Every generation needs a leader. The Talmud notes that “a righteous man does not depart from the world until [another] righteous man like himself is created, as it is said (Ecclesiastes 1:5), the sun rises and the sun goes down’” (Talmud Kiddushin 72b). As if this statement needed confirmation, Rabbi Ashi, who was born in Babylonia in 352 C.E., was born on the same day that the great sage Rava passed away.

Babylonia, at that time, was a center of Jewish life and Rabbi Ashi had the opportunity to sit and study with many of the great sages of the generation. He studied in the academies of Pumbedita and Nehardea, then in the academy of the leading sage Rabbi Pappa, and in many small academies as well.

Rabbi Ashi moved to the town of Matha-Mehasia, which is a suburb of the city of Sura. His presence and actions revived Jewish learning in the town. Finding the synagogue in disrepair, he forced the townsfolk to renovate it. “Rabbi Ashi, who, observing cracks in the synagogue of Matha-Mehasia, had it pulled down. He then took his bed there and did not remove it until the very gutters [of the new building] had been completed”(Talmud Baba Batra 3B).

Rabbi Ashi is frequently quoted throughout the Talmud, which might be less surprising in that he and the sage Ravina were the ones who compiled and edited the rabbinic discussions that form the Talmud.  He was so dedicated to his task that he bargained for more life in order to complete it: Rabbi Ashi caught sight of him [the angel of death] in the market place. He [Ashi] said: “Grant me thirty days’ respite and I shall revise my studies, inasmuch as you say [in Heaven above]: ‘Happy is he that comes here [to Heaven] bringing his learning ready with him.’” He [the angel of death] came [again] on the thirtieth day; Said [Ashi], “What is the urgency?” He replied: “Rabbi Huna ben Nathan is close on your heels [and is ready to succeed you]” (Talmud Moed Katan 28a).

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