Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, begins:
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly…” (1:1)
The Men of the Great Assembly were succeeded by great scholars, the leader of whom came to be called Nasi. While literally translated as “prince,” this office is best understood as Patriarch or President. After Hillel was appointed to this position around 30 B.C.E., it became hereditary.
Only one man in history, however, bore the title “Nasi” as an extension of his name: Rabbi Judah Hanasi. He was born 65 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, during the Bar Kochba rebellion, the failure of which led to the exile of the Jews from Palestine by the Romans. In fact, Judah’s family lived in exile throughout the persecutions of the Jews by the Emperor Hadrian. When Jews were finally permitted to return to Judea, Judah’s family settled in the new center of learning, Usha, in the Western Galilee. Judah grew up surrounded by the greatest scholars of the generation (his father being one of the leaders).
Having seen life in exile and life after exile, Rabbi Judah Hanasi feared that the great body of knowledge that had been transmitted orally for about 1500 years from one generation to the next was being diluted and would be forgotten. He therefore authorized, on the basis of an emergency ruling (ayt la’asot l’hashem) to transcribe the Oral Law (Mishna), which had already been catagorized by Rabbi Akiva into six major sections.
Throughout the Talmud, Rabbi Judah Hanasi is referred to as “Rebbe” or “Rabbenu Hakodesh” (Our Holy Rabbi), in recognition of the incredible efforts he invested to ensure the integrity of the Oral Law.
The 15th of Kislev is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Judah Hanasi.
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