The book of Nehemiah is a direct continuation of the book of Ezra. In Ezra 2:2 Nehemiah was numbered among the leaders of the FIRST WAVE of returnees who had gone up out of exile to Jerusalem together with Zerubavel and Yehoshua the High Priest while Ezra remained in Babylon . In Ezra 2:63 Nehemiah was mentioned under his name HATIRSHATHA (see Nehemiah 10:2) as having forbidden those priests who were unable to bring written proof of their priestly lineage from eating sacrificial meat.

Nehemiah evidently returned to exile at some point thereafter to join and presumably lead the sizeable communities that remained in Babylon , Persia and other centers. We have evidence in our text of a certain two-way traffic between Israel and the Diaspora of those days, though it was probably less intense than the two-way jet air traffic that exists today between Tel Aviv, Paris , London , New York , Los Angeles and other Jewish centers worldwide. As we shall presently see, Nehemiah rose to a top position in the Persian royal court - in the same tradition of outstanding Tzaddikim like Daniel and Ezra who also had the ear of the emperor kings of their times.

The first wave of returnees had come up to Jerusalem in the first year of the reign of Cyrus of Persia in 3390 (370 B.C.E.). They had laid the foundations of the Temple Altar, but owing to the opposition of the adversaries it was not until eighteen years later that they were able to build the Temple in the year 3408 (352 B.C.E.). Ezra came up from Babylon to Jerusalem seven years later in 3415 (345 B.C.E.), and it was then that he began his work of separating the people from their foreign wives as told in the closing chapters of the book of Ezra.

The book of Nehemiah opens "in the twentieth year" (Nehemiah 1:1) but does not specify in the twentieth year of what! The rabbis learned from GEZEIRAH SHAVAH with the identical phrase in Nehemiah 2:1 that this was in the twentieth year of ARTAHSHASTA = Darius king of Persia (Rosh Hashanah 3a, see Rashi on Nehemiah 1:1). This was in the year 3426 (334 B.C.E.) - i.e. ELEVEN YEARS after Ezra's Aliyah to Jerusalem .

In other words, with the opening of the book of Nehemiah we have one again fast-forwarded, this time to eleven years after the events described at the end of the book of Ezra, passing over in silence the details of all that happened in the intervening years.

We are not told until the closing words of our present chapter (Nehemiah 1:11) exactly who Nehemiah is. It turns out that he is no less than the personal wine-butler of Darius king of Persia - a prestigious position of influence if ever there was one, since you get the king at his most mellow moments. Of course a king's butler has to taste the wine every time before he serves it to prove that it has not been poisoned, and since the Persian king's wine was YAYIN NESECH (idolatrous wine), the rabbis of the time gave a special license to Nehemiah to drink it even though YAYIN NESECH is normally strictly forbidden for Jewish consumption. This is the reason why Nehemiah was given the name HATIRSHATHA: HATIR means "permitted", SHATHA means "he drank" (see Rashi on Ezra 2:63, Yerushalmi Kiddushin 41b).

It was precisely because Nehemiah was not only a great, open-hearted Tzaddik but also one who had the ear of the king of Persia, head of the great superpower of the day, that it was so fortuitous that Hanani and his companions, visiting the Golus from Jerusalem, came to him and told him the latest news about his brothers in Jerusalem (Nehemiah v 2).

The great jubilation at the time of the aliyah of Ezra eleven years earlier carrying a letter of authorization from that same king Darius had given way to a cry of pain from the harassed residents of Judah . The walls of Jerusalem were broken down and marauding adversaries were engaged in an intense intifada, burning down the houses without regard for the authority of the king of Persia, who was many, many hundreds of miles away and who in any case had little interest in backing up his letter of authorization by engaging his armies to deal with a local squabble in one of his many provinces.

The news of the plight of the returnees threw Nehemiah into mourning, weeping and fasting, and he offered the eloquent prayer recorded in our chapter, phrases from which are included in some of the prayers and supplications in our Siddur (prayer book) and Selichos (penitential prayers). Nehemiah delicately alludes to God's promise that if the exiles of Israel would repent, He would gather them in to His chosen place (v 9) - as if to say, now that they have returned, please PROTECT THEM!!! Nehemiah continued - since he had some PROTEKTZIA with the king of Persia - asking for God to grant him favor with the king - showing that it is permissible for us to pray for success in our dealings with other people.

In the ensuing chapters we will see how Nehemiah asked the king of Persia for a temporary leave of absence (which lasted twelve years) in order to go to Jerusalem, where he not only built the city walls to protect the population physically, but also built the spiritual walls of the nation by campaigning against the cruelty of creditors to defaulting debtors and against the desecration of the holy Shabbos.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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