A number of rulings of the tanna, Rabbi Meir, are quoted by the Gemara, which leads Rabbi Aha bar Hanina to report that it was well-known that Rabbi Meir’s intellect towered over the rest of his generation.
Why then didn’t the Sages establish the halakha in accordance with his opinion? It is because his colleagues were unable to ascertain the profundity of his opinion. He was so brilliant that he could present a cogent argument for any position, even if it was not consistent with the prevalent halakha…The Sages were unable to distinguish between the statements that were halakha and those that were not.
Rabbi Meir lived in the generation prior to the codification of the Mishna. We know little about his family, but tradition has it that he was from a family of converts whose origins were with the family of the Roman Caesar. As a young man he was recognized as a prodigy, and he studied with the two leading sages of his generation, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. He was also the only student who continued to study with Elisha ben Avuyah after he left the path of tradition.
It appears that his life’s work was an oral compilation of the laws that were to become the foundation of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s Mishna. This is the source for the oft-repeated maxim in the Gemara “Stam Mishna – Rabbi Meir” – that a statement which appears in the Mishna without attribution is certainly from the teachings of Rabbi Meir. His participation in an attempt to have Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel replaced as the head of the Sanhedrin led to his exclusion from the study hall for a time. His teachings were not quoted in his name; rather they were cited as Aherim Omrim – “others say.”
His personal life was replete with tragedy. His two sons both died during his lifetime, and his wife, Beruria, also died under painful circumstances. He was forced into exile, where, prior to his death, he insisted not only that his body be returned to the Land of Israel for permanent burial, but also that he be buried temporarily near the sea whose waters reached to Israel.
The fame that was Rabbi Meir’s during his lifetime stemmed not only from his impressive intellect, but also from his outstanding character, his pursuit of peace and his modesty. He was also known as something of a miracle worker, and for generations the charity boxes with his name, “Rabbi Meir ba’al ha-Nes” (“the miracle worker”), were a major source of material sustenance for the early settlers of the Land of Israel in modern times.