Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi
Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, who is also known as 'Rabbeinu Hakadosh' or simply 'Rabi', was a Torah scholar and a fifth generation Sage, the Nassi (president) of the Sanhedrin, and the author of the Mishnah. His was the last generation of sages called 'Tanna'im'.
Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi was born to his father Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel around the year of 3880.
There is an interesting anecdote regarding Rabi Yehudah Hanassi's birth; like that of Moses, who was rescued by Batya – the daughter of the Israelites' archenemy Pharaoh, so was Rabi Yehudah Hanassi rescued after his birth by the wife of the Roman Emperor Azureus, who made the lives of the Jews unbearably difficult with his evil decrees.
During the time of birth of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi, the Emperor had forbidden the Jews to circumcise their sons. Whoever was caught transgressing the prohibition – was immediately killed. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel, however, sacrificed his life for the sake of the mitzvah (commandment) and took his newborn son to a hiding place, where he circumcised him. The ruler of the city heard about the incident and went to the Emperor to inform on Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel. The Emperor demanded that the father and son be brought before him so that he could see for himself if the rumors were true.
When Rabban Shimon, his wife and their son approached the Emperor, the Empress entered the room and, upon seeing Rabban Shimon's wife – who was her good friend – she discreetly asked her for the purpose of their arrival. After Rabban Shimon's wife told the Empress that they were awaiting the Emperor's verdict, the Empress suggested that they switch babies; for she, too, had a newborn baby. That baby was none other than Antoninus Pius, who was to become the next Emperor and a great friend of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi in the future. Suddenly, before Rabban Shimon could approach the Emperor with 'his' newborn, the baby began to cry. Rabban Shimon's wife gently lifted him up and nursed him. They then approached the Emperor and showed him that the baby was not circumcised. The Roman Emperor was furious that the ruler had falsely informed on Rabban Shimon, and ordered to have him hanged. Rabban Shimon, on the other hand, was compensated by the Emperor by being freed from the decree.
Before his death, the ruler who had informed on Rabban Shimon swore to the Emperor that he had seen the father circumcising his son, and that apparently, the G-d of the Jews made a miracle in order to save them. Our Sages tell us that in the merit of the milk which Antoninus had nursed from the righteous mother of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi, his soul was purified and he later converted to Judasim and became a great friend of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi, with whom he learned Torah together.
The period of time in which Rabi Yehudah was born was a time of great spiritual danger for the Jewish People. During that time, the city of Beitar was brutally destroyed; the Nassi, Rabban Gamliel passed away, many Jewish leaders were pursued and murdered in horrific ways and the Jews were scattered in the Diaspora. The People of Israel needed a strong spiritual leader more than ever. It was precisely then that G-d in His mercy sent them Rabi Yehudah Hanassi like a good angel who would guide them in their time of difficulty and despair.
As a child, Rabi Yehudah Hanassi learned Torah from his father and from Rabi Yaakov Ben Korshai. However, he got his sharp mind and clearance of though from someone he did not even know; Rabi Meir, and the Gemara relates just how this came about:
Once, Rabban Gamliel was enjoying a Sabbath meal with his son and disciples when they began clapping their hands; which some say is prohibited on the Sabbath. Rabi Meir, who was a very holy Jew, was walking down the street and heard the disciples clapping their hands. He approached the window of the house and banged on it in order to stop them from transgressing the holy Sabbath. He then immediately left. As he left, his scarf uncovered a part of his neck, and Rabi Yehudah Hanassi caught a glimpse of his neck. From that moment on, Rabi Yehudah's mind became exceptionally sharp, as his eyes had gazed upon the flesh of a holy man.
Rabi Yehudah Hanassi merited to be referred to as 'Rabbeinu Hakadosh' – 'our holy Rabbi', not only because he was the direct descendant of several Nessi'im (presidents), but because he was constantly immersed in Torah study and was detached from worldly matters. He dedicated his whole life to the writing of the Mishnah, which is the foundation of the Oral Torah. The next generation of Sages, the Amora'im, based the Gemara on the writings of the Mishnah, and the Rishonim and Acharonim, the next few generations of Sages, based their writings on the Gemara. The halachic rulings that we have today are all based on the Rishonim and Acharonim.
The Sages decided to record the Oral Torah in script, as they feared that the difficult times of spiritual and physical dangers would cause the People of Israel to forget parts of it. All issues of the Oral Torah were then organized into categories and included the different rulings of the Sages on each issue. In some incidents, however, the issues were never settled and the Mishnah does not bring a final ruling.
The Mishnah is organized according to six subjects, each subject being called a 'Seder'. Seder Zera'im discusses the mitzvahs (commandments) of the Land of Israel; Seder Mo'ed discusses the laws of Sabbath and Festivals; Seder Nashim discusses family matters such as marriage and divorce; Seder Nezikin discusses judicial matters such as thefts, lost property and damages; Seder Kodashim discusses the offerings and the laws of the Temple; and Seder Taharos discussed the laws of purity and impurity. Each 'Seder' is divided into sub-categories, which are called 'Masechtas'. Each 'Masechta' is further divided into chapters, and each chapter – to 'Mishnahs'.
One of the most famous features of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi was his vast wealth. He acquired his wealth through his marriage with a daughter from a wealthy family, as well as from the inheritance from his ancestors, who were all Nessi'im (presidents) of Israel. Throughout the ages, his fathers accumulated enormous parcels of land, properties and assets. The family also owned several olive and grape orchards in the area of Lod. In the Jordanian Valley, Rabi Yehudah Hanassi grew his famous persimmon fruits, from which people would make perfume and various salves and ointments. It is told that the persimmons of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi were comparable to those of the Roman Caesar, and the Gemara rules that the blessing on pleasant scents should be made only over the persimmons of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi or the Roman Emperor.
Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi also possessed huge herds of animals; so mush so that his stable worker became richer than the Persian King of that era merely from the animals' waste!
Rabi Yehudah Hanassi was a giant in Torah and in wealth, and it is said of him that 'since the days of Moses there has been no other man who possessed both Torah and wealth". Rabi Yehudah Hanassi was so righteous and G-d fearing, however, that he held up his hands to the heavens before his death and declared that he had not enjoyed his vast wealth even with his little finger. He would also distribute large amounts of his money to the poor, especially during times of financial difficulties in the country.
Because of his great modesty and humbleness, Rabi Yehudah Hanassi would greatly honor the wealthy, so that he could claim that the honor bestowed on him by other people was due to his vast wealth, and not his greatness in Torah. It is said of him: "When Rabi died, humbleness was abolished".
When Rabi was lying in his death bed, he called all his sons and all scholars and instructed them how to lead the people when he would be gone. He warned them to be extremely careful to honor his wife, their step-mother, and asked that a candle be lit at his gravesite at all times, that his bed would be made and that his table would be set. The reason for his request was that after his passing, Rabi Yehudah Hanassi would return from Paradise every Sabbath eve to make Kiddush for his family, and he wanted everything to be in order when he arrived.
After some time, however, Rabi Yehudah Hanassi stopped returning from Paradise, due to the following incident:
One Sabbath eve, a neighbor knocked on the door of Rabi Yehudah Hanassi's household. The maid opened the door and told the neighbor to be quiet, because Rabi was there. When Rabi heard the maid's words, he immediately returned to Paradise and never came back, for he did not want people to think that other righteous Jews who were not returning from Paradise every week were less holy than him.
Before his passing, Rabi Yehudah Hanassi instructed his sons to make the following appointments: Rabban Shimon, his son, was to be appointed head of the hora'ah (teaching) in the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamliel, another son, was to be appointed Nassi (president) of the Sanhedrin, and Chanina Bar Chama would be head of the rabbinical court.
The Jewish people took Rabi's passing very hard, for he was their mentor, their guide and their father figure in times of great adversity, so mush so that they announced: "He who says that Rabi passed away will be struck by a sword!"
Rabi Yehudah Hanassi was laid to rest in Beit Shearim in the Izrael Valley, where he had led the Sanhedrin during his lifetime.