Codification of the Mishna
The remarkable man who emerged to lead the project of reducing the Oral Law to written form was Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi (Yehuda the Prince), the son of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel II. Ha-Nasi was born into a wealthy family, and he became the leader of the Jewish community in the Galilee and southern Judea in the second half of the second century.
Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi was addressed as rabbi (wise man) because he taught the Torah and was designated Ha-Nasi (“the Prince”) because he was elevated and made the prince, an honorific term in Israel. Many Jews also called him “our Master the Saint,” because it was said that his body was as pure as his soul.
Ha-Nasi was both a great scholar and a strong, effective leader. He used his wealth to get things done on behalf of his constituents. Not only was he able to obtain a consensus from the diverse segments of the Jewish community, but he worked well with the Roman authorities, maintaining friendly relations with the three Roman emperors who followed Hadrian—one of them, Marcus Aurelius, went so far as to consider Ha-Nasi his confidant.
It is said that Ha-Nasi was dedicated to the study of the Torah and that he spent a substantial portion of his personal wealth to support scholars, whom he exempted from paying taxes. During times of food scarcity, he saw to it that the scholars were fed although he did not show a similar compassion for the uneducated. It is therefore not surprising that it was Ha-Nasi who undertook the mammoth project of codifying the Oral Law into what is known as the Mishna (from the Hebrew for “repetition”).
Completion of the Mishna
Redacting the Oral Law was a monumental undertaking. The first step involved obtaining all written interpretations, rulings, and illustrations. Even more challenging was the task of interviewing as many rabbis as possible and asking them to recall what they knew about the legal traditions. Then, Ha-Nasi combined these recollections with the written documents he had gathered, edited everything, and by 200 C.E. he and his school produced the Mishna.
No sooner had the Mishna been completed than the rabbis realized more had to be done. Over the next several centuries, questions regarding the Torah as well as the Oral Law continued to be raised and explanations and clarifications provided. The two main centers for these activities were Judea and Babylon. As a result, in addition to the Mishna, we also have the commentaries of the Gemara, also known as the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.