The Gemara discusses the law that allows a kohen to make his own clothing, on the condition that it is donated to the Temple (so that it is the property of the Temple when the avodah, or service, is done), and then tells the following story:
They said about the High Priest Rabbi Elazar ben Harsum that his mother made him a tunic worth twenty thousand dinars, but his fellow priests did not allow him to wear it because it was transparent and he appeared as one who is naked. The Gemara asks: And could he be seen through a garment made to the specifications of the priestly vestments? Didn’t the Master say: The threads of the priestly vestments were six-fold? Since the clothes were woven from threads that thick, his body could not have been seen through them. Abaye said: It is like wine in a thick glass cup. His flesh could not actually be seen, but since it was very fine linen, it was somewhat translucent and his skin color was discernible.
Rabbi Elazar ben Harsum served as kohen gadol for eleven years, and the Gemara mentions his great wealth in a number of places.
This story leads the Gemara to quote a baraita that describes the arguments that will be made by various people when they are called before the Heavenly tribunal:
- To the poor person who says “I was so busy supporting my family that I did not have time to learn Torah,” the response will be “were you poorer than Hillel, who was wretchedly poor and nevertheless attempted to study Torah?”
- To the rich person who says “I was preoccupied with managing my possessions,” the response will be “were you any wealthier than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsum who was exceedingly wealthy and nevertheless studied Torah?”
- To the wicked person who says “I was handsome and preoccupied with my evil inclination,” the response will be “were you anymore handsome than Yosef, who did not neglect Torah despite his beauty?”
The baraita goes into some detail with regard to each of these stories. Perhaps the best known is the story of Hillel, who worked daily for a small sum of money, which he divided between his family’s needs and the entrance fee to the Beit Midrash. One Friday during the winter, when he could not find work, he climbed onto the roof of the study hall so that he could listen to the lecture. The snow began to fall and it was not until the next morning that Shemaya and Avtalyon noticed a form buried beneath three cubits of snow (the sheer volume of snow described by the baraita is unusual in Jerusalem, although after one of the infrequent snowstorms, the snow could pile up to such a height), at which point he was taken down into the Beit Midrash and revived.
The idea of having a guard at the door to the Beit Midrash who would limit access was in existence at various times during the Talmudic period, specifically at the higher levels of learning. Apparently at the beginning of this period there was a sense that the Torah leaders should be from the upper class, so that they would be financially independent and thus not subject to pressures from wealthy individuals. This expressed itself in the collection of tuition at the door of the Beit Midrash.
When, later in life, Hillel became the head of the academy, he ended this system. Nevertheless, the guard at the Beit Midrash door, whose job was to keep out students who were perceived as inappropriate for intense Torah study, was reinstated at various periods in history. It was only during the rule of Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh that entrance to the study hall was truly open to all.