Tag Archives: Babylon

Jew of the Week: Ezra the Scribe

The Sage Who Saved Judaism

“Ezra Reads the Law to the People” by Gustave Doré

Ezra ben Serayah (c. 5th century BCE) was born in Babylon to a family of Jewish priests, kohanim, descendants of Aaron. He spent his early days immersed in Torah study, under the tutelage of Baruch ben Neriah, disciple of the prophet Jeremiah. Ezra soon became the most renowned scholar and scribe in Babylon’s community of exiled Jews. Earlier, the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great had freed the Jewish community and permitted them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. While the majority stayed in Babylon, a group of 42,360 Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem. Unfortunately, few among them were learned, and in those first decades many ended up intermarrying with the non-Jewish settlers that were brought to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Ezra soon decided to head to Israel himself, along with a second wave of 1,500 Jews. Upon arrival, he wept at the poor state that the Jewish community was in. He immediately started teaching Torah, decreed that the Torah must be read publicly every Monday and Thursday (which is still done in all synagogues today), and put an end to intermarriages. So successful were his campaigns that the Tanakh states the Jews started to keep the holidays as properly and fervently as they did in the times of Joshua, the successor of Moses. As a priest, Ezra was involved in restoring the new Temple’s services. More importantly, he was able to discover and prepare a new Red Heifer, allowing the entire nation to be spiritually purified. Ezra wrote numerous holy texts, and is fittingly known as Ezra HaSofer, “the Scribe”. He composed the majority of the Book of Chronicles, which concludes the Tanakh, as well as the Book of Ezra, which records the historical events of the time. Ezra was one of the last prophets of Israel, and penned his prophecies under the name Malachi, also a Biblical book. He was one of the co-founders of the Great Assembly, a group of 120 prophets and sages who, among other things, codified the Tanakh and composed the first formal Jewish prayers (including the Amidah). The Talmud credits Ezra with reviving the Torah in the Holy Land, and even states that had Moses not given us the Torah, Ezra would have been worthy of doing so. He passed away on the ninth of Tevet, which is next Monday.

Words of the Week

Predicting rain doesn’t count, building an ark does.
– Warren Buffet

Jews of the Week: Jeremiah and Gedaliah

'Jeremiah' by Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel)

‘Jeremiah’ by Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel)

Yirmiyahu ben Hilkiah (c. 6th century BCE), better known as Jeremiah, was born to a family of Kohanim in Anathoth, Israel towards the end of the First Temple period. As the Kingdom of Judah descended into more and more sin, the righteous Jeremiah began receiving divine revelations prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jewish people by the Babylonians. Although Jeremiah was very young, and did not want to take up the calling of a prophet, he nonetheless followed God’s direction to warn the people of their impending doom, and to inspire them to repent. Unfortunately, the people chastised Jeremiah and he was imprisoned for his teachings. Jerusalem was indeed destroyed, and the people exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah captured these events in his Book of Lamentations (Eichah), and recorded his prophecies in the Book of Jeremiah (written by his scribe Baruch). He is also credited with composing the Book of Kings, making him the author of three of the 24 books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. After prophesying to five kings of Judah, and surviving the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah lived out the rest of his life in Egypt. Jewish texts compare Jeremiah to Moses, and he is also honoured as a prophet and holy man by Christians, Muslims, and the Bahai.

Archaeologists have discovered official clay seals bearing the names of Yehuchal and Gedaliah ben Pashur, two of the king's ministers that opposed Jeremiah and imprisoned him, as recounted in the Bible. Gedaliah ben Pashur should not be confused with the righteous Gedaliah ben Ahikam (Photo Credit: Gaby Laron, The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University.)

Archaeologists have discovered official clay seals bearing the names of Yehuchal and Gedaliah ben Pashur, two of the king’s ministers that opposed Jeremiah and imprisoned him, as recounted in the Bible. Gedaliah ben Pashur should not be confused with the righteous Gedaliah ben Ahikam (Credit: Gaby Laron, The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University.)

One of the leaders that Jeremiah supported was Gedaliah ben Ahikam, who was appointed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to govern the Judean province after Jerusalem’s destruction, and to facilitate the rebuilding of Israel with the small group of Jews that were not exiled. Gedaliah successfully inspired the people to reestablish their farms and vineyards, rebuild their homes, and to inspire many other Jews who fled before the war to return. Sadly, Gedaliah was assassinated on Rosh Hashanah. Fearing another uprising and the response from King Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews of Israel fled to Egypt, despite Jeremiah’s insistence that God would protect them. This essentially left the land nearly devoid of any Jews for the next several decades, until the end of the Babylonian empire at the hands of the Persians, and the ensuing end of the Jewish exile. To mark the tragedy of the righteous Gedaliah’s assassination, and the temporary end of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land, the day after Rosh Hashanah (today) is observed as a fast day, known as the Fast of Gedaliah.

Words of the Week

Of everything G‑d created in His world, not one thing was created without purpose.
– Talmud, Shabbat 77b