Why did Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi decide to codify the Mishnah?
From the time of the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish community in Bavel had remained the largest in the world. Within a century of the destruction of the Second Temple it would become the center of Torah scholarship and the focal point of Jewish society for the next thousand years.
By the second century ce, it had become clear that the Jewish world was changing. Jews had migrated as far as central Europe to the north, Spain to the west and India to the east. The Jewish community in Egypt had been thriving since the days of Yirmiyahu. But these sprinklings of Jews still looked to the centers of the Jewish world for guidance. No place rivaled Eretz Yisrael in quality of Torah scholarship, and no place rivaled Bavel in size and scope of Jewish life.
With remarkable foresight, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi recognized that the structure of the Jewish world was about to change. The Great Diaspora grew broader and broader as Roman oppression drove Jews farther and farther apart. Jewish communities were sprouting up all across the world, and it was only a matter of time until Jews in separate corners of the world would lose contact with one another. once that happened, Torah scholarship would inevitably decline and begin to evolve differently in different communities. Eventually, Jewish practice around the world would become so varied that the cultural cohesion of the nation would disintegrate.
To ensure the survival of Torah, Rabbi Yehudah conceived of a plan for preserving the oral Tradition. Using his authority as Nasi, he began working to provide Jews everywhere with a common "reference point" for the oral Torah that could be disseminated throughout the Jewish world while there was still time to assure its integrity.
The Anshei K'nesses Hagedolah had laid the groundwork for this plan five centuries earlier with their innovation of mishnayos (as described in Section 13.4). Hillel and Shammai had arranged the mishnayos into six sedarim, broad topical "orders": Zera'im (agriculture), Moed (seasons), Nashim (family), Nezikin (damages), Kadshim (sacred articles) and Taharos (ritual purity). Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir had refined the structure and presentation that shaped the form of the final compilation of the Mishnah. The vision that guided Rabbi Yehudah to implement the next bold step earned him such reverence among Jews that they referred to him by the exalted title of Rabbeinu Hakadosh, our Holy Rabbi. By many, he was simply called "Rebbi."
We have already described (in Section 19.1) how the academies of Hillel and Shammai introduced a new era of Torah scholarship. This was the period of the Tanna'im, literally, "teachers," who transformed the transmission of the oral Law. Building on the work of earlier sages from the era of the Zugos, these scholars became the authors of the Mishnah.
Despite the greatness of their scholarship and the way their debates invigorated the study of Torah, these students nevertheless fell short of their masters' expectations. Disputes and disagreements proliferated. Without intervention, these differences would have expanded unchecked, eventually eroding the stability of Torah tradition. The time had come to set the oral Torah into a fixed and permanent form.
Such an undertaking would require an almost unimaginable amount of time, energy and organization. It would require leadership able to gain approval from an entire generation of sages to imbue the finished product with unassailable authority. Given the constant repression and hostility of Rome, it seemed impossible that conditions would ever permit such a project the opportunity for success.
But hashgachah pratis did provide Rebbi with the opportunity. He did the rest.
On the day that Rabbi Akiva died, Rebbi was born. Inspired by the martyrdom of the heroic sage, Rebbi's parents defied the Roman ban and performed bris milah on their son on the eighth day after his birth. Although they took every precaution to maintain secrecy, a Roman guard caught them in the act and immediately arrested them. Scarcely a week after giving birth, Rebbi's mother was forced to make the long voyage to Rome to stand trial before the Emperor.
Arriving under guard at an inn on the outskirts of Rome, Rebbi's mother met a Roman noblewoman who also had an infant boy. The woman was astonished that Rebbi's mother had made such a laborious journey so soon after giving birth. When Rebbi's mother explained her story, the Roman woman suggested that they switch babies. And so, when Rebbi's mother presented an uncircumcised baby boy before the Roman court, the Emperor promptly ordered her set free. Furthermore, believing that the Jews were honoring the laws of Rome, the Emperor ordered the decree against circumcision annulled.
Rebbi's mother returned to the inn with the good news, and the two women remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Rebbi grew up to be the Nasi of the Sanhedrin, and the other baby boy grew up to be Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the renowned "philosopher king" and Emperor of Rome. The warm friendship of the mothers continued between the sons.
Rebbi's friendship with Antoninus brought an unusual era of peace to Israel. Even after Antoninus was succeeded in 180 ce by his son Commodus, a ruler of far less wisdom and benevolence than his father, the good fortunes of Eretz Yisrael endured. Perhaps Commodus recognized that he stood to benefit from maintaining good relations with the Jews, given the strategic importance of Eretz Yisrael in Rome's wars against Parthia. In this rare period of tranquility, Rebbi could devote his full attention to his unprecedented work: the Mishnah.
Rebbi reviewed centuries of Talmudic records, selecting the most authoritative mishnayos and including important minority opinions to preserve the tradition of debate and an appreciation for the underlying differences of interpretation. The remaining mishnayos were later arranged into the Tosefta, as well as the b'raisos and the halachic midrashim (the Mechilta, the Sifra and the Sifri), all of which retain Mishnaic authority except where contradicted by a ruling from the Mishnah. Although there is some uncertainty, it seems that the Mishnah remained oral throughout Rebbi's time and for some period after. What is clear is that over four thousand mishnayos were arranged in a fixed and ordered form, creating for the first time ever a static framework for the oral Torah.
Remarkably, Rebbi appears to have violated Torah law in his zeal to preserve Torah tradition. As we have already explained (in Section 13.4), the Torah itself prohibits the dissemination of the oral Law in written or fixed form. Yet by virtually unanimous consent, the Sages accepted Rebbi's application of the verse, "It is time to act for the sake of Hashem; they have overturned Your Torah," as the basis for their approbation (Tehillim 119:126). In order to save the Torah, it may sometimes become necessary to bend the letter of the law for the sake of protecting a larger principle. This kind of hora'as sha'ah, emergency decree, may be applied only in exceptional circumstances, and only by the authority of a recognized prophet or the overwhelming majority of Torah sages.
Just as the original invention of mishnayos had preserved the style and spirit of Torah Sheb'al Peh, so too did the Mishnah itself. Even in Rebbi's time, the Mishnah was not intended to be learned on its own, but to provide a universal reference point in the transmission of the oral Law. Its inherent design necessitated the interaction of teacher and student learning face to face, discussing and debating, engaging in personal contact. Every phrase, every word, every nuance, even every omission, alludes to a wealth of information presented with an elegance seemingly impossible without divine guidance. Indeed, about Rebbi it was said, "From the days of Moshe until Rebbi, we have not found Torah and majesty combined in one person."
In 3948 (188 ce), exactly 1,500 years after Moshe Rabbeinu brought the Torah down from Sinai, Rabbeinu Hakadosh transformed its method of transmission, ensuring that the living Torah would remain vibrant and alive.
But Rebbi's generation did even more. By endorsing the codification of the oral Law, the Sages transferred their own authority as custodians of the oral Torah to the Mishnah itself. From that generation on, no one, neither sage nor scholar nor the Sanhedrin itself, was permitted to argue with any decision rendered in the Mishnah. The era of the Tanna'im — the teachers — had ended; the era of the Amora'im — the interpreters — had begun.