Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rabban Gamliel II

The old joke “2 Jews -- 3 opinions” is true now, and it was true in the era of the sages as well. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), however, Rabban Gamliel II (aka Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh), the first Post-Temple Nasi (President) of the Sanhedrin, understood that such discord hurt the Jewish people. With this in mind, he ruled his fellow sages with a strong hand.

Rabban Gamliel’s great-great-grandfather was the famed sage Hillel, his grandfather was the first Rabban Gamliel and his father was Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, a leader in the uprising against Rome. Interestingly, Rabban Gamliel II was the first head of the Sanhedrin to be recognized by Rome. In fact, around the turn of the first century C.E., Rabban Gamliel II and several other scholars journeyed to Rome, where Rabban Gamliel II had several interesting interactions with pagans and with the first followers of Christianity (as recorded in Talmud Shabbat 116a/b).

One of Rabban Gamliel II’s most significant achievements was the establishment of the text of the Amidah, the central prayer recited three times a day. As the head of the Sanhedrin, he commissioned the sages to prepare a text for the specific 18 desired blessings. However, he later asked Rabbi Shmuel HaKatan to write an additional 19th blessing regarding informers and heretics.

Rabban Gamliel II was also praised for his humility. In fact, his death (the anniversary of which is today) led to a re-definition of funeral services. It had become customary to have lavish funerals, but Rabban Gamliel II, seeing the burden this placed on the overall community, requested and received a simple burial, thus reversing the trend and setting a precedent that is still followed today.

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