Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi – Rabbeinu Hakodesh
Owing to the exceptional role that he was called to fulfill, Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the son of Prince Shimon, the son of Gamliel II, is commonly known by the single word “Rabbi”, for he was the teacher of all Israel. Divine Providence watched over him from the time of his early childhood. He was born on the same day that Rabbi Akiva, the most eminent man of his era, died a martyr’s death. Thus were confirmed the words of Holy Scripture: “The sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1:5). Rabbi Akiva’s sun disappeared over the horizon, and already born was the child that, once a man, would shine like the sun (Kiddushin 72b). His father had performed the circumcision on him (at that time, under the reign of Hadrian, Jews were heavily persecuted and circumcision was strictly banned) and was thereafter denounced before the Roman authorities for doing so. He therefore had to travel to Rome to justify himself, and that voyage initiated a relationship between the Antoninus dynasty and the Prince of the Jews.
In his youth, Yehudah enjoyed the esteem of the greatest teachers, to the point that his father, in his great modesty, described him as a lion, the son of a fox (Bava Metzia 84a). Eager to learn, the young man went from one school to another in order to understand the different methods of instruction practiced by various teachers. Those to whom he owed the great part of his knowledge were Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamuah. He perhaps also benefited from the teaching of Rabbi Meir, or at least from one of his students.
When Rabbi succeeded his father in the role of prince, the most glorious period in the history of the Diaspora began. Holy Scripture tells that Rebecca, the mother of Esau and Jacob, been gone in her distress to inquire of Hashem concerning her pregnancy with twin sons. She received the following reply: “Two nations are in your womb” (Genesis 25:23). Our Sages connect this statement to a prophesy according to which two men, greater than all others in their time, would one day be born, and believed that it referred to Rabbi (the descendant of Jacob) and Antoninus (the descendant of Esau). Ties of the fondest friendship united these two men. Thanks to the support of the Roman Emperor, Rabbi managed to have peace and ease conferred upon his people, while he himself, owing to the favor of the Emperor, was showered with riches. Rabbi lived only for his people and the Holy Word of G-d. He studied day and night and taught without cease. He assembled about himself the country’s learned men and along with them devoted himself to study. From all sides zealous students rushed to his home in Syphoris, and Rabbi fed them. During the years of scarcity, he opened his monetary coffers, as well as his food reserves, and distributed them to all who were starving, both learned and not. He worried over the education of children, especially of abandoned orphans, and entrusted them to teachers whose goal was to make of them good and upright men.
However, his crowning achievement was to have compiled and classified the Mishnah. Through this, he became a second Moses. Our great teacher Moses transmitted the Torah to us; Rabbi preserved it for us. Up to Rabbi’s era, the Oral Law had not been established in a fixed manner, and for generation after generation it had been in danger of being forgotten little by little.
Rabbi Akiva had already felt the need to systematically establish the Oral Law, and we owe to him the first attempt to do so, under the name of “The Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva.” His student, Rabbi Meir, continued his work, and this served as a foundation for Rabbi’s undertaking. With help from his colleagues, his sons, and his students, he classified and sorted the immense material of the work. He examined and related different points in the material, separated certain texts, and arranged the entire Oral Law into six parts, classified systematically. The first part contains all the Divine commandments that deal with agriculture and agricultural products, including the blessings for bread and fruits, as well as ordinances for prayers and communal worship. The second part consists of instructions for Shabbat and holidays, and everything pertaining to these. The third part instructs us on marriage, divorce, and vows. The fourth part contains the whole of Jewish jurisprudence, instructions concerning civil and criminal proceedings, the establishment of courts, etc. The fifth part instructs us on the sacrifices in the Beth Hamikdash, as well as on permitted and forbidden food and everything pertaining to these. Finally, the sixth part is devoted to instructions concerning the purity and impurity of garments, sicknesses, etc., as well as the laws of purity for ritual baths. Also presented are the laws of purity to be observed in married life and in everything that relates to it.
Thus, the contents of the Oral Law were listed and presented in such a way that one could easily learn them. That which was up to then an immense and non-bounded collection of specific and disparate laws had become an organized whole, where each problem found its natural place that was due it.Rabbi possessed all the characteristics to assume this immense task: He had the most scrupulous respect for the texts, the critical ability to separate teachings that were not in agreement with Halachah, and the necessary respect for the decisions of ancient authorities.