Ezra went up from Babylon. He was a scribe skilled in the Torah of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him. (Ezra 7:6)
A primary appellation of the holiday of Shavuoth is zman matan torasainu, the time in which our Torah was given. It marks the date by which we commemorate our nation’s singular experience at Sinai, when we received our most precious treasure. Naturally, this moment is inexorably linked with our master Moses, the great leader who served as God’s messenger in delivering His word to our forebears.
While the Torah was given only once, there were numerous moments in Jewish history in which our commitment to the Torah came under intense fire and needed to be upheld, if not re-given. This included the period of the Chashmonaim, who valiantly withstood Seleucid and Hellenistic harassment in order to preserve the Torah’s purity. Other struggles took place with the Sadducees (students of the apostate Tzadok, during the Second Commonwealth period), as well as the later struggles against the Karaites and, most recently, Reform. In each instance, a new leader arose that refused to relent and heroically took steps to preserve the Torah and its observance amongst the masses.
One such man was Ezra. Ezra was active during the years just following the completion of the second temple. So influential was he that our sages placed him on level with Moses, affirming that, “had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel.” (Sanhedrin 21b) As a guide to the people and a foremost member of the Great Assembly, Ezra provided strong leadership and a moral conscience to a people that had lost its way. It would be far from an exaggeration to suggest that if not for him, the overwhelming majority of the Judean community would have disappeared from the historical landscape.
Ezra the Scribe arrived in Jerusalem a year following the completion of the Temple. Nearly 1,500 men and their families, in addition to thirty-eight Levites who were fit for service in the Temple, accompanied him.
Prior to his journey, Ezra received official sanction from the Persian ruler Darius to oversee social and governmental affairs in Judah. The king further pledged additional contributions for the Temple, and went so far as to permit the Jews to use tax monies to help support the Temple service.
Upon his arrival Ezra was faced with unexpected difficulties. Though the Temple had been rebuilt by the time of his appearance on Judean soil, the optimism that accompanied it had failed to overturn years of depressive malaise caused by a failed initial attempt at rebuilding (during the earlier period of Zerubavel), economic stagnation, and the constant threats from hostile neighbors. Add to that the limited trickle of reinforcements and financial support from Babylonia, and the recent narrow escape under Achashveirosh, and it becomes easy to understand the feeling of hopelessness that had enveloped the community. This sense of surrender had an adverse effect on the Jews’ spiritual as well as their emotional wellbeing.
Ezra was greatly distressed at the weak spiritual level that confronted him. Most people were ignorant of Torah. Many also lacked circumcision. However, the most discouraging reality was the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage amongst the Jewish community. Not even the family of the Ezra’s nephew, the High Priest Yehoshua, was left unaffected. (Sanhedrin 93a) Ezra immediately responded by tearing his garments and hair out of anguish. Soon thereafter, he set about to rectify the dismal situation.
Ezra summoned all of the people to Jerusalem. In an unprecedented display of decisive leadership, he unequivocally demanded of them to separate from their foreign wives. The people were up to Ezra’s challenge and quickly acquiesced. This collective achievement is in no way to be minimized. The fact that the Jews willingly dissolved longstanding marriages with wives that they loved, and parted ways with their own children, speaks volumes of their preparedness to restore a higher sense of religious purpose to themselves and their communities.
In another attempt to distance the Jewish community from recent assimilatory inroads, Ezra reintroduced the original Hebrew characters. (This script, called ksav Ashurith, had fallen into disuse. It is the same system of block lettering that we utilize today.) For centuries, the Jewish people had used ksav Ivris or Hebrew lettering, a cuneiform script similar to the one used in Phoenician and other ancient societies. Ezra helped further isolate the Jewish community from outside influences by making correspondence more difficult. We will explore this topic more below.
Ezra promoted Torah study as a protection against future slippage. He read the Torah aloud to an assembled group of Jewish men and women, and exhorted them to keep its precepts. He increased the frequency with which the Torah was studied, by instituting a minimal public reading of ten verses on every Monday and Thursday. By establishing the reading on market days, he ensured the highest possible communal participation. In addition, he encouraged spiritual involvement on an individual level, by increasing the number of available teachers from which to learn.
Despite all of these tremendous achievements, Ezra was not completely successful in his mission. Certain religious and material problems remained unsolved. A small percentage of the people refused to divorce their foreign wives. Others continued to conduct business on the Sabbath. Still others were negligent in their duty to contribute the required tithes to the priests and Levites.
Physically, problems existed as well. The walls of Jerusalem, so essential to the security and vitality of the city, were never completed, inviting harassment from those bent on preventing the city’s rebirth. Jerusalem remained sparsely populated due to this same reason. It was only upon Nehemiah’s later arrival that these issues would be effectively addressed.
It appears that Ezra was a person of significance in Persia before he assumed the role of religious leader of the Jerusalem community, serving as the Persian functionary in charge of Jewish affairs. A priest by birth and a scholar by profession, he was a natural leader for his Jewish brethren.
Ezra did not participate in the first return of Zerubavel and Joshua. In fact, he remained in Babylon for an extra twenty-three years before leaving for Judah. Our sages have provided two explanations for his apparent indifference. Ezra was the main student of Baruch ben Neriah, who was, in turn, the primary disciple of the prophet Jeremiah. At the time of Cyrus’ proclamation, Baruch was too old and infirmed to undertake the difficult journey. Out of respect for his teacher and a desire to glean all that he had to transmit, Ezra remained behind.
Ezra was also concerned that his presence in Judah at this time would lead to controversy over the High priesthood. Joshua was a direct descendent of past high priests, and was the appropriate choice for the position. Ezra, however, was clearly superior to Joshua Yehoshua in spiritual matters and erudition. Surely there would be a percentage of the people that would have lobbied for his appointment. To avoid conflict, Ezra stayed behind in Persia.
While there, Ezra prepared that community for life after its leaders would leave for Jerusalem. He clarified issues of questionable lineage and pedigrees, leaving behind a populace that the Talmud referred to as soles neki’ah, or fine, sifted flour, cleansed of any impurities. All people of doubtful origin were brought to Judah, where their potential for social concern was reduced.
Like many of the great leaders in Jewish history, Ezra combined temporal and religious leadership. He supplied the people with governance and a voice to their Persian overlords. More importantly, he provided much needed spiritual guidance in a time when extreme measures were required to stem the downward slide.
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The early scholars were called soferim because they used to count all the letters of the Torah. They said, the letter vav in ‘gachon’ (Leviticus 11:42) marks half the letters of the Torah. ‘Darosh darash’ (Ibid 10:16) forms the midpoint of words. ‘V’hisgalach’ (Ibid 13:33) marks half the verses. (Kiddushin 30a)
The term “scribe” was used in ancient times to refer to those copyists who were responsible to reproduce important manuscripts. In Persia, these scribes were held in great esteem, as they were generally of the most knowledgeable men in the community. For the Jews who lived there, scribes played an important role in preserving the Torah and other important works. Later, the term took on a wholly different meaning, referring to those whose mission was the correct interpretation and dissemination of Jewish law. Ezra is the first known member of this new group.
Ezra did little writing in the classic sense of a scribe. He did author the book of Ezra and also parts of Chronicles. (Bava Basra 15a) However, he was known more for canonizing Tanach rather than adding to it. His primary focus was on recommitting the Jewish people to a life of strict adherence to the Torah and its commandments. “For Ezra had prepared his heart to explain the law of the Lord to do it and to teach Israel laws and judgments.” (Ezra 9:3)
For all of the scribes who followed Ezra, during the years of the Great Assembly and beyond, the goal was very much the same. No longer was writing the focus. From this point onward, the objective became expounding what was already put into writing, and perpetuating the Oral Law.
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Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the Hebrew language. Later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashurith script and Aramaic language. In the end, Israel chose for themselves the Ashurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the simple ones. To whom does ‘the simple ones’ refer? R’ Hisda answered: The Cuthites. Why is the script called Ashurith? (Either) because the lettering was brought back with them from Assyria… (or) due to the script’s straight, beautiful letters (meusheres)… Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel… And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him. (Sanhedrin 21b-22a)
It is well documented that during the First Temple period the Jewish people wrote using Hebrew characters that closely resembled the Phoenician script of the day. Many coins, earthenware fragments, and other archaeological finds, display this form of writing. The Talmud refers to the ancient script as ksav Ivri, or the Hebrew script. Yet, this was not the original script employed by Moses when he recorded the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Torah was written down using ksav Ashurith, or Ashurith script, which contains the square shaped letters utilized today. The Talmudic passage noted above describes the historical sequence of the Hebrew lettering.
The ability to read Ashurith script was maintained by priests, scribes, and select scholars. This is why King Josiah needed a priest to read the original Torah of Moses to him when it was found in the Temple. (II Kings 22:8-11) This also explains as to why only Daniel and no other Jewish advisor could read the “handwriting on the wall” in Belshazzar’s court. (Daniel 5) Ezra reintroduced the Ashurith script to the people when he realized the extent to which the people had forgotten it. Still, he shared the original concern that people would utilize the holy characters for improper purposes. He therefore chose to translate the Torah into Aramaic, which would allow people to familiarize themselves with the primary lettering without using it in their daily writing. The people, however, were not prepared to modify the language of their holiest text. Therefore, they reintroduced the Ashurith script with Hebrew words in the Torah, but continued to conduct their business in Aramaic, keeping Hebrew writing out of the daily routine.
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Fortunately, Ezra was assisted in his efforts. Nehemiah ben Hakaliah, a righteous diplomat and statesman who had served as the royal butler or “cupbearer” in the Persian court, arrived with the title of Judean governor thirteen years after Ezra’s return, in the year 335 BCE (3426 AM). He provided a political and material balance to Ezra’s spiritual focus. Nehemiah’s first charge was to rebuild the city walls and provide protection for its inhabitants. The rebuilt walls raised the spirit and morale of the city’s inhabitants. However, Jerusalem was still sparsely populated. Nehemiah viewed a vibrant capital, consisting of 10% of the total Jewish population, as essential for the growth and rejuvenation of the entire community. He thus recruited volunteers to help settle the city. When insufficient numbers heeded his call, Nehemiah drew lots to determine as to who would live within its walls.
Nehemiah orchestrated other reforms as well. When he saw that the people were desecrating the Sabbath by conducting business with gentile merchants on the holy day, he ordered the city gates closed. He also continued Ezra’s work at removing any last trace of assimilation by entering the nation into a covenant to separate from “the peoples of the land”. (Nehemiah 10:31)
As with Ezra, Nehemiah understood that a vibrant Jewish community could not flourish in the Holy Land without a deep commitment to its heritage and values. He took steps to provide the people with the material and physical securities that would help Ezra advance his spiritual agenda. Together, they turned around a dire situation and built the foundation that would allow the nation to withstand the many challenges that would confront it in the four plus centuries of the second temple.