In biblical usage, nasi signifies an important person, ranging from a king to a tribal chief or the head of a large family. The nesi'im are the leaders of the people in the wilderness (Ex. 16:22, 34:31) and are counted by name (Num. 1:5–16); they are sent to spy out the land and are charged with its apportionment (Num. 13:1–15, 34:16ff.); they bring special gifts and sacrifices to the tabernacle (Ex. 35:27; Num. 7: 10ff.). The institution reflects the tribal covenant and declines with the conquest of Canaan; it is revived by Ezekiel, who denotes by it the future ruler of the people. This prophet so names the rulers of other small nations as well, but his avoidance of the term melekh ("king") for the future ruler of Israel may signify disapproval of monarchical absolutism. Jewish rulers during the period of the Second Temple used the title nasi, thus asserting their authority while avoiding the assumption of kingship. i Maccabees 14:41 tells that Simeon the Hasmonean was declared ethnarch ("ruler of the people") by the people in 141 b.c.e., the Hebrew original of that title probably being nasi. Coins minted by *Bar Kokhba during the abortive revolt against Rome bear the inscription Shimon Nesi Yisrael, demonstrating that the rebel leader considered himself nasi of the people; the title is similarly found in letters credited to Bar Kokhba.
While the rabbis understood certain biblical instances of the term to mean "king" (see Hor. 3:3), they applied the title in a more limited sense to the president of the Sanhedrin, and perhaps to the heads of other bodies and orders too. The secular head of the sect described in the *Dead Sea Scrolls also bore the title (War Scroll, ed. Yadin, p. 184; in the English edition, p. 279). Rabbinic sources call one of the "pairs" (zugot), going back to Yose b. Joezer (c. 165 b.c.e), the nasi (Ḥag. 2:2), and continue to use the term for the head of the court through amoraic times. Historians have long been divided on the reliability of these early sources: some claim the title is used anachronistically, its actual usage commencing only with *Judah ha-Nasi (fl. 190 c.e.); others believe it first came into use after 70 c.e., or in 30 b.c.e. at the time of Hillel the Elder; yet others accept the mishnaic testimony (the head of a Phoenician synodos is called nasi in 96 b.c.e.) and even claim that the office is pre-Maccabean. The office was held by scions of the Hillelite family, though unusual circumstances may have allowed others to hold the office for relatively short periods, and it may have been unfilled when conditions were most disturbed (such as during the Hadrianic persecutions). The last Hillelite nasi was Rabban Gamaliel (vi), who died in 425.
With the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e., the office of the nasi becomes more significant. Onkelos performed the mourning ritual for Rabban Gamaliel ii as though he were a king (see Sem. 8), and there is a strong implication that Rome extended him its recognition (see Eduy. 7:7). The Hillelite nasi was recognized as political head ("Patriarch") of the people by the Roman government (Cod. Theod. xvi. 8), an arrangement that allowed for more effective control and administration of its Jewish subjects. From the Jewish point of view, the Patriarchate provided the people with a Roman official sympathetic to their needs, and it placed significant power in rabbinic hands. The rabbis, for their part, relaxed certain religious laws so as to allow the patriarch greater ease in Roman society. Internally, the nasi presided over the Sanhedrin, fixed the calendar together with the court by proclaiming the new month and intercalating the year, led public prayers for rain, and ordained scholars (the content and scope of this ordination being somewhat unclear). He kept in touch with the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, dispatching apostles to preach, teach, set up courts, and raise funds. His court possessed legislative powers, and so most takkanot ("enactments") were attributed to the presiding nasi.
[Gerald Y. Blidstein]
The title nasi persisted for many centuries and in different lands throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes as the title of a defined head of a Jewish institution, sometimes as an honorific title only, given to important personages and to sons of illustrious families. The nasi as the leader of the community (see *Autonomy) is found in Jerusalem; in Fostat, Egypt; in Baghdad, Damascus, and Mosul, Syria; and in Spain under Muslim rule. Some had considerable power, similar to that of the exilarch, especially the nesi'im of Ereẓ Israel, Syria, and Egypt. The earliest person known in the post-geonic period to bear this title is Ẓemaḥ in Egypt or Syria, with the latest Sar Shalom b. Phinehas, who is mentioned in 1341 in Egypt and Baghdad. Most of the other twenty-odd names are from the 11th century, among them *Daniel b. Azariah, *David b. *Daniel, and Jedidiah b. Zakkai. (One, Shem Tov, a most respected nasi of Jerusalem, could not prove Davidic descent and was exiled. Some nesi'im in Muslim Spain were appointed by the court and repesented the Jews at court, collected taxes, and acted as chief justices. The *Karaites also called their heads nasi, from their founder *Anan b. David through the 18th century. From early modern times the title nasi was also given to the heads of the *kolel institutions of the *Ḥalukkah. In later modern times the title "president," especially of democratic political and social bodies, was translated into Hebrew as nasi; as such it has been carried over into the political nomenclature of the State of Israel, being used to designate the president of the State.
R. de Vaux, Anc Isr, 8; H. Mantel, Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin (1961), 1–53, 175–253; idem, in: htr, 60 (1967), 90; Alon, Meḥkarim, 2 (1958), 15–57; S. Zeitlin, Religious and Secular Leadership (1943), 7–15; Baron, Social2, 2 (1952), 191–209; 5 (1957), 38–46, 314; E.A. Speiser, Oriental and Biblical Studies (1967), 113–26; S. Abramsky, Bar Kokhva, Nesi Yisrael (1961). post-geonic: S. Poznański, Babylonische Geonim im nachgaonaeischen Zeitalter (1914); Mann, Egypt, index; Ashtor. Korot.