The Gemara tells that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s colleagues prayed and declared a fast, announcing that it was forbidden for anyone to say that Rebbe had died. The Rivan explains that they wanted to continue their prayers on his behalf and they recognized that a prayer for resurrection of the dead was inappropriate. Therefore they did not permit the announcement of his passing.
There was a woman who worked in Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s house who was known for her piety. She went to the roof and prayed as follows: “The upper regions want Rebbe and the lower regions want Rebbe. It should be Your will that the lower regions should prevail over the upper regions.” Upon seeing the pain and suffering that Rebbe was experiencing from his illness, the servant changed her prayer to advocate on behalf of the upper regions. When she realized that the Sages would not stop their prayers, she took a jug, an earthen vessel, and threw it down from the roof. The crashing sound that it made distracted the Sages for a brief moment and Rebbe passed away.
The simple understanding of the servant’s prayer is that the angels in heaven and the scholars on earth were in a contest over Rebbe’s soul. The Maharsha offers a different perspective and argues at length that the upper and lower regions represent the soul and the body respectively. Thus, the struggle was between the freedom that the soul sought from the base connection to the body and the perfection that exists when the body and soul are together as one. Breaking the earthen vessel, according to the Maharsha, represents the destruction of the physical body (see Kohelet 12:6).