“The color of skin was not a central issue for our forefathers”

A passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) features a story that reads as follows:

Two persons made a bet: Whoever succeeds in making the sage Hillel angry will receive 400 zuz from the other. (Four hundred zuz was a considerable sum of money, the equivalent of a three months' salary for an ordinary worker.) 

At this time, Hillel was the supreme religious authority and was famous for his piety, his wisdom, and his moral character.

He was known to be very humble, and it was common knowledge that nobody had ever succeeded in enraging him.

Then, one of the two went to see Hillel at his home.

It was on the eve of Shabbat, just at the transition between the weekday and Shabbat, a moment when people wish to be alone.

Hillel was washing his hair, again a situation that is certainly not conducive to any kind of discussion.

The man approached, knocked at the door, and shouted, "Is there a Hillel here? Is there a Hillel here?" (a salutation considered offensive in its very formulation).

Hillel immediately wrapped himself and came out. This means that he dressed himself formally in order to greet his visitor properly, without taking into account his identity, rank, or origin.

Hillel said to him, "My son, what do you want?"

He answered, "I have a question to ask."

Hillel replied, "Ask my son, ask!"

"Why are the heads of the Babylonians rounded?" the man asked.

Such a question is, by its very nature, somewhat offensive (Hillel was himself of Babylonian origin); it is, moreover, quite insignificant, and was asked at a most unfitting and troublesome time.

This combination was intended to make the situation as difficult and irritating as possible.

Hillel answered, "My son, you have asked an important question! The answer is: because they do not have wise midwives."

This means that the Babylonian midwives do not shape the heads of newborn babies properly.

The man went away and waited for some time.

Then he returned to Hillel's house and shouted again: "Is there a Hillel here? Is there a Hillel here?"

Hillel again dressed and came out. He said, "My son, what do you want?"

"I have a question to ask," replied the man.

"Ask my son, ask," said Hillel.

"Why are the eyes of the people from Tarmod runny?" asked the man.

"My son, you have asked an important question! The reason is: because they are living in a sandy area."

The man returned a third time and, after the same preliminary dialogue, asked the following question: "Why are the feet of the Africans flat?"

My son," replied Hillel, "you asked an important question! The answer is: because they live in a swampy area."

The point of this story is not simply to show the extreme patience and humility of Hillel, although both attributes are demonstrated in a very striking manner.

The particular three questions asked by the man, it has been suggested, are not just incidental; they also convey a message.

All three cases point out that people are somehow different from each other.

Some have round heads, others have "running" eyes, and so forth.

All three of these questions appear to be of a racist nature.

They aim at stressing the differences between peoples.

Moreover, Hillel himself was of Babylonian origin, and Babylonians—even Babylonian Jews—were not always well accepted in this country.

As we know, such an attitude toward strangers is still present everywhere in modern times.

Therefore these racist questions may have reflected, to a certain extent at least, a racist attitude toward Hillel himself.

But Hillel dealt with these questions in a uniform manner.

To use modern phrasing, he stressed the fact that the differences existing between people are not genetic.

They are acquired traits determined either by the external environment or by midwives.

To be sure, there are distinct ethnic groups, races, families, and other differentiating factors within humanity.

These groups are subject to changes caused by external influences, but the differences between them are only superficial.

It may be added, by the way, that even the "racists" of talmudic times, such as the person who asked the questions, did not manifest any color prejudice.

He says "the Africans," not "the blacks."

Some information is available regarding the colors that were referred to in Mishnaic times in such a context.

There is a talmudic statement that reads: "Jews are not black like Africans, they are not white like Germans, they are brownish like the bark of a tree."

Apparently, the color of skin was not a central issue for our forefathers.

 —Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

 From “Man Was Created One” in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

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