Great Assembly

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.[1] Sometimes, the Great Assembly is simply designated as "Ezra and his court of law" (Beit Din).[2]

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".[3]

Membership

The role of prophets

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 tannaim:

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.[4]

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.[5]

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[citation needed], 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 members

According to R. Johanan (3rd century), the Shemoneh Esreh (and other prayers) were established by the "men of the Great Assembly".[6] Similarly, R. Jeremiah (fourth century), who attributes the establishment of Shemoneh Esreh to "120 elders, including about 80 prophets".[7] 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."[8] Hence the prophets were in a minority in the Great Assembly. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the date of Purim was fixed by the men of the Great Assembly,[9] while the Jerusalem Talmud speaks of "85 elders, among them about 30 prophets" enacting the holiday.[10] These divergent statements may be reconciled by reading in the one passage, "beside them" instead of "among them" in the Jerusalem Talmud; "30" instead of "80" prophets in R' Jeremiah's teaching.[11]

The number 85 is taken from Nehemiah 10:2–29; but the origin of the entire number (120) is unknown. 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.