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The Men of the Great Assembly

Parsha Halacha - Parshat Eikev

The Men of the Great Assembly

Shapers of Prayers and Halacha  

Sponsored by Israel and Gaby Kopel and their children, Yosef Chaim, Yitzhak Yehoshua, Shmuel David, and Clara Shaindel, in loving memory of their grandfather and great-grandfather, Reb Shmuel ben Reb Yehoshuah Eliyahu, whose Yahrtzeit is 17 Menachem Av

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.


Click here for a print version of this article 


In the Torah portion of Eikev we read about the Mitzvah to thank G-d after eating (bread) by saying the Grace of Meals, as the verse says,[1] “[When] you will eat and be satisfied, and you should bless the L-rd, your G-d, for the good land He has given you.” While this may very well be the only blessing that is mandated by Biblical law,[2] the later sages enacted the recitation of many other blessings and composed the texts of those blessings. 

The text of the Grace after Meals was composed by Moshe Rabeinu, Yehoshua, King David, and King Solomon.[3] The text of most of the other brachot was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly (אנשי כנסת הגדולה/Anshei Knesset HaGedolah), that is, the Sanhedrin in the beginning of the Second Temple era.[4]

This article will focus on the Great Assembly and their unique accomplishments. 

Men of the Great Assembly – How Many Were There?

According to the Babylonian Talmud there were 120 sages in the Great Assembly.[5]The Jerusalem Talmud, however, says[6] that there were 85 sages including “30 something” prophets in this assembly. To resolve the seeming discrepancy, the commentaries say[7] that the text of the Jerusalem Talmud should be amended to say “85 sages as well as 30 something prophets”[8] and that there were 35 prophets which would total of 120.[9]

It has been suggested[10] that the 120 members of the great assembly are the same men who oversaw the declaration to uphold the Torah as enumerated in the Book of Nechemiah, chapter 10, as well as those who signed the declaration.[11] This is based on the Talmudic teaching that the Assembly was called “Great” because they referred to G-d as “the Great One” (see below), an expression used by Ezra (one of the heads of this Assembly) when he made the above declaration.[12]

Who Were They?

The Rambam writes[13] that the following sages were members of the Great Assembly:

Chagai, Zechariah, Malachi,[14] Daniel,[15] Chanayah, Mishael, Azaryah,[16]Nechemiah ben Chachalya, Mordechai,[17] Zerubavel,[18] and Shimon HaTzadik. Some disagree with this list.[19] (See below, in the postscript for a [possible] full list.)

Why Were They Called Great?

The Talmud says[20] that this assembly was called “Great” because they went back to describing G-d as “great, mighty and awesome.” Although Moshe had described G-d as “great, mighty, and awesome,”[21] subsequent prophets had dropped the descriptions “awesome”[22] and (then later) “mighty,”[23] considering that the pagan nations haddanced in His sanctuary during the Temple’s destruction and His people had been scattered among the nations. (Of course they knew that G-d was awesome and mighty, but they were describing Him insofar as His present interactions with the world.[24]) The Men of the Great Assembly, however, “returned the crown to its place” and once again described G-d as “great, mighty, and awesome.”[25] In fact, they incorporated these descriptions into our daily prayers.[26] Their reasoning was that the fact that G-d held back His anger and didn’t immediately destroy the pagan nations who were in His sanctuary is a sign of His might. And the fact that the Jewish people weren’t destroyed in exile despite their being like one sheep among 70 wolves is a sign of His awesomeness. 

The Machzor Vitry[27] (By Rabbi Shmuel ben Simcha of 11th-century France, a student of Rashi) adds that they were called “great” because they were a great, important, and holy group of people (in addition to the reason given above).

Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Greenwald of Columbus, Ohio, (1888 -1955) suggests[28] that they were called a “great” assembly as they were the largest body in Jewish history to formulate laws since the highest Sanhedrin usually had only  71 members.

Why 120?

It has been suggested[29] that the Men of the Great Assembly chose to include 120 members to represent 10 members for each of the 12 tribes. (Although most of the tribes had already been exiled for several centuries, they chose this number as it symbolized this national participation.) Alternately, since the governing bodies in Persia were comprised of 120 men,[30] the sages borrowed this model for themselves.

Rabbi Reuven Margaliyot explained[31] that up until the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash no one questioned the authority of the Sanhedrin as they were considered a continuum of the Sanhedrin established by Moshe. After the destruction and exile, however, when this chain was broken, if they had only chosen a group of 71, the authority of that group could be questioned by the Torah scholars who were left out. As such, it was decided to include all of the worthy men of that generation (who had come back to Israel) whose total number was 120.

What Were Their Innovations?

Realizing that the power of prophecy was in its waning days, the men of the Great Assembly felt an urgent need to enact laws and rules that would strengthen the observance of the Torah for many years to come.[32] Some of these enactments were:

●      The text of the blessings and prayers

●      Kiddush and Havdalah[33]

●      They compiled the list of commoners and kings who had lost their portion in the World to Come.[34]

●      They prayed that the (excessive) desire for idol worship be lost from the Jewish people. This request was granted. They also prayed that the desire for improper intimacy be minimized. This prayer was answered in terms of the desire for incestuous relationships being minimized.[35]

●      They wrote the books of Ezekiel, Trei Assar (the Twelve [so-called] Minor Prophets), Daniel, and Esther.[36]

●      They decided which books should be considered part of the Kitvei Kodesh (Holy Scriptures), otherwise known as the Tanach.[37]


May We Soon Have a Restored Sanhedrin with Moshiach, Speedily in our Time!


Postscript

Here is a possible list of the 120 Men of the Great Assembly based on the above article

(from Nechemiah, Chapters 8 and 10)

1. נְחֶמְיָה הַתִּרְשָׁתָא בֶּן חֲכַלְיָה 2. צִדְקִיָּה 3. שְׂרָיָה 4.עֲזַרְיָה 5. יִרְמְיָה 6.פַּשְׁחוּר 7.אֲמַרְיָה 8. חַטּוּשׁ 9. שְׁבַנְיָה 10. מַלּוּךְ 11. חָרִם 12. מְרֵמוֹת 13. עֹבַדְיָה 14. דָּנִיּ֥אל 15. גִּנְּתוֹן 16. בָּרוּךְ 17. [38]מְשֻׁלָּם 18. אֲבִיָּה 19. מִיָּמִן 20. מַֽעַזְיָה 21.בִלְגַּי 22. שְׁמַֽעְיָה 23. Missing kohen 24. Missing kohen 25. Missing kohen[39]

These were Kohanim (besides Nechemiah). 

The next group is Levites

26. וְיֵשׁוּעַ בֶּן אֲזַנְיָה 27.בִּנּוּי מִבְּנֵי חֵנָדָד 28. קַדְמִיאֵל 29. שְׁבַנְיָה 30. הֽוֹדִיָּה 31. קְלִיטָא 32. פְּלָאיָה 33. חָנָן 34. מִיכָא 35. רְחוֹב 36. חֲשַׁבְיָה 37. זַכּוּר 38. שֵׁרֵֽבְיָה 39. שְׁבַנְיָה 40. הוֹדִיָּה 41. בָנִי 42. בְּנִינוּ 43. Missing Levi 44. Missing Levi 45. Missing Levi 46. Missing Levi 47. Missing Levi 48. Missing Levi 49. Missing Levi[40]

The rest were Israelites who were “leaders of the community”

50.   פַּרְעֹשׁ 51. פַּחַת מוֹאָב 52. עֵילָם 53. זַתּוּא 54. בָּנִי 55. בֻּנִּי 56. עַזְגָּד 57. בֵּבָי 58. אֲדֹנִיָּה 59. בִגְוַי 60. עָדִין 61. אָטֵר 62. חִזְקִיָּה 63. עַזּוּר 64. הוֹדִיָּה 65. חָשֻׁם 66. בֵּצָי 67. חָרִיף 68. עֲנָתוֹת 69. נֵיבָי 70. מַגְפִּיעָשׁ 71. מְשֻׁלָּם 72. חֵזִיר 73. מְשֵׁיזַבְאֵל 74. צָדוֹק 75. יַדּוּעַ 76. פְּלַטְיָה 77. חָנָן 78. עֲנָיָה 79. הוֹשֵׁעַ 80. חֲנַנְיָה 81. חַשּׁוּב 82. הַלּוֹחֵשׁ 83. פִּלְחָא 84. שׁוֹבֵק 85. רְחוּם 86. חֲשַׁבְנָה 87. מַעֲשֵׂיָה 88. אֲחִיָּה 89. חָנָן 90. עָנָן 91. מַלּוּךְ 92. חָרִם 93. בַּעֲנָה

Earlier in Nechemiah 8:4, those who stood to the right of Ezra when he made his speech: 

94. מַתִּתְיָה 95. שֶׁמַע 96. עֲנָיָה 97. אוּרִיָּה 98. חִלְקִיָּה 99. מַעֲשֵׂיָה 

Those who stood on the left were:[41]

100. פְּדָיָה 101. מִֽישָׁאֵל 102. מַלְכִּיָּה 103. חָשֻׁם 104. חַשְׁבַּדָּנָה 105. זְכַרְיָה 106. מְשֻׁלָּם

The following men explained the declaration to the people (Nechemiah 8:7): 

107. יֵשׁוּעַ 108. [42]בָנִי 109. שֵׁרֵבְיָה 110. יָמִין 111. עַקּוּב 112. שַׁבְּתַי 113. [43]הֽוֹדִיָּה 114. [44]מַעֲשֵׂיָה 115. קְלִיטָא 116. עֲזַרְיָה 117. יוֹזָבָד 118. חָנָן 119. פְּלָאיָה

And

120. Ezra HaSofer

As mentioned above, the missing names might also be the 10 men that the Rambam mentions whom are not mentioned in these texts. They are:

  1. Daniel
  2. Zerubavel
  3. Chagai 
  4. Zechariah
  5. Malachi
  6. Chanayah
  7. Mishael
  8. Azaryah
  9. Mordechai and 
  10. Shimon HaTzadik

[1] Deut. 8:10

[2] Some say that the daily blessings on the Torah study are also Biblically mandated. See Brachot 21aRamban’s Hashmatot on Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam no. 15 and here  

[3] See Berachot 48b and here

[4] See Brachot 33a and Megillah 17b

[5] Megillah ibid says that 120 sages instituted the blessings of the Amidah while Brachot ibid says that these were composed by the Men of the Great Assembly. 

[6] Megillah 1:5

[7] Maharatz Chayut on Megillah 17b

[8] This emendation only involves adding one letter. As instead of it saying שְׁמוֹנִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה זְקֵינִים וּמֵהֶם שְׁלֹשִׁים וְכַמָּה נְבִיאִים it should say שְׁמוֹנִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה זְקֵינִים וְעִמָהֶם שְׁלֹשִׁים וְכַמָּה נְבִיאִים

[9] As to why the Jerusalem Talmud says “30 something” instead of 35, the Maharatz Chayut explains that the context of the Jerusalem Talmud was that Mordechai was requesting the Great Assembly to include his book (Megillat Esther) in the canon. As such, although he was a member of the Great Assembly, he could not be counted as one of the sages who was answering this question. Therefore the Talmud could not write 35 prophets. Instead, it left the number ambiguous and said “30 something.”

[10] See here.

[11] The number of those who stood behind Ezra was 26 (Nechemiah 8:4 and 7). Those who signed included Nechemiah, 21 Kohanim, 17 Levites and 44 “heads of the nation” for a total of 82 men (ibid 10:1-28). In addition, there were another 3 Kohanim and 7 Levites who, for some reason, were not listed. (We know this because there were 24 families of Kohanim and 24 of Leviyim, each of whom had a patriarch. See here and Tosefta Ta’anit 3:2.) When we add Ezra, who read the declaration, the total is 120.

Please note that the names of Daniel, Zerubavel, Chagai, Zechariah, Malachi, Chanayah, Mishael, Azaryah

Mordechai and Shimon haTzadik do not appear in those lists while, according to the Rambam (see below), they were members of the Great Assembly. (The Daniel mentioned in Nechemiah 10:7 was a Kohen and could not have been the same as the Daniel of the lion’s den who was from the family of King David [see Daniel 1:3 and 5]). It is possible that there were different members of this assembly at different times. Alternately, these ten make up for the ten missing names in the above list while the unknown Kohanim and Leviyim may have been part of the group that stood behind Ezra.

[12] Nechemiah 8:6

[13] Introduction to Mishnah Torah

[14] But see Megillah 15a that some say that Malachi was the same person as either Mordechai or Ezra. 

[15] See Ibid that “Hatach” (of Esther 4:5) may have been Daniel (see Ohr Chadash). According to Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 1056 Hatach was killed at that point. 

[16] But see Sanhedrin 93a where some say that Chanaya, Mishael, and Azaryah died after surviving the fiery furnace of Nevuchadnetzar. 

[17] Iranian Jewry has a tradition that the tomb of Mordechai and Esther is in Hamadan, Iran. According to our sages, however, after the Purim story, Mordechai returned to Israel and was involved in the Sanhedrin and in the affairs of the Beit HaMikdash (see Mishnah Shekalim 5:1).

[18] This follows the opinion that Zerubavel and Nechemiah were not the same people. See Sanhedrin 38aTargum on Shir HaShirim 7:3 and Chidushei Maharal (מהרא"ל) on Sanhedrin ibid.

It is noteworthy that Zerubavel is not mentioned at all in the stories about Ezra and Nechemiah and the events of that era. 

[19] See Abarbanel in Nachalat Avot, introduction to Piekei Avot

[20] Yoma 69b and Jerusalem Talmud Brachot 7:3

[21] Deut 10:17

[22] Jeremiah 32:18

[23] Daniel 9:4

[24] Maharsha

[25] See Nechemiah 8:6. In the verse, Ezra describes G-d only as “great.” The Mahrasha explains that, based on the wording of the verse, the sages understood that he also said, “the mighty and the awesome.”

In addition, in chapter 9:32, the Levites, who were part of the Great Assembly (see above), said “And now, our G-d, great, mighty, and awesome G-d” just as Moshe had done.(Midrash Shochar Tov on Tehillim 19:2).

[26] Kovetz Shitot Kamai on Brachot 33b in the name of the Orchot Chaim.

[27] On Avot 1:1

[28] Letoldot HaSanhedrin BeYisrael (New York 1950), page 31

[29] Ibid

[30] See Daniel 6:2 “It pleased Darius to appoint over the kingdom one hundred and twenty satraps to be in charge of the whole kingdom.”

[31] Yesod HaMishnah Va’arichata, Birur 1

[32] Tiferet Yisrael, Yachin on Avot 1:1

[33] Brachot 33a

[34] Sanhedrin 104b

[35] Yomah 69b See Torat Menachem vol. 38 pg. 99 and on as to why they didn’t pray to eradicate the desire for murder.

[36] Bava Batra 15a

[37] Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Rabinowitz in his Dorot Rishonim vol. 2 pg. 196 based on Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:5 that Mordechai sought the approval of the Men of the Great Assembly to have Esther included in the Holy Scriptures.

[38] Please note that Zerubavel had a son by this name (see I Chronicles 3:19) but they were not the same person as this מְשֻׁלָּם was Kohen while Zerubavel was from the Tribe of Yehudah

[39] As explained above, since there were 24 family groups of Kohanim, and only 20 Kohanim are listed here, it is possible that the three who did not sign (for some reason) were also members of the Great Assembly

[40] Since there were 24 family groups of Levyim, there are seven missing names here. See the previous footnote

[41] As far as why there were six men on the right and seven on the left, the Malbim explains that Ezra himself was counted as being on the right. Alternately, he says (based on Megillah 23a) that זְכַרְיָה and מְשֻׁלָּם may have been the same person with two names. (This would ruin our count.)

[42] This cannot be the same בָנִי as the one in number 41 as that one was a Levite while this one was not.

[43] This cannot be the same הֽוֹדִיָּה as in number 40 as that one was a Levite while this one was not. On the other hand, he may be the same הֽוֹדִיָּה as the one in number 64

[44] This may be the same person as number 87


Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

Tue, May 21 2024 13 Iyyar 5784