Judah I

The Jewish scholar Judah I (ca. 135-ca. 220), also called Judah Ha-Nasi, was head of the Sanhedrin and edited the Mishnah, a collection of the Oral Law.

The son and successor of Rabban Simeon, Judah received his Jewish training at his father's home at Usha and at the academies of Akiba ben Joseph's disciples. He also received a broad secular schooling in foreign languages, particularly Greek. However, Judah favored Hebrew and made it the language of his household.

Shortly after his father died (ca. 170), Judah succeeded him to the powerful office of Nasi, or head of the Sanhedrin. Judah was known for his great learning and was commonly called Rabbi, or master par excellence. He was also called Ha-Nasi, or the Prince. He was a wealthy man who gave of his riches and conducted his office with great dignity.

Not long after he assumed his post, Judah was compelled by a devastating plague of locusts and other hardships to move from Usha to Bet Shearim, another town in Galilee. He also transferred his academy there. Later, because of illness, he went to Sepphoris, north of Nazareth, where he spent the last 17 years of his life.

Judah was concerned with retaining Palestine as the spiritual center of Diaspora Jewry. He therefore limited ordination to scholars who agreed to remain there. For this reason, the eminent sage Abba Arika (the Tall), who later founded the great yeshiva at Sura in Babylonia, received only partial ordination.

Judah associated freely with colleagues and pupils and extolled the dignity of labor. The path that one should choose in life, he urged, should be a source of honor to the individual as well as to mankind. Judah's unselfishness, teachings, and meritorious conduct earned for him the appellation of Ha-Kadosh, the Saint.

Although Judah aspired to establish his office as the supreme authority in Judaism, he did not succeed in doing so. However, his Mishnah, or compilation of the Oral Law, achieved this objective. The Oral Law was a body of oral tradition; it consisted of explanations and amplifications of the written, or scriptural, text. Since the days of Hillel (died A.D. 10) and his contemporary Shammai, attempts had been made to arrange systematically the confused and growing mass of oral laws. At Yavneh, in the days of Gamaliel II (ca. 80-115), an effort was made to resolve the disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai in order to produce a unified and undisputed version of the Oral Law. Akiba ben Joseph (died ca. 135) arranged these Halakahs, or Oral Laws, in a logical system, thereby laying the groundwork of Judah's Mishnah. Judah prepared a standard and authoritative version. Unlike the existing collections of the Oral Law, that of Rabbi was composite in nature and included laws and traditions expounded by him as well as other Tannaim (Mishnaic teachers).

The compendium prepared by Judah was a momentous work that required over a half century of labor and was completed about 217. Judah generally assembled the ritual regulations in separate volumes. Because of his personal prestige and authority as the titular head of Jewry, Judah's Mishnah became the norm. Some 148 scholars are mentioned in Rabbi's Mishnah by name, but many more contributed to it anonymously.

The Mishnah was not a code, strictly speaking, because it contained nonlegal as well as legal matter. It has been spoken of as a legal digest. Though Jews generally spoke Aramaic at the time, the language of the Mishnah is Hebrew, couched in a concise, lucid style. It appears that Judah's Mishnah was not completed entirely by him, for it contains insertions by authorities of the following generation.

Judah's Mishnah soon became a text for students and a guide and reference work for scholars and rabbis. It provided the foundation and structure for the work of the next generation of teachers, known as Amoraim, or discoursers or expounders of the Mishnah, who continued the work of the Tannaim. Several centuries later (ca. 600), the Amoraim produced the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together constitute the Talmud.


Further Reading on Judah I

To understand the Oral Law, the reader should peruse Herbert Danby's excellent English translation of the Mishna (1933). Recommended for background material and orientation is George Foote Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. 1 (1927). A good treatment of the work of Judah Ha-Nasi and his colleagues is presented in Judah Goldin, "Period of the Talmud," in the first volume of Louis Finkelstein, ed., The Jews (1949; 2d ed. 1955). For a general background sketch of the Halakahs see the essay "The Significance of the Halacha for Jewish History" in Louis Ginsberg, On Jewish Law and Lore (1955).