Yehudah Ha-Nasiʾ

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YEHUDAH HA-NASIʾ (135?220?), called "Rabbi" or "Our Holy Rabbi," was a Palestinian tanna. Yehudah was the son of Shimʿon ben Gamliʾel of Yavneh. With Yehudah the office of nasiʾ (patriarch, head of the court) reached its zenith. Reestablished by the Romans after the disastrous defeat of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 ce, the position of nasiʾ by the end of the century afforded Yehudah an authority recognized by Jews and Romans alike. Even the Jewish community in Babylonia looked to him as the head of the Jewish people.

As nasiʾ Yehudah first established his court in Beit Shearim. However, for reasons of health he spent the last seventeen years of his life in Sepphoris (J.T., Ket. 12.3, 35a). Yehudah's major task as nasiʾ was to secure the economic recovery of Israel after the destruction caused by the Bar Kokhba Revolt. He and his court exempted several places from tithes (J.T., Dem. 2.1, 22cd), enacted laws that allowed Jews to regain ownership of land confiscated by the Romans during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (B.T., Git. 58b), eased the laws of the sabbatical years to increase the food supply in Israel (J.T., Taʿan. 3.1, 66c), took over the important task of proclaiming the new month and intercalating the year (J.T., San. 1.2, 18c), and introduced regulations that eased taking testimony and dispatching messengers to declare the court's decision concerning the new months (J.T., R. ha-Sh. 2.1, 58a). His support of the rabbinic class found expression in his exempting the sages from some taxes (B.T., B. B. 8a).

The significance of Yehudah's tenure as nasiʾ is seen in the many stories that depict his close relationship with the Roman emperor (B.T., ʿA. Z. 10ab, San. 9 1ab; J.T., Meg. 1.11, 72b; J.T., San. 10.5, 29c; Gn. Rab. 11.4, 67.6, 75.7, 84.3). For example, the following is in Berakhot 57b of the Babylonian Talmud: "And YHVH said to her, 'Two nations are in your womb' [Gn. 25:23]. Do not read nations [goyim], but 'lords' [geʾim], and Rav Yehudah [third-century amora] said in the name of Rav: 'These are [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus and Rabbi, whose table never lacked either radish, lettuce or cucumbers either in summer or winter.'" These many stories are meant to equate Yehudah (Rabbi) with the leader of the most powerful political force of his time. Whether or not the conversations reported in these texts actually occurred is open to question. However, the point they make is clear: Our patriarch is as powerful and important as their emperor.

At the same time that the sages picture Yehudah as an outstanding political leader, they also describe him as an exceptionally learned rabbi. One proverb stated that "from the days of Moses until the days of Rabbi we did not find both Torah and Greatness in one place" (B.T., Git. 59a). It is recorded that Yehudah wandered from academy to academy so he might learn from all five of ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef's major students as well as from the other leading sages of his time (B. T., ʿEruv. 53a, Yomaʾ 79b, Yev. 84a, Shab. 147b, Meg. 20a).

In addition Yehudah ha-Nasiʾ exhibited the qualities of the "ideal sage." Shiʿmon ben Menasyaʾ said, "All of the seven characteristics which the sages attributed to the righteouscomeliness, strength, riches, wisdom, old age, honor, and childrenall of them were established in Rabbi and his sons" (Avot 6.9). Although Yehudah was so wealthy that his house steward was said to be richer than the Persian ruler Shāpūr I (r. 241272 ce; B.T., B. M. 85a), his generosity was also well known. He invited the sages to his table, and during years of need he opened his private storehouses to the hungry (B.T., ʿEruv. 73a, B. B. 8a). When a person strayed from the correct path, Yehudah was there to guide him or her gently back to God (B.T., B. M. 85a). He showed kindness and compassion to all of God's creatures, even to the insects (Gn. Rab. 33.3). He was willing to learn from all, and he never treated his contemporaries with disrespect or contempt; he often accepted their teachings when those differed from his own (B.T., Ket. 93a). One proverb stated that "when Rabbi died humility and fear of sin ceased" (B.T., Sot. 49b). He was noted for his support of the Hebrew language (in place of the vernacular Aramaic). It was claimed that he spoke only Hebrew in his house and that the sages came to him seeking explanations of Hebrew words and phrases (B.T., B.Q. 82b, R. ha-Sh. 26b; J.T., Sheviʿit 9.1 38c).

No other political leader so captured the minds and imaginations of the ancient rabbis. Upon Yehudah's death the sages decreed a fast and offered prayers of supplication, and a voice from heaven proclaimed that "whoever has been present at Rabbi's death is destined to enjoy life in the world to come" (B.T., Ket. 103b104a). His burial place in Beit Shearim was visited by generations of Jewish pilgrims.

Among the tannaim and the amoraim, only Yehudah is pictured as combining the learning of a rabbinic sage who mastered the oral Torah with the skill of a seasoned politician who was an equal to the emperor of Rome. Other sages interacted with Roman and Sassanian leaders, while other rabbis were noted for their areas of knowledge. But Yehudah alone among the rabbis is praised equally for his knowledge and piety and for his political skills. His uniqueness is attested by his often being cited merely as Rabbi, the only sage who is cited merely by title without a reference to his name. Similarly he is the only patriarch known as Ha-Nasi, the Patriarch, par excellence. The tradition presents a unique rabbi whose knowledge of the rabbinic tradition and whose political skills permitted him to bring together the rabbinic and nonrabbinic classes of society and to rebuild the Palestinian Jewish community after the devastating defeat of Bar Kokhba. Even though he could be intimidating and arrogant (B.T. Ket. 103b, Yeb. 9a, J.T. Naz. IX:57d), these traits are played down by the tradition.

During Yehudah's tenure as nasiʾ, the foundation document of postbiblical rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah, was created. This collection of primarily legal statements formed the basis of both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmuds, repositories of Jewish law and lore from the first six centuries of the common era organized as commentaries on the Mishnah. The appearance of the Mishnah also marked a crucial stage in the process of the development of Judaism from a temple-oriented cult to a Torah-oriented culture of study and exposition.

Generations of scholars have maintained that Yehudah was the sole editor of the Mishnah. Many have attempted to explain the processes by which he created this document from sources composed by Hillel the Elder, ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef, and Meʾir. Basing their theory largely on the letter of Sheriraʾ Gaon (tenth century ce), these scholars have argued that Yehudah merely did what others before him had donehe faithfully preserved and transmitted what he had received from his teachers. Although nothing was written down before Yehudah, the earlier oral traditions were part of a memorized corpus that was carefully preserved and that included the names of those who had written opinions or of the majority. Yehudah organized this material into a unified text according to comprehensive principles.

Jacob Neusner, in Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (1981), concluded, on the basis of detailed literary analyses, that the Mishnah is not the work of one person. However, there is no doubt that the Mishnah's reputation was enhanced by its completion at Yehudah's court and that its importance in the history and development of Judaism stems from the central place Yehudah and his colleagues occupied in the minds and imaginations of subsequent generations of Jews.

See Also

Judaism, overview article; Mishnah and Tosefta; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity; Tannaim.


For traditional views of Yehudah, see Aaron Hyman, Toldoht Tanaʿim ve-Amoraʿim, vol. 2 (London, 1910; reprint, Jerusalem, 1964), pp. 575606; Hyman, "Judah Ha-Nasi," in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 10 (Jerusalem, 1971), cols. 366371; and Mordechai Margalioth, ed., Encyclopedia of Talmudic and Geonic Literature, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1945; Tel Aviv, 1995), pp. 436446. On Yehudah as patriarch, see Michael Avi-Yonah's The Jews of Palestine (New York, 1976) and E. Mary Smallwood's The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden, Netherlands, 1976). On the Mishnah, see Jacob Neusner's Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago, 1981). On the problem of rabbinic biography, see William Scott Green's "What's in a Name? The Problematic of Rabbinic 'Biography,'" in his Approaches to Ancient Judaism, vol. 1 (Missoula, Mont., 1978), pp. 7796.

Gary G. Porton (1987 and 2005)