‘Daniel Interpreting the Writing on the Wall’ by Gustav Doré
Daniel (c. 6th-5th century BCE) was born in Jerusalem to a noble family of scribes and scholars. In the third year of King Yehoyachin’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon subdued the Kingdom of Judah and made it a tributary of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar took a number of noble Jewish families with him back to Babylon, including young Daniel. Together with his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Daniel was raised in the royal palace and trained by the Babylonian wise men. The four were given new names: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Beltshazzar. However, the Jewish youths held on to their faith, and refused to eat the non-kosher food of the Babylonians. God blessed them to be wiser than all the greatest sages of Babylon. Daniel grew up to become one of the trusted advisors of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. Daniel also served as an important leader of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon. His prophecies were later collected by the Knesset HaGedolah (“the Men of the Great Assembly”) and make up the Biblical Book of Daniel. In one famous episode, we read how envious ministers in King Darius’ court passed a law to forbid praying to any deity except the king. They then accused Daniel of praying to his God—which he did and did not deny. Daniel was punished by being thrown into a lions’ den, from which he was miraculously saved. The envious ministers were themselves consumed by the lions. King Darius and his court were then convinced of the existence and supremacy of God: “I make a decree, that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for He is the living God, and steadfast forever, and His kingdom is that which shall not be destroyed…” (Daniel 6:27) The Talmud points out that Daniel is the same person referred to as Hatach in the Book of Esther. It was he who took care of Esther in the royal palace and communicated between her and Mordechai. And so, Daniel was also the secret hero of the Purim story!
Words of the Week
Purim and Chanukah are both about antisemitism. There is one obvious difference between them: Haman, of the Purim story, wanted to kill Jews. Antiochus, of the Chanukah story, wanted to kill Judaism. It was the difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)
Mordechai “Bilshan” ben Yair (c. 5th century BCE) was a Jewish official in the court of the Persian King Xerxes (Ahashverosh). He raised his orphan cousin Esther, who subsequently became the queen of Persia. Mordechai famously refused to bow down to the evil genocidal minister Haman, who sought to deify himself as a god. Thanks to Mordechai’s previous foiling of a plot to overthrow the king, Haman was unable to take revenge on him. Instead, Haman himself was hanged on the gallows he had made for Mordechai, and Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews was averted. Mordechai was elected to replace Haman as minister. He and Esther instituted the holiday of Purim to commemorate the miraculous victory, and wrote its history in the Scroll of Esther. (Establishing a new holiday was no easy feat, and was one of the great debates of its day, with significant implications for the future of Judaism.) The Talmud states that Mordechai was a prophet, and ultimately returned to Israel, helping to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and re-establish Jewish life in the Holy Land following the Babylonian Captivity. He is sometimes identified with the prophet Malachi, and is called “Bilshan” because he was a ba’al lashon, a speaker of many languages (seventy languages, according to several sources). He ended his life as a member of the Knesset haGedolah, the Great Assembly which composed the first formal texts of Jewish prayer and compiled the Holy Scriptures to produce the first official Tanakh. Happy Purim!
The people which faithfully honoured for 2500 years the oath sworn by the Rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem – this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem… For the State of Israel there has always been, and always will be, one capital only – Jerusalem the eternal.
– David Ben-Gurion