The noun nasi (including its grammatical variations), occurs 132 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, and in English is usually translated "prince," occasionally "captain." The first use is for the twelve "princes" who will descend from Ishmael, in Genesis 17, and the second use, in Genesis 23, is the Hethites recognising Abraham as "a godly prince" (nesi elohim נְשִׂיא אֱלֹהִים).
In the book of Leviticus, in the rites of sacrifices for leaders who err, there is the special offering made by a "nasi". The Talmudic book of Horayot actually defines this to mean the king.
In the book of Numbers, the leaders of each tribe is referred to as a nasi, and each one brings a gift to the Tabernacle, 12 consecutive days, with each one being listed individually by name even though they all brought the same set of gifts.
During the Second Commonwealth (c. 530 BCE - 70 CE), the nasi was the highest-ranking member and president of the Sanhedrin, or Assembly, including when it sat as a criminal court. The position was created in c. 191 BCE when the Sanhedrin lost confidence in the ability of the High Priest to serve as its head. The Romans recognized the nasi as Patriarch of the Jews, and required all Jews to pay him a tax for the upkeep of that office, which ranked highly in the Roman official hierarchy.
This position as patriarch or head of court was reestablished several years after the Bar-Kokhba revolt. This made the nasi a power which both Jews and Romans respected. The Jewish community in Babylonia also recognized him. The nasi had controlled leadership and served as a political representative to the authorities while the religious leadership was led by Torah scholars. The nasi had the power to appoint and suspend communal leaders inside and outside of Israel. The Romans respected the nasi and gave extra land and let control of own self-supported taxes. Under Jewish law, the intercalary thirteenth month in the Hebrew calendar, Adar Bet, was announced by the nasi.
Gamaliel VI was the last nasi. He died in 425 CE, after which Emperor Theodosius II suppressed the office of the patriarchate. The patriarchal tax was diverted to the Roman treasury from 426.
The term nasi was later applied to those who held high offices in the Jewish community, and Jews who held prominence in the courts of non-Jewish rulers. Certain great figures from Jewish history have used the title, including Judah the Prince (Judah haNasi), the chief redactor of the Mishnah.
The nasi were also prevalent during the 8th-century Frankish kingdom. They were a highly privileged group in Carolingian France. The Jews have collaborated with King Pepin to end Muslim rule over their city in 759. The Jews accepted surrender and Pepin was able to hold off the Saracens in Spain. Pepin rewarded the Jews with land and privileges such as the right to judicial and religious autonomy under rule of their own leadership. The heirs of the King and nasi held a close relationship until the tenth century.
According to ethnologist Erich Brauer, among the Jews of Yemen, the title of nasi was conferred upon a man belonging to the community's most noble and richest family. There was no direct election for this post. In general, the nasi was also a scholar, well-versed in Torah, but this was not a condition for his office. Among his duties, he was a representative of the community in all its affairs before the government. He was also entrusted with the duty of collecting the annual poll-tax (ğizya), as also to settle disputes arising between members of the community.
The term Nasi was used by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to refer to the spiritual leaders of the Chabad movement. In particular, he used the term "Nesi Hador" (נשיא הדור; "the prince of the generation") or "Nesi doreinu" (נשיא דורנו; "the prince of our generation") to refer to his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. This phrase was later adopted by the Rebbe's own followers to refer to Rabbi M. M. Schneersohn himself.
In Modern Hebrew, nasi means "president", and is not used in its classical sense. The word Nasi is used, in Israel, as the title of the Head of State and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The word for prince is now nasich.
During the Mishnaic period, the office of nasi was filled as follows:
|Nasi||Term in office|
|Yose ben Yoezer||170 BCE||140 BCE|
|Joshua ben Perachyah||140 BCE||100 BCE|
|Simeon ben Shetach||100 BCE||60 BCE|
|Sh'maya||65 BCE||c. 31 BCE|
|Hillel the Elder||c. 31 BCE||9 CE|
|Shimon ben Hillel||9||9|
|Rabban Gamaliel the Elder||30||50|
|Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel||50||70|
|Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai||70||80|
|Rabban Gamaliel II of Yavne||80||118|
|Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah||118||120|
|Interregnum (Bar Kokhba revolt)||120||142|
|Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II||142||165|
|Rabbi Judah I haNasi||165||220|
|Judah II Nesi'ah||230||270|
|Judah III Nesi'ah||290||320|
|Gamaliel VI||c. 400||425|
|Interregnum (Exile)||Since 455|
|President||Term in office|
The title rabban was restricted in usage to the descendants of Hillel the Elder, the sole exception being Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai (c. 30 BCE - 90 CE), the leader in Jerusalem during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and who safeguarded the future of the Jewish people after the Great Revolt by pleading with the Emperor Vespasian.
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who was nasi between 118 and 120 CE, was not given the title rabban, perhaps because he only occupied the office of nasi for a short while, after which it reverted to the descendants of Hillel.
Prior to Rabban Gamliel the Elder, no titles were used before anyone's name, in line with the Talmudic adage "Gadol miRabban shmo" ("Greater than the title rabban is a person's own name"). For this reason, Hillel the Elder has no title before his name: his name is in itself a title. Similarly, Moses and Abraham have no titles before their names, but an epithet is sometimes used to differentiate between biblical and historic personages, hence Avraham Avinu (Abraham 'Our Father') and Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses 'Our Teacher').
Jeremy Cohen, "The Nasi of Narbonne: A Problem in Medieval Historiography," AJS Review, 2 (1977): pp. 45-76,
Jones, Lindsay, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Gale, 2005. s.v. "Yehudah Ha-Nasi."
Pearl, Chaim, ed. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life and Thought. New York: Digitalia, Inc., 1996. s.v. "Judah the Prince (Judah Ha-Nasi)."
Pearl, Chaim, ed. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life and Thought. New York: Digitalia, Inc., 1996. s.v. "Prince (Heb. Nasi)."