Tag Archives: Second Temple

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

Jew of the Week: Helena of Adiabene

The Jewish Queen of Armenia 

The Sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum

The Sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum

Helena of Adiabene (d. 56 CE) was the Queen of the Persian-Armenian kingdom of Adiabene, a vassal of the Parthian Empire. Essentially nothing is known of her early life. Around 30 CE, after the death of her husband, King Monobaz, she took an interest in Judaism, a little-known religion in her kingdom. After learning with a Jewish merchant named Chananiah, Helena decided to convert. Meanwhile, her son, King Izates, encountered Rabbi Eleazar of Galilee in his royal court and similarly began exploring the wonders of the Torah. Soon, both Helena and Izates, as well as her other son Monobaz II, officially converted to Judaism. In 46-47 CE, Helena traveled to Israel. Witnessing the ongoing famine, she was able to import grain from Egypt and figs from Cyprus to quell the hunger and save countless lives. Helena also commissioned several gifts for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, including a special candlestick that would indicate the appropriate time to recite Shema Israel, a golden plate engraved with Torah passages, and golden handles for all Temple vessels. The palatial sukkah she had built in her homeland was reported to be over 40 feet high! Towards the end of her life, Queen Helena moved to Jerusalem and had a mausoleum built for herself where she was eventually interred. In the 19th century, her grave was discovered by French archaeologists. Meanwhile, her Jerusalem palace was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 2007. Among the incredible finds in the palace was a proper mikveh. Ancient historians like Josephus wrote of Helena, and her story is even described in detail in the Talmud. The latter records that Helena was a devout Jewess, spending at least 7 years of her life as a nazirite, a special status of holiness in Judaism that may be loosely compared to a monk or nun. After Helena’s death, her children continued to support the Jewish people, even sending troops to assist Jewish rebels in fighting the Romans during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple. Ultimately, the Romans invaded Adiabene, too, in 115 CE. Within a few short centuries, the kingdom was all but forgotten.

Words of the Week

Disasters go out through the mouth and disease comes in through it. You must be constantly circumspect about what goes in and out of your mouth.
Kaibara Ekiken (author of Samurai manual ‘Yojokun‘)