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Encyclopedia Judaica: The Great Synagogue


The institution of the Great Synagogue, or perhaps, more correctly, the Great Assembly, belongs to that period of Jewish history which is still virtually a complete blank, namely the Persian period. Hence, very little is known of it with real certainty. In the chain of tradition recorded in Avot 1:1 it is said to come after the period of the Prophets, and that *Simeon the Just was of its "remnants." Avot de-R. Nathan (ARN1 1:2) introduces a stage between the Prophets and the "Men of the Great Synagogue," namely that of *Haggai , *Zechariah , and *Malachi . Apparently, they bridged the transition between these two phases. Ezra (identified with Malachi in Seder Olam, etc.) was apparently regarded by the rabbis as leader of the Great Assembly, for in Leviticus Rabbah 2:11 "Ezra and his companions" are mentioned, while the parallel text in Song of Songs Rabbah (to Song 7:14) speaks only of the Men of the Great Synagogue. The Targum to Song of Songs 7:3 further designates *Ezra , *Zerubbabel , *Jeshua , *Nehemiah , *Mordecai , and Bilshan (cf. Ezra 2:2) as members of this assembly (cf. Seder Olam Rabbah and Zuta. See Ginzberg , Legends, 6 (1928), 447–9). From these and other sources (e.g., Yoma 69b) it appears that traditionally the idea of the Great Synagogue was linked with the narrative in Nehemiah 8–10, where its earliest beginnings are suggested. On the identification and date of Simeon the Just, who stands at the conclusion of this institution's history, opinion is sharply divided. Some identify him with Simeon I, high priest in 310–291 B.C.E., or 300–270 B.C.E., partly on the basis of rabbinic tradition (cf. Yoma 69a), in which case the Great Synagogue came to an end at the close of the Persian period. As rabbinic chronology telescoped this period of some two centuries into 34 years (SOR 30), the whole institution was thought to have lasted only one generation. Hence the rabbinic phrase "generation of the Men of the Great Synagogue" (Gen. R. 35:2). However, this identification raises serious chronological difficulties, especially as *Yose b. Joezer , who in Avot comes only two generations later, is firmly dated to the period of Alcimus who executed him about 160 B.C.E. Accordingly, Simeon the Just has been identified with Simeon II, 219–199 B.C.E., and this opinion (convincingly argued by G.F. Moore) is now generally accepted (see, e.g., V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959), 437, no. 1). Thus, the statement in Avot 1:4 that Yose b. Joezer and *Yose b. Johanan "received from them," and not "from him" – *Antigonus of Sokho (Avot 1:3) – possibly means that they still received traditions directly from the "remnants of the Great Synagogue." The term "remnants" is suggestive of disintegration, and probably this came about in the wake of the major political upheavals of about 201–198 B.C.E. (cf. Tcherikover, op. cit., 75–82).


As noted, tradition associates the Great Synagogue with events recorded in Nehemiah 8–10. Modern scholarship too takes this as its starting point. However, some scholars (notably Kuenen) regarded the whole institution as legendary, its only source being the narrative in Nehemiah. Others (Krochmal) suggest that Nehemiah's assembly served as a model for future ones. L. Loew put forward a curious theory, that the Great Synagogue was identical with the synagoge megale of I Maccabees 14:28ff. in which Simeon the Hasmonean, whom he identified with Simeon the Just, was declared king. However, this view is wholly untenable, not least on chronological grounds. Englander interprets the phrase "Men of the Great Synagogue" as "leaders of the Community of Greatness" (Keneset ha-Gedolah), i.e., heads of the Jewish community. However, certain sources (e.g., Targ. Song 7:3, and the phrase "remnants of the Great Synagogue") suggest that the members of the Assembly constituted it, and were not merely a part of it. Finally, some (e.g., Finkelstein) regard the Keneset ha-Gedolah as a high court, the precursor of the Sanhedrin ha-Gadol; but rabbinic evidence (see below) suggests rather "a great legislative and administrative council rather than… a tribunal" (see Baron , Social2, 1 (1952), 368). What emerges clearly, thus far, is that this institution, whatever it was, had its origins in the organizational framework set up in Ezra 's time. These first-generation developments (cf. Ezra 10: 14–17; et al.) were perpetuated probably in the form of a loosely knit representative body meeting at (irregular?) intervals to pass major enactments.


A brief survey of the legislative achievements of the "Men of the Great Synagogue" (or rather those attributed to them) may cast further light on the character of the institution. Traditionally they introduced the *Shemoneh Esreh (Meg. 17b; et al.), and further "instituted for Israel the *benedictions and prayers as well as the benedictions for *Kiddush and *Havdalah " (Ber. 33a). In fact, the traditional view is that the entire liturgy was given a definite form during this period. They established the festival of Purim (Meg. 2a), and they held 24 fasts to pray that soferim ("scribes") should not become wealthy, thus assuring a plentiful supply of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot for all time (Pes. 50b). They are said to have introduced the classification of the Oral Law into three fields of study, that of Midrash (in the broadest sense of the word), halakhot, and aggadot (TJ, Shek. 5:1, 48c). They were also active in the field of masoretic studies (Tanḥ. Shemot 17, for Tikkun Soferim) and canonization, and to them is attributed the inclusion in the canon of the Books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, and the Twelve Minor Prophets (BB 15a, where "wrote" probably means included in the canon). Achievements such as the formulation of the liturgy, etc., are suggestive of a lengthy progressive development, stretched over a considerable period of time. Further-more, decisions of such gravity as the canonization of biblical books, etc., could only have been taken by a body of supreme religious authority. These were not the rulings of small local synods (such as are mentioned by Hecateus of Abdera, c. 300 B.C.E.; Reinach, Textes, 17f.), but of a great all-embracing council justly called the "Great Assembly" (but see Yoma 69b, for the rabbinic interpretation of the phrase). There was probably no permanent membership to this council (hence "Men of the Great Synagogue," rather than the "Great Synagogue" itself), nor even a fixed number of participants at its meetings (Zeitlin's view). Thus while R. Johanan taught that "120 elders, including some prophets" instituted the Shemoneh Esreh (Meg. 17b), in TJ, Megillah 1:7, 70d, he states that 85 elders, among them about 30 prophets, established the feast of Purim (but see L. Ginzberg , Perushim ve-Ḥiddushim ba-Yerushalmi, 1 (1941), 327–30 for harmonistic emendations, following Krochmal). Perhaps out of this body evolved the *gerousia, which is known to have existed in the time of Simeon (II) the Just (Jos., Ant., 12:142) and over which he probably presided (Tcherikover, op. cit. 81), and subsequent administrative bodies such as the Hasmonean ḥever. It probably had combined judicial and administrative authority, and indeed rabbinic tradition (Ḥag. 2:2) ascribes the division of functions to the post-Simeon period of the zugot ("pairs").


L. Loew, Gesammelte Schriften, 1 (1889), 399–449; M. Bloch, Sha'arei Torat ha-Takkanot, 1 (1879), 107–273; S. Krauss, in: JQR, 10 (1897/98), 347–77; W. Bacher, in: EJ, S.V. Synagogue, the Great; H. Englander, in: Hebrew Union College Jubilee Volume (1925), 145–69; G. F. Moore, Judaism, 3 (1930), 7–11; L. Finkelstein, in: JBL, 59 (1940), 455–69; idem, Ha-Perushim ve-Anshei Keneset ha-Gedolah (1950); E. Bickerman, in: RB, 55 (1948), 397–402; C. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Halakhah, 3 (1943), 60–81; Baron, Socia12, 1 (1952), 367, n. 35; H. Mantel, in: HTR, 60 (1967), 69–91.

[Daniel Sperber]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.