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Anshei Knesses Hagdolah (The Men of the Great Assembly)

Anshei Knesses Hagdolah (The Men of the Great Assembly)

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Approximately 50 years before prophecy terminated in 3448, a body of 120 of the greatest Torah scholars assumed the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. This august assembly, led by Ezra, functioned as the Sanhedrin of the nation. Although scholars disagree as to whether all 120 sages served on the Court simultaneously, or the Sanhedrin was composed of its normal quorum of 71 members, while the others were alternates, nevertheless all agree that the Anshei Knesses Hagdolah was the greatest scholarly assembly in the history of the Jewish people. Membership was composed of prophets and non-prophets: among its more prominent members were Mordecai, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, and Shimon HaTzadik. These eminent rabbis realized that Jewish society was changing irrevocably. The era of prophecy, in which the Jewish people received direct Divine communication, was about to come to a close. In addition, the majority of Jews would live in a state of exile outside the land of Israel. As such, the awesome responsibility of leading the Jewish people during this difficult transitional period, facing the challenges of an uncertain future, weighed heavily on their shoulders. Therefore, the Great Assembly effected far-reaching enactments that guide the Jewish people to this day, enabling the nation to survive spiritually during the long, dark, exile. The major accomplishments of the Men of the Great Assembly include:

Formalizing the text of the prayers and blessings. Tefilla, or prayer, is one of the Torah’s 613 commandments. However, the Torah does not specify specific texts. Originally, people composed their own informal supplications and praises to G‑d, with synagogues serving as the place for public Torah readings, which require a quorum of 10 male adults. Unfortunately, due to the vicissitudes of exile, the spiritual level of the Jewish people declined to the point where they could not compose proper prayers. Understanding this situation, the Anshei Knesses Hagdolah enacted a formal prayer service containing all the spiritual states that a Jew is supposed to attain during prayer. By reciting the prescribed text, any Jew could ideally access the mystical, Kabbalistic levels that prayer accomplishes. A common prayer book also united the Jewish people – to this day, the order of prayers for Jews from Poland to Jews from Yemen is basically identical.

Abolishing the desire for idolatry. Idol worship was a major scourge during the First Temple era. The sages, realizing that the Jewish people were not on a sufficiently high spiritual level to cope with the desire to worship idols, fervently prayed to G‑d to remove this urge from the Jewish people. Miraculously, He assented to their request. In later times, under Greek and Christian rule, Jews generally worshiped idols to gain acceptance by the ruling power and not out of any inner conviction. However, since the world was created in balances, G‑d replaced the desire to worship idols with atheism, which was not prevalent in Biblical times.

Arranging the Oral Law. From the time of Moses the Oral Law was meticulously preserved and accurately transmitted throughout the generations. However, this great body of information was not taught with any formal text. The 120 scholars used precise wording and systematized the Oral Law into tractates and subjects. Scholars memorized this material, which later became the basis of the written Mishnah.

Creating rabbinic customs and decrees. It is important to understand that the rabbis did not create a new Rabbinic Judaism to replace the old observances. The laws of the Torah remained unchanged; however, since spiritual levels were weakening, the sages adopted preventive measures to forestall greater religious backsliding. Authority to do so was based on a verse in the Torah (Leviticus 18:30) that enjoins Torah leaders to enact safeguards to preserve mitzvah observance. Clearly, rabbinic decrees were not imposed in an autocratic, tyrannical manner, but rather with the full agreement of the Jewish people. Decrees that did not have the assent of the majority of Jews, or that were deemed too difficult to follow, were revoked.

Sealing the Scriptures

To ensure that no charlatans could claim Divine revelation and lead the Jewish people astray, the Anshei Knesses Hagdolah sealed the Bible (Tanach). Henceforth, no material could be added or subtracted. Although all this material was accurately passed down throughout the generations, there was a danger that it would eventually be forgotten. First, the sages decided which writings to include in the Scriptural canon and which to leave out. The precise order of the Biblical books was also determined at this time.

Tanach was split into three categories: Torah, Neviim, and Kesuvim. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, possesses the greatest sanctity of the Scriptures. Every word of these books was directly dictated to Moses by G‑d. (The Talmud discusses the authorship of the last eight verses of the Torah, those dealing with the death of Moses.) The sages of the Great Assembly also clarified the proper spelling, pronunciation, and musical cantillation (trop) of the Torah’s words.

The Neviim are Divine messages received by a prophet and recorded in the prophet’s own words. Some prophets recorded their prophecies, while others only transmitted them orally. The Kesuvim are not formal prophecies, but were written by their respective authors with Divine inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh).After the 120 sages collected the mass of written and oral material, they finished some incomplete books and wrote others in their entirety.

As a result of their great endeavor, the Jewish Bible is accurate down to the last detail, with virtually no conflicting versions. (There is a question regarding the spelling of the word "dakah" in Deuteronomy 23:2; its meaning is the same with either variant.)

The End of Prophecy

With the passing of the last prophet, Malachi, in 3448, the 1,000-year era of prophecy came to a close. Two factors caused this cessation: first, the Jewish people were not on the exalted spiritual level required for prophets to exist. Second, prophecy functions in Eretz Israel,(and in exceptional circumstances, elsewhere) and most Jews lived outside the Land. From that point, no person would be able to proclaim, “So speaks G‑d;” those who claimed prophetic revelation were immediately recognized as frauds. However, the Jewish people were not bereft of spiritual leadership: G‑d would continue to guide Torah leaders, albeit in a more indirect manner.

Excerpt from Miraculous Journey by Yosef Eisen. For thousands of years the Jewish people have survived and flourished, against all odds. Miraculous Journey takes you on a 700-page tour of Jewish history, all in one volume, from Creation to President Obama. Yosef Eisen, a noted historian and lecturer, tells the miraculous story and history of an eternal nation. Books may be ordered directly from the author. Email him or write to Yosef Eisen, 2337 Sherbrook St., Pittsburgh PA, 15217. Books cost $37, plus $6 shipping - total $43.
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