Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
NEHEMIAH CHAPTER 12
Our present chapter continues listing the names of the leading Cohen-priests and Levites who returned to Judea from Babylon with Zerubavel - although the list does not include all of them (Rashi on v 12).
Verses 27ff recount the ceremony of inauguration of the rebuilt city walls of Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah. The purpose of this inauguration was to formally sanctify the area enclosed within the walls with the unique sanctity of Jerusalem . Only within the city walls is it permitted to eat KODOSHIM KALIM ("light" sacrifices, which did not have to be eaten within the Temple courtyard, such as the meat of peace and thanksgiving offerings, the Pesach lamb, animal tithes and firstborn animals), BIKURIM (the "first fruits" eaten by the priests), MAASER SHENI (the Second Tithe eaten in Jerusalem by its owners) etc. A variety of restrictions applied in the Holy City unlike other cities in Israel: among them are the prohibition against leaving a dead body to rest in Jerusalem overnight; no graves were permitted there except for those of the kings of the House of David and Hulda the Prophetess; areas within the city could not be plowed or used for agriculture, fruit orchards etc.; pottery furnaces were not permitted because of the smoke, and garbage tips were proscribed as they would have attracted unclean creatures that could have caused defilement to people and foods that had to be eaten in a state of ritual purity, etc. (see Rambam, Hilchos Beis HaBechirah 7:14).
The Sanhedrin were authorized to expand the city and the Temple courtyards as far as they wanted (Rambam, Beis HaBechirah 6:10). "And how would they add to the city? The rabbinic court would offer two Todah (thanksgiving) animal offerings and then take the mandatory leavened loaves included with the animal sacrifice, and the rabbis of the court would go in procession after the thanksgiving offerings. They would stand with harps and cymbals by every single corner and every single stone in Jerusalem chanting 'I will exalt you, HaShem, for You have lifted me up.' (Psalm 30:2) and continue until they reached the end of the area that they were sanctifying, where they stopped. There they would eat the bread of one of the thanksgiving offerings while the other was burned." (Rambam ibid. 6:12; cf. Talmud Bavli, Shevuous 15b).
Rambam maintains that the ceremony conducted by Ezra as recounted in our present chapter was largely symbolic as the area in question was not now actually sanctified anew since the original sanctification of the Temple precincts and the city of Jerusalem carried out by King Solomon was not only for his own time but for all time to come (ibid. 6:14). However, this opinion is disputed by others (see Raavad ad loc.). Rambam thus holds that it is permitted to offer sacrifices on the Temple Mount even when there is no Temple , but this opinion is not universally accepted.
From the account of the ceremony of inauguration as described in our chapter, we see the great importance of MUSIC and SONG in the Temple rituals (v 28). The arrangements for the Levite singers and Temple musicians reinstituted by Ezra and Nehemiah dated back to King David, the "sweet singer of Israel " (vv 36 & 46). The restoration of the Temple was thus complete, and Nehemiah took steps to ensure the orderly collection of the Terumah-tithe for the priests and the Maaser-tithes for the Levites so that they would be freed from the burden of supporting themselves in order to devote themselves to their duties in the Temple .
The work of separating the returnees from their foreign wives was complex and protracted. One of the sons of the High Priest himself was married into the family of Tuviah, one of the leading adversaries, and the High Priest even gave Tuviah an office in the Temple , where he was in an excellent position to spy on what was happening there.
The exact chronology of the various events described in our present chapter is somewhat obscure. The walls of Jerusalem were built and dedicated by Nehemiah shortly after his arrival there in the twentieth year of the reign of Darius king of Persia , and Nehemiah stayed in the city for twelve years. Thereafter he returned to Babylon to continue serving the king as his wine butler/advisor. Our text seems to imply that it was during Nehemiah's absence that Tuviah gained his foothold in the Temple and that Nehemiah thereafter returned to Jerusalem, but it is not clear how long afterwards this was (v 6, see Rashi and Metzudas David ad loc.)
Whenever it was, Nehemiah used his authority as governor of Judea to eject Tuviah from the Temple . He also had to struggle with the Temple officers, who had become negligent about providing the Levite Temple singers with their MA'ASER tithe, causing them to abandon their duties in Jerusalem in order to go around the farms of Judea to collect it for themselves (vv 10-13).
Nehemiah saw as one of his greatest achievements the restoration of respect for and proper observance of the Shabbos in the Holy City (vv 14-22). He witnessed flagrant violation of the prohibition against MELACHAH on Shabbos in Judea : the treading of grapes in the winepress involves the MELACHAH of S'CHITAH, squeezing and separating the juice from the flesh of the fruit, which is a derivative of the MELACHAH of DASH, separating the kernels of produce from the stalks. This is forbidden MI-D'ORAISO (by the law of the written Torah). Nehemiah also saw the shameless marketing of all kinds of produce on Shabbos by various traders and merchants. Commercial activity is not necessarily forbidden on Shabbos MI-D'ORAISO but is certainly forbidden MI-DERABBANAN (through the enactments of the sages, cf. Isaiah 58:13).
In order to restore proper observance of the Shabbos, Nehemiah had to struggle with the leaders of Judea (v 17) - not unlike the HAREDIM in Israel today, who are locked in struggle with the secularized in an attempt to uphold the sanctity of Shabbos.
"What evil thing is this that you do and profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do this, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us and upon this city? And yet you bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath" (vv 17-18). If only we would imbibe this lesson today.
The closing section of our chapter returns to the issue of intermarriage (vv 23-31). Thus Nehemiah's book ends with his strengthening of two of the most fundamental pillars of Judaism: family purity and observance of the Shabbos.
With this we reach the end of all the narrative books of the TaNaCh with the exception of the Book of Chronicles, which retells the history of Israel until the destruction of the First Temple , concluding with a brief reference to the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem under Zerubavel. With the help of God we will study Chronicles later on in the year, after first delving into the prophetic and wisdom literature.
Blessed be God for ever and ever. Amen.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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