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, was, according to Jewish tradition, an assembly of 120 scribes, sages, and prophets, in the period from the end of the Biblical prophets to the time of the development of Rabbinic Judaism, marking a transition from an era of prophets to an era of Rabbis. They lived in a period of about two centuries ending c. 70 CE.
Among the developments in Judaism that are attributed to them are the fixing of the Jewish Biblical canon, including the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, and the Twelve Minor Prophets; the introduction of the triple classification of the oral law, dividing the study of the Mishnah (in the larger sense) into the three branches of midrash, halakot, and aggadot; 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; Rabbi 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".
Inclusion of the last Hebrew Bible prophets
"The Prophets transmitted the Torah to the men of the Great Synagogue. . . . Simon the Just was one of those who survived the Great Synagogue, and Antigonus of Soko received the Torah from him." (Ab. i. 1 et seq.).
The first part of this statement is paraphrased as follows in Ab. R. N. i.;
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 Synagogue. 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 Synagogue included prophets.
According to R. Johanan, who wrote in the third century,
"The men of the Great Synagogue instituted for Israel the benedictions and the prayers, as well as the benedictions for Kiddush and habdalah" (Ber. 33a).
This agrees with the sentence of R. Jeremiah (4th cent.), who states (Yer. Ber. 4d), in reference to the "Shemoneh 'Esreh," that
"one hundred and twenty elders, including about eighty prophets, have instituted these prayers."
These one hundred and twenty elders are undoubtedly identical with the men of the Great Synagogue. The number given of the prophets must, however, be corrected according to Meg. 17b, where the source of R. Jeremiah's statement is found:
"R. Johanan said that, according to some, a baraita taught that one hundred and twenty elders, including some prophets, instituted the 'Shemoneh 'Esreh.' "
Hence the prophets were in a minority in the Great Synagogue.
Another statement regarding the activity of this institution alludes to the establishment of the Feast of Purim according to Esth. ix. 27 et seq., while the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 2a) states, as a matter requiring no discussion, that the celebration of the Feast of Purim on the days mentioned in Meg. i. 1 was instituted by the men of the Great Synagogue. But in the Jerusalem Talmud, R. Johanan (Meg. 70d; Ruth R. ii. 4) speaks of eighty-five elders, among them about thirty prophets.
These divergent statements may easily be reconciled (see Krochmal, "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 97) by reading, in the one passage, "beside them" instead of "among them" ; and in the other passage, "thirty" instead of "eighty."
The number eighty-five is taken from Neh. x. 2-29; but the origin of the entire number (120) is not known. It was undoubtedly assumed that the company of those mentioned in Neh. x. was increased to one hundred and twenty by the prophets who took part in the sealing of the covenant, this view, which is confirmed by Neh. vi. 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 Neh. ix.-x., and other statements regarding it prove that the Amoraim accepted this identification as a matter of course.
According to Abba b. Kahana, the well-known haggadist of the latter half of the third century (Shem-Tob on Ps. xxxvi., end):
This reference is explained in a statement by Giddel, a pupil of Rab (Yer. Meg. iii., end; Yoma 69b):
"The word in Neh. viii. 6 indicates that Ezra uttered the great Tetragram in his praise of God."
Generation of Ezra
The combination of these two passages, which evidently have the same basis, offers another instance of the general assumption that all the members of this body were regarded as belonging to one generation, which included Ezra, while Joshua b. Levi, one of the earliest amoraim, even derived the term "Great Synagogue" from Neh. ix. 32. The authors of the prayers restored the triad of the divine attributes introduced by Moses (Deut. x. 17), although Jeremiah (xxxii. 18) and Daniel (x. 17, Hebr.) had each omitted one of the three attributes from their prayers. "The Great Assembly was so called because it gave the divine attributes their ancient 'greatness' and dignity" (Yoma 69b [with other authorities]; Yer. Ber. 11c and Meg. 74c; Shem-Ṭob on Ps. xix.; see also Ber. 33b); although this is merely a haggadic explanation of the old term, it indicates that the Amoraim did not think the Great Synagogue could be any other assembly or council than the one mentioned as the source of the prayers in Neh. ix.; and there are other examples in traditional literature evidencing this view. In Yer. Ber. 3a (Gen. R. xlvi., lxxviii.) this objection is raised in regard to a thesis of R. Levi based on Gen. xvii. 5 and referring to Neh. ix. 7: "Did not the men of the Great Synagogue call Abraham by his former name, Abram?" In the name of the men of the Great Synagogue, R. Abbahu (Gen. R. vi.) quotes the words "The heaven of heavens, with all their host" (Neh. ix. 6) as an explanation of Gen. i. 17; and the same authority is invoked in a haggadic passage by Abin (Tan., Shemot, i.) in reference to Neh. ix. 5 (ib. 2, anonymous), as well as in one by Samuel b. Naḥman (Ex. R. xli., beginning; Tan., Ki Tissa, 14) alluding to Neh. ix. 18.
R. Johanan connected the following story with Neh. x. 1-2 (Ruth R. ii. 4): "The men of the Great Synagogue wrote a document in which they voluntarily agreed to pay heave-offerings and tithes. This document they displayed in the hall of the Temple; the following morning they found the divine confirmation inscribed upon it." Since Nehemiah himself was a member, Samuel b. Marta, a pupil of Rab, quoted a phrase used by Nehemiah in his prayer (i. 7) as originating with his colleagues (Ex. R. li.; Tan., Peḳude, beginning). Ezra was, of course, one of the members, and, according to Neh. viii., he was even regarded as the leader. In one of the two versions of the interpretation of Cant. vii. 14 (Lev. R. ii. 11), therefore, Ezra and his companions ("'Ezra wa-ḥaburato") are mentioned, while the other version (Cant. R. ad loc.) speaks merely of the "men of the Great Synagogue" (compare the statements made above regarding the pronunciation of the Tetragram). In the targum to Cant. vii. 3, in addition to "Ezra the priest" the men mentioned in Ezra ii. 2 as the leaders of the people returning from the Exile—Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Mordecai, and Bilshan—are designated as "men of the Great Synagogue." In the same targum (to vi. 4) the leaders of the exiles are called the "sages of the Great Synagogue."
It appears from all these passages in traditional literature that the idea of the Great Assembly was based on the narrative in Neh. viii.-x., 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; for this reason the "generation of the men of the Great Synagogue" is mentioned in one of the passages already cited, this denoting, according to the chronological canon of Jose b. Ḥalafta (Seder 'Olam Rabbah xxx. [ed. Ratner], p. 141); 'Ab. Zarah 86), the generation of thirty-four years during which the Persian rule lasted, at the beginning of the period of the Second Temple. As the last prophets were still preaching during this time, they also were included. That prophecy began only at the end of this period, when the reign of Alexander the Great commenced, was likewise a thesis of the tannaitic chronology, which, like the canon of the thirty-four years, was adopted by the later Jewish chronologists (Seder 'Olam Rabbah l.c.; comp. Sanh. 11a), although the view occurs as early as Josephus ("Contra Ap." i., § 8).
Position in Tannaitic chronology
In view of these facts, it was natural that the Great Synagogue 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 the tradition current in the circle of scholars, it was this high priest, and not his grandfather Jaddua, who met Alexander the Great, and received from him much honor (see Yoma 69a; Meg. Ta'an. for the 21st of Kislew; comp. Alexander the Great).
It is thus evident that, according to the only authority extant in regard to the subject, the tradition of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the activity of this assembly was confined to the period of the Persian rule, and thus to the first thirty-four 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. This statement does not imply, however, that such a body did not exist in the first centuries of the Second Temple, for it must be assumed that some governing council existed in those centuries as well, although the statements regarding the Great Synagogue refer exclusively to the first period. The term primarily denoted the assembly described in Neh. ix.-x., which convened principally for religious purposes—fasting, reading of the Torah, confession of sins, and prayer (Neh. ix. 1 et seq.). Since every gathering convened for religious purposes was called "keneset" (hence "bet ha-keneset" = "the synagogue"; comp. the verb "kenos," Esth. iv. 16), 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" (comp. Neh. v. 7, "ḳehillah gedolah").
In addition to fixing the ritual observances for the first two quarters of the day (Neh. ix. 3), the Great Synagogue engaged in legislative proceedings, making laws as summarized in Neh. x. 30 et seq. 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 Synagogue" 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 B.C. Although the assembly itself convened only on a single day, its leaders were designated in tradition as regular members of the Great Synagogue. This explains the fact that the references speak almost exclusively of the members of the Great Synagogue, the allusions to the body itself being very rare, and based in part on error, as, for example, the quotation from Ab. i. 2 which occurs in Eccl. R. xii. 11.
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 Synagogue. 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 Synagogue, is mentioned as the author, in others the entire body is so mentioned; in all cases the body 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 Synagogue, so that they figured separately; but it is not surprising, after what has been said above, that in Tan., Beshallaḥ, 16, on Ex. xv. 7, the "Tiḳḳune Soferim," called also ("Okhla we-Okhla," No. 168) "Tiḳḳune 'Ezra" (emendations of the text of the Bible by the Soferim, or by Ezra; and according to the tannaitic source [see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." ii. 205], originally textual euphemisms), should be ascribed to the men of the Great Synagogue, since the author of the passage in question identified the Soferim (i.e., Ezra and his successors) with them.
Institutions and rulings
The following rulings were ascribed to the men of the Great Synagogue:
- 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 (B. B. 15a) that they "wrote" those books. The first three books, which were composed outside Israel, had to be accepted by the men of the Great Synagogue 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 Synagogue 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 Ab. R. N. i.) and the Book of Isaiah. In this baraita, as well as in the gloss upon it, Ezra and Nehemiah, "men of the Great Synagogue," are mentioned as the last Biblical writers; while according to the introduction to the Second Book of the Maccabees (ii. 13) Nehemiah also collected a number of the books of the Bible.
- They introduced the triple classification of the oral law, dividing the study of the Mishnah (in the larger sense) into the three branches of midrash, halakot, and aggadot, although this view, which is anonymous, conflicted with that of R. Jonah, an amora of the fourth century, who declared that the founder of this threefold division of traditional science (see Jew. Encyc. iii. 163, s.v. Bible Exegesis) was R. Akiba (Yer. Sheḳ. v., beginning). 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 Synagogue, 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 Synagogue.
The list of Biblical personages who have no part in the future world (Sanh. x. 1) was made, according to Rab, by the men of the Great Synagogue (Sanh. 104b), and a aggadic ruling on Biblical stories beginning with the phrase "Va-yehi bayamim" (And it came to pass in those days) is designated by Johanan, or his pupil Levi, as a "tradition of the men of the Great Synagogue" (Meg. 10b). This is merely another way of saying, as is stated elsewhere (Lev. R. xi.) 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 (see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." 2d ed., i. 192; idem, "Die Aelteste Terminologie," p. 107). Joshua b. Levi ascribes in an original way to the men of the Great Synagogue 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 (Pes. 50b). A aggadic passage by Jose b. Ḥanina refers to the names of the returning exiles mentioned in Ezra ii. 51 et seq. (Gen. R. lxxi. et passim), one version reading "the men of the Great Synagogue" instead of "sons of the Exile," or "those that returned from the Exile" ("'ole goleh"). This shows that the men of the Great Synagogue included the first generation of the Second Temple. In Esth. R. iii. 7 the congregation of the tribes mentioned in Judges xx. 1 is apparently termed "men of the Great Synagogue." This is due, however, 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 Synagogue"; so that the phrase corresponds to the "bene ha-golah" of Ezra x. 16.
There is, finally, a passage of three clauses, which the Mishnah (Ab. i. 12) ascribes to the men of the Great Synagogue as stated above, and which reads as follows: "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 Synagogue. It must also be noted that this passage, like the majority of those given in the first chapter of Abot, 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 Synagogue 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 Synagogue; this body he takes to be the assembly described in I Macc. xiv. 25-26, which made Simeon the Hasmonean a hereditary prince (18th of Elul, 140 B.C.).
Upon the founding of the modern State of Israel, the first independent Jewish state in almost 2,000 years, in 1948, its political leadership was aware Jewish history's once Great Assembly that consisted of 120 members, and thereupon decided to call its newly-established unicameral parliament the Knesset i.e. "Assembly" or "Gathering", which would also consist of 120 elected members as the democratic representatives of the people of modern Israel. However, the original Great Assembly was composed exclusively of the most learned sages of that age, while the modern Knesset is composed mainly of secular Jews.
The same word is also used in the term "Beit Knesset" (בית כנסת), the Hebrew word for a synagogue, and both originally having meant "a place of gathering". However, in modern usage the two terms are completely distinct from each other.
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
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