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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Judah HaNasi
Hebrew Name(s): יהודה הנשיא; רבינו הקדוש
Other Names: Judah I, Judah the Prince, Yehudah HaNasi, Rabbeinu HaKodesh, Rebbi, Rabbi, Judah the Patriarch, Rabbeinu
Period: Tannaim — 2nd–3rd Century
Location: Bet Shearim and Sepphoris, Palestine
Dates: 135–c. 220 CE

Judah I [Judah HaNasi] was a Palestinian Tanna of the Fifth Generation. Tradition holds that he was a descendant of the great sage Hillel, through his father, Simeon ben Gamaliel II, and that he was born on the same day that Rabbi Akiva was martyred (Gen. R. 58; Eccl. R. 1. 10 Kid. 72b). According to the Talmud Judah I was a gift of divine providence. God had given the Jewish community another gift of the stature of Akiva. Judah HaNasi's teachers were his father, Simeon ben Gamaliel II, Judah bar Ilai, Jose ben Ḥalafta, Simeon bar Yoḥai, Eleazer ben Shammua, Judah ben Korshai (PT. Shab. 12c; PT. Pes. 37b) and Jacob ben Ḥanina (Sifre, Deut. 306). It is almost certain that his studies included Greek and he is recorded as saying that Jews of Palestine who did not speak Hebrew should consider Greek as the language of the country. Aramaic had no claim to such a distinction (Sotah 49b).
Judah I succeeded his father (Shimon ben Gamliel II) as patriarch of the Jewish community in Palestine and head of its Sanhedrin, a position he occupied c. 165–220 CE. The exact date of his succession is not known. However, it was Judah I who transferred the seat of the patriarchate to Bet She’arim where he spent the majority of his active years. [it is probable that the move was in response to environmental hardships—the country was devastated by a plague of locusts at the time of the death of his father.]
Judah I became an important figure in early Rabbinic Judaism and was the first of Hillel’s successors upon whom the title “HaNasi” (the Prince) was conferred. [The term "nasi" means prince or president.] As patriarch he provided the Jewish community with a degree of economic prosperity through his personal good relationship with the Roman authorities. Judah I reserved the right to appoint judges and teachers throughout Palestine. In a time of extreme poverty in Eretz Israel Judah HaNasi paid particular attention to the laws of tithes and the Sabbatical year which placed a heavy burden a the community already burdened with Roman taxes and famines.
Judah I is traditionally accredited as the chief redactor and editor of the Mishnah, a compilation of the oral teaching (Torah she-be'al peh) of earlier generations of Tannaim which was completed after his death by his son and successor, Gamaliel III. His exact role in the Mishnah's redaction is not known and other scholars (e.g., Meir and Akiva ben Joseph) were probably also involved.  Indeed, the Mishnah is based upon halakhic material systematically formulated by Akiba, which Judah I arranged according to the method of Meir. The collected material was classified and edited; material that was excluded was collected and remains recorded in parallel or earlier compilations (i.e Tosefta and Baraitot.)
With the completion of the Mishnah the schools of both Palestine and Babylonia had a text book from which the debates and lectures of the future, which eventually were recorded in the Talmuds, emanated.
Although Judah I’s opinions are recorded many times in the Mishnah and other halakhic literature where he is referred to simply as Rabbi—The Master (Yeb. 45a), and occasionally as Rabbeinu or Rabbeinu Ha-Kodesh, it is evident that his respect for tradition and the opinions of Akiba’s students ensured he did not impose his authority but allowed for different traditions and opinions.
Judah Nasi I is also the source of many aggadot [homiletic and non-legalistic literature] much of which deals with the dualism of the good and evil inclination in the person, the body and the soul and this world and the world to come.
As a Patriarch he gained a reputation for being extremely authoritarian as leader and touchy regarding the dignity of his position and showed rivalry towards his Babylonian counterpart (PT., Kil. 9.4, 32b), in particular, concerning his stronger claims to Davidic descent. Never-the-less tradition has been tolerant and acknowledges also, his humility. It has been recorded that “Since the time of Moses the Torah and greatness, i.e., knowledge and rank, were united in no one to the same extent as in Judah I (Git. 59a; Sanh. 36a). Judah I’s motto is recorded in three parts:
    1. “Let him so act that his deeds will be for his own glory [i.e., approved by his conscience] and praised by men.”
    2. The least commandment should be as rigorously observed as the greatest.
    3. The most effective preventive of sin is the consciousness “that there is above us an eye that sees, an ear that bears, and a book in which all the deeds of men are recorded.” (Avot, 2. 1)
Judah I spent the last seventeen years of his life in Sepphoris—the higher altitude was better for his health—where he continued his work. His academy attracted students and scholars from Babylonia. However, it is his influence in Bet She’arim that is particularly associated with his influence as nasi and chief judge.
Many tales relate Judah I’s association with an emperor, Antonius, but these cannot be historically verified. However, his successful office, wealth and influence suggest he found favor with the Roman rulers at a time when many persecutions continued throughout Palestine.
Judah I’s influence and achievements brought to an end the era of the Tannaim; what followed was the flowering of the Amoraim. He, himself summed up his life my saying, “I have learned much from my masters, more from my colleagues than my masters, and more from my pupils than from all the others” (Mak. 10a; Ta’an. 7a).
At the time of his death, Judah I appointed his son, Gamaliel III, rather than his son, Simeon, to succeed him (a request supported by Simeon) and requested a simple burial at Bet She’arim (Ket. 103b). The Talmud relates that on the day that Rabbi died a bat kol went forth and announced: “Whosoever has been present at the death of Rabbi is destined to enjoy the life of the world to come” (Ket. 103b).


The Mishnah is the compilation of oral interpretations of the Torah (Torah she-be'al peh) which reflects questions that were discussed, debated and ruled upon by the scholars of the earlier Tannaitic period (70-200 CE). The Mishnah teaches by recording examples of debates and the decisions made based upon halakhah, mitzvot and the spirit of the Torah.
The Mishnah is divided into six Orders each of which is further subdivided into Tractates (63 in total.) Each Tractate is further refined into chapter and verse. It represents a record of existing traditions and does not attempt to create new rulings. Over the four centuries (3rd-6th Centuries) the material in the Mishnah became the subject of study and debate by the generations of scholars now called the Amoraim. This analysis of the Mishnah occurred in both the academies of Babylonia and Palestine and the results became known by the name "Gemara" (completion.) Each community eventually compiled its Gemara together with the Mishnah and the foundations of the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) and the Palestinian Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) were formed.
The word, mishnah, which means "repetition" is derived from shanah meaning "to study" or "review," and also from the adjective, shani, "secondary."


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