Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
EZRA CHAPTER 6
A MIRACULOUS FIND
The emperors of Assyria, Babylon and Persia were autocrats who were literally worshipped as Gods (Daniel 6:8). The legitimacy of the new Persian king Darius depended on that of his grandfather Cyrus, founder of the empire, and this was why the discovery of a scroll recording an imperial decree from the time of Cyrus was of great significance sixteen years later in the time of Darius, demonstrating to the Jews and gentiles alike that there was a solid imperial precedent for Persia - which had swept away the Babylonian empire - to back the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Several millennia prior to the advent of electronic information storage, the rulers of Egypt , Assyria, Babylon and Persia etc. kept extensive archives of scrolls recording all kinds of governmental decisions and transactions. Some say that AHMETHA where Cyrus' decree about the Temple was discovered was the name of the Medean capital (=present-day Hamadan in W. Iran ), while others say that it refers to the protective pottery flask or leather pouch in which the document was stored (Rashi, Metzudas David).
The scroll (vv 3-5) gave full confirmation of everything that the priests and leaders of Judea had been saying to their adversaries: they had indeed received royal endorsement from no less than the emperor Cyrus for the building of a splendid Temple in Jerusalem adorned with marble and wood and for the return of the Temple vessels.
In a very pointed snub to the adversaries, Darius instructed them to keep well away and stop interfering with the building project (vv 4-7). More than that, they were to ensure that the returnees had everything they needed for all the Temple sacrifices, including oxen, rams, lambs, goats and salt as well as wheat, oil and wine for use in the libations (v 9).
Darius wanted the returnees not only to offer the Temple sacrifices but also to "pray for the life of the king and his sons" (v 10). The rabbis commented that Darius' charity was not complete as it was motivated by self interest (Bava Basra 10a). The danger to his life must have seemed very real: his father Ahashverosh had been murdered only two years earlier (just two years after the Purim miracle, which took place in the twelfth year of Ahashverosh's fourteen-year reign). Given that Ahashverosh had initially given his full support to Haman's plot to exterminate all the Jews, his violent death so soon after Haman's downfall must have seemed like a warning from Heaven about the likely fate of those who make trouble for the Jews, giving Darius a strong motive to support the rebuilding of the Temple. We can only speculate what if any influence Queen Esther had over Darius, who was her son.
The adversaries had been diplomatically routed, the prophets were prophesying that the time was ripe to build the Temple , and imperial patronage for the rebuilding had been publicly reaffirmed. Thus the project now went ahead at full speed. Work on the new Temple commenced in the second year of Darius' reign and continued for four years until its completion in Darius' sixth year. The inauguration of the Second Temple (v 16), seventy-four years after the destruction of the First Temple , is somewhat comparable to the giving of the second Tablets of Stone after the shattering of the first. It is noteworthy that the returnees did not see themselves as Judeans but as representatives of all of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (v 17).
"And the children of the exile celebrated the Pesach." (v 19). After several chapters in Aramaic tracing the diplomatic process between the imperial court and the governor of the provinces west of the Euphrates and his clique, our text here reverts to Hebrew since the Pesach celebration was a purely internal Israelite affair.
"And the Children of Israel who had returned from the exile ate, as did all who were separated from the impurity of the nations of the earth to join them to search out HaShem the God of Israel" (v 21). Rashi explains that those who had "separated from the impurity of the nations" were GERIM, "proselytes" who had converted in Babylon and elsewhere (see Kiddushin 70a; cf. Esther 8:17), for the main purpose of the Israelite descent into exile is to gather in the sparks of holiness that are scattered among the nations and bring them up to the Holy Land.
Verse 22 states that God had made Israel rejoice, "and He turned the heart of the king of ASHUR in their favor to strengthen their hands." This refers to Darius of Persia, whose empire extended over the territories once ruled by Assyria (Metzudas David).
"Now after these things in the reign of ARTAHSHASTA king of Persia " (v 1). This is none other than Darius, for as previously mentioned, Artahshasta was the generic name of all the Persian kings just as Pharaoh was the generic name of the kings of Egypt . Since the events in the present chapter took place in the seventh year of Darius' reign, it could be that after the consolidation of his kingship following the assassination of his father Ahashverosh he now preferred to use the hereditary title of the Persian kings.
The seventeen-generation genealogy of Ezra given in our text (which skips over some of the generations mentioned in the parallel genealogy in I Chronicles 5:30ff, Metzudas on v 1) traces his lineage to Aaron the High Priest through the line of Pinchas son of Elazar.
According to some opinions, Ezra is identical with the prophet Malachi (Megillah 15a; Targum on Malachi 1:1). He is known as HA-SOPHER, "the scribe", because he was the towering Torah authority of his time and his influence is felt until today. Since the written scroll of the Torah is the very foundation of all of Judaism, those who were able to write the sacred scroll in accordance with all its conventions and secrets were the most honored of sages. The Hebrew word SOPHER also means to count and tell. The repetition of the word SOPHER in verse 11 is darshened in Shekalim 13b to indicate that just as Ezra was the scribe, counter and enumerator of the Written Torah, so he was the teller and enumerator of the Oral Torah. Indeed the enactments of the outstanding rabbis - some of the most important of which were instituted by Ezra - are known as DIVREY SOPHRIM, "the words of the scribes".
Verses 7-10 recount the four-month cross-country journey of Ezra and those who joined him in the SECOND WAVE of returnees from Babylon to Jerusalem in the seventh year of the reign of Darius. Ezra came bearing certified documentation from the Persian king (with whose court Ezra obviously had the best of contacts) affirming that: All Israel were free to go up to Jerusalem (v 13); they were to be provided with MONEY - silver and gold - to finance the Temple project (v 15); financing for the Temple sacrifices, vessels and all other needs was to be provided through a grant from the royal treasury (v 20); and the Cohen-priests, Levites, the Temple SINGERS and gate-keepers and the Gibeonite hewers of stone and wood were to be exempt from imperial taxes (v 24). From this last enactment the Talmud learns that Torah scholars should exempt from taxation (Nedarim 62b).
Building the Temple in Jerusalem under the patronage of the Persian king was not the same as building it as a free nation in the time of Solomon without being subject to any foreign power. Nevertheless, after seventy years in ruins, the rise of the new Temple was a miracle that was all the greater when seen against the backdrop of the terrible exiles and persecutions that had taken place under Sennacherib king of Assyria and Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon . This is why Ezra blessed God "who has put such a thing as this in the king's heart. and has given me grace before the king and his counselors and before all the king's mighty princes." (vv 27-8).
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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