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According to Jewish tradition the Men of the Great Assembly (Hebrew: כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה) or Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה, "The Men of the Great Assembly"), also known as the Great Synagogue, or Synod, was an assembly of 120 scribes, sages, and prophets, in the period from the end of the Biblical prophets since the early Second Temple period (which started around 516 BCE) to the early Hellenistic period (which began with Alexander's conquests of 333-332 BCE). It comprised such prophets as Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (who is Ezra), Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, Nehemiah b. Hachaliah, Mordechai and Zerubabel b. Shaaltiel, among others. Sometimes, the Great Assembly is simply designated as "Ezra and his court of law" (Beit Din).
Among the developments in Judaism that are attributed to them are the fixing of the Jewish Biblical canon, including the Book of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, and the Twelve Minor Prophets; the introduction of the Feast of Purim; and the institution of the prayer known as the "Shemoneh 'Esreh" as well as the synagogal prayers, rituals, and benedictions.
Some modern scholars question whether the Great Assembly ever existed as an institution as such. Louis Jacobs, while not endorsing this view, remarks that "references in the [later] Rabbinic literature to the Men of the Great Synagogue can be taken to mean that ideas, rules, and prayers, seen to be pre-Rabbinic but post-biblical, were often fathered upon them".
The role of prophetsEdit
- The Prophets transmitted the Torah to the men of the Great Assembly… Simon the Just was one of those who survived the Great Assembly, and Antigonus of Sokho received the Torah from him.
The first part of this statement is paraphrased as follows in Avot of Rabbi Natan:
- Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi received from the Prophets; and the men of the Great Assembly received from Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
In this paraphrase, the three post-exilic prophets are separated from the other prophets, for it was the task of the former to transmit the Law to the members of the Great Assembly. It must even be assumed that these three prophets were themselves included in those members, for it is evident from the statements referring to the institution of the prayers and benedictions that the Great Assembly included prophets.
However if the three post-exile prophets who were separated from the pre-exile prophets by many generations received from them through writings, then naturally this would assume that the later prophets of the Great Assembly who received from the previous prophets could have also done so through inheriting their writings, and this suggests that the transmission of the Law did not require their attendance at the Great Assembly.
In reality the Great Assembly took place 100 years after the events of Haggai and Zechariah, which were during the reign of Darius I (under whom the Second Temple was constructed, as evident by the statement of 70 years having passed from the 1st Temple's destruction to the 6th year of Darius I). Haggai and Zechariah were most likely dead in 410 B.C and their attendance at the Great Assembly can be attributed to post-rabbinic tradition.
Darius I was the obvious King at the time of Haggai and Zechariah as the statements made of "These seventy years" from Zechariah 1:12 refer to exactly seventy years from the 6th year of Darius I, when the 2nd Temple was completed, which when counted inclusively, from the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C equals exactly seventy years.
The number of membersEdit
According to R. Johanan (3rd century),
- The men of the Great Assembly instituted for Israel the benedictions and the prayers, as well as the benedictions for Kiddush and havdalah.
This agrees with the sentence of R. Jeremiah (fourth century), who states (in reference to the Shemoneh Esreh) that "120 elders, including about 80 prophets, have instituted these prayers." These 120 elders are undoubtedly identical with the men of the Great Assembly. The number given of the prophets must, however, be corrected according to Megillah 17b, where the source of R. Jeremiah's statement is found: "R. Johanan said, and some say it was taught in a baraita, that 120 elders, including several prophets, instituted the Shemoneh Esreh." Hence the prophets were in a minority in the Great Assembly.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, the date of Purim (as described in Mishna Megillah 1:1) was instituted by the men of the Great Assembly. But in the Jerusalem Talmud, R. Johanan speaks of "85 elders, among them about 30 prophets" enacting the holiday. These divergent statements may be reconciled by reading, in the one passage, "beside them" instead of "among them"; and in the other passage, "30" instead of "80."
The number 85 is taken from Nehemiah 10:2–29; but the origin of the entire number (120) is not known. It was undoubtedly assumed that the company of those mentioned in Nehemiah 10 was increased to 120 by the prophets who took part in the sealing of the covenant, this view, which is confirmed by Nehemiah 7:7,14, being based on the hypothesis that other prophets besides Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were then preaching in Israel. These passages indicate that this assembly was believed to be the one described in Nehemiah 9–10, and other statements regarding it prove that the Amoraim accepted this identification as a matter of course.
As a single generationEdit
According to Abba bar Kahana, "Two generations used the Tetragrammaton: the men of the Great Assembly and the generation of the shemad" (the persecution of Hadrian and the Bar Kochba revolt). This suggests that the Great Assembly lasted only for a single generation.
Many sources indicate that this generation was the generation of Ezra. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi even derived the term "Great Assembly" from Ezra's choice of words in Nehemiah 9:32; indicating that he viewed the Great Assembly as being present at the ceremony in Nehemiah 9. Other sources specify Nehemiah 9:5, 9:6, 9:7, and 9:18 as being spoken by the Great Assembly, while in the Bible these verses refer to a ceremony led by Ezra. Other sources assert that Ezra uttered the Tetragrammaton; paired with Abba bar Kahana's statement quoted above, this too suggests that Ezra was a member of the Great Assembly's generation.
Nechemiah, too, was considered to have been a member of the Great Assembly. Since Nehemiah himself was a member, Samuel b. Marta, a pupil of Rav, quoted a phrase used by Nehemiah in his prayer (1:7) as originating with his colleagues. Ezra was, of course, one of the members, and, according to Nehemiah 8, he was even regarded as the leader. In one of the two versions of the interpretation of Song of Songs 7:14, therefore, Ezra and his companions ("Ezra vahaburato") are mentioned, while the other version speaks merely of the "men of the Great Assembly" (compare the statements made above regarding the pronunciation of the Tetragramaton). In the targum to Song of Songs 7:3, in addition to "Ezra the priest" the men mentioned in Ezra 2:2 as the leaders of the people returning from the Exile—Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Mordecai, and Bilshan—are designated as "men of the Great Assembly." In the same targum (to 6:4), the leaders of the exiles are called the "sages of the Great Assembly."
It appears from all these passages in traditional literature that the idea of the Great Assembly was based on the narrative in Nehemiah 8–10, and that, furthermore, its members were regarded as the leaders of Israel who had returned from exile and laid the foundations of the new polity connected with the Second Temple. All these men were regarded in the tannaitic chronology as belonging to one generation; therefore Abba bar Kahana speaks of a single "generation of the men of the Great Assembly".
According to the rabbinic chronology, the period of Persian rule lasted just 34 years, at the beginning of the period of the Second Temple, confining the Great Assembly's activity to this generation. As the last prophets were still active during this time, they also were included. Rabbinic chronology also held that prophecy ceased with the conquest of Alexander the Great.
In view of these facts, it was natural that the Great Assembly should be regarded as the connecting-link in the chain of tradition between the Prophets and the scholars. It may easily be seen, therefore, why Simeon the Just should be termed a survivor of this body, for, according to rabbinic tradition, it was this high priest (not his grandfather Jaddua) who met Alexander the Great, and received from him much honor.
It is thus evident that, according to the only authority extant in regard to the subject (the tradition of Tannaim and Amoraim), the Great Assembly's activity was confined to the period of the Persian rule, and thus to the first 34 years of the Second Temple; and that afterward, when Simon the Just was its only survivor, there was no other fixed institution which could be regarded as a precursor of the academies.
Though the Great Assembly was limited to a single generation, some similar governing council may have existed in the centuries that followed it, using a different name. The term "Great Assembly" (knesset hagedolah) primarily referred to the assembly of Nehemiah 9–10, which convened principally for religious purposes—fasting, reading of the Torah, confession of sins, and prayer. Since every gathering for religious purposes was called "knesset", this term was applied also to the assembly in question; but as it was an assembly of special importance it was designated more specifically as the "Great Assembly". For similar reasons, another important religious gathering in this period was known as the kehillah gedolah ("great gathering").
In addition to fixing the ritual observances for the first two quarters of the day, the Great Assembly engaged in legislative proceedings, making laws as summarized in Nehemiah 10:30-40. Tradition therefore ascribed to it the character of a chief magistracy, and its members, or rather its leaders, including the prophets of that time, were regarded as the authors of other obligatory rules. These leaders of post-exilic Israel in the Persian period were called the "men of the Great Assembly" because it was generally assumed that all those who then acted as leaders had been members of the memorable gathering held on the 24th of Tishri, 444 BC. Although the assembly itself convened only on a single day, its leaders were designated in tradition as regular members of the Great Assembly. This explains the fact that the references speak almost exclusively of the members of the Great Assembly, the allusions to the body itself being very rare, and sometimes based on error.
As certain institutions supposed to have been established in the first period of the Second Temple were ascribed to Ezra, so others of them were ascribed to the "men of the Great Assembly". There is, in fact, no difference between the two classes of institutions so far as origin is concerned. In some cases Ezra (the great scribe and the leader of the Great Assembly) is mentioned as the author, in others the entire Great Assembly mentioned; in all cases the Assembly with Ezra at its head must be thought of as the real authors. In traditional literature, however, a distinction was generally drawn between the institutions of Ezra and those of the men of the Great Assembly, so that they figured separately. But it is not surprising, after what has been said above, that in the Tanhuma the "Tikkunei Soferim" (called also "Tikkunei Ezra") should be ascribed to the men of the Great Assembly, since the author of the passage in question identified the Soferim (i.e., Ezra and his successors) with them.
The following rulings were ascribed to the men of the Great Assembly:
- They included the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, and the Twelve Minor Prophets in the Biblical canon; this is the only possible explanation of the baraita that they "wrote" those books. The first three books, which were composed outside Israel, had to be accepted by the men of the Great Assembly before they could be regarded as worthy of inclusion, while the division of the Minor Prophets was completed by the works of the three post-exilic prophets, who were themselves members of that council. The same activity in regard to these books is ascribed to the men of the Great Assembly as had been attributed to King Hezekiah and his council, including the prophet Isaiah, with regard to the three books ascribed to Solomon (see also Avot of Rabbi Natan 1) and the Book of Isaiah. In this baraita, as well as in the gloss upon it, Ezra and Nehemiah, "men of the Great Assembly," are mentioned as the last Biblical writers; while according to II Maccabees Nehemiah also collected a number of the books of the Bible.
- According to one opinion, they introduced the triple classification of the oral law into the branches of midrash, halakhot, and aggadot. This view is noteworthy as showing that the later representatives of tradition traced the origin of their science to the earliest authorities, the immediate successors of the Prophets. The men of the Great Assembly, therefore, not only completed the canon, but introduced the scientific treatment of tradition.
- They introduced the Feast of Purim and determined the days on which it should be celebrated (see above).
- They instituted the Shemoneh Esreh, as well as the benedictions and other prayers, as already noted. The tradition in regard to this point expresses the view that the synagogal prayers as well as the entire ritual were put into definite shape by the men of the Great Assembly.
- According to Rav, the list of Biblical personages who have no share in the World to Come was made by the men of the Great Assembly.
- An aggadic ruling on Biblical stories beginning with the phrase "Va-yehi bayamim" (And it came to pass in those days) is designated by Johanan bar Nappaha, or his pupil Levi II, as a "tradition of the men of the Great Assembly". This is merely another way of saying, as is stated elsewhere in reference to the same ruling, that it had been brought as a tradition from the Babylonian exile. There are references also to other aggadic traditions of this kind.
- Joshua ben Levi ascribes in an original way to the men of the Great Assembly the merit of having provided for all time for the making of copies of the Bible, tefillin, and mezuzot, stating that they instituted twenty-four fasts to ensure that wealth would not be acquired by copyists, who would cease to copy if they became rich.
- A aggadic passage by Jose b. Hanina refers to the names of the returning exiles mentioned in Ezra 2:51 et seq., one version reading "the men of the Great Assembly" instead of "sons of the Exile," or "those that returned from the Exile" ("olei goleh"). This shows that the men of the Great Assembly included the first generation of the Second Temple. In Esther Rabbah 3:7, the congregation of the tribes mentioned in Judges 20:1 is apparently termed "men of the Great Assembly." However, this is due to a corruption of the text, for, according to Luria's skilful emendation, this phrase must be read with the preceding words "Ezra and the men of the Great Assembly"; so that the phrase corresponds to the "bene ha-golah" of Ezra 10:16.
- The Mishnah ascribes the following aphorism to the men of the Great Assembly: "Be heedful in pronouncing sentence; have many pupils; put a fence about the Torah." This aphorism, ascribed to an entire body of men, can only be interpreted as expressing their spirit and tendency, yet it must have been formulated by some individual, probably one of their number. At all events, it may be regarded as a historical and authentic statement of the dominating thought of those early leaders of post-exilic Israel who were designated in the tradition of the local schools as the men of the Great Assembly. It must also be noted that this passage, like the majority of those given in the first chapter of Avot, is addressed to the teachers and spiritual leaders rather than to the people. These three clauses indicate the program of the scholars of the Persian period, who were regarded as one generation, and evidence their harmony with the spirit of Ezra's teaching. Their program was carried out by the Pharisees: caution in pronouncing legal sentences; watchfulness over the schools and the training of pupils; assurance of the observance of the Law by the enforcement of protective measures and rulings.
An attempt has thus been made to assign correct positions to the texts in which the men of the Great Assembly are mentioned, and to present the views on which they are based, although no discussions can be broached regarding the views of the chroniclers and historians, or the different hypotheses and conclusions drawn from these texts concerning the history of the period of the Second Temple. For this a reference to the articles cited in the bibliography must suffice. Kuenen especially presents a good summary of the more recent theories, while L. Löw (who is not mentioned by Kuenen) expresses views totally divergent from those generally held with regard to the Great Assembly; this body he takes to be the assembly described in I Maccabees 14:25-26, which made Simeon the Hasmonean a hereditary prince (18th of Elul, 140 BC).
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "SYNAGOGUE, THE GREAT". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
- Maimonides' Introduction to his Mishnah Commentary (ed. Nehemiah Shmuel Rot), Jerusalem 2005, p. 59 (Hebrew)
- Maimonides' Introduction to his Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah).
- Louis Jacobs (1995), Great Synagogue, Men of, in The Jewish religion: a companion, p. 201. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-826463-1
- Pirkei Avot 1:1 et seq.
- Avot of Rabbi Natan 1
- Berachot 33a
- Yerushalmi Berachot 4d
- Megillah 17b
- Megillah 2a
- Yerushalmi Megillah 1:5 70d; Ruth Rabbah 2:4
- See Krochmal, "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 97
- Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 36, end
- Yoma 69b [with other authorities]; Yerushalmi Berachot 11c and Megillah 74c; Midrash Tehillim on Psalms 19; see also Berachot 33b
- Tanhuma Shemot 1, in the name of Abin
- Genesis Rabbah 6; text: (בראשית א) ויתן אותם אלהים ברקיע השמים רבי פנחס בשם רבי אבהו אמר מקרא מלא הוא ואנשי כנסת הגדולה פירשו אותו (נחמיה ט) אתה הוא ה' לבדך אתה עשית את השמים שמי השמים וכל צבאם וגו' היכן הוא כל צבאם נתונים ברקיע שהוא למעלה מן השמים
- Yerushalmi Berachot 3a; Genesis Rabbah 46, 78; text: "Did not the men of the Great Assembly call Abraham 'Abram'?" (referring to Nehemiah 9:7)
- Exodus Rabbah 41, beginning; Tanhuma Ki Tissa 14
- Yerushalmi Megillah 3, end; Yoma 69b
- Ruth Rabbah 4:5 (to 2:4); text:שמעון בר אבא בשם ר' יוחנן אמר: כיון שגלו נפטרו, והם חייבו עצמן מאליהן. מה עשו אנשי כנסת הגדולה? כתבו ספר ושטחוהו בעזרה, ובשחרית עמדו ומצאוהו חתום. הדא הוא דכתיב: (נחמיה י') ובכל זאת אנחנו כורתים אמנה וכותבים ועל החתום.
- Exodus Rabbah 41; Tanhuma Pekudei, beginning
- Leviticus Rabbah 2:11
- Shir haShirim Rabbah 7:14
- Seder Olam Rabbah 30 [ed. Ratner], p. 141; Avodah Zarah 86
- Seder 'Olam Rabbah 30; compare Sanhedrin 11a; the view is attested as early as Josephus ("Contra Apionem" 1, § 8)
- See Yoma 69a; Megillat Ta'anit for the 21st of Kislev
- Nehemiah 9:1 et seq.
- Hence beit ha-knesset = "the synagogue"; compare the verb kenos (Esther 4:16)
- Nehemiah 5:7
- Nehemiah 9:3
- For example, the quotation from Pirkei Avot 1:2 which occurs in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:11
- Tanhuma, Beshallach 16, on Exodus 15:7
- "Okhla we-Okhla," No. 168
- Bava Batra 15a
- II Maccabees 2:13
- Yerushalmi Shekalim 5, beginning; Rabbi Jonah's dissenting view there attributes the classification to Rabbi Akiva.
- Sanhedrin 10:1
- Sanhedrin 104b
- Megillah 10b
- Leviticus Rabbah 11
- See Bacher, "Ag. Tan." 2d ed., i. 192; idem, "Die Aelteste Terminologie," p. 107
- Pesachim 50b
- Genesis Rabbah 71 et passim
- Pirkei Avot 1:12
- Löw, Leopold (1885). Die Grosse Synode (from Ben Chananja, vol. i), in Gesammelte Schriften. Hildesheim; New York; Olms. pp. 399–449.