Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was the editor of the Mishnah in its final form. He is referred to as “Rebbi,” Teacher par excellence, and as “Rabbeinu HaKadosh,” our Holy Rabbi.
He was the son of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel II, and was born eighty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. At the time of his birth, a Roman edict was in place forbidding the practice of “Brit Milah,” Circumcision. However, his mother was on good terms with the Roman governor’s wife, and they agreed to perpetrate a deception upon the Roman authorities.
Yehudah, who had been circumcised, was given temporarily to the wife of the governor, while the Roman child, who of course was uncircumcised, was held by the Jewish mother, completely fooling the authorities, including the governor himself. Later, when that Roman child grew up to become Marcus Aurelius, an enlightened and compassionate ruler, he and Rebbi became close friends, which redounded to the benefit of the Jewish People.
As a child, Yehudah studied Torah under the tutelage of his father, in Usha, and under Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai of Usha and Rabbi Yaakov ben Kurshai. Later, he studied under Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Tekoa, and from Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, viewing Rabbi Meir, as it were, “from the back.” All of his teachers conveyed to him the tradition of halachot, Jewish Laws, from the period of the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, until Rabbi Akiva.
He established his first Torah academy at Sh’faram; later he moved to Beit Shearim, where he remained for many years. He became sickly, suffering from pain in his teeth, his eyes and finally in his intestines. When his infirmities became more severe, he was advised by his doctors to move to Tzippori, built on a mountain-top, where the air was clear and healthful.
His students were Rabbi Chiya the “Great” Abba Aricha known as “Rav” Rabbah bar bar Chana and Shmuel Yarchinai, a beloved student who also served as his personal physician. He is credited with saying “I learned much from my teachers, more than that did I learn from my colleagues, but most of all from my students!”
As Nasi, he became very wealthy, comparable to Roman rulers. But he gave much of his wealth to the support of the poor. It was said of him, “From the days of Mosheh Rabbeinu till Rabbeinu HaKadosh, there was never found great Torah knowledge combined with great wealth.”
To understand to a small extent Rebbi’s perspective on life, we can turn to his sayings in Pirkei Avot. In Avot (2:1), we find, among other wise admonitions, the following: Calculate the eternal reward for a mitzvah against the temporary loss it may cause, and the eternal cost of a sin against the momentary benefit it may bring. Also, consider three aspects of what is above you, and you will avoid sin. They are:
1. Man’s deeds are observed.
2. His words are heard.
3. He cannot escape the consequences of his behavior because everything he does or says is indelibly recorded.
His Mishnah, which he composed to prevent the loss of Torah knowledge by the Jewish People due to their continuous persecutions, was organized into six sections:
1. Zeraim – basically, the agricultural and related laws and customs of the Jewish People while resident in the Land of Isreal
2. Moed – the laws concerning the holidays of the Jewish People in the time of the Temple and afterwards
3. Nashim – Laws concerning family life observed by the People of Israel
4. Nezikin – Laws concerning the person-to-person relationships among the Jewish People in the areas of business, damages, etc.
5. Kodshim – Laws concerning sacrifices and dietary practices and prohibitions practiced by the Jewish People
6. Taharot – Laws of “family purity” that have watched over the Jewish People throughout the generations
Rebbi died at the age of seventy, having served as Nasi more than thirty years.
When he died, Bar Kappara said, “Angels and humans struggled over the Holy Ark. The Angels overcame the humans, and the Holy Ark has been captured!”