12th-century manuscript of the Mishnah. (Wikimedia)

Rabbi Judah the Prince

Editor of the Mishnah.

Judah the Prince — or NasiĀ — of the Palestinian community (died c. 217 CE), was known simply as Rabbi, that is, Rabbi par excellence.

Rabbi Judah the Prince was the son of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel II. Many tales are told in the Talmudic literature of his close friendship with the Roman emperor Antoninus, but the legendary nature of these tales is so blatant that attempts by some scholars to identify him with this emperor seem utterly pointless. The tales are obviously intended to illustrate the comparatively less strained relationships between the Jewish community and the Roman government in Rabbi Judah’s time.

Rabbi Judah the Prince was evidently a man of great wealth and position. As the Talmud puts it, he possessed both Torah and ‘greatness’. In other words, he enjoyed both religious and political authority. This dual function enabled him to embark on compiling the authoritative digest of Jewish law and practice, the Mishnah, containing the teachings of the earlier Tannaim, which became the standard source for the Oral Torah, upon which the Amoraim commented in both Palestine and Babylonia.

The details of how Rabbi Judah compiled the Mishnah are somewhat obscure. He is best described as the editor of the Mishnah, not its author, since it is obvious that the Mishnah contains not only much earlier material but actual compilations of this material. The Talmud recognizes, in fact, traces of an earlier Mishnah in Rabbi Judah’s Mishnah which were left by him intact even when this resulted in contradiction.

There are also passages in the Mishnah that must have been added by others such as the statement that when Rabbi Judah died, humility came to an end (Sotah 9:15). The numerous teachings of Rabbi Judah himself recorded in the Mishnah in the third person seem to indicate that these were added later; though this is by no means conclusive since it is not impossible that he himself recorded his teachings in this way for the sake of uniformity.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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