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In Pirkei Avot, in chapter one mishna 1 it says that Yehoshua passed on the Torah to the zekeinim. Who were they? For how long did they exist?

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Bartenura and the Pirush labeled Rashi say they were the elders from the time of Yehoshua until the beginning of the neviim, Eili and Shmuel.

'Rashi' gives examples of Asniel and Ehud along with the other Shoftim.

Both Bartenura and 'Rashi' reference a pasuk in Shoftim, 2:7

וַיַּעַבְד֤וּ הָעָם֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ וְכֹ֣ל ׀ יְמֵ֣י הַזְּקֵנִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֶאֱרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים֙ אַחֲרֵ֣י יְהוֹשׁ֔וּעַ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָא֗וּ אֵ֣ת כָּל־מַעֲשֵׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ הַגָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

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The Meiri says it includes from Osniel Ben Kenaz until Eli HaKohen, as the Shoftim are included in Zekeinim.

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Rambam writes in his Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna:

"And when Yehoshua bin Nun, peace be upon him, died, he taught the elders that which he received of the [Torah's oral] explanation; and the laws that they extrapolated during his time about which no disagreement occurred; and [those] about which there occurred a disagreement [and] they decided the law according to the majority of the elders. And about them the verse states (Joshua 24:31), "and all the days of the elders who had length of days after Joshua." And afterward, these elders taught that which they received from Yehoshua to the prophets, peace be upon them. And the prophets learned, one from another."

Turning to that verse in Yehoshua, Metzudat David writes:

אשר האריכו ימים. עד כלות עשרים ושמונה שנה מיום שעמד יהושע, כך כתוב בסדר עולם (סי׳ יב) ואשר ידעו וכו׳ רצה לומר, בימי הזקנים האלה עבדו את ה׳ אשר ידעו מעשה ה׳, כי בעיניהם ראו, ובזה היו מישרים את לבות ישראל לאביהם שבשמים.

Translation: "who had length of days" - to the end of 28 years from the day that Yehoshua stood, so is written in Seder Olam (siman 12). "and who had experienced all the deeds that the LORD had wrought for Israel." wanted to say, that in the days of these elders [they] worshiped Hashem who had experienced all the deeds that the LORD had wrought, for in their eyes they saw, and through that they would straighten the hearts of Israel and direct them to their father in heaven.

From the term "האריכו ימים" - "length of days", I assume that those 28 years came after the death of Yehoshua - so that's the time period of the leadership of the elders.

Abarbanel on Shmuel 1:13, however, writes:

"...וחכמינו ז"ל אמרו כ"ה שנה ובאותם השנים כלם עבדו ישראל את ה' ולא נכנעו למלכי האומות, כמו שאמר (יהושע כ"ד ל"א) ויעבדו העם את ה' כל ימי יהושע וכל ימי הזקנים אשר האריכו ימים אחרי יהושע אשר ראו את כל מעשה ה' וגו'..."

Translation: and our sages z"l said that 25 years, and in those years in their entirety Yisrael worshiped Hashem, etc.

Torah Temimah on Devarim 11:21 writes:

"למען ירבו ימיכם. כתיב (יהושע כ״ד:ל״א) וכל ימי הזקנים אשר האריכו ימים אחרי יהושע, א"ר יוחנן ימים האריכו שנים לא האריכו נגמקודם לזה מבואר בגמ' שבני דורו של יהושע בן נון התעצלו בהספדו של יהושע ולא הספידוהו כראוי, ועוד מבואר שם שכל המתעצל בהספדו של חכם אינו מאריך ימים, ופריך על זה והכתיב שהזקנים האריכו ימים אחרי יהושע אע"פ שנתעצלו בהספדו, ועל זה משני ימים האריכו שנים לא האריכו, [והפי' הוא שבלו ימיהם בטוב דגם זה חשיב אריכות ימים וכמבואר ביומא ע"א א' ולפנינו בפ' ויגש בפ' כמה ימי שני חייך]."

Translation: "to the end that you and your children may endure" - it's written "and all the days of the elders who had length of days after Joshua.", said Rabbi Yochanan: "Days they had length of, years they did not have length of." (Shabbat 105b) - earlier it was explained in the gemara that the people of Yehoshua's generation were lazy in eulogizing him and did not eulogize him properly, and further it is explained their that any person who is lazy in properly eulogizing a sage does not have a length of days, and this is seemingly rebutted for it is written that the elders had a length of days after Yehoshua, despite the fact that they were lazy in his eulogy, and for this it is noted "days" they had length of, "years" they did not have length of, and the explanation is that they spent their days well, doing/living good and this is also considered length of days.*

As for their identity, Ralbag on the verse writes:

"וזכר עוד שכבר עבדו ישראל את ה' כל ימי יהושע וכל ימי הזקנים אשר האריכו ימים אחרי יהושע ואשר ידעו את כל מעשה ה' אשר עשה לישראל והם יוצאי מצרים כי זולת' לא ידעו את כל המעש'..."

Translation: And he mentioned moreover that Yisrael worshiped Hashem all the days of Yehoshua and all the days of the elders who lived a length of days after Yehoshua and who knew all the deeds of Hashem that He did for Yisrael, and they were of the people who left Egypt (יוצאי מצרים-yotzei Mitzrayim) for besides them [there wasn't anyone else] who knew all of the deeds.

Nachalat Avot on Avot 1:1 writes:

"משאר הזקנים, עם היותם כולם מבית דינו של משה ושל יהושע אחריו...הלמוד הרביעי – שיהושע כשמת מסר קבלת התורה לזקנים...אין ספק שהיו עם יהושע – בית דינו והם הזקנים שהיו בימיו והאריכו ימים אחריו..."

Translation: "from the rest of the sages, with that they were all from the court (beit din) of Moshe and of Yehoshua after him...and the fourth teaching is that when Yehoshua died he passed the receiving of the Torah to the elders...without a doubt they were together with Yehoshua - his court and they are the elders that were in his days and after him.


* Benyahu on the gemara in Shabbat 105b writes:

"ימים האריכו, שנים לא האריכו!. עיין מה שאמר רש"י ז"ל. וקשה, והלא רבי יוחנן קאמר להדיא אינו מאריך ימים ולא אמר אינו מאריך שנים? ונראה לי בס"ד, בלשון המקרא ימים קאי על בלוי שנים בטוב, ושנים קאי על רבוי שנים במספר, אך בלשון חכמים 'אריכות ימים' קאי על רבוי שנים במספר, כי לשון תורה לחוד ולשון חכמים לחוד.

Translation: "days they had length of, years they didn't have length of!" - see what Rashi z"l wrote. And this is hard, for didn't Rabbi Yochanan say later that "[one] doesn't have length of "days" and didn't say length of "years"? And it seems to me bs"d that the in the language of the Tanach "days" means spending one's years in a good way, and "years" means having many years in a numerical way, but in the language of our sages "length of days" refers to years in a numerical way, for the language of the Torah and the language of the sages is separate.

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The elders were the 72 zekinim who were originally appointed by Moshe Rabbeinu and as a group continued through the days of the Shoftim. See Shoftim 2:7.

And the nation served the Lord during all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua and who had seen all the great deed of the Lord that He had performed for Israel.

These elders continued until the time of the Prophets (Shmuel Hanavi and his court).

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  • Source that this group includes Moshe’s Sanhedrin? It seems odd that the Mishnah would include them in Zekeinim, thus having a group which coexisted with Yehoshua, who’s listed separately. Robev’s answer from the Meiri makes more sense to me, that it refers to strictly the period of the Shoftim. Whereas all the other transitions have one generation as a transition between one group and the next (Shmuel to Neviim and Chagai et. al. to Anshei Knesses HaGedolah), Yehoshua is completely subsumed into the period of the Zekeinim according to you. – DonielF Apr 19 at 3:53
  • @DonielF Joshua 24:31 may be a source, as it says the zekeinim outlived yehoshua. Although I don't know if all 72 did. Thus he was moser it to them before he died. – robev Apr 19 at 4:03
  • @DonielF The torah calls them the zekeinim. That is why I consider that they were subsumed into the era of Yehoshua and Moshe and only came into their own as a leadership group after Yehoshua died. They would have had other members added over the years as the older members died. – sabbahillel Apr 19 at 12:56
  • Regarding Joshua 24:31, Bamidbar Rabbah 3:7 brings a dispute about who these zekeinim were. Either benei Levi or Eldad and meidad – robev Apr 19 at 14:33

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