Our Sages used to say: "Ere the sun set upon one great Sage, the sun rose upon another." Thus they said also in the following case: "Ere the sun set upon Rava (when he passed away), the sun rose upon Rav Ashi (on his birth)." In other words: Before Rava died, Rav Ashi was born. Divine Providence saw to it that each generation had its great Jewish leader.
In his youth, Rav Ashi had the good fortune to study under the distinguished Amora, Rava, and when the latter died in approximately the year 4112 (351 C.E.) Rav Ashi, aged about fifteen, and many other of his fellow-students, younger and older, all went to study at Rabbi Nachman Bar Yitzchak's academy in Pumbeditha. Then, when four years later the latter passed away, they went to Nehardea where the spiritual leader of that generation, Rabbi Papa, had his academy, to continue their studies under his guidance.
Apart from the above-mentioned two great Torah Academies there were quite a number of smaller Torah academies in Babylon, and Rav Ashi attended all of them in turn. Wherever he heard of a great Talmid-Chacham, Rav Ashi eagerly went to learn Torah. Most of all, however, he learned from the elderly, famous Talmid-Chacham, Rabbi Kahanna - a student of Rabbah and friend of Abbaye and Rava. His Yeshiva was in a town called Pum Nahara, near Nehardea. (One should not confuse this old Rabbi Kahanna with the young Rabbi Kahanna who was a friend of Rav Ashi and who later became the Head of the Academy in Pumbeditha.)
When Rabbi Papa died (about the year 4131), Rav Ashi was about 35 or 36 years old. He was a greater Torah scholar than anyone of his time, and he felt that it was his duty to make use of the wisdom granted him by the Almighty, to write down all the laws of the Talmud, in order to perpetuate it for all time.
After the death of Rav Papa, Rav Ashi went to a small town called Matha Mechasia near Sura, and established his famous Yeshiva there. Matha Mechasia was at one time known as "K'far Tarsha" -"The Stone Village," and had suffered a terrible plague, because the people were not observant of their religion. A great Sage came and rebuked the people for their sinfulness. He told them that were they to repent of their evil ways and study Torah, the plague would disappear from their midst. They took heed of his words; he prayed for them and they were healed. They then changed the name of the place to Matha Mechasia.
Rav Ashi's friend, Ravina, came to Matha Mechasia with him, and became his right hand at the academy. Ravina was older than Rav Ashi and had been one of Rava's best students. Now Ravina readily helped Rav Ashi in all his communal activities.
* * *
When Rav Ashi arrived at Matha Mechasia he found the Synagogue in a very neglected and dilapidated state. He urged the people there to collect some money together for the purpose of repairs. The local people, however, did not seem to show any undue haste in the matter, so Rav Ashi took the matter into his own hands in a very original manner. He had his bed moved to part of the Synagogue and staged a sort of "sit-down strike." He stated that he would not move out until the Synagogue would be repaired and be made presentable, as befitted a place of worship. The Jews of the place then quickly attended to the repairs, so that their great leader could return to the comfort of his home.
Rav Ashi introduced many important ordinances in Matha Mechasia so that the city became the spiritual center of the whole of, Babylonia. Hitherto it had been the custom for Jews to gather together, during the Sabbaths of the Festivals, in the place where the Resh Galuta (the Exilarch) lived, as he was, considered the Head of all the Jews who lived in exile. He, it was, who had the authority to pronounce a Fast, or introduce similar ordinances. However, Rav Ashi, being a greater Torah Scholar, was now the one to have the Jews assemble on the Festival Sabbaths in Matha Mechasia.
The Resh Galuta at this time was no less a personage than Rav Huna bar Nathan, a great Torah Scholar. Yet, despite his high position and his great scholarship, he was happy to come to Matha Mechasia to give honor to Rav Ashi. For Rav Ashi was considered the greatest scholar of the age, and, it was said that, since Rabbenu HaKadosh-the Compiler of the Mishna - there was none to equal Rav Ashi in greatness and Torah scholarship.
Properly to estimate the situation of the Resh Galuta and realize how great was the honor he paid Rav Ashi, we should reflect that Rav Huna bar Nathan was one of the most famous Amoraim of his time, and he, too, had been a student of Rava and Rav Papa. In addition, he was a descendant of the royal house of David, and the diplomatic representative of all the Jews in Babylonia.
Thus, it is easy to see why Jews so highly honored and respected Rav Ashi, and many scholars offered to do what they could to help him in the compilation of the Talmud.
Rav Ashi had a famous son by the name of Mar bar Rav Ashi, who learned much of his Torah wisdom from his illustrious father, and when his father died, he took over the Headship of his Yeshiva.
Another son of Rav Ashi was Rav Sama, also a great Torah scholar. Rav Ashi also had a daughter who was quite famous. Two Amoraim are also mentioned as being sons of Rav Ashi: Rav Mori and Rav Acha, but it is not clear if it is the same Rav Ashi or another.
Rav Ashi was blessed with great wealth and a long life; he lived for over ninety years. He was very highly regarded in court circles. Rav Ashi had been fortunate to be living during the reign of the Persian king Jezdegerd I, who was good to the Jews. However, despite everything, his scholarship, wealth and honor, Rav Ashi was a very modest man.
After the death of Rav Papa, Rav Ashi was the greatest Sage for about sixty years. He arranged the "Gemara" (Talmud) in the first thirty years of his leadership, and in the second thirty years he edited it. It was a gigantic task which Rav Ashi handled as only he, the great Torah scholar, could. We Jews dare not underestimate the debt of gratitude we owe him for having compiled the "Sha'as," which we call "the Babylonian Talmud."
The story is told that, shortly before his death, Rav Ashi met the Angel of Death on the street and begged him to let him live another thirty days to enable him to review the Talmud just once more, as it is said: "It is good for one to come to the next world with the Talmud in his hand." The Angel of Death agreed, went away, and returned thirty days later. "What is your hurry"? Rav Ashi greeted him. To which the Angel of Death answered: "It is time for the Resh Galuta, Rav Huna bar Nathan, to become an independent leader."
After Rav Ashi's death, his Yeshiva was conducted by his son, Mar bar Rav Ashi, but the greatest Sage was then considered to be Mereimar, whose Yeshiva was in Sura.