Rabbi Judah Hanasi

A descendant of Hillel, Rabbi Judah HaNasi was the compiler of the Mishnah and the last of the Tannaim. Due to his great stature,he was known simply as Rabbi, or Rabbeinu HaKodosh. Developing a personal closeness with the emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Rabbi recognized the emperor as an upstanding individual who loved learning, even studying Torah. Because of his friendship with Antoninus, Rabbi was able to assume the role of Nasi openly. In fact, the Talmud states that from the time of Moses until Rabbi, no other individual embodied in himself supreme greatness in Torah scholarship, wealth, and political power as did Rabbi. Further, G‑d imbued Rabbi with all these qualities to enable him to write the Mishnah and have it accepted by all Jews. Finally, Rabbi recapitulates a recurring theme in Jewish history: during times of oppression, when something of supreme importance needs to be accomplished, G‑d grants short periods of respite. Such was the case with Rabbi.

Writing the Oral Torah

Before the times of Rabbi, it was forbidden to write a public record of the Oral Law, although notes for private use were permitted. This prohibition existed for several reasons. First, because new situations always arise, writing down the Oral Law would limit its scope. Second, just as any complex body of knowledge, such as surgery, cannot be learned from textbooks alone but also requires interaction with a master teacher, so, too, the Oral Law cannot be optimally understood without a live rebbe to give it meaning. Third, Gentiles could claim it as their own, saying they are the chosen Jewish people, much as they have attempted to do based on their translation of the Bible. Without the oral interpretation of the Written Torah, it remains a sealed book, thus forestalling such claims. All those important ideas to the contrary, Rabbi realized that benign Roman rule was only temporary. Eventually, times would become unstable again, and Jews would scatter throughout the world. It was thus necessary for every Jew to have a guidebook spelling out the major points of all the mitzvahs. Based on a Scriptural verse that permits the leading sages to suspend a Torah prohibition in cases of national emergency, Rabbi recorded the Oral Law for posterity.

Writing the Mishnah

Taking advantage of the favorable political climate, Rabbi convened all the Torah scholars in Eretz Israel. Over a period of many years, each subject was painstakingly analyzed, with legislation left undecided from previous generations written into law and incorporated into the Mishnah. There are two major opinions as to Rabbi's role in the authorship of the Mishnah. One view is that the bulk of the material in the Mishnah — basic wording and arrangement of tractates — already existed long before Rabbi's time. This view holds that Rabbi's role was to take this oral material, write a standard, universal text, add some explanatory comments, and resolve matters disputed by the sages of his times and those immediately preceding him. Another opinion is that Rabbi both composed the actual wording of the Mishnah, and divided it into orders, tractates and chapters. According to both opinions, Rabbi based his work on the teachings of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva, the most succinct and easiest scholarship to understand. In most cases, Rabbi recorded their opinions anonymously, indicating that they are normative rulings (stam mishnah).

The Mishnah

Although Rabbi wrote and disseminated the Mishnah, it is a guidebook, albeit one written in cryptic form whose explication requires a rebbe, a mentor. Further, because a particular Mishnah may apply only in special circumstances, one may not decide halacha (Jewish law) based on a Mishnah. As Rabbi devised it, the Mishnah is broken into six orders, 63 tractates, 525 chapters, and 4,224 Mishnayos. The six orders are Zeraim, which discusses prayer and agricultural laws; Moed, about the Sabbath and holiday laws, fast days, and mourning regulations; Nashim, pertaining to women, including marriage and divorce; Nezikin, on money matters and court procedure; Kodashim, centering on sacrificial law and kashrus; Taharos, ritual purity, including mikva and family purity, Hilchos Niddah. Rabbi concluded the Mishnah in 190 CE.

Other Writings of the Tannaim

Since the Mishnah was written very concisely, a vast body of knowledge remained that was left out. This material was also assembled by Rabbi and his disciples and recorded separately in volumes known as Mechilta (Midrash on the Book of Shmos), Safra (also known as Toras Kohanim, Midrash on Vayikra), and Sifri (Midrash on Bamidbar and Devarim), Beraisos, and Tosefta. These Midrashic works are halachic in nature, giving the Scriptural sources for many of the laws found in the Mishnah. Midrashim also exist that are homiletical, such as Midrash Rabbah on Beraishis. Beraisos are lengthier commentaries on the Mishnah, while Tosefta is an appendix to the Mishnah.

The Generations of the Tanaim

There were five generations of Tannaim, 30 BCE — 200 CE. Some major Tannaim in each generation include:

Generation One: (Before the churban) Beit Shammai, Beit Hillel, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel the Nasi, Rabbi Ishmael the Kohen Gadol.

Generation Two: (Yavneh) Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, Rabban Gamliel the Nasi, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Hyrcanus, Onkelos.

Generation Three: (Beitar) Rabbi Akiva, the other seven martyrs.

Generation Four: (After Beitar) Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel the father of Rabbi.

Generation Five: Rabbi Judah HaNasi — seventh in line from Hillel.

The generations of the House of Hillel from father to son, each of whom acted as Nasi:


Rabbi Shimon I

Rabban Gamliel I (HaZaken)

Rabbi Shimon II (one of the 10 martyrs)

Rabban Gamliel II of Yavneh

Rabbi Shimon (III) ben Gamliel (the Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel often mentioned in the Mishnah)

Rabbi Judah HaNasi

His sons: Rabban Gamliel (III) and Rabbi Shimon (IV), the last Tannaim.