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Shabbat Parashat Shemot 5776

Ein Ayah: Looking for the Nearby Answer for the Simple Person

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 2:120)

Gemara: [We continue with the story of the person who tried to upset Hillel and disturbed him while he was bathing before Shabbat.] Hillel put on a cloak, went out to him, and said: “My son, what is that you desire?” He said: “I have a question to ask.” Hillel said to him: “Ask, my son, ask.” “Why is it that the heads of Babylonians are round?” Hillel responded: “My son, you have asked a great question. It is because they lack expert midwives [and babies with round heads come out more easily].”


Ein Ayah
: The person asking the question figured that after employing all the other matters of bad manners to upset Hillel, he would ask him about something that has no significance regarding practical value or ethics. He figured that it is impossible to find a reason to explain why a part of the body is different for some as opposed to others. In this case, there is reason to prefer to not have a round head, as aesthetically, something more chiseled is nicer (see Shir Hashirim 6:7, where a beautiful woman’s forehead is compared to a section of a pomegranate). What value could Hillel find in a round head? (Additionally, since Hillel came from Babylonia (see Pesachim 66a), the question could also be viewed as a personal insult.)

Just as a humble person looks for something positive to think about every person, so does he look for something of practical and/or ethical value in every subject that arises. A humble person is also happy to find a very simple answer for a question for which others might look for a “distant” idea employing a fancy calculation. A humble person will not overlook the “nearby” answer in favor of the distant one unless there is no answer in the proximity. Thus, humility causes not overlooking even the simple answer, while leaving the lofty ideas for cases in which they are called for. A haughty person is always looking for and contemplating distant ideas, including those which he will not be able to use in any significant way.

A humble person will also not lower his spirit to view a simple subject as one about which there is no value to ask. Considering the respect that he wants to give to his fellow person, he reasons that there must be elements to even an ostensibly simple question from which one can learn, thus turning giving the question significance. That is why Hillel said to the man asking him questions that his question was a great one. Indeed Hillel found an answer that teaches an ethical idea, involving Divine Providence.

A round head helps a baby be born more safely. Thus, by saying simply that Babylonians have round heads because they have a shortage of qualified midwives, one is able to learn about Hashem’s mercy and providence over mankind. Namely, for those societies that were too silly to ensure that they have proper medical care for their delivering mothers, Hashem provided help (i.e., round heads). Thus divine compassion compensates for medical laxness. The interesting ethical consequence is that if that society would be more careful to have better midwives, then Hashem could return their physical characteristic to that of having normally shaped heads, which is nicer aesthetically. There are many things one can learn from this approach from a perspective of belief, the importance of taking precautions, and the importance of having practical knowledge. It also shows how Hashem can solve problems that seem unmanageable.

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