Q. I am puzzled by the phrase, “Men of the Great Synagogue”, at the beginning of Pirkei Avot. What has this to do with the fact that the main synagogue in London used to be called the Great Synagogue and there are or were Great Synagogues in other cities, including Sydney?
A. Major houses of worship were named Great Synagogue because of their size and authority. In English-speaking countries the name also reflected adherence to the customs of the “mother” Great Synagogue in London. The actual name derived from the English translations of Pirkei Avot 1:1, though there “synagogue” did not mean a house of worship but, true to the Greek, a religious assembly. Indeed a better translation of the Hebrew would be “the Great Assembly”.
The original Great Assembly came in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Nehemiah brought political benefits to the nation; Ezra ensured the continuity of Judaism. The Talmud says, “When the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it” (Sukk. 20a). His group of disciples formed the nucleus of the Great Assembly of 120 members. It spread knowledge of the Torah, established regular scriptural readings and worship services, founded schools and appointed judges. It is credited with collecting the books of Scripture and arranging the T’nach, excluding the books of the Apocrypha. Its principles were: “Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1).