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Rabbi Judah the Prince

Rabbi Judah the Prince

Yehudah HaNasi

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I.

Rabbi Judah was the son of Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel and was elected "Prince" (Nassi) after the death of his father. He was born on the very day that Rabbi Akiba died in the hands of the Romans. In the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah the Prince (Yehudah HaNasi) is called, simply, "Rabbi," for he was so famous that he needed no other name by which to identify him.

"Rabbi" was very wealthy, which was not the case with most other Rabbis, and it was believed that in his stables there was more wealth than in the treasury of the King of Persia! Yet, in spite of his great wisdom and wealth and the great honor in which he was held, "Rabbi' was a modest person and showed respect to all-the great Rabbis, even those amongst his own student He was fond of saying: "I have learned much from my teachers, even more from my friends and fellow students, but most of all I learned from my pupils."

"Rabbi" used his wealth to support the poor and needy. When a famine broke out in the land, Rabbi Judah the Prince opened his orchards and stores of food to feed the hungry.

Because of his high moral character and teachings, because of his refusal to enjoy selfishly his own great wealth, and because of his great personal qualities and piety, he was recognized everywhere as a holy person, and everyone called him "our saintly teacher" (Rabbenu Hakadosh). Our Sages used to say that all noble virtues were united in him and that even Elijah the Prophet, invisible though he was, sat among the students of "Rabbi" to listen to his teaching of the Torah.

II.

Rabbi Judah the Prince said many things that could serve as a guide to others. "When a Jew performs a Mitzvah," he used to say, "he should not rejoice merely over that commandment alone, for one Mitzvah brings others after it. Likewise, when a Jew commits a sin, he should not regret merely that one sin, for other sins will surely follow that sin."

That a person should never consider himself too great to learn from someone younger or more humble than himself, "Rabbi" showed through the following example. The Torah is likened to water. Just as, with water, an older person is not ashamed to ask someone younger to give him a drink, so should he not be ashamed to ask a younger person to quench his thirst for knowledge. And also, just as no one is too lazy to seek a drink when he is thirsty, so too, no student should be too lazy to seek after Torah in a Yeshiva.

A person who does not wish to study or pray was regarded by "Rabbi" just like a dumb beast. Indeed, he once declared that he who occupies himself with the study of the Torah may eat the flesh of an animal or bird, but he who refuses to engage in the study of the Torah is not justified in eating the flesh of the lower creatures, of whom he is one.

III.

There are many stories related in the Talmud and Midrash of the great friendship that existed between Rabbi Judah the Prince and the Roman Emperor, Antoninus. The Emperor used to visit "Rabbi's" house secretly in order to learn from him something of the wisdom of the Torah and to consult him about various difficult problems concerning the government of his Empire, for he greatly valued the good advice he received from the Jewish Sage.

In order that others should not suspect that he was asking the Rabbi for his counsel concerning matters of state, they often disguised questions or answers by means of a code or some action which the other alone understood. On one occasion Antoninus sent a messenger to "Rabbi" with the question: "The Imperial Treasury is empty. What shall I do?" Rabbi Judah called the messenger into his garden, where he uprooted some plants and replaced them with others. The messenger from the palace watched in amazement and then asked: "What reply shall I give to my royal master?" "Rabbi" replied that no answer was required. The puzzled Roman returned to the Emperor, informing him that the Rabbi had refused to answer the Emperor's question. Antoninus, however, asked the messenger whether Rabbi Judah had not performed any action in his presence. Thereupon the messenger described to the Emperor how the Jewish Rabbi had pulled up some plants in his garden and had put others in their place. The Emperor understood the message hidden in this action of the Rabbi. He dismissed several of his officials, whom "Rabbi" had suspected of being dishonest, and appointed others in their place. Soon the royal treasury was full again.

Later the friendship between the Emperor and the Rabbi was displayed openly. They began to visit each other and argued and discussed regarding G‑d and His Torah. Once Antoninus asked "Rabbi": "How can the human soul be punished in the next world? The soul will be able to say: 'How can I be held to blame? I am a spiritual creation. It was the body that sinned, not I . . . .' On the other hand, the body will be able to say: 'How can I be guilty? Without the soul I could not have sinned, for it is the soul which gives life to the body.'"

To this question of the Emperor, "Rabbi" replied with a clever parable (example), as follows: -A man once owned an orchard, over which he set two servants to guard it. One of the watchers was blind; the other was lame: The lame man, tempted by the sight of the ripe fruit which he could not reach, said to his blind companion: "Carry me on your shoulders and lead me to that tree, laden with rich fruit, to which I shall guide you. In this way both of us will enjoy the fruit"

When the owner, noticing the loss of his fruit, later accused his two servants of the theft of his choicest fruit, the blind man protested his innocence. "How could I have seen where the fruit was growing?" And the lame servant said: "How could I have reached the fruit?"

How did the owner act? He placed the lame man on the shoulders of the blind man and then punished them together.

So, too, replied the Rabbi, does G‑d with the human body and soul when each falsely tries to avoid punishment for its guilt.

IV.

"Rabbi" was sick for many years but he was cured, as he had become ill, through a strange happening.

"Rabbi" was once walking to the Beth Hamidrash (the House of Study), when a calf, which was being driven to shechita (slaughter),broke loose and came up to the Rabbi, appearing to plead with him to save it from death. "Rabbi" said to the calf:, "Go to your fate, for to this end you were created." At this, a Heavenly Voice (a Bath Kol) proclaimed from Heaven that, as "Rabbi" had not had pity on one of G‑d's creatures, he should be punished with physical suffering.

For thirteen years this holy Rabbi suffered, and then one day he was healed just as suddenly. It happened like this:

A maidservant in the Rabbi's house was once cleaning a room when she found some newly-born weasels. She wanted to put them out of the house, but "Rabbi" restrained her. "G‑d has pity on all His creatures," he said, "and human beings must follow His example. Leave the baby weasels in the house." A Bath Kol at once proclaimed that, just as "Rabbi" had had pity on G‑d's lowly creatures, so should pity be taken on him. He was immediately cured.

When Rabbi Judah the Prince became seriously ill and near to death, the Rabbis prayed to G‑d for him. Later they sent a Rabbi, called Bar Kappara, to see how "Rabbi" was progressing, but when he arrived he learned that the holy scholar had died. Bar Kappara rent his clothes as a sign of mourning and, returned to the Rabbis. He broke the sad news to them with this remark: "The angels have struggled with us human beings for 'the Holy Ark'! The angels have been victorious and have captured 'the Holy Ark.' . . ." The Rabbis asked: "Is he dead?" Bar Kappara replied: "You have spoken it. I did not want to let my lips utter the words."

V.

The most important achievement for which Rabbi Judah Hanassi is famous is his edition of the Mishnah. The Torah, given to us by G‑d on Mount Sinai, consists of two parts - the Written Law (known , as TaNaKh, the initials of which stand for Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim, that is, the Five Books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Holy Writings) and the Oral Law, the explanation of the Torah given by word of mouth to Moses, as well as the Laws of Israel (Halacha L'Moshe Mi-Sinai).

This Oral Law was handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Seventy Elders, from the Elders to the Prophets, from the Prophets to the Men of the Great Synagogue, and from them to the greatest scholars of every generation. All these laws, traditions and customs were learned by heart and memorized. They were not allowed to be written down.

Rabbi Judah the Prince saw, however, that as a result of the difficulties of the Exile which the Jewish nation had to endure and would have to suffer for many centuries until the coming of the Messiah, there was a strong probability that many of these sacred laws would be forgotten or accidentally changed, G‑d forbid. He therefore decided to gather together the laws and write them down, so that they might remain permanently recorded in what was called the "Mishnah" (the meaning of which is "learning by repetition").

This was, of course, a tremendous task, but "Rabbi" succeeded in his great undertaking. He not only assembled the laws of the Oral Law, but he also arranged them in a logical order in six volumes, or "Sedarim," known by the abbreviation, "Shass." The order of the "Shass" is as follows: (1) Zeraim - consisting of the laws of agriculture and the commandments concerned with the land; (2) Moed - consisting of the laws of the Sabbath, Festivals and. Fasts; (3) Nashim - consisting of the laws concerned with family life, marriage, etc.; (4) Nezikin consisting of the laws concerned with injuries done to others, compensation, business and money matters, etc.; (5) Kodoshim - consisting of the laws concerned with the sacrifices; (6) Taharot - consisting of the laws concerned with purity and impurity.

The Mishnah is written in Hebrew.

The later Rabbis, who discussed and expanded the Mishnah, were no longer called by the title of Tannaim (as the earlier Rabbis had been called), but were called Amoraim. The volumes which contain their learned discussions are called the Gemara, an Aramaic word which means "completion," or "explanation," and these are mainly written in Aramaic. About three centuries of such Rabbinic discussions passed by after the Mishnah had been written down, before the Gemara also was put down in writing. The Mishnah and Gemara together are known as the Talmud, for whose existence we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Rabbi Judah the Prince.

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BJ March 27, 2016

Rabbi Judah Does the text written by Rabbi Judah and his group exist today Reply

Chaim Yosef Los ANgeles December 6, 2014

May Rabbi protect all the yid-din around the world. Reply

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