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Synagogue, the Great

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(post-Biblical Hebrew, כְּנֶסֶת הִגְּדוֹלָה; Aramaic, כנשתא רבתא; late Greek and Latin, συναγωγὴ μεγάλη, Synagoga Magna), the Great Assembly, or the Great Synod, according to Jewish tradition, denotes the council first appointed after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity to reorganize the religious life, institutions, and literature of the people. Our information on the subject is chiefly from Rabbinical sources.

I. Name and its Signification. Though the verb. כָּנֵס, to gather, to assemble, occurs in the Old Test. (Esther 4:16; 1 Chronicles 22:2; Ezekiel 22:21; Ezekiel 39:28; Psalms 147:2), yet the noun כַּנֶסֵת, assembly, synagogue, does not occur in Biblical Hebrew. In the Hebrew Scriptures the terms קְחַלָּה, קָהָל, and אָסוּפָה are used for congregation, assembly, (See ECCLESIASTES), and there can be but little doubt that the non- Biblical כְּנֶסֶת is designedly employed to distinguish this assembly from all other gatherings. (See SYNAGOGUE). This is also the reason why the article is prefixed to the adjective alone, and not also to the noun viz.

הִגְּדוֹלָה כְּנֶסֶת, the Great Synagogue-inasmuch as this singles it out from the other synagogues, provincial or local, both great and small, which obtained at the same time, and which were designed for different objects. When Ewald asserts that "in the Mishnic language the substantive and the adjective never have the article together (Lehrbuch, § 293 a, note), we need only refer to Sabbath, 17:4; Yoma, 4:3; Taanith, 3, 7; Kethuboth, 6:7; Nedarim, 3, 11; Nazir, 8:1; Baba Bathra, 4:3; and to innumerable other passages, in refutation of this assertion. According to the most ancient tradition, this assembly or synagogue was styled great because of the great work it effected in restoring the divine law to its former greatness, and because of the great authority and reputation which it enjoyed (Jerusalem Megillah, 3, 7; Babylon Megillah, 13 b; Yoma, 69 b; Erubin, 13 b; Zebachim, 102; Sanhedrin, 14 a). The enactments of the Great Synagogue are often quoted in the name of אִנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הִגְּדוֹלָה, the men of the Great Assembly, or those who successively constituted its members during the long period of its existence. The abbreviated forms of these two names to be met with in Jewish literature are כה = הגדולה כנסת and אכ ה, אכהג = אנשי כנסת הגדולה . Sometimes this assembly is also designated the 120 elders (מאה ועשרים זקנים, Megillah, 17 b, 18 b).

II. Origin, Date, and Development of the Great Synagogue. It is supposed by many that Ezra was the founder of the Great Synagogue, and that he, in fact, was its president. Gritz, however, has adduced the following arguments to prove that Nehemiah originated it after the death of Ezra 1. The very name of Ezra is lot even mentioned in the Biblical register of the representatives (Nehemiah 9; Ezra 5), and it is inconceivable to suppose that the originator would have been omitted; and, 2. Nehemiah, as is well known, went twice from Shushan to Jerusalem to restore order viz. in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes's reign (B.C. 446), and considerably after the thirty-second year of his reign (B.C. cir. 410). On his second arrival he found Jerusalem in a most deplorable condition: the chiefs of the families had formed alliances with Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite, enemies of the Jews; the Sabbath was desecrated, and the law of God in of the sanctuary were disregarded (Nehemiah 13:6-31). Now the convention of the Great Synagogue was held expressly for the removal of these very evils; and since the representatives distinctly bound themselves by a most solemn oath to abstain from mixed marriages, to keep the Sabbath holy, and to attend sacredly to the sanctuary and its requirements, there can be no doubt that the synod was convened by Nehemiah after his second visit to Jerusalem to devise means in order to meet these perplexing points, and that because these evils disturbed the order of the community, therefore they were made the principal and express objects of the first synod. It is the position of ch. 10 recording the convention of the Great Synagogue which has caused this error. But it is well known that the book of Nehemiah is not put together in chronological order. Gratz has shown a position of the different chapters in accordance with the above view (Frankel, Monatsschrift, 6:62). (See EZRA). It is obvious, however, that Nehemiah acted in perfect concert with Ezra, and hence there is no substantial error hi attributing the Great Synagogue to the latter.

As to its date, the convention of this Great Synagogue was most probably one of Nehemiah's last acts, and it must have taken place after the death of Artaxerxes, else Nehemiah could not have remained in Jerusalem, since even the second permission to visit that city was granted to him on condition that he should return to Shushan. It could not therefore have taken place before B.C. 424. The Great Synagogue was most probably held a few years after the above date of Nehemiah's second visit. Ezra was doubtless then dead, and this is the reason why his name does not occur in the register of the representatives. The whole period of the Great Synagogue embraces about 104 years (B.C. 404-300), or from the latter days of Nehemiah to the death of Simon the Just (q.v.), who was the last link of the chain constituting the synod (Aboth, 1, 2). It then passed into the Sanhedrim, when the whole of its constitution was changed. (See SANHEDRIM).

The existence of the Great Synagogue, which is attested by the unanimous voice of Jewish tradition, was first questioned by Richard Simon (Hist. Crit. du Vieux Test. lib. 1, cap. 8). Jacob Alting, with more boldness, rejected it altogether as one of the inventions of tradition ("Synagoga magna enim nec uno tempore nec uno loco vixit, eoque synagoga non fuit, rerum commentum n est traditionariorum, qui nullum alioquin nexum παραδόσεως reperire potuerunt," Opp. 5, 382). He was followed by Rau (Diatribe de Synag. Magna [Ultraj. 1726], p. 66, etc.) and Aurivillius (De Synag. vulgo dicta Magna [ed. J. D. Michaelis, Gö tting. 1790]). De Wette (Einleitung in das A.T. § 14) contemptuously dismisses it as "a tradition which vanishes as soon as the passages are looked at whereon it is based, and as not even being a subject for refutation." Those who condescend to argue the matter reject this tradition because it is not mentioned in the Apocrypha, Josephus, Philo, or the Seder Olam, and because the earliest record of it is in the tract of the Mishna entitled A both, which belongs to the 1st or 2nd century of our sera, but probably represents an earlier age. But surely this argument from the silence of a few writers cannot set aside the express and positive testimony of the Mishna, the Talmud, and the earliest Jewish works. In like manner, the book of Ecclesiasticus, in its catalogue of Jewish heroes (ch. 1), does not mention Ezra: Josephus never alludes to the tribunal of twenty-three members, and the earliest patristic literature of the Jews does not breathe a syllable about the Maccabeean heroes. Would it be fair to conclude from this silence that Ezra, the tribunal, and the Maccabees are a myth? In confirmation of the records in the Talmudic literature about the Great Synagogue, the following circumstantial evidence is to be adduced: The errors of the Samaritans became rampant after the death of Nehemiah, while of the high- priests between Eliashib and Onias I some were insignificant men and others were reprobates. Judaism, moreover, has no record whatever of any distinguished persons during this period. We should therefore have expected the religion of the people to be at the lowest ebb. But instead of declining, we find Judaism-rapidly rising. No trace is to be found in the whole of this period of the disturbances, misconceptions, and errors, which prevailed in the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel. The law and the precepts were pre-eminently revered. The ancient collection of Ben- Sirach's sayings, which reflects the spirit of the people in the pre-Simonic age, breathes a fervent enthusiasm for the inspired law (comp. Sirach 2:16; Sirach 7:29; Sirach 9:15; Sirach 10:19; Sirach 15:1; Sirach 19:17; Sirach 21:11; Sirach 23:27, and especially ch. 24). Who, then, has kindled and sustained such an enthusiasm and religious spirit, if not an assembly similar to that convened by Nehemiah?" (Gratz, in Frankel's Monatsschrift, 16, 63, etc.).

III. Number of Members and their Classification. We are told that Nehemiah organized the Great Synagogue (comp. Nehemiah 10:1-10 with Midrash Ruth, c. 3; Jerusalem Shebiith, 5, 1), and that it consisted of 120 nmembers (Jerusalem Berakoth, 2, 4; Jerusalem Megillah, 1; Babylon Megillah, 17 b). In looking at the register of the Great Assembly recorded in Nehemiah (10, 18), it will be seen: that-a Only sixteen out of the twenty- four chiefs of the priests (1 Chronicles 24:7-18) are enumerated, and that for the eight that are wanting four private persons are given, viz. Zidkijah, Daniel, Baruch, and Meshullam. b. Of the six or seven chief Levites-viz. Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Hodijah, Sherebiah, Hashabniah who returned with Zerubbabel and Ezra (Nehemiah 9:4-5; Ezra 5:18,19, 24), Bani is omitted, and twelve private individuals are mentioned who were undoubtedly the doctors of the law (מבינים; Nehemiah 8:7; Nehemiah 9:3). c. Of the forty-five chiefs of the people (הע ראשי ) only half are known as heads of families, and the rest are again distinguished private individuals. Here the families of David and Joab (comp. Ezra 8:2; Ezra 8:9) are missing. d. Of the representatives of the cities there are only two mentioned viz. Anathoth and Nebowhich plainly shows that others are omitted, since these two places did not at all distinguish themselves to be thus singled out. Now, in looking at the peculiar position if which they are placed among the heads of the people in the register of the exiles, it will be seen that the family of Hariph (Joseh) stand first; then follow the names of thirteen cities (viz. Gibeon, Bethlehem, Netophah, Anathoth, Beth-azmaveth, Kirjath jearim, Chephirah, Beeroth, Ramah; Gaba, Michmas, Beth-el, and Ai); Nebo concludes the catalogue of the cities, and the family of Magbish follows upon it (Ezra 2:18-30; Nehemiah 7:24-33), which exactly corresponds with the order in the register of the Great Synagogue; Hariph begins, then come cities, i.e. Anathoth; Nebai comes last, and then again Magbish (Nehemiah 10:19-20). It has been supposed, therefore, that the above-named cities are to be inserted between Hariph and Anathoth. If we add to these fifteen cities the other five specified in the register (viz. Lod, Hadid, Ono, Jericho, and Tekoa 7, 36, 37), which were represented by this synod, we have in all twenty cities. Uinder this view, eight divisions of the priests are wanting-the family of Bani is missing from the Levites, seven families of the heads of the people have disappeared and thirteen of the representatives of the cities have dropped out. Now, if we supply those which seem to have been dropped, and add them up with the private individuals mentioned in the register, we obtain the following representatives in the Great Synagogue: twenty-eight priests, consisting of the twenty-four divisions and the four private individuals; nineteen Levites, being the seven families and the twelve private persons; fifty Israelites, twenty-nine being chiefs of the people and twenty-one private persons- making in all ninety-seven, with Nehemiah ninety-eight, while the remaining twenty-two are the deputations of the cities. We may thus obtain the 120 members of the Great Synagogue mentioned by the unanimous voice of tradition. It will also be seen from the above that these 120 members represented five classes, viz.

1. The chiefs of thepriestly divisions (ראשי בית אב );

2. The chiefs of the Levitical families (ראשי הלויים );

3. The heads of the Israelite families (ראשי העם );

4. Representatives of cities, or the elders. (זקנים; πρεσβύτεροι );

5. The doctors of the law (סופרים מבינים; γραμματεῖς ), from all grades.

This number, however, if thus made up, was most probably restricted to the time of Nehemiah, as there can be no doubt that the assemblies which were, afterwards held consisted of a smaller number, since, at the time when the Great Synagogue is held to have passed over into the Great Sanhedrim, the representatives consisted of seventy, which became the fixed rule for the Sanhedrim (q.v.).

IV. The Work of the Great Synagogue. At its first organization under Nehemiah, if the above be its true origin, the representatives bound themselves by a most solemn oath (באלה ובשבועה ) to carry out the following six decisions, which were deemed most essential for the stability of the newly reconstructed State:

1. Not to intermarry with heathens;

2. To keep the Sabbath holy;

3. To observe the sabbatical year;

4. Every one to pay annually a third of a shekel to the Temple;

5. To supply wood for the altar;

6. Regularly to pay the priestly dues (Nehemiah 10:28-39).

The foundation for the reorganization and reconstruction- of the State and the Temple-service being thus laid at the first meeting of this synod, the obtaining of the necessary materials for the successful rearing-up of the superstructure and the completion of the edifice demanded that the synod should occasionally reassemble to devise and adopt such measures as should secure the accomplishment of the plan and the permanent maintenance of the sanctuary. To this end the members of the Great Synagogue are believed to have collected the canonical Scriptures. This was called forth by the effects of the first decision, which involved the expulsion of Manasseh, son of the high-priest Joiada, by Nehemiah and the synod for refusing compliance with that decision i.e. to be separated from his heathen wife, the daughter of Sanballat (Nehemiah 13:23-29). In consequence of this his father-in-law, Sanballat, obtained permission to build an opposition temple on Mount Gerizim, in which Manasseh became high-priest, and whither he was followed by many of the Jews who sympathized with him. This proceeding, however, compelled them to deny the prophets, because their repeated declarations about the sanctity of Jerusalem did not favor the erection of a temple out of the ancient metropolis. To erect a wall of partition between the Jews and these apostates, and to show to the people which of the ancient prophetical books were sacred, the Sopherim and the men of the Great Synagogue compiled the canon of the prophets. As the early prophets and the great prophets i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel like the Pentateuch, were already regarded, as sacred, it only remained for the Great Synagogue to complete the prophetical canon by inserting into it the twelve minor prophets, which this synod accordingly did, as may be seen from Baba Bathra, 15; Aboth di Rabbi Nathan, c. 1; 2 Maccabees 12:13. Although some of these authorities are no longer clear about the books inserted into the canon, yet they all testify to the fact that the members of the Great Synagogue were engaged in collecting the canonical books of the prophets. The Hagiographa were not as yet made up, as is evident from the fact that the younger Sirach did not even know the expression כְּתוּבַים, but used the general term τὰ ἄλλα to denote them (Preface to Ecclus.), and that in Alexandria additions were made to the book of Esther, and other books were inserted in what we now call the Hagiographa, as well as from the circumstance that the canonicity of some of the Hagiographa continued to be a point of difference between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, which could not have been the case if the canon of the Hagiographab had been definitely made up. They also compiled the ritual for private and public worship, (See SYNAGOGUE); and, finally, they introduced schools for the study of the divine law (בית ועד ), and defined the precepts of Holy Writ. The whole of this is indicated in the epitome of the three grand maxims transmitted to us in the laconic style of the Mishna: "The prophets transmitted the divine law to the men of the Great Synagogue, who propounded the three maxims be cautious in judging, get many disciples, and make a hedge about the law" (Aboth, 1, 1). The other work of the men of the Greek synagogue which has come down to us in the name of the Sopherinm is given in the article SCRIBE (See SCRIBE) .

V. Literature. Wassermann, in Jost's Israelitische Annalen (Frankfort- on-the-Main, 1840), 2, 163 sq.; Sachs, in Frankel's Zeitschrift fü r die religiosen Interessen des Judenthums (Berlin, 1845), 2, 301 sq.; Krochmal, More Neboche Ha-Seman (Leopoli, 1851), p. 52 sq., 102 sq., 166 sq.; Herzfeld, Geschichte des Volkes Israel (Nordhausen, 1855-57), 1, 22 sq., 380 sq.; 2, 53, 244 sq., 264 sq.; Jost, Gesehichte des Judentumns, 1, 35 sq., 95 sq., 270 sq.; Low, Ben Chananja (Segedin, 1858), 1, 102 sq., 193 sq., 292 sq., 338 sq.; and especially the elaborate essay of Gratz, in Frankel's Monatssehrift fiair Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Leipsic, 1857), 6:31 sq., 61 sq.; also Furst, Gesch. des Kanons, p. 22, note. (See CANON SYNAGOGUE AND CHURCH). The Jewish Church is, in the catacombs, represented as a woman of majestic presence in flowing robes; but in medieval examples, as on the doorway at Rochester Cathedral, with her eyes bandaged, the tables of the law falling from one hand, and a broken staff in the other (Jeremiah 5:16-17). The Church is crowned and sceptred, and holds a church and a cross.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Synagogue, the Great'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/synagogue-the-great.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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