AFTER THE DEATH of king Sapor the Second, the condition of the Jews in Babylonia was greatly improved. The successors of this king were just to all the peoples of their realm and they treated the Jews with particular kindness. They held Jewish learning in great esteem and if only the Jews paid their royal taxes in time, they were allowed to maintain their academies and they were not disturbed in their religion.
Then there arose a man who collected all the lore of the Mishnah and the interpretations made by the scholars of Babylonia and Palestine up to that time. The name of this man was Rav Ashi and the people of his time gave him the title “Rabbana”, our Rabbi, meaning that he was not only a teacher like other teachers with pupils, but he was really the teacher of the whole generation. Others would say that he was a “Sinai and uprooter of hills” filled with Torah like the mountain of Sinai and at the same time a subtle thinker who tore up the hills with his dialectic.
Rav Ashi was born about 352 and died in the year 427 C. E. The year of his birth is not certain for it is possible that he was born earlier and lived longer than is generally supposed. When he was still very young — some say that he was hardly 14 years of age — he had already distinguished himself by his keen mind, deep insight and personal virtues. He was then chosen head of the academy at Matha Mechasia near Sura** Rav Sherira Gaon, who lived in Babylonia all his life and who wrote the history of its academies, says that Sura is the same as Matha Mechasia, although other historians cite proof that they were two separate places. They remark however that the two cities were close together. Today of course it is hard to decide this question. Neither of the cities exists any longer and their sites are not even known. It is notable however that wherever the name of Rav Ashi is mentioned in the Talmud, it is always in connection with the name of Matha Mechasia instead of Sura. which had been waste and deserted for a long time.
The magnetic personality of Rav Ashi raised the prestige of his academy. All the scholars of his time were respectful when they heard his words, in a way that had not been paralleled since the death of Rava. People would say that “since the time of Rabbi Judah Hanasi and Rav Ashi there was no one who united wealth with Torah.”1)גטין נ״ט א׳, סנהדרין ל״ו א׳. Raised in wealth, Rav Ashi continued wealthy all his life and owned many fields and forests. He would allow his wool to be sold for the uses of idol-worship without regard for the prohibition which forbade this.2)נדרים ס״ב ב׳. But this cannot be considered as evidence of his tolerance of the customs of the pagans, for his expressed opinions were that the pagans in his neighborhood were a worthless crew. Thus he could never understand the fact that the pagans in Matha Mechasia did not recognize the worth of the Torah and become converts to Judaism even though they had the opportunity of seeing the splendor with which it endows its scholars twice a year.3)ברכות י״ז ב׳.
No details of Rav Ashi’s youth are known, nor is the name of his father known. It seems that he studied under the most prominent students of Abayei and Rava. It is likely also that he was born in Matha Mechasia and tried to aid his city in everything he could. In earlier times there was a synagogue there which lay in ruins in his day because of its age. Rav Ashi had it rebuilt and stood there each day himself to see that the workmen did not loaf in their work. He had a bed set up for him there until the building was finished.4)בבא בתרא ג׳ ב׳. Then he built a splendid school so that there would be room for his students as well as for the auditors who came to hear his lectures in the “lecture months” of Adar and Elul of every year. He never allowed the people of Matha Mechasia to build their roofs higher than the roof of the synagogue or the academy, because he believed in an old saying of Rav (Aba Arecha) that a city whose dwelling houses are taller than its synagogues or its academies was doomed to destruction. He said therefore that this rule of his saved Matha Mechasia from destruction.5)שבת י״א א׳.
According to many historians Rav Ashi occupied the post of head of the academy in Matha Mechasia all of sixty years. At the same time the academy at Nehardea regained some of its former splendor, under its head Amemar. The same thing took place at Pumbeditha. There were eight heads there during Rav Ashi’s days. But not a single one of the “Amoraim” reached the heights of Rav Ashi who was listened to by everyone and supported in his efforts to regulate religious life. Even the two Exilarchs of that time (Rav Cahana and Mar Zutra) who were recognized scholars and also rulers of the country always looked up to Rav Ashi and followed his words.
There was a custom in those days that the Exilarch used to come for a visit once a year to those cities where the best academies of Babylonia were in order to receive the greetings of the Jewish communities. Even though there were several academies of importance in Rav Ashi’s time, the Exilarch came only to Sura which was near Matha Mechasia. Usually this would take place on the Saturday during which the chapter “Lech-l’cha” was read, in the beginning of the month Marcheshvan. This was the festival Sabbath in honor of the Exilarch who would then make a feast in honor of the head of the academy. In Sura or in Matha Mechasia also the “assemblies” would convene at which the Exilarch made his reports concerning the political situation. Although the Exilarch lived in a different city, he used to call these assemblies to Sura during Rav Ashi’s time. The city Matha Mechasia, therefore, became the capital of Jewish life in Babylonia to which almost all the Jews of the land would assemble during the “lecture months” (Elul and Adar) when the head of the academy would lecture about the laws of the holidays; as well as upon a holiday sabbath when the people came to greet the Exilarch, or when they gathered for a general assembly.
Since Rav Ashi united all the virtues, surpassing all the men of his times, he also had the ability to undertake the great task of compiling and arranging all the legal decisions and religious interpretations of the Mishnahs, as well as the Boraithoth and Tosefthoth, in one great work out of which the Babylonian Talmud later developed. One reason for the collection of this work was probably the desire to facilitate the preservation of all this religious and legal material which kept on growing from generation to generation in order to perpetuate its memory among men and to maintain it alive in their hearts. After many of those interpretations and decisions had been forgotten, as Rav Ashi complained, and the memory of people seemed to be growing weaker, he said that “if the hearts of former generations were as wide as the gates of a palace, our hearts are as narrow and insignificant as the eye of a needle.”6)ערובין נ״ט א׳. Since the time of Rav (Aba Arecha) the material of scholarship had increased so much that it surpassed the capacity of human memory. Rav Ashi collected all this material and had it written down so that it would not be forgotten.
It seems that Rav Ashi occupied the seat of the head of the academy in Matha Mechasia for sixty years, and he spent all this time in collecting all the interpretations of the Talmud which had accumulated in the various academies. He was very careful and wrote things into his collection only after long scrutiny. In the “lecture months” of each year when all of Rav Ashi’s students would assemble from all corners of Babylonia, he would assign a given topic for study or a section of that topic to be discussed by the scholars and the students. In this way the whole of the Mishnah and the Talmud were divided into sixty parts (מסכתות). Thus Rav Ashi completed the division of the Mishnah, the great work of Rabbi Judah Hanasi 200 years back. This was a very difficult task, not to be compared with the editing of the Mishnah, which contained short, simple statements of the laws of the Torah, as they were interpreted at that time. Incidental matters and details were collected separately in the “Boraithoth”. The “Gemara”, however, contains everything and excludes nothing which has the slightest connection with the topic under discussion.
The Babylonian Talmud became the cornerstone of the further development of the Jewish people. Rav Ashi did not finish this immense work. He was the one who felt that the time had at last come to assemble all the material. Each academy had had its own system of interpreting the Mishnah, which was taught at that academy. The urge to find new interpretations of the commandments was still alive. Rav Ashi could not restrain himself merely to collecting and arranging the matter, because he was called upon to decide all sorts of differences of opinion at the same time and to resolve doubts and supply explanations where they were needed.
For almost the whole of the time that Rav Ashi was head of the academy in Matha Mechasia the Persian king Yezdigerd the Second ruled the land. His religious conduct was displeasing to the Persian priests and they called him “the sinner.” He was criticized particularly for his behavior towards the Jews, whom he protected from harm so long as he ruled. The Babylonian academies, three in number, flourished under his protection. Jews were invited to all the court celebrations, and the heads of the three academies, Rav Ashi of Matha Mechasia and Sura, Mar Zutra of Pumbeditha, and Amemar of Nehardea, had to represent the Jews among the prominent leaders of the realm who were present at all the feasts in the king’s house.
King Yezidgerd lavished special honors upon the Exilarch of the time, Rav Huna bar Nathan. It is related that the Exilarch once appeared before the king wearing a girdle under his sleeves after the fashion of ordinary people. The king lowered his girdle to his loins and said: “You Jews are the priests of God Almighty and should wear your girdles after the fashion of our priests.”7)זבחים י״ט א׳.
In those days finally arrived the historic day of reckoning for the Roman Empire. On all sides Rome was pounded by different enemies. Internal conflict and outer war united for the same purpose, and any clear-eyed person could see that the days of the Roman Empire were numbered. There were many Jews who saw these political complications as signs of the advent of the Messiah. At the same time the “Book of the Jubilees” from the Apocrypha became known among the people in which all the historic occurrences of the world were reckoned according to the count of the jubilee years. It was found that this book stated that the world had only eighty-five jubilee-years for the count of its existence. They calculated that this meant that the year 439 C. E. would mark the end of the world, and since this year was rapidly approaching, they expected the near arrival of Messiah.
All these fantasies inflamed the imaginations of the people and they fell easy prey to all sorts of cranks. Such a movement was started in Crete in Rav Ashi’s days and the Jews there were deluded into following a crank. He was a semi-lunatic who called himself Moses. He promised his following to perform miracles like those Moses performed in leading the Jews out of Egypt. He would lead them through the Mediterranean Sea to Palestine and the sea would dry up under their feet. The Jews of Crete believed in him and abandoned their work and their property and followed their Messiah who would split open the sea for them like Moses of old. At last the day came when the new Moses had promised the great miracle to occur. Moses went ahead and all the Jews of Crete with their wives and children followed him to the shore of the sea. There the new Messiah stood at the crest of a cliff and ordered his followers to jump into the sea and it would split immediately. Following the precedent of Moses, for whom Nachshon ben Aminadav sprang into the sea and it opened up when he was standing neck-deep, all the followers of the new Moses sprang into the sea. All but a small remnant were drowned. Sailors who were out on the sea in small boats saved those who survived.
Meanwhile the Roman Empire came nearer to its doom with every passing day. The Romans were fanatical Christians at the time, full of hatred for the Jews. One after another the academies in Palestine were shut down, and the love of learning was almost extinct there. At the same time the power of the Jewish “Nasi”, whose position had been the most brialliant light in the darkness of the Exile previously, was destroyed. After the “Nasi” Rabbi Hillel the Second, who introduced the regular calendar, there were three N’siim: Rabban Gamaliel V, Rabbi Jehudah N’siah III, and Rabban Gamaliel VI. But the position of Nasi was without practical importance. The government no longer supported the Nasi. It merely demanded that he squeeze the last penny out of the Jews for taxes, and in order to cover the expenses of his establishment, the Nasi had to send agents to all the communities of the Jewish Diaspora to collect charity.
Theodosius the Great was Emperor then and he always protected the Jews, even though the Christian priests always agitated against them and threatened that Theodosius’ soul would burn in Hell because he did not assist in the persecution of the Jews. Theodosius paid no attention but he issued a decree which permitted the Nasi to continue to excommunicate anyone whom he considered harmful to the Jewish community. He forbade anyone to interfere with the inner government of the Jews and in their internal quarrels. The justice of Emperor Theodosius for the Jews was best proven, when the Nasi Rabban Gamliel V complained that the Roman Consul Hesichius had robbed him of many valuable documents. Calling the Consul for a hearing, the Emperor found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Theodosius was hard put to it to soothe the fanatical hatred of the priests for the Jews. They were continually trying to disturb the Jews at their worship. Whenever the Jews would erect a synagogue, they were subjected to all sort of trouble, their synagogues were pilfered, sacred objects were stolen and fire would be set to the building.
The outstanding figures in this destructive mania were John Chrysostom of Antioch and Ambrosius of Milan in Italy. Chrysostom was enraged when he saw that many of the Christians were sympathetic to the Jews. Every Saturday and holiday certain Christians would come to the Jewish synagogue for religous inspiration. Especially aristocratic ladies were known to visit the synagogue regularly, fast on Yom Kippur and sit in a Succah. When Christians fell out between themselves they would often choose to go before a Jewish court because they knew that they would get justice there. This was something Chrysostom could not bear and he fought against with all his strength.
Meanwhile other occurrences enraged Chrysostom still further. In Rome the Christians burned a Jewish synagogue. The Emperor ordered the Senate to rebuild the synagogue at the expense of the Roman Christians. On another occasion the bishop of Kalinikat in northern Mesopotamia ordered his priests to tear down the Jewish synagogue. Theodosius not only ordered him to rebuild the synagogue at his own expense, but made him punish all those who took part in the destruction. On hearing this Chrysostom was fearfully angry and threatened the Emperor with the fiercest pains of Hell until he was forced to rescind the bishop’s punishment.
In order to put a stop to all these attacks upon the Jews, Theodosius issued a proclamation which declared that the Jewish religion had always been allowed in Rome and the Jews were always recognized as citizens. Then the Emperor ordered all his consuls to punish anyone who disturbed the peace of the Jewish religion or who destroyed their synagogues.
Wishing to secure the safety of his successors’ empire, Emperor Theodosius divided it into two parts: the western part of the Empire with the city of Rome as the capital divided from the eastern part with its capital in Byzantium. This arrangement did not secure the peace of the Empire, however, and the Jews had to suffer in both parts of the Empire. They knew, however, how to soften the wrath of their rulers by the use of coin. In this way it came about that the Emperor issued a proclamation that protected the Jews from attack, just as the Jewish Nasi was protected from insult. The Emperor’s proclamation ordered the rulers not to allow the mobs to attack Jewish synagogues. He also renewed the rule that the Jewish N’siim were exempt from taxes in each country just like Christian priests. In addition he ordered that disputes between Jews be settled in the Jewish court, and the Roman officials were to support the Jewish courts in the execution of their decisions.
In the time of Emperor Theodosius II (in Byzantium) Jewish gifts could accomplish very little. The Emperor prohibited the building of new synagogues and he denied the Jewish courts the right to judge disputes between Jews and Christians. In this Emperor’s time the office of Nasi was abolished. The last Nasi of the Jews was Rabban Gamaliel VI, the son of Rabbi Judah N’siah III. He was more honored in the royal court than all his predecessors. In all this esteem however, there was not the least hint of power. It is related that he received some titles for his great learning in medicine, especially for having found a remedy for a sick spleen.
He was in error, however, if he thought that he could accomplish anything for the good of his people. Thinking that he was not required to obey the letter of all the imperial commands, he built new synagogues and judged disputes between Jews and Christians. The result was that Theodosius revoked all his titles and took away all his importance as Nasi. This happened in 415 C. E. The Emperor left him only the title of Nasi without any power. Without leaving any children the line of N’siim in Palestine was broken after five centuries and fifteen generations, when he died in 426 C. E.
And these are the names of all the “N’siim”: Rabban Gamaliel the Old, Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, Rabban Gamaliel of Javneh, Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel II, Rabbi Judah Hanasi, Rabban Simeon ben Rabbi Judah Hanasi. Rabbi Judah N’siah, Rabbi Gamaliel ben Rabbi Judah N’siah, Rabbi Judah N’siah II, Rabbi Gamaliel V, Rabbi Judah N’siah III, Rabbi Hillel (II), Rabbi Gamaliel ben Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Judah N’siah IV, and Rabbi Gamaliel VI.