Avraham ben Yaakov


Stirred to repentance by the song of reproof sung by the Levites on the Temple platform as recorded in the previous chapter, the entire assembly renewed the ancestral Covenant of dedication to God, with the leaders of the Priests, the Levites and Israelites formally signing their names on a written affirmation of commitment.

It may be difficult to assimilate the long lists of names given in these chapters, but they should be read with reverence as part of the fabric of the sacred text, which is the national archive and treasury of all the souls of Israel . With sensitivity to the allusions contained in the different Hebrew roots on which these names are built, careful study will reveal a wealth of insights into the mindset and outlook of the generations of pining exiles and grateful returnees who gave such names to their children.

It was not only the home-born Israelites who reaffirmed their commitment to the Covenant. Among the many unnamed people who followed their leaders in this collective act of repentance were not only many priests, Levites, gate-keepers, Temple singers and servants, but also "all those who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Torah of God, their wives, their sons and their daughters, everyone having knowledge and understanding" (v 29). "These are the CONVERTS who separated themselves from the religions of the nations in order to become attached and joined to the Torah of the Holy One blessed be He and to keep his commandments" (Rashi ad loc.)

This affirmation of commitment to the Covenant took the form of a solemn oath which carried the sanction of severe curses on those who would violate it (v 30). The people undertook to observe the commandments of the Torah, specifying those that most needed strengthening, including the maintenance of family purity and rejection of intermarriage (v 31) and the observance of the Shabbos (v 32). It is noteworthy that the specific aspect of Sabbath observance mentioned in the text is abstention from buying and selling, which are prohibited not because they necessarily and intrinsically involve carrying out any of the 39 MELACHOS ("labors") that are forbidden MID'ORAISO (explicitly in the written Torah). Rather they are forbidden MI-DE-RABBANAN (through enactments of the sages), whether as a "fence" to keep people well away from infringing MELACHAH (thus trading often leads to writing, which is a forbidden MELACHAH), or because such activities are inconsistent with the sanctity of the day. We thus see how the Written Torah (TaNaCh) goes hand in hand with the Oral Torah as taught by the sages. Observance of Shabbos is a central theme in Nehemiah 13.

"We also laid ordinances (MITZVOS) upon ourselves to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel." (v 33). This refers to an annual contribution to the Temple over and above the statutory annual contribution of a Half Shekel by every adult male. The Talmud explains that the extra contribution mentioned here represents TZEDAKAH, "charity", and learns out from this verse that the mitzvah of charity is counted as equivalent to all of the other mitzvos since the verse calls it not MITZVAH in the singular but MITZVOS in the plural (Bava Basra 9a).

"And we have cast lots among the priests, the Levites and the people for the wood offering." (v 35). The Talmud explains that the returnees did not find wood in the Temple for use on the Altar to burn the sacrifices, and a number of individuals volunteered to bring wood to the Temple at their own expense. They won this right not only for themselves but also for their descendants, who on specified dates during the year would bring their wood offerings together with sacrifices and festivities (Taanis 28a).

A very important part of the Covenant was the reaffirmation of all of the commandments relating to the Land and its produce, including the Sabbatical year of rest from agriculture (see v 32, which specifically refers to the remittance of debts in that year), the first-fruits (v 37), sacrifice of first-born animals (v 37), Hallah, the gift of dough to the priests, Terumah, the priestly tithe, and Ma'aser, the 10% of produce given to the Levite out of which he in turn had to give 10% as Terumas Maaser to the Cohen-priest (v 38ff). From now on collection of these tithes was to be organized under formal supervision in order to ensure proper support for the priests and Levites who were responsible for all of the Temple activities.


Nehemiah had already remarked that in his time, at the start of the Second Temple era, "The city was large and great, but the people in it were few, and the houses were not yet built" (Nehemiah 7:4). The great majority of the returnees from Babylon had gone back to their ancestral farms and rural settlements in what was primarily an agricultural society, and Jerusalem was far from being the kind of industrial or commercial center that could support a large population.

Besides the tithes on agricultural produce, it was necessary to take a ten per cent "tithe" of the population in the form of volunteers who would reside in Jerusalem and strengthen the city. Our present chapter lists only the most important leaders among these volunteers (see Rashi on v 4), who included members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as well as priests and Levites. (By no means all the priests and Levites served in the Temple all the time: they were organized into MISHMAROT who served according to a rota, while the others spent most of their time living in their various towns and villages outside the city, see v 20.)

Our chapter also lists key officers responsible for the maintenance of the Temple fabric (v 16) the prayer services and singing (v 17) and guarding the Temple gates.

"For it was the king's commandment concerning them" (v 23). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this refers to the Persian king Darius, who put his trust in certain officers to supervise the disbursement of funds from the royal treasury to pay for various Temple needs. Not mentioned in the text is that when the Temple was built, the Persian kings gave orders to place a decorative frieze representing the Persian capital city of Shushan above the eastern gate of the Temple in order to put fear of the governing power into the hearts of the people so that they would not rebel (see Bartenura on Middos 1:3).

The chapter concludes with a list of the chief habitations in territories of Judah and Benjamin, many of which are settlements in Israel until today.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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