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Jewish History

Who Are "the Sages of the Great Assembly"?

Published on Thursday May 10th, 2018

The Sages of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedolah) have had the merit of being the first to reside in the Land of Israel after the destruction of the first Temple. They were the spiritual guides of a entire nation during the Second Temple era.

The Grand Assembly was composed of 120 members. They were the great Sages of the generation, who led the people when they returned to the Land of Israel after Babylonian exile.

They are the heirs of the Oral Torah transmitted by Moshe Rabbeinu, as demonstrated by the first teaching of Pirkei Avot: "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. "

They deserved to be the first to return to Israel after the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile, which lasted 70 years. They were the people’s leaders when the second Temple was erected. Among the first members of the Great Assembly were prophets such as Hagai, Zacharia, and Malachi, but also the leaders of Yeshivot such as those established by Ezra Hasofer (the scribe), and Mordechai from the Megillah of Esther. Many Jewish Sages of the same generation were also part of the Great Assembly.

In the hearts of that generation’s great leaders, there was a deep hope for the return of Jewish kingship in the Holy Land. A feeling of responsibility was also decided by Heaven to restore the greatness of the People of Israel according to the Torah’s guidelines.

From the depths of exile, they merited to see the light that stemmed from the hope of an entire people and once again be able to set foot on the Land of Jerusalem, and eventually restore the splendor of the sanctuary.

Inspired by Divine Providence, these Sages tried to understand the thread of history through events. The flagship event of the return of the exiles to their land had allowed them to better understand the events of the previous century, which were to the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile. With their immense knowledge, they knew how to detect the extraordinary and sometimes subtle message regarding the sustainability of the Jewish people. Despite the terrible darkness caused by the destruction of the first Temple and the exile that followed thereafter, the infinite power of the Creator was revealed: "If not for the will of Hashem, how can a sheep survive alone among 70 hungry wolves? ". The survival of the Jewish people, despite so many exterminations and pogroms, clearly demonstrates the divine intervention throughout history.

The Sages of the Great Assembly were able to restore the true meaning of history after the terrible events, such as the destruction of the Temple. Back in the Land of Israel, they grasped the heavy responsibility that awaited them.

Over the course of the exile, their experience has been conducive to fruitful results. If we take a careful look at the past, they have left aside the remedy necessary to rebuild the people, a remedy that is the solution to many problems: Torah learning. It is for this reason that they have increased their efforts on spreading Torah after the return from exile.

Excellence

Thus, they taught (Pirkei Avot 1,1): "Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around Torah...". That is to say, whatever the situation, one must learn Torah, make good judgments and teach others Torah, while putting in place barriers to preserve it.

The Sages of the Great Assembly taught more than those three teachings, but these served as models of excellence in their actions.

 

"Be deliberate in judgment": these words are addressed to the Dayanim (rabbinical judges). Their judgments must take into account each element in order to render an impartial decision. A hasty decision can lead to errors in judgments against the principles of the Torah.

"Train many disciples": this teaching aims to establish many students in order to preserve Torah within the Jewish people. The goal is to train them so that they can gain autonomy and become part of the chain of Torah transmission. Added to this is the learning of good behavior and adequate thinking to cope with life.

"Make a fence around Torah": in the same way that a fence is intended to mark the limit beyond which one is no longer protected, so the barriers of the Torah were established to preserve the man of sin and for Torah not to be transgressed. Take the example of Shabbos for which our Sages instituted the notion of "Muktzah" (to be careful not to move certain objects) in order to preserve the sanctity of Shabbos. These are also prohibited in other areas, such as Kashrut or Tefila. The only goal is to avoid transgressing Torah prohibitions per se.

Writing Daily Prayers

The Great Assembly Sages also wrote the texts of Tefilot and blessings. It is true that Tefila can be expressed in a natural way, but it requires a framework and a written text. The emotions depend on the person’s situation. A healthy person’s feelings are different than a sick person’s. A vigorous, spirited person does not pray the same way a tired or weak person does. This is why it is important that Tefila be defined in a very specific context, so that its relationship with Hashem is obvious.

Three Tefilot were written: Arvit, Shacharit and Mincha, so as to always be able to connect with Hashem. In times of joy, sadness, good health or sickness, we must pray to our Creator. Tefila does not depend on our mood. If we had to wait for our goodwill, there would be many days without any Tefila. On the other hand, if Tefila is continuous, it concretizes a will to always be close to Hachem, no matter which tests Hashem puts on our path.

The Siddur (prayer book) is certainly one of the deepest books of the Oral Torah. It is filled with secrets based on Kabbalah and inspired by the divine spirit. In our days, when we pray in a Siddur, we are immediately connected to the spiritual dimension of the Sages of the Great Assembly. A Tefila recited with good intentions has the power to pierce the heavens and reach the divine throne.

Tefila brings together all kinds of demands and desires of the individual, as well as the community. Whoever delves into the text of Tefila will be able to find the expression of his personal feelings as well as the emotions and the wishes to which he aspires to. Tefila is the expression of the feelings of the heart as a whole.

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