“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.