Avraham ben Yaakov


"And these are the children of the province who went up out of the captivity." (v 1). Rashi paraphrases, "These are the children of Israel that were from the province of Israel [which was then a province of the Persian Empire] who went up now from the captivity in exile to Jerusalem ."

Verse 2 provides us with the names of the leadership of this first wave of Aliyah from Babylon , including some familiar names like Mordechai and Nehemiah. (This Aliyah took place BEFORE the Purim story, as will be discussed in a future commentary: it would appear that Mordechai must have gone back to Shushan at some point after his Aliyah.)


The first name in the list of leaders is Zerubavel ben She'alti-el, who in Haggai 1:1 is called "governor" (PEHAS) of Judea . Zerubavel was heir to the kingship of David, which had very nearly been wiped out completely. Two out of the last three kings of Judah had left no heirs: these were Yeho-yakim, whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled and tortured to death, and Tzidkiyahu, all of whose sons were slaughtered in front of his eyes. The last surviving member of the Davidic dynasty, Yeho-yakim's son, King Yechoniah, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile in Babylon prior to the destruction of the Temple, also had no heir and was unlikely to have one since he was cruelly imprisoned in Nebuchadnezzar's jail in solitary confinement in a deep narrow pit.

The Midrash tells that the exiled Sanhedrin in Babylon realized the peril hanging over the House of David and turned to the Queen's old nanny asking her to try to influence the Queen to influence Nebuchadnezzar to let Yechoniah be with his wife. Eventually he agreed that she could be lowered down by rope into Yechoniah's prison pit cell, where there was barely room to stand let alone to lie down. In any case, after having been lowered down for this chance-in-a lifetime, Yechoniah's wife suddenly discovered that she had a flow of blood, which meant that relations were forbidden. Yechoniah used to ignore the laws of NIDDAH and ZIVAH when free in Jerusalem prior to his captivity, but, chastened by his sufferings in exile, he had repented and heroically refused to have relations. His wife was hauled up again and mercifully was allowed to purify herself from her flow, after which she was once again lowered down. And through their coming together standing in this cramped dark pit, the House of David was saved from extinction (Vayikra Rabba 19:6). The child born of that union was She'alti-el, father of Zerubavel.

The heirs to the Davidic throne were no longer called kings: in future the Davidic leadership was primarily spiritual. The mantle of leadership eventually came down to Hillel, whose school became the accepted legal authority by all Jews, and a few generations afterwards it passed down to Rabbi Yehudah, known as HA-NASI, "The Prince", author of the Mishneh, which is the very foundation of the Oral Torah.


In Haggai 1 Yeshua ben Yotzadok is called YeHOshua ben YeHOtzadok. His name (like the name Zerubavel) is familiar to those who read the Haftaras because it appears in the prophecy of Zechariah (2:14-3:7) which is read in the synagogue as Haftara TWICE every year: on Shabbos Chanukah and also on Shabbos Parshas Beha'aloscha (third parshah in Numbers, read shortly after the festival of Shavuos.)

Yehoshua was the High Priest and son of a High Priest, but some sources suggest that he might not have served as High Priest had not Ezra - who was greater in Torah and more saintly - remained initially in Babylon (Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:5). According to Rambam, Ezra did eventually serve as High Priest. In Ezra 10:18 we find that Yehoshua's sons had intermarried, which was a stain on the family. This may be why in these texts his name and the name of his father (Ezra 3:8) are spelled without the letter HEH. In its form of Yeshu'a it was a not uncommon name and, despite its having apparently been given to the founder of Christianity, there is no suggestion whatever in our biblical texts that it has any kind of specifically messianic connotation.


Rashi on verse 3 states that in some cases in this chapter the text mentions the fathers or family of the people named, in other cases the Judean towns from which they had originated and to which they now returned (v 70). Even in exile they evidently cherished their attachment to their old homes and never lost hope of returning: Diaspora Jews should take note!!!

Those who returned were not only from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin although the latter were in the majority. The total number of those who returned in this first wave of Aliyah is given in v 64 as 42,360, but the total of all the population figures given in the earlier part of the chapter - which are for members of Judah and Benjamin - is only 30,000. Seder Olam states that the remainder were from other tribes who joined this Aliyah (Rashi on v 64). Although the returning population was initially mainly concentrated in the tribal territories of Judah and Benjamin, we know from many references in the Mishneh as well as from archeological relics that during the four centuries-long period of the Second Temple the YISHUV ("settlement") extended over most areas of Eretz Israel except for certain coastal areas and a strip around Shomron which was inhabited by the KOOTIM whom Sennacherib had settled in place of the Ten Tribes.


We will see in the later portions of the book of Ezra that ethnic self-purification was a very important preoccupation for the leaders of the return, because even before the exile there had been a certain incidence of intermarriage between Israelites and the surrounding Canaanites, Ammonites and Moabites etc. and intermarriage increased when they went to Babylon . One of Ezra's major concerns was to clarify the personal status of the various different categories that made up the Jewish communities in Babylon that were now sending OLIM to Israel . The fourth chapter of the Talmudic tractate KIDDUSHIN begins by stating that Ten YICHUSIM ('categories of pedigree') went up from Babylon: Cohen-Priests, Levites, Israelites, Hallalim (disenfranchised priests), converts, freed slaves, Mamzerim ("bastards"), Nethinim (Gibeonites), Shesuki (child of unknown fatherhood) and Asufi (child of indeterminate parentage; Kiddushin 96a). The Talmud explains that Ezra realized that with the return of the people together with the Sanhedrin to Israel , Babylon would be left without a strong rabbinic leadership. He therefore endeavored to empty Babylon of all those whose personal status was questionable so that the purity of the Babylonian community could be maintained, sending them to Israel where the rabbis of the Sanhedrin would be able to adjudicate over their status.

Thus the list of OLIM given in our present chapter specifies that some were Gibeonites (vv 43ff) or from among the (non-Israelite) servants of Solomon (vv 55f), while some were unable to tell their parentage or family (v 59). The status of certain priests was indeterminate and would not be able to be clarified "until a priest will stand with the URIM VE-THUMIM" (v 63), i.e. through the holy spirit that will return with the coming of Mashiah.

All these OLIM did not travel to Israel by plane to Ben Gurion airport, and since the numbers of animals listed (v 66) are considerably smaller than those of the humans, we must infer that the great majority of the latter made the journey on foot. And what a journey it was!!! Traveling with them were TWO HUNDRED MUSICIANS (v 65): "Because they were going up joyously from Babylon to Eretz Israel , they NEEDED singers to help them turn their journey into an enjoyable walk through abundant SIMCHAH" (Rashi ad loc.)


From the closing verses of the previous chapter (Ezra 2:68-70) we see that the primary goal of these OLIM was to return to the House of God in Jerusalem and rebuild it. The present chapter traces the initial steps in the rebuilding of the Temple taken by this FIRST WAVE of returnees.

The journey of the OLIM across land from Babylon to Israel and their settlement in their old towns and villages in Judea must have taken much of the summer. "And when the seventh month arrived. the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem " (v 1). The first day of the seventh month (=Tishri) was Rosh HaShanah. Likewise we will see in Nehemiah ch 8 that Rosh HaShanah was a highly propitious day in the calendar.

"And they set the altar on its bases; for fear was upon them because of the peoples of the lands." (v 3). The "peoples of the lands" were the jealous KOOTIM ("Samaritans") and other inhabitants of the surrounding areas of what was a province of the Persian Empire . As we shall see in the ensuing chapters, these assorted peoples were keeping their eyes skinned on the returning Jews waiting to pounce at any sign of rebellious activity in order to denounce them to the king. [Similarly today "Peace Now" and hosts of other official and unofficial monitors from all over the world keep their eyes constantly skinned on the Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria, ready to denounce them the moment they do anything that might suggest they are free people living in their own land.] Rashi on v 3 explains that the reason why Yeshu'a the High Priest and Zerubavel built and offered on the Altar was in order to make a public demonstration that they had authorization from the king of Persia in the hope of forestalling any efforts to denounce them. In the event they did not succeed, because the accusers were soon writing letters to the Persian king anyway, as we will see in the ensuing chapters. Nevertheless, all of the daily and seasonal public sacrifices as well as private dedications were now reinstituted (v 5).

Seven months later the building work commenced, accompanied by the singing of the Levites (v 9) - what a spectacle that must have been - and the foundations of the new Temple were laid (v 10).

Despite the jubilation of the younger generation over the rebuilding of the Temple, those present who were old enough to remember the Temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed 53 years earlier, cried and sobbed so loudly that they almost drowned out the joyous singing, for this was joy mingled with the sorrow of chastened hearts.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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