Rabbi Judah HaNasi was the president of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Jewish Law in the Second Century, and a scion of the dynasty that began with Hillel the Elder. He was the redactor of the Mishnah, a fifth generation Tanna, and the leader who closed the period of the Tannaim.
1. Rabbi Judah, who was also titled Rabeinu Hakodesh (“Our Holy Rabbi”), was called Nasi (the “Prince”) during his lifetime in the Holy Land and “Rebbe” while he was in Babylon.
2. The sages tell us that Rabbi Judah HaNasi was born between the years 135 to 137 CE, during the anti-religious decrees of Hadrian, a short time after the Bar Kochba revolt.
3. During his youth he studied under Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (author of the Zohar), and his father, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel. At the age of thirty, Rabbi Judah was appointed president of the Sanhedrin, a position held until then by no less than Hillel the Elder.
4. Rabbi Judah was versed in several languages, including Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Roman and Syriac. He spoke Greek, which was then the language of the educated and ruling classes, and opposed the Syrian language being spoken by the masses. At home, however, he insisted on speaking Hebrew. It is related that the handmaiden in his house was so expert in the intricacies of the Hebrew language, that the Sages learned from her the meaning of unfamiliar words from the Bible and Jewish law.
5. Rabbi Judah’s most important initiative was the redacting and closing of the Oral Torah — the Mishnah. The Mishnah was divided into main subjects (called a Seder or “Order”), and together there are six Orders: Zeraim (agricultural laws), Moed (festivals), Nashim (laws that apply to women and marriage), Nezikin (tort laws), Kdoshim (holy sacrifices and the laws concerning the Temple) and Taharot (laws of ritual purity).
6. Beyond his great righteousness, Rabbi Judah was known for his tremendous wealth. As the Talmudic saying expresses it, “Torah and wealth in one place.” He supported study halls and Torah scholars, and was known for his generosity. During his days, the Nasi’s family came into control of wide assets in in the Jezreel Valley, the Golan Heights and probably in the Jordan Valley too where they raised the precious persimmon fruit, from which perfumes and medical potions were produced. Besides the Nasi’s industries that produced olives, wine and perfume, he had many other industries and exports, such as fish and flax for weaving linen. Despite his immense wealth, the luxury that surrounded him and the power that he wielded, it was all an external show, and when it came to himself, he lived frugally and even ascetically.
7. Beyond his excellent connections with the Roman authorities, Rabbi Judah had close ties with Emperor Antoninus. Their ties began yet from their mothers who were close friends. The Midrash relates that both of them were born at the same time — one mother had Judah and the other gave birth to Antoninus. At that time, the Roman empire had prohibited Jews to circumcise their sons, and whoever circumcised his son, would be killed. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the father of Rabbi Judah the Nasi, decided to circumcise his son anyway, and did so in secret. The governor of that city heard about it, and denounced him to the king. The king commanded Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and his son to appear before him, to see if the denunciation was true. The baby’s parents took him and headed to the king’s court, but on the way, his parents stopped at the house of Antoninus’s parents. His mother offered to switch her infant son Antoninus with their circumcised son. After they were switched, Antoninus cried and the rabbi’s wife nursed him. When Rabbi Shimon and his wife were called into the room and asked why they had transgressed the king’s decree, Rabbi Shimon told the king to take the infant and check himself whether he was circumcised. The king examined the boy and saw that he was uncircumcised. He was furious at the governor who had fooled him, and harassed Rabbi Shimon in vain. The governor was hung at the king’s command, and Rabbi Shimon was compensated with the cancellation of the decree. Thanks to Antoninus, Judah was saved from death.
7. The close relationship between the two was reflected in the many conversations the two had about faith, religion, law and kingship, and in the clandestine physical connection between the two: there was an underground tunnel that led from the emperor’s house to Rabbi Judah’s house. Eventually Antoninus decided to convert, and he circumcised himself.
8. During the last 17 years of his life, Rabbi Judah lived in Sepphoris in the Galilee, and in his last years, he suffered from a painful illness until his death on 15 Kislev in 224 CE.
9. He left an ethical will to his sons, in which he instructed them on their future conduct: “Be careful to treat your stepmother with respect. Have a candle lit at my usual place. Have my table set as usual. Have my bed set. Joseph Chofni and Shimon Efrati served me during my life and they shall serve me during my death.”
10. Just before he died, he lifted his ten fingers up and said, “Master of the world, you know well that I wearied these ten fingers in Torah, and I didn’t enjoy even a little finger of this world. May it be Your Will that my passing away will be in peace.”
Rabbi Judah HaNasi was buried in Beth Shearim in the Jezreel Valley.