By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Knesset is the name for Israels rumbustious parliament. Reflecting the colourful diversity of Israeli society, its democratic debate is lively, not to say frequently unruly.

Knesset comes from the word hichnis, which means to bring in. The related kinus means a gathering of people. The annual assemblages of all the Lubavitch movements far-flung emissaries is called kinus hashluchim. Similarly, in the face of Ahasueruss decree, Esther instructs Mordechai, Go and gather together (knos) all the Jews, (Esther, 4:16.) for unity and mutual support.

A synagogue in Hebrew is beit knesset, a house of gathering. (Not a house of prayer or a house of spirituality; this understanding is reflected in the informal sociability of traditional shuls.)

The ancient inspiration for the knesset comes from the anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the men of the Great Assembly. This group of 120 sages led the Jewish people (which is itself often called knesset Yisrael) when it returned to Israel from Babylon at the start of the Second Temple period. Todays Knesset also has 120 members.

The anshei Knesset Hagedolah included some of the last prophets; Haggai Zechariah and Malachi. They framed the Amidah prayer that we have today and established important customs such as the reading of the Megillah.

As with much else in Israel, the implicit comparison between ancient and modern, between two groups charged with rebuilding after destruction, must serve not as an invitation to complacency, but as a challenge and an inspiration.

    Last updated: 12:31pm, March 6 2009