There could be few better introductions to the book of Daniel than the opening words of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra's commentary thereon: "This is the book of the man greatly beloved, in which the most glorious of things are spoken, with prophecies some of which have already come about and others that are still destined to come about. Each thing is expressed with brevity in mysteries and riddles, while its secrets reside with the angels above - secrets that stand upon all the foundational elements - and its commentators have not succeeded in penetrating its secret. Each one explains as far as his hand reaches, but the feet of all of them are unsteady when it comes to the time of the destined end."

The rabbis said: "If all the wise men of the nations of the world were on one side of the scale and Daniel on the other, he would outweigh them all" (Yoma 77a). Daniel himself was considered not a PROPHET (NAVEE) but a wise and saintly SAGE (HACHAM), yet he saw what even the prophets did not see" (Sanhedrin 93b; see Daniel 10:7).

From the point of view of historical narrative, the book of Daniel takes up the story of the exile of Judah in Babylon from time of the first phase of the exile, which took place under King Yeho-yakim, as told in II Kings ch 24. This was eighteen years before the destruction of the Temple and, together with the exile of Yeho-yakim's son Yeho-yachin a year later, brought to Babylon the very flower of the Judean population, including all those righteous Judeans who heeded the message of the prophets of the time and accepted the decree of exile with resignation instead of trying to fight it.

Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless but highly complex and very deep world ruler who was determined to use the minds and intellects of the very cream of the captive Judeans to serve his needs in governing and expanding his empire. "Because you did not serve HaShem your God. you shall serve your enemies" (Deut. 28:47). "If you had been worthy, you would have been called My servants, but now that you have not been worthy, you are servants of Nebuchadnezzar and his companions" (Yalkut Shimoni).

Nebuchadnezzar ordered his chief minister to choose an elite of good-looking, super-intelligent and wise Judean children who would be well fed and specially educated for service in his court. One of the requirements was that "they must have the ability to stand in the palace of the king" (v 4). The Talmud picturesquely explains this to mean that they would have to be able to control themselves so as not to laugh, chat or fall asleep during lengthy court sessions as well as holding themselves in if they felt the need to relieve themselves (Rashi ad loc., Sanhedrin 93b).

Daniel was determined not to defile and sully himself with the royal food that was provided for these privileged Judean captive children, exemplifying the very first rule of Jewish spiritual survival in exile: METICULOUS OBSERVANCE OF THE LAWS OF KASHRUS (spiritual purity of food). Daniel and his companions understood that the food we ingest nourishes not only our physical bodies but fuels and influences our very minds and souls. They knew that ingesting the royal food, whose ingredients and methods of preparation went contrary to Torah law, would corrupt their subtlest spiritual sensitivities and indeed their entire outlook on everything, destroying their Jewish purity. With a courage comparable to that of Joseph in his years of captivity in Egypt , they secured the agreement of the king's catering officer to test them out on a diet of vegetables and water for ten days in what must have been one of the first macrobiotic experiments in history. They had astounding success, proving healthier than all the other children who did eat the king's food.

When Daniel and his companions were finally taken before Nebuchadnezzar, they brought about a great sanctification of the Name of God even in exile, showing that it was precisely the Torah-observant Jewish captives who outweighed all the sages, wizards and diviners of the Babylonian empire.

The closing verse of our present chapter (v 21) which tells us that Daniel remained in a position of influence until "the first year of King Koresh (=Cyrus)", is open to a variety of interpretations (see Rashi ad loc.) Some rabbis held that Daniel retained his influence only until the reign of Koresh I, who ruled before Ahashverosh, while others held that he remained until the reign of Koresh II (=Darius II) who ruled after Ahashverosh (Megillah 15a). The chronology of the empires that succeeded that of Babylon will be discussed in later commentaries.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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