JQR on One Foot

April 29, 2024
The Jewish Quarterly Review

In the winter issue of JQR Naphtali Meshel finds the new in a familiar old tale.

male standing on one foot

Photo: B.A. McFadden, full-length portrait, standing on one foot on pedestal, facing right, wearing a fig leaf (LOC public domain archive).

JQR’s archive is more than a century deep, and much of the scholarship of the decades that precede ours remains vital. This winter’s issue of JQR features a note in which Naphtali Meshel extends a conversation started by Raphael Jospe in an essay titled “Hillel’s Rule,” which ran in our pages thirty-four years ago. (JQR 81.1 [1990]: 45–57).

Both Jospe’s essay and Meshel’s ("Measure for Measure," JQR 114.1) focus on the widely known story of the gentile who approached the first-century sages Hillel and Shammai, asking each to teach them the entire Torah while standing on one foot (bShab 31a). Shammai is offended and chases the upstart off with a stick, but Hillel is kinder. He tells the teetering seeker to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and that the rest of Torah is mere commentary on that axiom. 

But is this the story all the manuscripts tell? In some the proselyte is not on one foot but rather asks to be taught with one “foot”—a word whose many meanings ricochet through the tale, ass Meshel shows.

When you look closely at this story and is variants, striking facets emerge, prompting new questions and possibilities for understanding the encounter. Combining close philology with word play and some fun, Meshel breathes new energy and mischievous humor into a very familiar scene.

Read the full essay here



About the Author

The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Jewish Quarterly Review is edited by David Myers, Natalie Dohrmann, and Anne Albert.

Read more