We know that between the last of the prophets and the beginning of the Mishnah, Judaism underwent a major change. Avot describes this period in just a sentence or two. The Rambam takes several paragraphs to explain it. But nobody really understands what happened or how it happened or who, in fact was responsible for it happening. All we know is, by the time of the Mishnah, we had a Judaism that was decidedly different than the Judaism of the prophets.
It was text-based Judaism, a religion of ritual and practice, distinguished by its reliance on interpretation of text and dependence on precedent. This doesn’t mean that there were no innovations, but greater care was taken to attribute them to a text or individual who was prominent in the ‘chain of tradition.”.
This was a Judaism of Torah, and the early stages of the ‘Canonization of Process” of Torah She’be’al Peh.
Without getting into too much of the minutia, this transition seems to have been engineered (perhaps not deliberately, but certainly in fact) by the council of 120 leaders created to oversee the return to Judea & rebuilding of the Jewish community worldwide – The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah – The men of the Great Assembly.
A number of scholars have tried to pinpoint who these 120 people were and when they operated. They could have been in power for one session or a generation, or several. From the Mishnah we learn they existed between the era pf the prophets and the sages. This, however, does not really explains what they did. The sages of the Mishnah attributed a number of innovations to the group: prayer structure, canonization of the Torah She’bikhtav (including fixing the definitive number of letters, verses, etc) plus laws designed to establish a second commonwealth and create ties between Judea & the Diaspora.What’s most strange to me is not only the sages’ acceptance of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah as undisputed fact (despite there being no objective evidence) but their silence on its fate — how it went from 120 to 1 – Shimon Hatzadik – in the age of Alexander the Great.Connected to this mystery is a question asked by a colleague of mine here. What about the Kohanim (priests)? Aren’t they supposed to be the heirs to Moshe’s Torah according to the passage in Devarim (Deuteronomy)?
ח “כי יפלא ממך דבר למשפט בין דם לדם בין דין לדין ובין נגע לנגע דברי ריבת בשעריך וקמת ועלית אל המקום אשר יבחר יהוה אלהיך בו טובאת אל הכהנים הלוים ואל השפט אשר יהיה בימים ההם ודרשת והגידו לך את דבר המשפט י ועשית על פי הדבר אשר יגידו לך מן המקום ההוא אשר יבחר ה’ ושמרת לעשות ככל אשר יורוך”
8” If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose. 9 And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment. 10 And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence, which they shall declare unto thee from that place which the LORD shall choose; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they shall teach thee.”
There could be a number of possibilities as to the fate of that council:
- The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah was a one-time assembly convened in the time of Ezra and saying Shimon Hatzadik was a member of the last generation is only legend
- The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah never existed
- The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah did exist for the duration from Ezra to the time of Alexander the Great but their work was outside of the public eye since their focus was on religious law and takkanot
- The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah did exist at some time between the age of Ezra & the time of Alexander the Great
- There were takkanot which the sages attributed to the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah even though they did not exist
- The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah was a council based on the temple mount
- The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah actually were Kohanim, or included Kohanim. Shimon Hatzadik may be the last scholar/kohen who personified the ideal of the council.
Most importantly, we have to remember that the Talmud is not a history book. Generations are shortened or skipped altogether; names are not always listed or sometimes combined or confused. Without concrete evidence, we can only rely on Talmudic-era anecdotes, what amounts to The Talmudic equivalent of an urban legend. One thing we can accept as real – from about the time of the end of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, a part of Judaism moved away from the prophetic and took a rabbinic/ Pharisaic turn, which became the main stream.
The sages of the Talmud latch onto the reputation of this Anshei Knesset Hagedolah and successive generations of rabbis to reinforce their connection to the early generations of prophets. In the process, they elevated the importance of Torah scholarship as the foundation for their leadership and downplayed the value of their prophetic connection to God, which they claimed connected them to their spiritual ancestors. Eventually, this minor ability was ‘replaced” by the ‘bat kol’ – a special pronouncement from God which certain sages could hear as a soft, dove-like voice thanks to their super-sensory perception. Over time, reverence for prophecy & bat-kol would be considered irrelevant, even disregarded, replaced by regard for the Torah of man.
Next: The Canonization of Process