The Hillel Narratives

What the Tales of the First Rabbi Can Teach Us about Our Judaism

by Louis Rieser


“A fresh and engaging reading of the Rabbinic biography. Louis Rieser has reopened the Rabbinic stories and made them interesting again.” -Jacob Neusner

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About this book

About the Book

The story of Hillel, frozen near-to-death on the snowy roof of the Study Hall, is well-known.

In its details, however, the story is impossible. No one could lie under three cubits of snow overnight and live. And Jerusalem never receives three cubits of snow—certainly not on the night of the winter solstice, as recounted in the Babylonian Talmud five centuries after Hillel’s birth.

Rabbi Louis Rieser set out to find the real meaning of the legends of Hillel. What is the Talmud trying to teach us about rabbis, about leadership, about important values?

This provocative book argues that while the famous legends of Hillel may have nothing to teach about Hillel’s actual biography, they have a great deal to teach us about Judaism.

About the Author

Louis Rieser was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, in 1975. Since 1997 he serves as the rabbi of Etz Hayim Synagogue in Derry, NH. He previously served as a Hillel rabbi at Ohio University and at Emory University. He was also the rabbi for Temple Israel of Greenfield (MA).

Rabbi Rieser served as president of the Northeast Region of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and is currently the regional representative to the national board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He sits on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Manchester (NH). Rabbi Rieser helped design and co-led the first New Hampshire Jewish-Catholic Seder in March, 2002, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Manchester, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, and the Center for Christian Jewish Learning at Boston College.

Rabbi Rieser teaches regularly at both the winter retreat and the summer institute of the National Havurah Committee. In 2003 he taught a highly successful course titled, “The Hillel Narratives”, based on these essays. His article, “Living With Imperfection”, is included in the recently published collection, What is Jewish About America’s “Favorite Pastime”?: Essays and Sermons on Jews, Judaism and Baseball. His articles have appeared in the CCAR Journal, the MAQOM Journal, and New Menorah. He is a regular book reviewer for Church & Synagogue Library Review. He was a regular contributor to the D’var Torah Column maintained by the National Havurah Committee between 1986 –1991.


Jacob Neusner
The Hillel Narratives  brings the contemporary critical program of critical learning to the Rabbinic stories and undertakes a fresh and engaging reading of the Rabbinic  biography.  This book proves that more is to be learned from the stories of the Rabbinic writings than mere literalism or paraphrase or pseudo-history yields.  Louis Rieser has reopened the Rabbinic stories and made them interesting again.  He asks questions of religion to documents of religion.  So he sets forth the model of how to interpret the Rabbinic stories about sages and his book guides us in the aftermath of the critical revolution in  Rabbinic studies that challenges us all.”

Jeffrey Rubenstein
“Louis Rieser’s fascinating and insightful readings of the Hillel narratives will delight all those interested in Talmudic stories of the lives and deeds of the sages and in the important lessons they teach us.”

Chapter One