Talmud Tips

For the week ending 26 June 2021 / 16 Tammuz 5781

Balak: Yoma 65 - 71

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The “Great Knesset”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explained why they were given the title of “Great”: “They restored the crown (of Torah Judaism) to its former glory.”

Anyone who has opened a Siddur is familiar with the blessing that begins, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors; G-d of Avraham, G-d of Yitzchak and G-d of Yaakov; the great, mighty and awesome G-d….” This blessing is the first blessing of the foremost formalized prayer, which is known as the Shmoneh Esrei — the standing, silent prayer.

It was composed by the “Anshei Knessset Hagedola” — “The Men of the Great Assembly.” This special group of 120 great Torah scholars and Prophets led the Jewish People at the onset of the era of the Second Beit Hamikdash. Our gemara addresses why they were given the title of “Great,” explaining that they restored the crown to its former glory by “restoring” the original description of Hashem’s traits, matching the words used by Moshe Rabbeinu.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi expounds on this in our sugya by citing four verses with very specific words which describe Hashem’s traits.

Moshe Rabbeinu referred to Hashem as “great, mighty and awesome.” (Devarim 10:17) Later, the Prophet Yirmiyahu described Hashem as “great and mighty” (Yirmiyahu 32:18), but intentionally omitted the word “awesome.” Then, even later, Daniel in his prayer referred to Hashem as “the great and awesome G-d” (Daniel 9:4), without mentioning “mighty.”

And then came the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah and “ restored” both of these words in praise of Hashem: “mighty” and “awesome.” They referred to Hashem as “great, mighty and awesome.” (Nechemia 9:32) This important change returned and restored the description of Hashem’s traits to the original description that Moshe Rabbeinu used in Sefer Devarim.

The obvious question is: Why did Yirmiyahu and Daniel find it to be correct to alter the descriptive words for Hashem’s nature? What did they find “wrong” with the original words established by Moshe? Why did each one delete a word from the original, until the Anshei Knesset Hagedola “restored the crown to its former glory”?

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explains in our gemara how these traits — mighty and awesome — were not truly perceived correctly by others throughout history. Allow me to try to explain.

When the Prophet Yirmiyahu saw the idolatrous Babylonians treat the First Beit Hamikdash with utter disdain and disgrace, he wondered: “Where is Hashem’s awesomeness?” They acted in the “House of Hashem” without awe or fear of Hashem. Seeing no trait of awesomeness, Yirmihayu deleted the word “awesome” when praising Hashem.

Later, in the seventy years of exile following the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash, Daniel saw the Jewish People utterly subdued and suppressed by the Babylonians and Persians. He wondered: “Where is Hashem’s might?” Therefore, Daniel deleted “mighty” from his praise of Hashem.

But the Anshei Knesset Hagedola came and provided a novel and powerful insight into understanding Hashem’s ways. They did not see a lack of Hashem’s might in failing to prevent the pagan oppression of the Jewish People, as Daniel understood. And they did not see a lack of Hashem’s awesomeness in allowing the Babylonians to make merry in their disgusting and heathen ways when gallivanting around in the ruins and ashes of the First Beit Hamikdash.

Rather, said Rabbi Yehoushua ben Levi, the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah correctly perceived what happened as meaning exactly the opposite! That which others had understood as a “lacking” on Hashem’s part in showing His mightiness and awesomeness, was, in reality, an intentional and successful display of those very traits!

They reasoned: “Hashem’s restraint in allowing the heathens to suppress and oppress the Jewish People was not due to lacking mightiness, but, rather, a sign of His mightiness.” (Note, the Hebrew word for might is gibor or gevura, which, in human terms, means to conquer one’s “negative” impulses and instincts.) In fact, Hashem acted with “might” — gevura — in showing restraint in not saving the Jewish People from oppression throughout the years (the seventy years of exile – Rashi). Hashem did this so that the Jewish People would hopefully feel humbled and choose to do teshuva.

Likewise, explained the Sage, Hashem actually displayed the trait of awe — norah — in allowing the heathens to destroy the First Beit Hamikadash and frivolously revel in its ruins. The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah understood that Hashem’s awesomeness is manifest in the survival of the Jewish People: “If not for the awe of Hashem and the fear of Hashem, how could it be possible for one lone nation to continue to survive in the face of the nations of the world who constantly seek its destruction?” The Midrash explains this concept with a dialogue between a Roman ruler and a great Rabbi. Adrianus said that Jewish survival is a result of a Jew’s tenacity: “How great is the lamb that survives against seventy wolves!” Rabbi Yehoshua corrected him, explaining that the praise is really due to Hashem: “How great is the Shepherd Who saves them!”

This is the explanation given by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi for the decision made by the Anshei Knesset Hagedola to recognize and praise Hashem’s traits of might and awe. Based on this explanation, we can understand why this group of Sages and Prophets who led the Jewish People following the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash was called the Anshei Knesset HaGedola — The Men of the Great Assembly. They exhibited extraordinarily great understanding of Hashem’s traits, thereby returning “the crown” — i.e. the recognition Hashem’s greatness, mightiness and awesomeness — to the manner in which it was originally written in the Torah. (See the Maharsha in his Chiddushei Aggadot for a fascinating treatment of the disagreement of the praises taught in our sugya. He begins by pointing out that each person praised Hashem according to what he witnessed in his own time.)

  • Yoma 69b

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