Shiur #13: Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron Wise z"l (whose yahrzeit is Tamuz 21), by the Wise and Etshalom families. Yehi Zikhro Barukh.


Shiur #13: Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola

By Rav Moshe Taragin

The very first mishna of the first chapter both describes the transmission of the masora (tradition) while listing the moralisms which the anshei knesset ha-gedola taught. This judicial-legislative body of 'great assembly' was composed of 120 and operated into the early stages of the second mikdash (temple). It included such renowned prophets as Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, Azaryah, Ezra and Mordechai. They were responsible for a wide body of rabbinic legislation as well as instituting a formal and universalized liturgy. Their remarks represent some of the earliest recorded post-prophetic statements.

The tribute of 'great assembly' which was affixed to this body may have been related to the impressive figure of 120 assembled scholars. It may also have stemmed from their personal stature, including many prophets and scholars. However, the gemara in Yoma (69b) records an interesting additional motive for this title. The destruction of the first mikdash marked a nadir in our national history and a terrible period of suffering and oppression. However it also raised stiff theological concerns.

To us, born into an exilic world, the notion of a mikdash destroyed is tragic and history-altering, but comprehensible. To the people who lived through this gradual corrosion and ultimate collapse, it was unthinkable. How could God allow His residence to be ransacked?? Witnessing the foreign armies of Nevuchadnezer rampaging through the mikdash raised serious theological questions.

In particular, people had difficulty grasping the traits of God which describe His might and His transcendence. In fact two prophets had particular difficulty in this regard. Troubled by the prospect of looters running amok within the mikdash, Yirmiyahu could no longer utter the praise of 'norah' (awesome) which addresses God's transcendence. Likewise, Daniel witnessing the enslavement of close to 100,000 Jews could no longer pronounce God's might ('gevura').

In response, the anshei knesset ha-gedola (at some later stage – perhaps in their effort to standardize liturgy and include these phrases) defended these Divine traits despite the perplexing turn of events. It was a sign of Hashem's 'strength' that He allows man freedom of choice, and in the case of Nevuchadnezer, freedom to commit unspeakable crimes. Hashem must suppress His own omnipotence to assure a fair and thorough freedom of choice. If anything, this restraint is a more robust sign of 'strength.'

Alternatively, His transcendence is on display by our own continued survival despite our scant population and our scattered and defenseless position. By restoring these crucial Divine aspects to popular imagination and liturgical ceremony, the anshei knesset ha-gedola merited the title of the 'great assembly.' In many ways this body was the first to fashion a concerted response to the mystery of Jewish History and the riddle of extended Diaspora.

They counseled us in three areas: to be prudent in judgment, to instruct many students, and to construct barriers to protect against Torah violation.

1. Be deliberate in judgment

This ideal is directed, in a strict sense, to individuals who actually render legal rulings. To our modern sensitivities, having all but lost halakhic judicial authority, this activity seems highly 'specialized.' Very few of us will ever sit on a panel of 'dayanim' (judges) and render the type of verdicts which will be enforceable. Indeed, Rabbis may be consulted to render a halakhic ruling and this ruling may be likened to a rabbinic suggestion or recommendation. Certainly this exercise itself, though lacking formal halakhic authority, undoubtedly demands careful deliberation and sustained reflection. Though most rishonim do adhere to the literal and somewhat parochial translation, it appears that the anshei knesset ha-gedola may have included a secondary meaning.

Avot d'Rebbe Natan associates this dictum with an intriguing historiographical drama. Initially, three of Shlomo Ha-melekh's compositions caused a slight uproar and were threatened with banishment. Mishlei, Shir Ha-shirim and Kohelet each caused some disconcertment to some readers and a movement to ban these books developed. As the gemara in Shabbat (30b) records, Kohelet offended many through its numerous contradictions. Indeed, at various points, Shlomo both condemns and extols laxity (sechok); he denounces joy (simcha) while later upholding it. Upon further reflection Shlomo's message was better appreciated, his riddles decoded, and his composition ultimately canonized by the anshei knesset ha-gedola (see Bava Batra 14b).

Similar contradictions were subsequently noted in Mishlei (it should be noted that the chronology of the authorship of his three books is disputed). A similar suggestion – to ban Mishlei - surfaced. However, having already benefited from their earlier reconsideration, the opponents of Mishlei resolved its own contradictions and ratified this book as well.

Though the gemara in Shabbat does not record the initial reservation surrounding Shir Ha-shirim, Avot d'Rebbe Natan does report a similar experience with this composition and its canonization. Interestingly, this version reports that the initial reservations surrounded the provocative nature of several statements contained in these three works. These declarations, if misunderstood, or if improperly balanced with other ideals, could lead to a dissolute or degenerate lifestyle. Facing this prospect, some sought to literally bury these works and suppress Shlomo's compositions. Further reflection allowed these works to be reconsidered and their anomalies resolved. Ultimately these ideas have significantly contributed to religious consciousness throughout the ages!!!

Ironically, or perhaps not so, according to the gemara in Bava Batra (14b) it was the anshei knesset ha-gedola – the very same body which urged deliberate consideration - which was ultimately responsible for canonizing these works within Tanakh. Evidently, by issuing this recommendation towards careful reflection and deliberation, the anshei knesset ha-gedola had more than just legal prudence in mind. Apparently, this value encourages cool deliberation about our judgments in general. The affair surrounding the incorporation of Shlomo's works highlights the peril of rash or hasty evaluation - particularly when such impetuousness is driven by seeming religious zeal. Religious experience aims toward passionate commitment and the substitution of rational thought with ecstatic experience. Unencumbered by sterile logic, fervent worship is motivated by ardor and irrational devotion. However, zeal can sometimes transform into fanaticism. Religion's true aim is not to displace logic with enthusiasm, but to animate religion with a foundation of passion, and galvanize ration for the sake of devotion.

How often our religious energy becomes errant as we assume that the quicker our rejection, the firmer our denial, and the harsher our judgment, the more zealous our commitment. The controversy surrounding Shlomo's works highlights this danger.

In fact, the very dictum of 'hevu metunim ba-din' (be deliberate in judgment) is derived from an intriguing textual juxtaposition located at the bridge between Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim. The final verse of Yitro demands the construction of a ramp upon the altar to prevent Kohanim from running or leaping toward its apex. Stairs would facilitate 'step-skipping' while a ramp demands gradual ascent. The very next verse - with which Mishpatim begins - alludes to the formation of a sanhedrin (chief rabbinical court). Based upon this adjacency, the gemara in Sanhedrin (7b) - as well as our mishna in Avot - cautions judges against hasty or impulsive ruling. Just as we are not allowed to rush headlong toward the altar, a rabbinical court is not allowed to issue swift verdicts.

Essentially – running toward the altar becomes a metaphor, or even a paradigm, for impetuousness. The Torah appreciated that when religious zeal flares (when a person runs toward the altar) discretion is sometimes clouded and jurisprudence is obscured. It campaigns against this danger by warning about prudence in judgment, and in general opinion or assessment.

2. Moderation of Anger

Avot d'rebbe Natan offers a different expansion of the principle of 'hevu metunim ba-din.' Instead of encouraging discretion it addresses the manner in which we manage our anger. The term 'matun' can refer to calm or composed and not just deliberate. The mishna in Avot d'Rebbe Natan cites the famous example of Moshe Rabenu who, furious at the armies returning from the war with Midyan, forgot several laws surrounding the purification of Gentile owned vessels. Unable to report and enforce these laws, he was temporarily relieved by Eliezer who conveyed this set of laws.

At first glance this account highlights the immoral nature of rage. Even our greatest leader was penalized for momentary anger. In fact, one version of the episode of the 'waters of meriva' has Moshe being punished and banned from entering Israel because of expressing anger at the mutinous assembly by referring to them as 'rebels.' This version differs with conventional wisdom that Moshe was punished for hitting, instead of speaking to, the rock.

In addition, the story of Moshe's brief non-retention of Torah knowledge underscores a fascinating aspect of Torah study. Presumably, Moshe's forgetting was not a punishment as much as a result. Torah knowledge is not merely an intellectual enterprise but is abetted by devotional energy and an acute sense of Torah as the Divine word. The greater the consciousness of God, the more thorough the retention of Torah. As Moshe was constantly preoccupied with God, his knowledge was surpassing. At this stage his anger slightly displaced God's presence in his consciousness.

Chazal claim 'whoever is quick to temper is equivalent to one who worships idols.' (Tikunei Zohar 56 (89b)) Assuredly, anger in no way partakes of the idolatrous world of ceremony or pagan ritual. Rather, Chazal likened it to paganism since an angry person experiences temporary lunacy in which conventional limits no longer restrain his conduct. Prepared to take any action, the angry person possesses no limits. This unrestrained attitude certainly ignores the presence of God. In this neglect anger is similar to idolatry.

Consequently, in his state of even minimal anger, Moshe no longer sustained his typical level of interaction with God; had he maintained that level he would not have expressed temper. The 'slight' displacement of God's presence resulted in 'slight' loss of Torah knowledge.