Dear Rabbi Kornfeld
You very kindly found time to answer some questions relating to this Gemara some time back (December 28th) so I hope you don't mind me asking some more!
The truth is, my daughter is Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat (VaYechi) and it is the custom in our Shul for the Bat Mitzvah to give a small D'var Torah at the conclusion of Shabbat morning davening.
My daughter is especially drawn to the stories concerning Hillel in Shabbos 31 and has asked me to look at them with her. But the more I look, the more confused I am. Maybe this is the price of my own ignorance?
I remain confused as to why the Gemara records in such detail the story of the bet between two men. Thanks to you (and thanks also to the Artscroll translation) I understand to what Babylonian-shaped heads, Tarmodian eyes and African feet may allude to, but it feels like there might be something else going on here. But what? Hillel's patience, wisdom, forbearance are amply illustrated in the stories of the three converts that follow - so why does this story (told in such apparently significant detail) of the 400 zuz bet merit inclusion? Is there perhaps some kind of a connection between the specifics of the 3 questions posed in the first story and the three (different?) converts referred to in the story that comes after. Can one be used to shed light on the other? Were the converts a Babylonian, a Tarmodian and an African, for instance? Or is there some other meaning in the better's questions: proceeding as they do from head to hands to feet? I understand (from Artscroll) that the first story (the bet) shows Hillel's humility per se, while the second story (the 3 converts) shows how his humility had a use, in that it brought others close to HaShem - but is this explanation enough? And - OK - so we are told that Hillel's patience was worth far more than 400 zuz - but is that really explanation enough?
Please help if you can.
Brian, Mazel Tov!
(a) If the three converts were indeed from those three nations, you might have a nice new approach to the bettors intent. He might have tried to incite Hillel by hinting that Hillel was accepting unworthy converts into Israel. That is a nice suggestion, although I haven't yet found any basis for it.
(b) The word "Anavtan" includes two different traits: Patience and Humility. The stories of the converts demonstrate Hillel's patience. The story of the bet, which involves personal insult (according to all interpretations) and physical discomfort, demonstrates his unsurpassed humility. Very few people can maintain their composure under such incitement.
Glad to be of help. Feel free to contact us for help with any other Gemara queries in the future!