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Hillel and Shammai | Rabbi Akiba | Judah Ha-Nasi | Rashi | Maimonides
These two great scholars who born a generation or two before the beginning of the Common Era are usually discussed together and contrasted with each other, because they were contemporaries and the leaders of two opposing schools of thought (known as "houses"). The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). In almost every one of these disputes, Hillel's view prevailed.
Rabbi Hillel was born to a wealthy family in Babylonia, but came to Jerusalem without the financial support of his family and supported himself as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity. One of his most famous sayings, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah), is "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" The Hillel organization, a network of Jewish college student organizations, is named for him.
Rabbi Shammai was an engineer, known for the strictness of his views. He was reputed to be dour, quick-tempered, and impatient. For example, the Talmud tells that a Gentile came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a builder's measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the Gentile by telling him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it!"
A poor, semi-literate shepherd, Akiba became one of Judaism's greatest scholars. He developed the exegetical method of the Mishnah, linking each traditional practice to a basis in the biblical text, and systematized the material that later became the Mishnah.
Rabbi Akiba was active in the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome, 132-135 C.E.. He believed that Bar Kokhba was the Mashiach, though some other rabbis openly ridiculed him for that belief (the Talmud records another rabbi as saying, "Akiba, grass will grow in your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come".) When the Bar Kokhba rebellion failed, Rabbi Akiba was taken by the Roman authorities and tortured to death.
The Patriarch of the Jewish community, Judah Ha-Nasi was well-educated in Greek thought as well as Jewish thought. He organized and compiled the Mishnah, building upon Rabbi Akiba's work.
A grape grower living in Northern France, Rashi wrote the definitive commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud and the Bible. Rashi pulled together materials from a wide variety of sources, wrote them down in the order of the Talmud and the Bible for easy reference, and wrote them in such clear, concise, and plain language that it can be appreciated by beginners and experts alike. Almost every edition of the Talmud printed since the invention of the printing press has included the text of Rashi's commentary side-by-side with the Talmudic text. Many traditional Jews will not study the Bible without a Rashi commentary beside it.
A physician born in Moorish Cordoba, Maimonides lived in a variety of places throughout the Moorish lands of Spain, the Middle East, and North Africa, often fleeing persecution. He was a leader of the Jewish community in Cairo. He was conversant in Arab and Greek sciences and philosopy, particularly of the school of Aristotle.
Maimonides was the author of the Mishneh Torah code, the first and (so far) only complete code of Jewish law, fully covering every conceivable topic of Jewish law in subject matter order and providing a simple statement of the prevailing view in plain language for anyone who knows Hebrew. In his own time, he was condemned because he claimed that Mishneh Torah was a substitute for studying the Talmud; but today, almost everyone who learns Talmud learns it with the help of Mishneh Torah.
Maimonides is also responsible for several important theological works. He developed the 13 Principles of Faith, the most widely accepted list of Jewish beliefs. He also wrote the Guide for the Perplexed, for those who have reached perfection in knowledge and observance of the Torah on the one hand, and have learned the sciences and philosophy on the other, and find it difficult to resolve the seeming conflicts between them (not really for the masses, Jewish or Gentile!).
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