The Great Assembly (Anshe Kenesset)

A body of spiritual leaders of Judaism dating from the time of Moses.

The body of sages said to have flourished during the early days of the Second Temple. The Men of the Great Synagogue or Great Assembly are mentioned as belonging to the chain of tradition at the beginning of Ethics of the Fathers: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets delivered it to the Men of the Great Synagogue.

anshe kenessetThey said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, and raise many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.’ This sets the date of the institution in the time of Ezra and, indeed, in some Rabbinic sources, Ezra is said to have been a member of the body. But in the following section of Ethics of the Fathers it says that Simeon the Just was one of the survivors (or remnants) of the Men of the Great Synagogue. Now Ezra’s date is around the year 444 B.C.E., while Simeon the Just died around the year 270 B.C.E. How, then, could Simeon have been a survivor of the Men of the Great Synagogue?

As a result of this kind of chronological problem and the evident legendary elements in many Rabbinic accounts of the Men of the Great Synagogue, some Christian scholars used to assert that the whole institution is fictitious, an idealized source for later Rabbinic Judaism. Many modern scholars, however, Jewish and non-Jewish, tend to see the references to the Men of the Great Synagogue as allusions not to a body that existed only at a particular time but to an ongoing activity extending over the first two centuries of the Second Temple. On this view, that they ‘said’ three things has to be understood as meaning that their activity can be summed up as establishing a successful administration of justice, teaching the Torah to as many students as possible, and protecting the laws of the Torah by building a fence around them, that is, by introducing safeguards against encroachment on the forbidden realm; they forbade, for instance, the handling of an axe on the Sabbath lest it be used to chop wood.

In any event, references in the 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 postbiblical, were often fathered on them.

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