on credit, was vital to the economy. Hillel said that creditors could make a declaration to the court, called a ‘prosbul’, making the court the official creditor. Since the court was not a “neighbor or brother”, the letter of the Torah law was not violated. Thus Hillel acted decisively to preserve both the economy and the authority of the Torah in economic matters.

Hillel was also personally renowned for his patience, humility, devotion to learning, and seeking of peace. The following story about Hillel includes all of these traits, as well as Hillel’s belief in the primacy of ethics in Judaism.
A certain heathen came to Shammai and said to him: “If you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot you can convert me to Judaism.” Shammai drove him away with a builder’s cubit [a stick] which was in his hand. He went to Hillel and Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary: go, study.”

Hillel’s formulation of the ‘golden rule’ is one of the first; it is also found in ancient Greek learning and in Confucius.