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A Historical Overview of the Period (II)

Rav Yitzchak Levy

               During the second period of the return to Zion, we find the new leadership struggling with severe crises. Ezra is a priest and a ready scribe in the Torah of Moshe (Ezra 7:1-6). Nechamya is a distinguished leader who initiates actions in all areas. Even though they do not descend from the royal and high priestly families of the First Temple period (thus nipping in the bud the attempt to establish continuity), their vigorous struggle with the many difficulties facing them is astonishing. For the sake of brevity we shall present the periods of Ezra and Nechemya as a single entity, without distinguishing between them with respect to chronology and the details of their various activities.




a) Intermarriage: Intermarriage reaches phenomenal proportions, hitting even the family of the High Priest:


And among the sons of the priests there were found such as had taken foreign women; namely, of the sons of Yeshua the son of Yotzadak, and his brothers; Maaseya, and Eliezer, and Yariv, and Gedalya. (Ezra 10:18)


In those days also I saw Jews who had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moav. And their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the language of Yehuda, but according to the language of various other peoples. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and beat some of them, and pulled out their hair, and made them take an oath by God, saying, You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons, or for yourselves. Did not Shelomo King of Israel sin by these things? And even though among many nations there was no king like him, who was loved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless, the foreign women caused even him to sin. Shall we then hearken to you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying foreign wives? And one of the sons of Yoyada, the son of Elyashiv the high priest, was son in law to Sanvallat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me. (Nechamya 13:23-28)


               There is also an allusion to this phenomenon in the prophecy of Malakhi:


Yehuda has dealt treacherously, and a disgusting thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Yehuda has profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and has married the daughter of a strange god… And you say, Why is this? It is because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously. Yet she is your companion, and the wife of your covenant. (Malakhi 2:11-14)


b)         A desecration of God caused by the priests in the Temple itself:


A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is My honor, and if am a master, where is My fear, says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise My name. And you say, In what have we despised Your name? You offer disgusting bread upon My altar; and you say, In what have we polluted You? In that you say, The table of the Lord is contemptible. And if you offer the blind for sacrifice, it is not evil? And if you offer a lame or sick animal, is that not evil? Offer it now to your governor; will he be pleased with you, or will he show you favor, says the Lord of hosts… O that there were one among you who would shut the doors that you might not kindle fire on My altar for nought! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, nor will I accept an offering at your hand. For from the rising of the sun until it does down, My name is great among the nations… But you profane it, in that you suppose that the table of the Lord is disgusting, and its fruit contemptible to eat. And you have said, Behold, what a weariness it is! And you have snuffed at it, says the Lord of hosts; and you have brought that which was torn, and the lame, and the sick; so you have brought an offering. Should I accept this at your hand, says the Lord. But cursed be the deceiver, who has in his flock a male, and yet vows, and sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great king, says the Lord of hosts, and My name is feared among the nations. (Malakhi 1:6-14)


But you have turned aside out of the way; you have caused many to stumble in the Torah; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts. Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you have not kept My ways, but have been partial in regard to the Torah. (ibid. 2:8-9)


c)            Desecration of Shabbat:


In those days I saw in Yehuda some treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves of corn, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I forewarned them on the day on which they sold food. There dwelt men of Tzor there also, who brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath to the children of Yehuda, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Yehuda, and said to them, What evil thing is this that you do, and profane the Sabbath day? (Nechemya 13:15-17)


d)            Breakdown on the social plane:


And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. For there were those who said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many. Therefore let us get corn, that we may eat, and live. Some also there were who said, We have mortgaged our lands, our vineyards, and our houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. There were also those who said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as good as the flesh of our brethren, our children as good as their children. And, lo, we press our sons and our daughters into slavery, and some of our daughters are pressed into slavery already. Nor is it in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards. (Nechemya 5:1-5)


e)            The redemption is pushed off to the distant future: In contrast to Chaggai and Zekharya, Malakhi speaks of redemption in the distant future. The people despair of practical and immediate redemption and they become reconciled to a difficult situation which is not a continuation of the glory of the First Temple period.




The two leaders act on various planes.


Regarding the observance of Torah and mitzvot, their activity finds expression in the assembly that leads to the making of a covenant (Nechemya 9-10) and in other assemblies devoted to prayer, Torah reading, confession and repentance (Ezra 9, Nechemya 8), which are meant to renew the connection between the people and the Torah and mitzvot and to strengthen them. Various decisions were made at these assemblies – initiated by the leaders, but with the approval of the entire people – to improve the religious and spiritual situation: to send away the foreign wives, to observe Shabbat and Shemita, to bring the priestly gifts and a fixed contribution to the Temple service, and to designate volunteers to settle Jerusalem. Scripture later emphasizes the execution of these decisions, especially the sending away of the foreign wives and the prevention of business dealings on Shabbat.


In this context, we should note the momentous change that Ezra initiated regarding the status of the Torah. From the time of Ezra on, the Torah replaces prophecy and becomes the primary axis around which the connection between God and His people revolves. We shall deal with the significance of this change in a shiur that will deal with the differences between the First and Second Temple.


On the social plane, Nechemya works to wipe out the debts of the poor, to restore the fields and vineyards that had been handed over as security for these debts, and to eradicate the practice (forbidden by Torah law) of pressing people into slavery as payment of debts (Nechemya 5:1-13).


A major part of the book of Nechemya deals with the building of the city wall, with all its security, social, and spiritual ramifications. Nechemya arrives in Jerusalem in the wake of the report about its breached wall and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. The first thing that he does in the city is to survey the wall and propose to rebuild it. The book contains a detailed description of the various stages of the wall's construction, the division of labor among the city's residents, the struggle against the attempts on the part of the neighboring nations to stop the work, and finally the dedication of the wall after the work was completed in only fifty-two days. In contrast to the picture of the first period, which included an international city and Temple and settlement in an unwalled city that lacked clear borders, the great achievement of Nechemya's leadership was the building of the wall:


For we were slaves; yet our God did not forsake us in our slavery but gave us grace in the sight of the kings of Persia; to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Yehuda and in Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:9)


               The construction of a wall led to independence and separation from the surrounding nations in all senses. For reasons of security, the city gates remained open only by day (Nechemya 7:3-4), and they were also closed for the duration of Shabbat in order to prevent its desecration (ibid. 13:19-21).




The two leaders emphasize the hand of God that accompanied (in a concealed manner and through the mediation of the prophets) the return to Zion from the period of Sheshbatzar to their own days. The Divine help is emphasized primarily with respect to the building of the Temple and the city-wall:


Now in the first year of Koresh King of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Yirmiya might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Koresh King of Persia. (Ezra 1:1)


Then rose up Zerubavel the son of Shealtiel, and Yeshua the son of Yotzadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem. And with them were the prophets of God helping them… But the eye of the Lord was upon the elders of the Jews, that they could not cause them to cease, till the matter came to Daryavesh. And then they returned answer by letter concerning this matter. (ibid. 5:2-5)


And the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Chaggai the prophet and Zekharya the son of Iddo. And they built, and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Koresh, and Daryavesh, and Artachshasta King of Persia. (ibid. 6:14)


And they kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy: for the Lord had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. (ibid. 6:22)


Blessed is the Lord God of our fathers, which has put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. And has given me grace before the king, and his counsellors, and before all the king's mighty princes. And I was strengthened as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go up with me. (ibid. 7:27-28)


Then I said to them, You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, so that we no longer suffer insult. Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me. (Nechemya 2:17-18)


So the wall was finished in the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard that, all the nations that were about us were afraid and were much cast down in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God. (ibid. 6:15-16)




It is precisely in this period that Yishayahu's prophecy about Koresh seems to become realized:


That says of Koresh, He is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure. And saying to Jerusalem, You shall be rebuilt; and to the Temple, Your foundation shall be laid… I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will make straight all his ways. He shall build My city, and he shall let go My captives. (Yishayahu 44:28; 45:13)




The dates of the central events taking place during this period indicate an attempt to repair the failures of the previous period:


*    Ezra arrives on the first of Av (Ezra 7:9) – near the date of the destruction of the First Temple.

*    The construction of the wall is completed on the day of the creation of the world – the twenty-fifth of Elul (Nechemya 6:15) – symbolizing a new beginning.

*    Holding the great assemblies of Tishrei on Rosh Ha-shana and on Sukkot (Nechemya 8) also alludes to a continuation of the change in direction that transpired over the course of the first period.[1]




               In this and the previous shiur we have briefly presented the general course of events during the years of the return to Zion, which divide into two periods.


               The prophets of the first period present a wonderful vision: Kingdom and priesthood, construction of the Temple, return of the Shekhina to Jerusalem, and the turning of that city into the spiritual center of the entire world, as had been envisioned by Shelomo. This vision, however, was never materialized. A small Temple was built, but the Shekhina never resided in it, and Jerusalem never played a significant international function. In a certain sense, the building of the Temple – the greatest desire of the leaders of the period, Zerubavel son of Shealtiel and Yehoshua ben Yehotzadak, and of its prophets, Chaggai and Zekharya – was a climax which heralded decline and "a day of small things."


               Following an interval of several decades, about which we have very little information, a new period begins with new problems – religious, spiritual and social. The great vision of the prophets of the first period is replaced by the prophecy of Malakhi, which pushes off the redemption to the distant future. The extensive activity of the leaders of the period, Ezra and Nechemya, that involved the teaching of Torah, the observance of its mitzvot, the building of the city-wall, and social-moral improvements, is marked, among other things, by the erection of fences and separation from the surrounding nations, their religions and their daughters, an approach that brought the people of Yehuda and Jerusalem a certain degree of independence. The change in objective, which is also reflected in the symbolic meaning of the important dates of the period, takes place in the context of God's hidden providence and the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Koresh.


               Our next shiur will be devoted to the questions that beg to be asked: What is the meaning of the tremendous gap between the grand visions of Chaggai and Zekharya and the reality of "small days," and why in fact did the Shekhina not rest in the Second Temple?


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] The making of the covenant on the twenty-fourth of Tishrei (Nechamya 9:1) also bears a certain symbolism, for it was on the twenty-third of Tishrei that Shelomo sent the people home following the dedication of the First Temple (II Divrei Ha-yamim 7:10).

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