A unique feature of the book of Nehemiah is that unlike almost all the other narrative portions of the Bible, here the hero of the story writes about his own exploits in the first person singular. Throughout the Torah, Moses, who wrote at God's dictation, described his own deeds as if writing about someone else in the third person [except in certain of his discourses in Deuteronomy]. Samuel did the same when he wrote the book called by his name. While the prophets frequently describe their own spiritual experiences in the first person, Nehemiah alone gives a long, detailed first-person account of his own endeavors in the world of practical action.

In this book we thus have an intimate picture of how a Tzaddik and a man of ACTION and ACCOMPLISHMENT turned to prayer, faith and trust in God at every step in his activities. Writing about oneself carries some risks: thus Nehemiah's repeated prayer to God to remember him for good in the merit of his various exploits (Nehemiah 5:19, 13:14 etc.) did not escape the censure of some of the rabbis, who said that as a result his book, although called by his name, was merely appended to the Book of Ezra instead of standing as a complete work in its own right (Sanhedrin 93b).

The conversation between ARTAHSHASTA (= Darius) king of Persia and his wine butler Nehemiah took place a few months after the latter had received a report of the great plight of the residents of Jerusalem as described in Chapter 1. As Nehemiah was serving the king wine, the latter observed a serious change for the worse in his butler's facial expression. In a verse cited as illumining the effect of the emotions upon the physical body (Likutey Moharan I, 60:6), the king declared that the bad look on Nehemiah's face proved that he harbored bad thoughts in his heart (v 2). The king feared that his butler was trying to get him to drink poisoned wine (Rashi ad loc.).

After Nehemiah had explained that the cause of his anguish was the plight of Jerusalem, when the king asked him what he wanted, Nehemiah first prayed to God in Heaven (v 4, cf. Nehemiah 1:11). He then asked leave of absence from the royal court in order to travel to Jerusalem to take matters into his own hands and rebuild the city. He requested a written guarantee of safe passage through the dangerous western imperial provinces through which he had to pass on his way to Judea as well as for access to the royal forests there for timber for his building project.

"And when Sanbalat the Horonite and Toviah the Ammonite slave heard, it displeased them greatly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel " (v 10). In the eleven years since Ezra's danger-ridden aliyah to Jerusalem , a new set of adversaries had grown up, for "in each and every generation they have stood up against us to destroy us" (Pesach Haggadah). Sanvalat would appear to have been one of the leaders of the Samaritans (cf. Nehemiah 3:34) while the Ammonites had always been implacable enemies of Israel .


Only three days after his arrival in Jerusalem , Nehemiah jumped into action. "And I arose in the night. and I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do in Jerusalem ." (v 12). Ibn Ezra followed by modern Bible translators interpret the verb SOVEIR in vv 13 and 15 as meaning that Nehemiah merely INSPECTED the city walls, but Rashi (on v 12) and Metzudas David (on v 13) interpret it has having the sense of SHOVEIR, "I BROKE the walls", explaining that Nehemiah's intention was to make the breaches in the walls even bigger and more extensive than they already were in order to shock the inhabitants of Jerusalem when they would wake up the following morning so as to spur them into agreeing to join Nehemiah in the urgent rebuilding of the city walls.

Living in the vast urban agglomerations in which over half the world's population resides today, it is harder to appreciate the reason why all ancient cities that were worthy of the name were almost invariably walled for defensive purposes. Indeed in the times of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar the fortified walls of Jerusalem enabled its inhabitants to survive years of sieges before the city finally succumbed. With the destruction of Jerusalem , the massive wooden gates of the various entrances to the city had been burned, and the charred stones of the walls were weak and crumbling. The ruined walls symbolized the weakness of the Jews and their subject status. The returnees from Babylon who lived in the unfortified city were exposed to constant marauding incursions from their adversaries, and were evidently too weak, demoralized and preoccupied with their day-to-day activities to be able to take decisive action to defend themselves.

By further breaking down the remains of the old walls, Nehemiah did indeed succeed in arousing the inhabitants of Jerusalem to take urgent action to rebuild them (v 17), much to the anger of their adversaries, who immediately accused them of treason against the Persian king. Nehemiah's response was to strengthen himself in his faith in God. His statement to the adversaries that "you have no portion or charity or memorial in Jerusalem (v 20) is one of the main proof texts for the law that no contributions to the walls and towers of Jerusalem are accepted from non-Israelites (Shekalim 4b).

The walls of Jerusalem are also of great halachic significance, as they define the boundaries of the city for the purpose of eating KODOSHIM KALIM ("light holy offerings" that could be consumed outside the Temple but only within the city walls), MA'ASER SHENI (the "second tithe" eaten by its owners in Jerusalem, usually during their visits for the pilgrim festivals) and BIKURIM ("first fruits", eaten by the priests) etc.


Despite the opposition of their adversaries, Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem succeeded in building up the walls of the city.

The present chapter is of very great interest in providing us with a detailed topography of the walls of Jerusalem at the start of the Second Temple period including references to gates, springs, pools and strategic strongholds many of which are known until today. While the city was expanded later on in this period, many of the locations mentioned must have been familiar to the Tannaim and other Tzaddikim of the late Second Temple period about whom we read constantly in the Mishneh and Talmud, such as Hillel and Shamai, Raban Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva etc.

Part of the beauty of the project of rebuilding the fortifications of Jerusalem about which we read in the present chapter was that it was not an impersonal, monolithic government enterprise using imported foreign laborers having no connection with the city. It was a cooperative venture carried out with their bare hands by the very citizens themselves. Virtually every family took responsibility for a designated section of the city walls and gates. Almost everyone took part - Cohanim, Levites, Israelites and Gibeonites - with very few exceptions (v 5).

The gates of Jerusalem as recorded in this chapter have very evocative names, such as the Gate of the Flocks (v 1) - many animals were brought up to the Temple - the Gate of the Fish (v 2, for Shabbos?!?) - the "Old Gate" (v 6), the Dung Gate (v 14) - known until today as the gate near the Western Wall - the Gate of the Spring (v 15), the Water Gate (v 26), the Gate of the Horses (v 18) which dated from the period of the Kings (II Kings 11:16), the Eastern Gate (v 29) and the Gate of the Guard (v 31).

The adversaries responded to this building project with scorn, derision and vilification of the "wretched Jews" (v 34) echoes of which can be heard until today in the Arab response to the rebuilding of modern Israel . Swollen with arrogance, Sanvalat asked rhetorically, "Will they [the nations] allow them? Will they [the Jews] sacrifice? Will they complete the work in one day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of dust seeing as they are burned?" (v 34). Tovia the Ammonite slave further refined the mockery, saying that even a fox would be able to break through their stone wall (v 35).

Nehemiah showed the right way for a Jew to respond to such anti-Semitic abuse, refusing to engage the adversaries but rather turning to God and asking Him to hear their insolence and bring it down on their own heads. Nehemiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem meanwhile pressed on unperturbed with the work of rebuilding.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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