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I've heard many things about this "Great Assembly," mostly about how they established davening (prayers). However, there appears to be a lack of specific information about this institution. So:

  • Who were they?
  • When and Where was it established, and how long did it exist?
  • What are their accomplishments?
  • Is there any external evidence (things not from our tradition) corroborating any of this?

As usual, sources would be most appreciated.

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2 Answers 2

To help anyone researching this, I should mention that the "Men of the Great Assembly" are referred to in most academic works as "Great Synagogue", "Great Synod" and one Hebrew Union College Annual article by Henry Englander insists that it should be translated as "Great Community". There's also a book on the topic by Hugo (Chayim Dov) Mantel, but almost everything that I wrote below is from D. Sperber's article in the Jewish Virtual Library, with a couple of additions and clarifications.

Who

Megilah 17b says (by referring to the people who established Shemoneh Esreh, not by calling them the Anshei Kenesset Hagedolah) that there were exactly 120 members, 'among them several prophets'. Interestingly, the Kuzari (3:65) says that there were many members, 'too many to count', so he might have believed it to be larger. There are no sources that contains a full list but we do have records of a few famous members. First of all, of all 120 members (that number comes from ), 120 members (that number comes from Megilah 17b), Avos Derebi Nasan (1:2) says that the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah (henceforth AKH) received the Torah from Chagai Zecharya and Malachi, implying that those three prophets were not part of the AKH (unlike what some of the commentaries on Avos state). Vayikra Rabbah 2:11 calls them 'Ezra and his companions', implying that Ezra was their leader. The Targum to Shir Hashirim 7:3 mentions Mordechai, Ezra, Nechemia, Zerubbabel, Yehushua (Kohen Gadol) and Bilshan (mentioned Ezra 2:2) as members of this group, and, of course, the Mishnah in Avos 1:2 states that Shimon HaTzadik was among the last members. Historians prefer to identify him with Simeon II, see below. Rav Reuvain Margolios (starting here) actually believes that Shimon Hatzadik was among 70 members of 'remainders of the AKH', which was separate from the AKH itself.

When and Where

Assuming that they were led by Ezra, the AKH may have been formed in Persia, but their major locale of operation was Israel, probably Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life during Ezra's time. When it comes to fitting Jewish sources with outside sources we're going to run into some trouble: we know (from the people mentioned) the Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah lived during the Persian empire period and its conclusion through the building of the Second Temple, which Seder Olam Rabba (30) says was only 34 years, whereas secular historians believe the period to be significantly longer (see this Wikipedia article: "The Missing Years" which is part of the confusion). Besides for Seder Olam Rabba, Midrash Socher Tov (on Tehillim 36) and Yalkut Shimoni (Beraishis Ch. 9, 61) refer to them as being of one generation, which also implies that they didn't last for more than half a century or so. If Shimon Hatzadik was among its members though, and this is Simeon II who lived in around 200 B.C.E, the period of the AKH could be as long as 200 years. Rav David Zvi Hoffman, in המשנה הראשונה (linked here, n. 29), also notes that much more time may have elapsed than implied by the first chapter of Maseches Avos, though he may not mean that the AKH spanned more time.

What

There are unfortunately no 'outside' sources that mention such an institution, though something like that isn't really expected because the Persians etc. of the relatively short time period during which they lived weren't too concerned with internal Jewish religious affairs. From Chazal though, we find that they established 'ברכות ותפלות קדושות והבדלות' (Berachos 33a), wrote (the final versions?) of several books of Tanakh (Bava Basra 15), according to one opinion in Yerushalmi (Shekalim 5:1), established Midrashei Halakha and Agada, had a hand in instituting Purim (Megilah 2a) and are said to have killed the yetzer hara for idolatry (whatever that means, Yoma 69b). They were also the ones who determined that 'there are four people excluded from Olam Haba' in Perek Cheilek of Sanhedrin (Bamidbar Rabba 14:1). Many assume that they also canonized Tanakh (exaple: Gra on Mishlei 24:23), and even though secular historians believe this to have come significantly later (Wikipedia, quotes Davies, puts it at the time of Chashmonaim) they agree that AKH took some part in formalizing Sifrei Tanakh. While they are not recorded as having any political power or function, the fact that they were able to establish a liturgy that was so widely accepted certainly bears testimony to the power of their influence.

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Anshei Knesset HaGedolah were the 120 sages set up by Ezra at the end of the Babylonian exile. According to shiurim that I have attendednce it was set up, no more members were added as the original members died until only Shimon Hatzadik was left. This is from a number of sources (including le'havdil Wikipedia) as well as a number of Jewish History sites and text books.

Rabbi Berel Wein discusses them in "Echoes of Glory" pages 13-15. Rabbi Reuven Margolies in Yesod Hamishnah V'Arichasa (Mosad Harav Kook, 1956) suggests that there were never any replacements and Shimon was the sole survivor of the 120. Others interpret "from the remnants" in Pirkei Avos as meaning that he was the one who picked up the mesorah after the group disbanded.

Pirkei Avos 1:2 shows that in the chain of tradition that Shimon Hatzadik was the "from the remnants" this group and was the next link in the chain.

Note that there are disputes as to the precise date that the first temple was destroyed and the second temple rebuilt. This is a totally different matter than the actual existence of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah as there are those who say that the first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and others as late as 420 BCE. This is a question discussed by Rabbi Shimon Schwab and others. One reason for this difference is the fact that the second temple traditionally existed for 420 years with 70 years of exile. Counting back from 70 CE gives 420 BCE. The discussion depends on how the calendar was set up in the construction interval and when the 420 years is counted from.

See @Matt in his answer as well for other citations for more details especially the Where and When section.

Obviously, those who say that it lasted from 520 BCE to 200BCE do not believe that it was a one generation organization and place Shimon Hatzaddik later would not agree with Rabbi Margolies.

The following is a short description of this group.

History Crash Course #26: The Great Assembly

The Men of the Great Assembly -- in Hebrew, Anshei Knesset HaGedolah -- was an unusual group of Jewish personalities who assumed the reigns of Jewish leadership between 410 BCE and 310 BCE. This time period follows the destruction of the First Temple, and includes the early decades of the Second Temple, up until the invasion of the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great. Realizing that the Jewish people were growing weaker spiritually, a group of wise leaders came together -- expanding the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, from 70 to 120 members -- with a special aim of strengthening Judaism. Initially gathered together by Ezra, they defined Judaism in this tumultuous time when prophecy and kingship were all but gone from the Jewish people.

(Today's Israeli Parliament, which is called "the Knesset," also has 120 members in imitation of the Great Assembly although the Knesset of today serves an entirely different function of the Great Assembly of 2,500 years ago.)

Among them we count the last of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, as well as the sages Mordechai, (of the Purim story), Yehoshua, (the High Priest), Nechemia (the chief architect of rebuilding of Jerusalem), Shimon HaTzaddik (also a High Priest).

Anshei Knesset HaGedolah

Anshei Knesset HaGedolah” – Men of the Great Assembly; founded by Ezra in approximately 520 B.C.E., this institution of Torah Sages led the Jewish People at the beginning of the Second Temple Era (ca. 520 B.C.E. – 70 C.E.). It included Mordechai and the last of the prophetsChaggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

Among the accomplishments of the “Anshei Knesset HaGedolah” were finalizing the contents of the “Tanach,” the 24-Book Hebrew Bible, instituting the “Shemoneh Esray” Prayer (recited at least three times daily, and ultimately to serve as a substitute for the Temple Sacrifices), and the enacting of many Laws to protect and bolster the observance of the Torah Commands.

According to Pirkei Avot (1:1), they are the fifth link in the Chain of Jewish Tradition: 1) Moshe receives it from Sinai and teaches it to 2) Yehoshuato the 3) Elders to the 4) Prophets to the 5) Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, at the end of the Biblical Period (ca. 520 B.C.E.). Pirkei Avot (1:2) also identifies “Shimon HaTzaddik,” Shimon the Righteous, as “among the last of the Men of the Great Assembly,” at the beginning of the Talmudic Period (ca. 200 B.C.E.).

In truth, the “Anshei Knesset HaGedolah” was a transitional institution, that over the approximately 320 years of its existence guided the Jewish People from the Biblical Period to the Talmudic Period, from the Period of “Nisim Niglim,” open, revealed miracles, observed by the entire People, as were the miracles associated with the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the Miracle performed by Eliyahu HaNavi in his contest with the Prophets of the Baal, to the Period of “Nisim Nistarim,” to more modest and hidden, concealed miracles; as were the Chanukah Miracle of the Oil and the “hidden” miracle of Purim. From the period of “Nevuah,” Prophecy, to the Period of “Tefilah,” Prayer. In Chassidic terms, it was a transition from a Period of “Isarusa Mil’ela,” Arousal from Above, to a Period of “Isarusa Mil’tatoh,” Arousal from Below.

There was a sense among Chaza”l that the “Beit HaMikdash HaSheni,” the Second Holy Temple, would not last, because the Divine Presence was not as concentrated as it had been in the First Temple, and it would be necessary to prepare the People for a long, uncharted journey in theDiaspora, with only the guiding but unseen “Hand of HaShem,” and His “Eyes,” watching from behind the curtain.

Thus, this institution was called “Great” because it “restored the Crown of the Torah” (Yoma 69b and Berachot 33a), served as the spiritual center of Jewish Life for approximately 320 years, and ensured the survival of the Jewish People through the coming harsh conditions of the Diaspora until the arrival of Mashiach ben David, soon and in our days.

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Can you identify any of the "sources", "Jewish history sites" and "text books [sic]" which indicate the claims in your first paragraph, as well as which support which claims in the paragraph? Furthermore, you have cited disagreement in your quotes but haven't acknowledged it. This answer is very confusing to me, and hence poor. –  Double AA Apr 27 at 5:41
    
@DoubleAA I am not sure what you mean about disagreement. THe references that I quote say the same thing. Every source that I look at basically says the same thing and both quotes say the same thing. The only thing that you seem to claim is a "disagreement" is that the second quote does not explicitly say 120. However, that is assumed when it is not mentioned. The Pirkei Avos show that Shimon Hatzadik was the last of the group and continued the chain of mesorah. –  sabbahillel Apr 27 at 9:32
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???? Are we reading the same post? One says it started in 410 BC and one says 520 BC. One says it lasted one generation, and one says it lasted 320 years. –  Double AA Apr 27 at 9:33
    
@DoubleAA I added the reference from Rabbi Wein and also added the explanation (including the reference from Rabbi Schwab) as to the difference in dates. I was speaking of their existence and actions and not the specific dates –  sabbahillel Apr 27 at 10:12
    
They can't have all existed at the same time and lasted 320 years... –  Double AA Apr 27 at 10:13

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