Hillel’s Living God

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Tzvi Sinensky



Scholars have explored a wide range of questions concerning the enigmatic rabbinic dictum elu veelu divrei Elokim hayyim, these and these are the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b, Gitin 6b).[1] This term confers legitimacy upon conflicting rabbinic viewpoints. I want to pose a different problem: the phraseology of elu ve-elu divrei Elokim hayyim appears to comprise one word too many.[2] Had the phrase run elu ve-elu divrei Elokim, these and these are the words of God, the idiom would have been complete. Why add the seemingly superfluous hayyim, the living God? What does this word add to the equation, and what light does it shed on the elu ve-elu doctrine?

The phrase divrei Elokim hayyim appears in only one additional context in the entirety of the Talmud. Yoma 35b relates that each day, Hillel the Elder found work and earned a small wage, evenly dividing the money between his family’s needs and the study hall entry fee. One day, having failed to locate an income source and left unable to pay and enter, Hillel climbed to the roof of the beit midrash, placing his ear to the roof so that he might hear “the words of the living God [divrei Elokim hayyim] from the scholars Shemaya and Avtalyon.” The next morning the guards found Hillel sprawled across the roof, nearly dead from hypothermia. Citing this incident, the Talmud argues that a pauper cannot excuse himself from Torah study, as Hillel’s tenacity demonstrates that the adversity of poverty can be overcome.

Often overlooked in this phenomenal narrative of self-sacrifice is the term divrei Elokim hayyim. Why does the Talmud stress that Hillel went to hear the words of the living God? Are the words of God not good enough?

Biblical Background: Of Torah and Prophecy

The rabbinic usage of divrei Elokim hayyim is drawn from chapter twenty-three of Yirmiyahu. Prophesying shortly before the destruction of the First Temple, the eponymous prophet predicts the imminent rise of Babylonia, which will humble the mighty Egyptians and supplant that country as the region’s major international power. The Jews, moreover, must submit to the yoke of the Babylonians or they will be crushed into submission. Although Yirmiyahu faithfully conveys this admonition, he is opposed by a group of false prophets who exhort the Jews to rise up in rebellion against the Babylonian regime.

Yirmiyahu then castigates the false prophets, declaring that they have brazenly misled the people and will be sternly punished. Amongst other criticisms, Yirmiyahu insists that the prophets cannot possibly be legitimate, for by their own admission they have not experienced true prophecy: “Behold, my word is like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that splinters rock” (23:29). Prophecy, contends the true prophet, is unmistakable. The divine presence overpowers and overawes. The false prophets’ account is not only substantively incorrect; their lukewarm description of the divine encounter also pales in comparison with the authentic prophetic experience. In clinching his argument Yirmiyahu declares, “You have overturned the words of the living God [divrei Elokim hayyim], the Lord of hosts, our God” (23:36).

In the context of Yirmiyahu’s impassioned oration, the upshot of divrei Elokim hayyim is evident. The prophetic experience shakes the prophet to his core, nearly stripping him of his personality. Before anointing Shaul king over Israel, for example, Shmuel similarly instructs the monarch-in-waiting that prior to his ascending the throne, he will first prophesy and become a different man (Shmuel I 10:6). Thus, insists Yirmiyahu, the false prophets pervert not only the message, but also the medium; they deny the words of the living God.[3]

What is more, this motif is consistent with the biblical usage of divrei Elokim hayyim’s shorter counterpart, Elokim hayyim. In the Deuteronomic retelling of the Sinaitic Revelation and earliest occurrence of Elokim hayyim, for instance, Moshe thunders, “For what mortal heard the voice of the living God [Elokim hayyim] speaking out of the fire, as we did, and survived” (5:23)? Here, as in Yirmiyahu, Elokim hayyim conveys the crushing weight of divine revelation. Additionally, the passage puns on the term hayyim: the Jewish people continue to live (“va-yehi”) despite our encounter with the living God (“Elokim hayyim”).

This irony, of course, makes perfect sense if we are to understand Elokim hayyim as a reference to God’s overpowering presence. Indeed, this is precisely the larger thrust of the passage in Devarim. The leaders had approached Moshe, imploring him to relay the divine utterances so that the people would no longer be required to hear them directly from God. Any more, the leaders suggested, and the people might expire. Indeed, it is fair to assume that the classic rabbinic portrait of God having held the mountain over the Jews’ head like a barrel and coercing them to accept the Torah (Shabbat 88a) is built upon these verses. There is no greater proof of the crushing force of revelation than the imminent possibility of national demise.

Further confirmation of this thesis emerges from another passage, in which Yirmiyahu declares, “God the Lord is true, He is the living God and king of the world. From His anger the earth quakes, and nations cannot contain His fury” (10:10). Here too, Elokim hayyim denotes the overwhelming power of the Almighty.[4]

By associating divrei Elokim hayyim with the intensity of the divine encounter, the rabbis implicitly convey a far-reaching thesis: just as prophecy overwhelms and courses with life, so too does the word of God. For Torah study is not merely an intellectual exercise, but an invigorating and all-encompassing rendezvous with the Almighty.

In this light, we can appreciate another rabbinic homily that builds on a clause from the same chapter in Yirmiyahu. If a person experiences an overwhelming urge to sin, advises the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b and Sukkah 52b), he should drag the evil inclination to the study hall: “If it is like iron, it will splinter in many directions, as the verse says, ‘Behold My words are like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that splinters a rock’ (Yirmiyahu 23:29).” Here too, the Talmud cites a verse evoking the brute force of prophecy, adducing that source as a prooftext for Torah study. It is surely no coincidence that this Gemara expounds a verse from the very same chapter in Yirmiyahu: the selfsame theme of God’s crushing presence, as we have demonstrated, permeates that entire chapter.

One can now appreciate the invocation of divrei Elokim hayyim in relation to the story of Hillel’s stirring self-sacrifice. The reader incredulously asks, had Hillel nothing better to do than climb to the roof of the study hall and freeze himself half to death? The Talmud implicitly responds, for Hillel, Torah was such a force of vitality that he felt almost inexplicably drawn to the study hall. Hillel’s otherwise enigmatic behavior can only be understood against the backdrop of his having experienced Torah as divrei Elokim hayyim.

Between Prophecy and Torah Study
A closer examination of the Torah-prophecy relationship, however, particularly in light of elu ve-elu divrei Elokim hayyim, demonstrates that the rabbis undercut precisely the very Torah-prophecy connection that they have labored to establish.[5] For our brief examination of Yirmiyahu chapter twenty-three shines a harsh light on a glaring irony. As noted, Yirmiyahu invokes divrei Elokim hayyim in support of his claim that there is only a single truth, and that the other prophets are charlatans. This is precisely the opposite intention of elu ve-elu divrei Elokim hayyim, in which the rabbis make precisely the opposite point, namely that there are multiple legitimate interpretations of the Torah.

Another homily confirms Hazal’s ironic appropriation of that chapter in Yirmiyahu for Torah study. Sifrei Naso 42 and Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:2 cite the aforementioned phrase, “and as a hammer that splinters the rock,” in support of their thesis that unlike humans, God can (and, at the Sinaitic Revelation, did) utter two distinct statements simultaneously. Thus, for instance, both “zakhor”—denoting the positive obligations of Shabbat, and “shamor”—corresponding to the prohibitions – were enunciated at once (see also Rosh Hashanah 27a and Shavuot 20b).

Here too, 23:29 corresponds not to the force of Torah but to its multiplicity. Along similar lines, elsewhere the rabbis interpret this verse to mean that “just as a hammer divides [the stone] into many splinters, so too does Torah divide into many interpretations” (Lekakh Tov Shemot 20:3).[6] Yet again, a phrase drawn from Yirmiyahu is paradoxically seen as accenting the multiplicity of revelation. How are we to understand this inversion?

Apparently, the sages are forwarding a radical thesis. The common denominator between prophecy and Torah study is the divine encounter. Still, these encounters come about in opposite ways. In the instance of prophecy, it is God who reveals Himself to the person; regarding Torah study, it is humanity that reaches out to the divine. To borrow kabbalistic terminology, prophecy represents itareruta di-le-eila, inspiration from above, while Torah constitutes itareruta di-le-tata, inspiration from below.

The rabbis further suggest that this distinction does not merely concern the genesis of the inspiration, but the quality of the encounter with the divine. Prophecy, in the main, involves relatively unambiguous directives, whereas Torah study is to a greater degree dependent upon the judgment of the individual.[7] To make this point, the rabbis link prophecy and Torah study while simultaneously undercutting the comparison: In connection with prophecy, the word of God carries the brute force of a hammer crashing down on rock; in the case of Torah, the rock splinters into seventy fragments or interpretations. For the navi, divrei Elokim hayyim denotes a crushing communication; for the scholar, it alludes to the one’s active role in offering his or her own informed interpretation, which energizes the scholar to experience God’s word as vital and dynamic.[8] 


The seemingly superfluous term hayyim, then, and the fuller phrase divrei Elokim hayyim, are unexpected clues that enable us to better decipher elu ve-elu. By its rich association with the prophetic experience, hayyim at once captures the force of the divine encounter inherent to the prophetic experience and Torah study alike, simultaneously evoking the lush, dynamic, intellectual vibrancy perfectly encapsulated in the formulation of elu ve-elu divrei Elokim hayyim.

[1] I have chosen to translate “the words of the living God” rather than “the living words of God” for two reasons. As we shall see, this interpretation finds support in the Biblical verses that use the term “Kel hay” or “Elokim hayyim” without the accompanying word “divrei.” Based on these precedents, the word “hayyim” appears to modify “Elokim” and not “divrei.”

[2] Such studies typically consider, among other areas of inquiry: To what extent, if any, can mutually exclusive opinions both constitute truth? What are the implications of this doctrine for the status of minority opinions in halakhah? Does elu ve-elu apply equally to various Torah disciplines, such as halakhah, biblical exegesis, and Jewish philosophy? Did this doctrine evolve over time? Do substantive parallels exists in other legal traditions? Some classic sources include Avi Sagi, Elu Va-Elu: Mashma’uto shel ha-Si’ah ha-Halakhati (Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibutz Ha-Me’uhad), 1996; Michael Rosensweig, “Elu va-Elu Divre Elokim hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism and Theories of Controversy,” Tradition 26 (Spring 1992): 4-23; Shalom Rosenberg, Lo Ba-shamayim Hi (Alon Shvut: Tvunot, 1997); Moshe Halbertal, “The History of Halakhah, Views from Within: Three Medieval Approaches to Tradition and Controversy,” Harvard Law School Gruss Lectures (1994); Yochanan Silman, Kol Gadol ve-Lo Yasaf: Bein Shelemimut le-Hishtalmut (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999); and Avi Sagi, The Open Canon: On the Meaning of Halakhic Discourse (London: Continuum, 2007). See also Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda (Jerusalem: Aronson, 1990), 232-36, for scientific and kabbalistic parallels to elu ve-elu.

[3] This insight is the key to unlocking a striking characteristic of that chapter in Yirmiyahu. Melakhim II, Yeshayahu, Nahum, Habakuk, Zekhariah, Malakhi and Divrei Ha-yamim I invoke the term massa, literally a burden, in reference to prophecy. The largest number of appearances of massa as a descriptor of prophecy, however, occurs in Yirmiyahu, where the term appears a total of eight times, all in chapter twenty-three, within a few verses of the phrase divrei Elokim hayyim. Most simply understood, as Rashi, R. Yosef Kara, and Radak maintain, Yirmiyahu invokes massa to underscore that true prophets are prepared to deliver even unpopular, pessimistic messages. The false prophets, by contrast, offer a more optimistic prognosis, the very antithesis of a burden. However, following Metzudat David’s commentary to our verse, our analysis reveals an alternative interpretation. As Rav Soloveitchik (Derashot HaRav, 147-49) suggested, the word massa highlights prophecy’s potency. The prophet is utterly overtaken by the experience, so that it rightly can be termed a burden. Since prophecy’s overwhelming character constitutes one of our chapter’s central themes, we can readily understand why Yirmiyahu chose to employ the term massa specifically in this context.

[4] Elsewhere in the Bible, Elokim hayyim similarly denotes the homo religiosus’ impassioned quest for God’s vital and invigorating presence. The Psalmist declares (42:3), “My soul thirsts for God, the living God, O when will I come to appear before God?” He later proclaims (84:3), “I long, I yearn for the courts of the Lord; my body and soul shout for joy to the living God.” In both cases, the phrase Kel Hai expresses a sense of intimacy and longing. God’s presence is experienced as immediate and compelling, just as in the case of the prophet or Sinai.

[5] Possibly, the limited halakhic import of the bat kol in Tanaitic and Amoraic literature is similarly reflective of the wedge the rabbis sought to drive between prophecy and Torah study. For a discussion, see Ari Lamm’s Lehrhaus article, “Talking to and About God.” For another relevant discussion, see the exchange between R. Herzl Hefter and myself concerning the Akeidah.

[6] Numerous other rabbinic homilies link this verse to Torah. For instance, Midrash Sekhel Tov (Beshalakh 13) states, “Behold my word is like fire, says God, and like a hammer that splits the rock. Just as fire does not contract impurity, so too words of Torah do not contract impurity.” This source seems to underscore the ethereal nature of Torah study, which, like fire, bears a metaphysical quality and is not subject to ritual impurity. Additionally, Yalkut Shimoni (Yirmiyahu 23, Kohelet 11) derives from our verse that “any Torah scholar who is not hard as iron is no Torah scholar.”

[7] True, the rabbis assert that “no two prophets prophesy in a single style” (Sanhedrin 89a). Still, fundamentally, the prophetic revelation remains qualitatively different than the more intellectually-oriented process of Torah study scholarship.

[8] The classic essay, “Hakham adif mi-navi” (Orot, 120-21), carries echoes of these rabbinic themes. Rav Kook, picking up on a classic Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 12a), claims that whereas the prophet sees only the wider picture, the scholar is attuned to the particular details. Thus, while the prophet is capable of beholding a grand vision for the future, he lacks the tools to effect concrete changes in behavior. That is left to the scholar who, with his emphasis on details, is capable of generating incremental shifts in religious practice. Rav Kook’s distinction parallels the one we developed above: the divinely-inspired prophet can see only a single truth, thundering from the rooftops in his efforts to exhort the people to repent. The scholar, by contrast, employs more subtle methods that emerge from the persona of the scholar rather than from on high. My thanks to Rabbanit Shani Taragin for pointing out this connection.


Tzvi Sinensky is Upper School Interim Principal and Director of the Gur Aryeh program at Main Line Classical Academy, and Director of the Lamm Heritage Archives at Yeshiva University. He is pursuing his PhD in Jewish Philosophy on the subject of rabbinic conceptions of manhood at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. A popular lecturer and author, Tzvi completed three book-length series published by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash. His interdisciplinary high school course on Jewish & Western philosophy and the humanities was awarded the inaugural Kohelet Prize. Tzvi lives in Lower Merion, PA, with his wife and three children.