RABBI JEHUDAH HANASI (RABENU HAKADOSH) was succeeded by his son Rabban Gamliel to the post of Nasi. Rabban Gamliel (referred to in the Talmud as Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Jehuda Ha-Nasi) maintained his rule for but a short time, certainly not more than ten years, and was followed by his son Jehudah, whom the Talmud calls Rabbi Jehudah N’siah (or Rabbi Judan) to distinguish him from his grandfather. Historically he is known as Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the First because he was followed by others of the same name.
Rabbi Jehudah N’siah I was the last of the descendants of Hillel who was both head of the Sanhedrin and in charge of the secular administration of the Jewish population. After his death these two offices were separated and were held by different persons. It is impossible to establish the definite dates of these events due to the confusion of the records which resulted from the repetition of names. Frequently it is impossible to determine whether it is the grandfather or the grandson that the records speak of. But despite these discrepancies it is safer to trust the Talmudic sources even when they disagree with the historical dates of the Roman history.
There are numerous indications that Rabbi Jehudah N’siah was a pupil in the academy of his grandfather. At that time it was still allowed for a grandson to bear the name of his grandfather during the latter’s life. As additional substantiation of this fact we find a statement in the Talmud that Hillel, the younger brother of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah, questioned his grandfather in some religious matters.1)בבא בתרא פּ״ג ב׳. This leads to the belief that the older brother certainly must have been a pupil of Rabbi Jehudar ha-Nasi. The Talmud also cites differing opinions between grandfather and grandson regarding the necessity of offering tithes from fruit that was bought from a stranger or from a pagan, and this is held to be further proof of the scholastic relationship between the two.2)ירושלמי פּאה פרק א׳ הלכה ה׳, פרק ב׳ הלכה ה׳. But despite these deductions we can only say with certainty that Rabbi Jehudah was a pupil of his father, Rabban Gamliel, and of Rabbi Chiya.3)ירושלמי ביצה פרק א׳ הלכה י״א.
Rabbi Jehudah N’siah permitted the use of oil bought from pagans,4)עבודה זרה ל״ה ב׳. and also attempted to introduce other reforms pertaining to the laws of marriage and divorce. In these reforms, however, he was thwarted by the opposition of the Sanhedrin. When his disciple, Rabbi Simlai, wished to repeal the prohibition against the use of bread that had been bought from strangers and concerning which there was doubt whether it had been tithed, Rabbi Jehudah objected on the ground that people would say that the court was repealing all prohibitions.5)עבודה זרה ל״ז א׳.
In previous years enough olives were raised in Palestine so that it was unnecessary to buy oil from pagans and such oil was considered undesirable in the same way that wine made by pagans was not used for fear that it had been used for idolatrous purposes. But during the numerous wars that were fought in the country, the Romans destroyed most of the olive groves and the inhabitants had to resort to buying oil. For this reason Rabbi Jehudah N’siah allowed the use of such oil.
The origin of the prohibition against the use of oil bought from pagans, dates back to the time of Daniel, according to Rav (Aba Arecha). Others maintain that this prohibition was one of the famous eighteen decrees that were promulgated by the scholars prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is related that Rav refused to use such oil even after the prohibition against it was repealed and he was reproved by his friend Shmuel who said to him: “You should eat this oil, otherwise I will declare you to be a ‘dissenting elder’ who refuses to obey the decisions of the court.”6)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ב׳ הלכה ט׳, תוספתא עבודה זרה פרק ד׳.
It appears that the people clung to the stricter interpretations of the law and the laxity of the religious conduct of the household of the Nasi was the subject of comment throughout the country. When Rabbi Jehudah realized that his household was the talk of the country he commanded that a stricter religious discipline be applied in order to avoid criticism.
The following instances are related in the Talmud. Rabbi Jehudah N’siah and his brother Hillel were once bathing in the bath house of the city of Kabul. The custom of that city did not allow two men to bathe together, and when Rabbi Jehudah heard the people murmuring against him, Hillel immediately left the bath house to avoid all cause of criticism. Another time the two brothers spent the Sabbath in Biri, a city to the north of Safed, and on that day they walked about the streets in their overshoes. They then heard the people exclaiming that such a thing was never seen before and they immediately removed their overshoes and gave them to their servants to carry.7)פּסחים נ״א א׳, תוספתא מועד קטן פרק ב׳.
The people criticised the household of the Nasi for many of its customs which differed from those commonly accepted, but the scholars informed them that some things which were prohibited for the rest of the population were permissible for the Nasi and those about him because they were “close to the government.” They were thus allowed to decorate their wall with various paintings, to use mirrors, to grow their hair long and to study Greek.8)ירושלמי שבת פרק ו׳ הלכה ה׳.
Among other attempted reforms, Rabbi Jehudah N’siah also sought to do away with the fast of the ninth day of Ab. Others maintain that he merely wished to do away with the fast on those years when the ninth day of Ab fell on a Saturday and that it would have been unthinkable for him to try to abolish the fast altogether since it was enjoined by the Bible. Rabbi Jehudah also declared that there was no cause for fasting in times when there were no religious persecutions and Jews lived peacefully.9)מגלה ה׳ ב׳, ירושלמי מגלה פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.
It was noted above that the events of this period are highly confused. Much information is lacking and we do not know with any degree of certainty where the last of the N’siim maintained their academies. Of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah it was said that his academy was located in Sephoris; others maintain that it was in Tiberias. The city of Tiberias was held to be unclean because of the belief that it was built on the site of a cemetery. Rabbi Jehudah thus removed the taboo from this city by holding his academy there. Even the ceremony of the “consecration of the month,” which was always held in a city of Judea, Rabbi Jehudah performed in Tiberias.10)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק א׳ הלכה בי.
Like his grandfather, Rabbi Jehudah N’siah was also called Rabbi or Rabenu. This appellation which was applied to both grandfather and grandson still further confuses the records. The historian Graetz thus maintains that the Talmudic story of the friendship of Rabbi and emperor Antoninus refers to Rabbi Jehudah N’siah and Alexander Severus.
History records that Alexander Severus was a Roman of Syrian birth. He ruled from 222 until 235 (C.E.) and was friendly to the Jews. His bedroom was said to contain the statues of Orpheus, Jesus and Abraham. On all occasions he repeated the maxim of Hillel: That which you would not have done to yourself, do not unto others. He also commanded that this maxim be engraved on the gates of all courts and whenever his legions were about to march, a herald pronounced these words to the soldiers that they might remember them.
Being a friend of the Jews and Christians (who were then still considered to be a Jewish sect) he always set them up as an example of honesty and moral conduct. The Greeks of Antioch and Alexandria therefore ridiculed him and called him “Imperator Archisynagogos,” but although the emperor knew of this attitude of the Greeks he did not deviate from his path. He presented the synagogue at Tiberias with a golden Menorah and he gave the Nasi a large field for the maintenance of his pupils. The friendly attitude of the emperor brought about more cordial relations between the Romans and the Jews and Christians. The Christian Church-father Origines complained in his writings that the emperor thought more like a Jew than a Roman.
It was characteristic of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah that he did not distinguish between scholars and ordinary people in administrative matters and he taxed everyone equally for the government of the city of Tiberias. This was against the accepted axiom that one who undertakes the burden of the Torah should be freed from the burden of the government. Many of the scholars therefore spoke against the Nasi and on one occasion, as they studied the laws pertaining to a Nasi who commits a transgression, Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish asked: “If a Nasi has committed a transgression, should he be flogged or not?” He was answered that a court of three judges could condemn such a Nasi to be flogged and that it was not even necessary to convoke the small Sanhedrin of 23 members to try him.
Later Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish further asked whether a Nasi who had been flogged could be reinstated to his office. One of the pupils, Rabbi Chagai, replied that such a Nasi could not be reinstated for fear that he would execute his judges.
When Rabbi Jehudah N’siah heard of this discussion he understood that it was directed against himself and he sent one of his non-Jewish soldiers to seize Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, but Rabbi Simeon escaped.
The following day Rabbi Jochanan came to the academy and before the studies were begun he pretended to look in all the corners of the buildings. When he was asked by the Nasi what he was searching for, Rabbi Jochanan answered: “I search for Ben Lakish; we cannot begin our studies without the key.”
“Where is Ben Lakish without whom we cannot pursue our studies,” the Nasi asked, and Rabbi Jochanan replied that he was hiding in Magdala. They then decided to go to Magdala on the following day to bring Ben Lakish back.
Rabbi Jochanan at once sent a messenger to announce the good news to Ben Lakish and when they met on the following day Ben Lakish said to the Nasi: “You have this day done an act which is similar to that of the Creator. When God wanted to free his people from bondage he did so Himself and not through a messenger or an agent.” The Nasi asked him why he proposed his questions in the academy in a manner that would insult the Nasi and Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish replied: “You must not think that out of fear of you I will refrain from studying God’s Torah.”11)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק ב׳ הלכה א׳, הוריות פרק ג׳ הלכה ב׳.
Another time Jose the Maonite expounded the fifth chapter of Hosea and remarked that there would come a time when God would bring the priests to trial and He would ask them why they did not observe his Torah after He had granted them 24 priestly gifts. The priests would then reply: “Creator of the world! You have given us nothing.” God would then go to the Jews and ask them: “Why did you not give to the priests the 24 gifts which I have commanded in my Torah?” and the Jews would reply: “Because the servants of the Nasi take everything away from us.”
The Nasi wanted to punish Jose the Maonite for these words, but Rabbi Jochanan and Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish pleaded with him and said: “Jose the Maonite wished to explain a difficult passage in the Bible; would you punish him for it?” The Nasi summoned Jose the Maonite and during their conversation he asked him the meaning of the verse “As is the mother so is her daughter” (Ezekiel, 17:44). Jose replied: “As is the generation, so is its Nasi and as is the altar such are its priests.12)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק ב׳ הלכה ו׳.
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Rabbi Jehudah N’siah I was succeeded by his son Rabban Gamliel IV; Rabban Gamliel IV was followed by his son Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the Second.13)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳, תוס׳ עבודה זרה ל״ג ב׳.
Nearly 80 years passed from the rule of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah I until the administration of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II. Lack of documentary information makes it impossible for us to fit the events of these years into the historical frame work of the Roman empire of that period. It is also entirely possible that due to the political changes there was an interregnum in the rule of the N’siim. It is also noteworthy that Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II was only nominally Nasi, for although he was recognized by the government as head of the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities of the people were Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Jochanan. We may assume that even Rabban Gamliel IV did not make any religious decisions without consulting the opinion of other scholars. Rabban Gamliel was looked upon as a mediocre man and a similar attitude was shown toward Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II who always sought the advice of Rabbi Ami. When Rabban Gamliel asked Rabbi Abahu whether it was permissible to go to a Gentile fair to buy slaves, the latter sharply responded in the negative.14)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
On another occasion, when the land was affected by a drought, Rabbi Jehudah N’siah declared thirteen fast days but still no rain fell. He was ready to declare still more fast days, but Rabbi Ami sent him a message saying that it was enough and that since the first thirteen fast days did not produce the desired effect, additional ones would be of no avail.15)תענית י״ד ב׳.
Rabbi Jehudah N’siah was a pupil of Rabbi Jochanan. On one occasion he declared so himself and the Talmud also relates that on a certain evening Rabbi Jochanan came to the gardens of Rabbi Jehudah to teach his men how to clean the plow shares.16)ראש השנה כ׳ א׳, ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ב׳ הלכה ד׳. It is further told that when the pupils of Rabbi Chanina explained a law contrary to the opinions of Rabbi Jochanan, Rabbi Jehudah sent soldiers to enforce the decisions of Rabbi Jochanan.17)נדה נ״ב א׳.
Meanwhile scholarship declined in Palestine. The political unrest in the country and the growing weakness of the Roman empire resulted in a chaotic state of affairs. Emperors changed frequently and the central government lost much of its ability to govern lands as distant as Palestine. Babylonia then developed into a center of Jewish learning and in Palestine academies existed only in Galilee. But the Jews of Babylonia continued to cherish a great love for the Land of Israel and they still believed that one who would be a scholar must go to Palestine. Various anecdotes then became current in each country about the inhabitants of the other.
Determining the day of the new month was then a most important religious question. This day could be determined only on the basis of the testimony of witnesses who declared that they had seen the new moon. This became a very difficult procedure due to the interference of the Romans and also because of internal enemies. The beginning of the months of Tishri and Nisan were especially significant because the date of the Passover and leap years were then established. Rabbi Ami insisted on maintaining the old procedure, but Rabbi Jehudah N’siah reminded him of the ruling of Rabbi Jochanan that one must be so strict with the witnesses who testify about the new moon, that even if they had not seen it in time they should declare that they had.18)ראש השנה כ׳ א׳.
It is told that Rabbi Jehudah N’siah devoted much time and energy to the establishment of schools for children and academies for adults in all corners of the land. To achieve this aim he sent out three scholars (R. Ami, R. Asi, and R. Chiya bar Aba) to investigate the situation and he instructed them that wherever they would find a city without a school and an academy they should call the elders and inform them that any city where the children do not study should be destroyed.19)שבת קי״ט ב׳, ירושלמי חגיגה פרק א׳ הלכה ז׳.
The administration of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah occurred during the reign of Diocletian who was born in Dacia and rose from the common people. Diocletian decided that it was too great a task for one man to conduct the numerous Roman wars and to rule the empire at the same time. He therefore selected men to assist him; these were called “Anti-Ceasar.”
Some historians claim that Diocletian was friendly to the Jews and it is true that there is no record of any unusual persecution during his reign. But the Christian Church-father Eusebius relates that Diocletian persecuted the Christians. This is hard to explain in view of the fact that the Christians were then still considered to be a Jewish sect. This hatred of Christianity is ascribed to Diocletian by some historians as due not to religious fanaticism but to the realization that the Christians aimed to destroy the ruling religion. He therefore forced them to worship idols and commanded that all Christian churches be closed. From Jewish sources we learn that Diocletian also persecuted the Samaritans in Palestine and forced them to offer sacrifices to Roman idols. It is even said that he forced all the peoples of the empire, with the exception of the Jews, to worship the idols and to pour wine before their images. The Samaritans obeyed and since that time the wine of Samaritans was prohibited to Jews as unclean.20)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ה׳ הלכה ב׳.
The favorable position of the Jews aroused the envy of their neighbors and in order to undermine the friendship of the emperor it was reported to him that the Jews ridiculed his low origin and referred to him as the “swine-herd.”
A Talmudic legend relates that when Diocletian was a swine-herd the pupils of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah mocked him and even beat him. After he was elected emperor he remembered the insults that were his share and when he visited a Palestinian city a few miles from Tiberias he sent a letter to the Nasi commanding him to appear before him on a Saturday night together with a group of his scholars. The messenger was instructed to deliver the letter on the eve of the Sabbath so that the Nasi would have no opportunity to leave at once. Heavy punishment was threatened to the Nasi and the scholars if they delayed their appearance.
The legend continues that a miracle occurred and the Nasi together with his companions appeared before the emperor on time. A spirit named “Antigris” carried them to the emperor immediately after the “Havdalah.” When their coming was announced, the emperor declared that he would not see them until after they bathed and he comanded that a bath be heated for them for seven days and seven nights so that they may die of the heat. But the same spirit cooled the bath before they entered it, and when they finally appeared before the emperor he asked them whether they allowed themselves to ridicule the emperor because of their assurance that miracles would occur to them. The scholars replied that the Jews only ridiculed the swine-herd Diocletian but not the emperor Diocletian.21)ירושלמי תרומות פרק ח׳ הלכה ד׳.
We have noted before that the family of the Nasi was no longer outstanding in scholarship and its religious authority almost vanished entirely. But the adherence of the people to the dynasty of the Nasi remained steadfast. As long as the Nasi was descended from Hillel, who traced his descent from king David, the people felt that they had a ruler of the royal house of David whose power was temporarily limited by the Romans. The people considered it to be their duty to provide the needs of the Nasi and to maintain him in the greatest honor. As long as one of the seed of David still lived, their independence was not entirely lost.
The Roman government sought to press as much money as they could out of the Jews and the tax collectors were avoided as often as was possible, but for the needs of the Nasi everyone gave as much as was asked and even more than was asked. When the Nasi sent out his messengers to announce the religious decisions of the Sanhedrin, the messengers were received with great honors and were given valuable gifts to take to the Nasi that he might be able to conduct his office without worry.
When Rabbi Jehudah N’siah I died, Rabbi Jannai Rabah announced in the academy that all regulations affecting the priests were done away with for that day and that priests could participate in the rites for the dead. But when Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II died no such reverence was shown and some of the scholars even allowed themselves to joke at the funeral.22)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ו׳ הלכה א׳.
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Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II was followed by three N’siim of the house of Hillel concerning whom we would have known nothing were it not for the Christian Church-father Epiphanos who wrote about them. Church-father Epiphanos thus saved the history of these N’siim from oblivion even as Josephus saved for future generations the chronicle of many of the events which transpired during the time of the second temple. Epiphanos appeared to have been born a Jew and he described the history of the N’siim in the belief that those were the last days of the Jewish faith. In this respect he also resembled Josephus who believed that he was writing the history of a people doomed to extinction.
Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II was followed by his son Rabban Gamliel V. Rabban Gamliel was succeeded by Rabbi Jehudah N’siah III who was thirteen generations removed from Hillel. The Talmudic records about this Rabbi Jehudah are very meager and he is mentioned together with Rabbi Jeremiah23)ירושלמי מגלה פרק ג׳ הלכה ב׳. or Rabbi Ami24)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ה׳ הלכה ט״ו. which is our only basis for concluding that it was Rabbi Jehudah III that was being referred to. The events mentioned in connection with his name also do not coincide with the period of his predecessors.
Due to the political alignment in Palestine, Rabbi Jehudah III lived in Caesarea where Rabbi Abuah headed the academy. Previous N’siim lived either in Sephoris or in Tiberias.
But despite the unfavorable political and economic situation of the Jews, the Nasi still occupied an exceptional position and he was immune in his person. His decisions in religious matters were binding. The Nasi had to assist in the collection of the taxes from the Jews and he had the right to collect money for the needs of his household. He also had the right to ordain his disciples and to excommunicate those who joined the Christians.
Until the year 325 (C.E.) the Christians were considered to be a Jewish sect and they had a large following in the country. Debates between the orthodox and Christian Jews were a common occurrence and both groups sought substantiation for their beliefs in the Bible.
Oppressed by heavy taxes and other political and economic persecutions, the condition of the people grew worse from day to day but their spirit was not broken as long as their religious life could continue in its traditional channels. In this respect the situation took a radical turn for the worse with the accession of Constantine to the throne of Rome (306-337). Constantine embraced Christianity and established it as the state religion. Persecution of the Jews on religious grounds was then intensified. The council of the Christian Patriarchs was then held at Nicea and this gathering severed all bonds with the Jews. The emperor lent his aid to the Christian church in its persecution of all other religions. Constantine II who ruled together with the co-emperor Gallus (337-349) revived the policies of Hadrian in not allowing the Jews to practice their religious commandments. Gallus was especially known for his brutality to the Jews. Upon his return from a war in the east he laid waste the southern half of the country, and it seemed that this region which contained many educational institutions headed by the disciples of Rabbi Jehudah, would never be rebuilt
Under these circumstances the secular power of the N’siim was diminished to a minimum. The population lost much of its interest in legal matters and devoted itself primarily to Hagada with its fantastic interpretations. The scholars of Palestine lost the creative powers of the previous generations. There was also not much time to devote to such matters, for everyone was concerned with finding a way to escape from the country. The population became impoverished and Rabbi Levi said: “Years ago, when people had money they were interested in the Mishna, Halacha and Talmud; but now that they are poor they do not want to hear of legal matters and are only interested in blessings and consolation.”25)שיר השירים רבה פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא י״ב.
The study of the Bible, however, was widespread. Those who leaned toward Christianity studied it to prove their contentions and the others studied it in order to be able to refute the Christians. Thus Rabbi Abahu, who was a disciple of Rabbi Jochanan, declared: “The people of Palestine study the Bible and are acquainted with all its books and they can explain everyone of its verses because of their constant debates with the Minim (Jewish Christians) on the basis of the Bible.”26)עבודה זרה ד׳ א׳.
The study of Halacha thus declined and only those who survived from the days of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah I understood it fundamentally. The other scholars were mediocre people and exhibited no penetrating logic. They merely gathered the statements and opinions of the previous generation without analyzing their content and without questioning their validity. They did not seek to solve the problems which arose in their day, nor did they ponder the words of their predecessors. They were satisfied to know the simple meaning of the laws which they had received.
The situation was entirely different in Babylonia. There “Sophistry” was engaged in extensively and for this reason the Palestinians often mocked the Babylonians and said that “there is no study of the Torah that can compare with the study of the Torah in Palestine and there is no wisdom like the wisdom of Palestine.”27)בראשית רבה פּרשה ט״ז פּיסקא ז׳.
Although the Jews of Palestine realized that scholarship was on the decline, they were still proud of their heritage and they were convinced that the handful of scholars in Palestine outweighed those of Babylonia. They said: “The small group of scholars in Palestine is of greater significance than a large Sanhedrin in a foreign country.”28)ירושלמי נדרים פרק ו׳ הלכה ט״ז. Palestine scholars did not allow their pupils to emigrate, and when Rabbi Simeon bar Aba asked Rabbi Chanina bar Chama whether he should go to Babylonia and he requested a letter of recommendation, Rabbi Chanina refused to give him such a letter not wishing to see a promising pupil leave the country.29)ירושלמי מועד קטן פרק ג׳ הלבה א׳.
The increasing lack of interest in Halacha and the difficult situation of the country led to the emigration of many scholars despite the opposition of others. This attitude toward Halacha is illustrated in the following story: “Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Chiya bar Aba once came to a city where Rabbi Abahu lectured in Hagada and Rabbi Chiya expounded Halacha. All the inhabitants of the city came to hear Rabbi Abahu but Rabbi Chiya had no audience. Rabbi Chiya was greatly hurt and Rabbi Abahu consoled him by saying that but few people go to buy valuable diamonds and pearls but everybody readily buys cheap toys.”30)סוטה מ׳ א׳.
But Palestine still maintained a position of authority. Legal decisions were sent from Palestine to Babylonia31)בבא בתרא קכ״ז ב׳. touching upon various prohibitions and permissions and also on money matters.32)בבא בתרא קנ״ח ב׳. No one in Babylonia dared to question the validity of these decisions.33)שבת קט״ו א׳, בבא בתרא מ״א ב׳, סנהדרין כ״ט א׳. The decisions of the Palestine scholars in the matter of the determination of the date of the new month and of leap years were especially adhered to even after the scholars of Babylonia had learned to calculate the calendar and could determine these dates without having to wait for word from Palestine that the new moon had been seen.34)ראש השנה כ׳ א׳, ירושלמי ערובין פרק ג׳ הלכה ט׳.
Thirteen generations after Hillel the Old, another Hillel, the son of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah III, was elected Nasi. Of his activities we only know that in the year 359 (C.E.) he finally solved the problem of a calendar by basing it on exact calculations. The new calendar was to be permanent and all holidays were to be determined by it. The book of genealogy lists the following as the last N’siim: R. Hillel II, R. Gamliel V, R. Jehudah N’siah IV, and R. Gamliel VI (or Bathraah—the last). About sixty years passed from the time of Hillel II till R. Gamliel the VI, and this period was a very difficult one since it coincided with the rise of Christianity to power.
The political decline of the Jews began during the reign of Constantine the Great and continued at an eccelerating pace. During the first years of his rule Constantine was quite tolerant to the Jews and he repealed the limitations which were imposed by Diocletian. He was then convinced that every man should have the right to choose his own faith and he also freed the Jewish scholars and all “the servants of the synagogue” from payment of taxes to the government. He recognized the Nasi as the head of the Jewish religious community and teachers of Jewish law were commanded to obey his edicts. But this liberalism of the emperor was not of long duration and soon after he embraced Christianity, he fell under the influence of religious fanatics and he was guided by them in his policies toward the Jews. The emperor’s religious advisers followed the leadership of Bishop Sylvester of Rome, Bishop Paul of Byzantium and Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. It was they who called the attention of the emperor to the belief that the Jews were a cursed and forsaken people condemned to suffering. They insisted that since the emperor had seen the light and had embraced the only true faith, he had to abstain from the sin of protecting the Jews.
Constantine then ruled that Jews could not convert others to their faith, and if they did, both parties were to be punished. A free man who embraced Judaism was to lose all his property and a non-Jewish slave who was circumcised against his will was to be liberated. If a Jew who embraced Christianity was persecuted by other Jews, his tormentors were to be burned at the stake.
All these years of persecution were only broken for a brief moment by the short-lived reign of Julian the Apostate who ruled for 18 months (Nov. 361—June 363). In his struggle against Christianity Julian befriended the Jews. He reduced the burden of their taxes, he did not allow them to be insulted and he called the Nasi “Honored friend and brother.” In a letter to the Nasi Rabbi Hillel, he promised to improve the condition of the Jews and to permit the rebuilding of the temple after his return from the war with the Persians.
After Hillel II the post of Nasi was occupied by his son Gamliel V. The Christian Church-father Hieronymus relates that Emperor Theodosius the Great, who ruled from 378 till 395, took the part of the Nasi against the Roman consul in Palestine, who infringed upon his rights, and had him executed.
R. Gamliel V was succeeded by Rabbi Jehudah N’siah IV. The son of Rabbi Jehudah, Rabbi Gamliel VI, was the last Nasi. In his time the Roman empire was divided into two parts—eastern Rome with the capital at Constantinople (395-1453) and western Rome with its old capital (395-476). Rabbi Gamliel the last is mentioned in the decrees of emperor Honorius (395-424) and of Theodosius II (408-450).
There is also in existence a decree of the year 426 which commands that all the payments which the Jews of Palestine made to the Nasi should henceforth be paid to the imperial treasury. This decree was probably issued at the death of Rabbi Gamliel. Rabbi Gamliel the Sixth died childless and with him the dynasty of Hillel came to an end.
Thus we find that although the Nasi was recognized by the government at all times his significance in the eyes of the Jews diminished toward the end. In religious matters he was no longer the highest authority and his political influence with the Roman officials was negligible. His only important religious functions were the consecration of the new month, the sending of messengers to report the appearance of the new moon, questioning the witnesses and the determination of the holidays and the leap years. Traditionally all of these had to be determined in the presence of the Great court in Palestine in order to be valid.
The Romans frequently seized the messengers that were sent to announce these matters to the scholars in Babylonia which was outside the boundaries of the Roman empire. Whenever caught the messengers were hanged and few people volunteered for such dangerous work. Although the Babylonian scholars could calculate the time of the holidays and the leap years, they were not allowed by tradition to determine these occasions on the basis of their calculations. Thus it once occurred that throughout the month of Adar it was impossible to send messengers to Babylonia to announce that a leap year had been declared. Only late in the summer there were found people who were willing to risk their lives in this mission and the Babylonian Jews observed the month of Ab twice in order that the New Year might coincide with that in Palestine. The messengers were given a letter written in code so that in case they were caught the Romans should not be able to understand its contents. The letter read and was interpreted as follows: “A pair (two witnesses) came from Reketh (Tiberias) and they were caught by the eagle (the Romans) who found in their possession things that are made in Luz (Tzitzith). Through God’s mercy and because of their own merit they escaped in peace (from the hands of the Romans). The descendants of Nachshon (the Nasi who was descended from the tribe of Judah) wanted to decide upon a crescent (declare a leap year), but the Idumean (the Roman) did not permit them. But the men of the assemblies gathered and declared a crescent for the month that Aaron died (the month of Ab).35)סנהדרין י״ב א׳.
The function of determining new months and leap years lent some prestige to the Nasi and he had to be looked up to as the religious leader. But when Rabbi Hillel II established a permanent calendar he did away with the last important role of the Nasi. The office of Nasi thus became an empty title. The government looked upon the Nasi as upon a Jewish official, but the Jews could see no use in maintaining the office. Emperor Theodosius issued a decree that “whoever insults the Nasi should be heavily punished.” From other sources we may conclude that this decree was aimed primarily at the Jews.
We have previously recounted some of the laws promulgated by Constantine against the Jews, especially in relation to their attitude toward converts to Christianity. When he was informed that the Jews were planning a revolt against Rome he issued a decree prohibiting them from approaching the gates of Jerusalem. He also exhibited a certain sense of justice in not repealing a previous order which freed scholars and servants of the synagogue from taxes. In 336 he also ruled that Jews who embraced Christianity must not insult or do harm to their previous co-religionists.
This law was very timely because new converts to Christianity persecuted the Jews, and before the latter could get redress from the governor or the emperor, much harm was accomplished. Such was the case of one Joseph of Tiberias who was considered to be one of the scholars of the court of the Nasi. The Nasi trusted him and sent him to gather the offerings of the people. When Joseph came to Cilicia in Asia Minor, it became obvious from his lectures that he was no longer an adherent of Judaism and the people would pay no attention to him. Joseph then said that he had been thrown into a river and was only saved through a miracle. After he openly embraced Christianity, the priests interceded for him with the emperor and he was appointed in charge of the new converts. Utilizing the confidence of the Emperor, Joseph fabricated numerous false stories about the Nasi and he particularly tried to convince the emperor that the Jews were planning revolt.
The rumor of a planned revolt must have been based on some truth. We find that in 351 an attempt was made to overthrow the Romans. The records of that rebellion, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are very inadequate, but even from these meager sources we can obtain a picture of the events.
The uprising began in the city of Sephoris which was a natural fortress. The Jews overwhelmed the Roman garrison of that city on a dark night and with the weapons which they seized they attacked other cities and succeeded in capturing Tiberias and Lud. Constantine II (350-361) dispatched several legions which subdued the uprising and mercilessly persecuted the rebels. Sephoris was destroyed entirely. Tiberias, Lud and southern Palestine were laid waste. The pursuit of the rebels continued until they were annihilated.
The Roman commander Arsikanus was especially severe with the inhabitants of Sephoris who were forced to hide in the caves about Tiberias. Some of them tried to mask their faces in order not to be recognized, but numerous informers reported them to the authorities.36)ירושלמי יבמות פרק ט״ז הלכה א׳, סוטה פרק ט׳ הלכה ד׳.
Because of the great perils that attended the announcement of the new months and leap years Rabbi Hillel II decided to do away with the traditional procedure and he established a permanent calendar. It was thus no longer necessary to question witnesses concerning the appearance of the new moon nor to send messengers to announce the findings to the Jews of foreign countries. In the matter of holidays, Jews in foreign countries were freed from the decisions of the “Great Court” in Palestine.