By April 7, 2008 Read More →

…and the Rise 537, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

Ezra and Nehemiah Reading the Torah

Less than fifty years later, the great Babylonian empire fell as suddenly as it had arisen, overwhelmed by Cyrus, founder of a new Persian empire. Cyrus was a rare leader—a brilliant military figure and a wise and enlightened ruler. Unlike the Assyrians—and most other ruling nations of the region at the time—who brutalized their subject peoples and sought to terrorize them into conformity with the reigning regime, Cyrus from the very beginning offered cultural autonomy to his heterogeneous subjects; respected—and gave protection to—their creeds and their customs; and, where possible, entrusted their administration to one of their own leaders. Indeed, Persian troops were given specific orders not to interfere with the religious rites of the vanquished.

Babylon, the capital, was taken at the end of they year 539 BC, and by 538 the entire empire came under Persian control, right up to the frontier of Egypt. Jerusalem and Judah were thus brought within Cyrus’ rule.

In the first year of his reign, Cyrus, in accordance with the liberal aims which he applied to all his communities, issued a decree about the Jews which was to have a momentous impact on history. He proclaimed himself in favor of the restoration of the Jewish community and religion in their own land. All Jews in Babylonian exile who wished to return to Judah would be permitted to do so. They could rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem, and his royal treasury would contribute towards the building expenses. The holy Temple vessels taken away by Nebuchadnezzar would be restored. Jews who remained in Babylon would be encouraged to aid the returnees and contribute to the rebuilding of their Jerusalem sanctuary.

Placed in charge of this “Return to Zion” movement was “Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.” Scholars consider that Sheshbazzar was a son of Jehoiachin, the boy-king of Judah who had been carried into captivity in the deportations of 598, and he was thus the legitimate heir to the throne of Judah. Cyrus appointed him Governor, and he applied himself immediately to the task of building the new Temple on the site of the old. Exactly how much was done by him and how much under his successor is obscure, for the biblical report telescopes the accounts of Sheshbazzar and his nephew, Zerubbabel, who followed him as “Governor of Judah,” crediting most of the work to Zerubbabel.

It is evident that little progress was made in the first few years. Rebuilding a ruined city with a thin population would have been slow work under the best of conditions. Conditions were far from ideal. The newcomers were harassed by poverty and the struggle for existence, and aid from the Persian treasury was apparently inadequate. They were also harassed by local hostility and by the traditional enmity of the neighboring territories. By the time Cyrus died, killed during one of his campaigns in 530, little more than the foundations had been laid of the Second Temple. And not much more had been accomplished by the year 522, when Cambyses, son and successor to Cyrus, took his life.

Yet seven years later, in March of the year 515, the Temple was completed. “And the children of Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the rest of the children of the captivity, kept the dedication of this house of God with joy.” This was during the reign of the third Persian monarch Darius I.

As large as the First, though less ornate, the Second Temple may yet have seemed more impressive to the people at the time. For it was now the sole great edifice in a city whose walls were still in ruins. Solomon’s Temple had risen amid a formidable complex of royal buildings, the king’s palace, the judgment hall, the barracks, the arsenal, all enclosed within a single large compound. None had been rebuilt. The Second Temple thus stood alone upon the high ground, set in its own courts and surrounded by its own wall. As George Adam Smith points out, it was a kind of “religious Capital…without civic or political rival;” and this could not be without its impact on the spiritual mood of the people.

For the next seventy years, the history of Jerusalem is obscure, though from the prophetic writings it is apparent that the community failed to live up toe the high hopes of the first and second waves of returnees from Babylon.

Only with the coming of Nehemiah and Ezra do the tides turn and the mists lift upon the chronicles of the period. The detailed record of activities in Jerusalem and the development of the city and the community under their leadership appears in the Bible, in the books bearing their names.

Leader of the third wave of returnees from Babylon and one of the giant figures in Jewish history was the remarkable Nehemiah, who arrived in Jerusalem in about the year 440 as Governor of Judah.

By the second half of the fifth century BC, the Jews of Babylon had become well established, boasting scholars, men of commerce and high officials of the Persian regime. Devout adherents of their religion, their eyes turned to Jerusalem, they were deeply concerned with its welfare, and gravely disquieted by continued reports of its suffering.

The Persian monarch at this time was Artaxerxes I (465-24), son of Xerxes and grandson of Darius I, and Nehemiah was an official at his court. “In the twentieth year of Artaxerxes”—that is, in the year 445—Nehemiah was visited by a delegation from Jerusalem, headed by “Hanani, one of my brethren,” who reported that the people there “are in great affliction and reproach- the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.”

Nehemiah, after reporting this to the king and expressing his anxiety to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it, was sent there as Governor.

On arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah lost no time in tackling the city’s problems, the most urgent of which was the safety of the community. After only “three days…I arose in the night, I and some few men with me,” and made a secret survey of the city walls to see what needed to be done. He details (Nehemiah II, 13-15) his inspection tour, leaving through “the gate of the valley,” going to the “dung port,” “the gate of the fountain,” the “king’s pool,” then up “by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back.” He then assembled the Jewish leaders, called to mind “the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste,” shook them out of their apathy, told them “the king’s words that he had spoken unto me”—the implications of which could not have been lost on them—and roused them with “come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem.” Their response was- “Let us rise up and build.”

Labor for the work of reconstruction was provided by contingents from the city and village communities in Judah, each being assigned a specific part of the wall. Such heart and spirit did the Jews put into their work that the wall was erected “in fifty and two days.” (The first-century historian Josephus writes that the final wall, complete with battlements and gates, took about two and a half years.)

While the wall was going up, the kingdoms bordering on Judah tried to hinder the work, subjecting the Jews to frequent harassment. Nehemiah’s answer to their raids was to organize his people into two formations. All were armed, but one maintained the defenses while the other continued with the work. As soon as the raiders appeared, a trumpet was sounded at the point of danger and all rushed to stave off attack. Nehemiah was with them all the time, tireless, resourceful, encouraging them, overseeing their labors, checking the defenses, moving from post to post with the trumpeter at his side so that he could personally give the alarm at the last feasible moment before attack so as not to waste any working time. As Nehemiah writes-

“…half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons [coats of mail]…They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.”
Nehemiah ends this episode with the following human touch- “So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.

Nehemiah’s details of the wall’s construction—and the speed of the accomplishment—show that his men followed the line of the old Jerusalem ramparts, those destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Destruction had been heaviest along the eastern and northern walls; the gates and wall here had to be built from the foundations. The work on other sections was largely reconstruction. All gates were fitted with new beams, boors, locks and bars.

The site enclosed by Nehemiah’s walls again included from south to north, the pool of Siloam, the City of David, Ophel, and the Temple Mount. There were eight gates- the Dung Gate in the extreme south; the Fountain Gate a littler higher up, in the southeast corner; the Water Gate in the east, just above the Gihon Spring; the Horse Gate in the northeast, just above Ophel and southeast of the Temple; the Sheep Gate in the north; the Fish Gate in the northwest corner; the Corner Gate in the northwest, opposite the Horse Gate; and the Valley Gate in the west.

The Book of Nehemiah is more than a description of Jerusalem’s walls. An exciting narrative of a momentous period in Jewish history and a sociological document on the fashioning of a people, it is the personal story of a most remarkable leader who vastly enriched the long drama of Jerusalem. He explains his policies and describes his conduct with a wealth of circumstance and detail, setting them in a descriptive context of life in the city. We thus get a lively picture of Jerusalem at the time from passing mention, as he tells his narrative, of such items as the atmosphere in the Temple court during a festival; the night vigil of the guards; the gates at dawn with fish-dealers waiting to get in (and being turned away on the Sabbath); the hospitality of the Governor’s table (though he himself lived frugally “because the bondage was heavy” upon his people)—at which “one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls” were provided for upwards of 150 persons; and a typical scene of asses ambling into the city laden with the produce of the countryside—“sheaves…wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens.”

There is a description of a late summer, early autumn, month in Jerusalem, the month of Tishri (September or October), after the completion of the walls, when the Jews were to celebrate (and do to this day) the Festival of Succot (tabernacles or booths). This festival recalls the improvised booths which the Children of Israel used in their wanderings through the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.

Nehemiah writes that this festival had not been kept, though it was “written in the law which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the Children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month.” The people were then accordingly told to “Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine braches, and myrtle branches, and palm braches, and braches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written, So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate…” (A similar sight may be seen each year during the Succot Festival in today’s Jerusalem, with families gathered for meal times in their balcony booths, and during the preparatory days, bearing “pine branches” and “palm braches” and myrtle leaves through the streets to their homes.)

Nehemiah had come to a Jerusalem that was largely in ruins and to a community that was disillusioned and lax, at the mercy of corrupt officials, and on the verge of disintegration. Nehemiah revived the community, gave it dignity and uncorrupt rule, cohesion and political status.

But there was one area of communal life which had become equally lax and which Nehemiah felt himself unqualified to reform—religion and religious practice. The man who was—and who did—was the man whose name ever after was to be linked to that of Nehemiah, and who shares with Nehemiah the credit for the total reorganization of the Jewish community, setting it on the course it was to follow in the succeeding centuries. That man was Ezra the Scribe.

Ezra had secured permission from the Persian monarch to lead a great company of priests and Levites to Jerusalem in order to instruct the Jewish community in the Torah, to reform worship and customs which had been abused, and to introduce honesty and order into their religious life.

With the political stability and sound administration provided by Nehemiah, Ezra set about establishing a firm spiritual basis for the Jewish community, one that would hold not only for the Jews of Jerusalem and Judah, but for Jewish communities wherever they lived. That basis was the law, the Torah, in the form in which it had evolved in Babylonia since the exile and governed the community there. What Ezra did, in fact, was to establish Judaism, Judaism as practiced ever after, in its basic form, by orthodox Jews throughout the world.

Ezra and the company he brought with him from Babylonia were not priests in the parochial sense, nor was he an ordinary scribe. Rather were they teachers, expounders, guardians and interpreters of the written law, and it was Ezra who set the tradition whereby those who guided the community in the law, who declared its meaning, developed its details and applied them to particular cases, were the men of learning, the sages. To this day, among Jews, it is the rabbi as scholar who commands respect, not necessarily the rabbi as priest or minister.

Through Ezra, the Torah became the accepted constitution of the Jewish community. Henceforth, wherever the Jews lived, whether in Jerusalem or in the Diaspora (the Jewish communities outside Israel), whether in a subject Judah or in a free and independent state, they would possess and preserve their own special identity. For more than five hundred years Jerusalem had been the physical capital of Jewry. Through the towering impact of Ezra it also became the spiritual capital of Jews in their dispersion, and was to secure their future as a people when the great exile occurred some five hundred years later.


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