14 July 2016

Anshei Knesses HaGedolah – Part II

The Anshei Knesset HaGedollah

The members of the Great Assembly are designated in the Mishnah as those who occupied a place in the chain of tradition between the Prophets and the earliest scholars known by name.

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. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi received from the Prophets; and the men of the Great Synagogue received from Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.[We read this in the beginning of Pirke Avos during the summer months, the time of peril for Am Yisrael (Tammuz and Av)]

[The Anshei Knesset HaGedollah were ‘great’ Rabbis who were endowed with superior knowledge about what happened in prior years, and what was prophetically to happen in our future years. We are now in that era that they foresaw. We are indebted to them for preparing our generation.]

Generation of Ezra

(Continued from here.) 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. 9:32. The authors of the prayers restored the triad of the divine attributes introduced by Moses (Deut. 10:17), although Jeremiah (32:18) and Daniel (9:4) 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. 19; 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. 46, 78.) this objection is raised in regard to a thesis of R. Levi based on Gen. 17:5 and referring to Neh. 9:7: "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. 9:6) as an explanation of Gen. 1:17; and the same authority is invoked in a haggadic passage by Abin (Tan., Shemot, i.) in reference to Neh. 9:5 (ib. 2, anonymous), as well as in one by Samuel b. Naḥman (Ex. R. xli., beginning; Tan., Ki Tissa, 14) alluding to Neh. 9:18.

R. Johanan connected the following story with Neh. 10:1–2 (Ruth R. 2:4): "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 (1:7) as originating with his colleagues (Ex. R. 41; Tan., Peḳude, beginning). Ezra was, of course, one of the members, and, according to Neh. 8, he was even regarded as the leader. In one of the two versions of the interpretation of Cant. 7:14 (Lev. R. 2:11), 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. 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 Synagogue." In the same targum (to 6:4) 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. 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; 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. 9–10, which convened principally for religious purposes—fasting, reading of the Torah, confession of sins, and prayer (Neh. 9:1 et seq.). Since every gathering convened for religious purposes was called "keneset" (hence "bet ha-keneset" = "the synagogue"; comp. the verb "kenos," Esth. 4:16), 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. 5:7, "ḳehillah gedolah").

In addition to fixing the ritual observances for the first two quarters of the day (Neh. 9:3), the Great Synagogue engaged in legislative proceedings, making laws as summarized in Neh. 10:30 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 BC. 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. 1:2 which occurs in Eccl. R. 12:11.

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. 15:7, 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

[Pic Source Wikipedia: Souvenir print from the London tour (circa 1723-1730) of a model by Gerhard Schott (1641-1702) of Solomon's Temple, showing the the Council of the Sanhedrin]

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.

Other Sources:
History Crash Course #26: The Great Assembly
Extraordinary sages define the essence of Judaism for the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora.

The Men of the Great Assembly passed decrees that ensured the Jewish peoples’ survival in the post-Temple era down to our times.

Interesting Article:

Reestablishing the Great Sanhedrin and Gerusia? Since the year 358 C.E. when the last Sanhedrin was disbanded, and 425 C.E. when the last rabbinical patriarch Gamaliel VI was executed by Roman emperor Theodosius II, there have been numerous attempts to revive this ancient institution and its leadership positions. While the 3-member Bet Din magistracy survived the long night of Jewish exile, the Great Sanhedrin of 71 sages and Lesser Sanhedrin of 23 sages in each municipality throughout the Land of Israel were left defunct. The honorable roles of Nassi (Prince/President), Av Bet Din (Vice-President), and Chacham (Sage) went unfilled. For 1,813 years the Jewish People were homeless. It has now been 65 years since the Third Commonwealth put an end to that desperate plight.

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