Wednesday, March 5, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER Chapter 2. The Jews and the Persian Empire (Part 1)

איש יהודי היה בשושן הבירה ושמו מרדכי בן יאיר בן שמעי בן קיש איש ימיני 

To understand the historical background of Megilat Esther, and particularly in order to realize that not just the Jews of Shushan but the whole Jewish nation was at the brink of extinction , it is critical to know where were the Jews living in the times of Ahasheverosh. 

To give the reader a basic idea of the Jewish demography in the Persian Empire, I will begin by explaining very briefly the story of the Jewish population of Erets Israel,  and tomorrow, BH, I will write about the Jews living outside Israel. 

To remind the reader, the events of Purim took place around the year 480 BCE.  

In 597 BCE Yekhonyah (=Yehoyakhin) the King of Judea is exiled by Nebukhadnetsar. Around  20,000 jews were deported to the Babylonian Empire. Among them, Qish, the great-grandfather of Mordekhai.      

In 586 BCE the first Bet haMiqdash is destroyed.  Approximately 70,000 Jews are deported to Babylon.
In 539 BCE the Persians, lead by Cyrus the Great, conquered the Babylonian Empire. 

In 538 BCE Cyrus announces that God has assigned him to build for Him a house in Yerushalayim, so all Jews wishing to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the house, are welcome to do so. (See  below).   

In 538 BCE  42,360 Jews lead by Zerubabel made Aliya and established themselves in Judea, mainly Yerushalayim.  By 520 they begin to build the Second Temple which is finished and dedicated in 516 BCE, fulfilling the Prophecy of Yirmiyahu, that after 70 years of exile the Jews will have a Bet haMiqdash again. 

By 480 BCE, we can assume that the Jewish population in Judea was no less than 50,000-60,000 Jews. 

The Jews living in Israel were very poor.  They also had many security issues. The Samaritans, a mixed population who practiced a syncretistic religion half-pagan, half-Jewish (see this) ,  would constantly attack them, and would especially try to sabotage the construction of the new Bet-haMiqdash. The Samaritans also pressured the Persian authorities, trying to persuade the Persian governor to Judea to stop their supporting of the Jews, arguing that if the Jews rebuild the Bet-haMiqdash they will eventually rebel against the Persians.  The Jews of Erets Israel relied heavily on their natural allies, their Jewish brothers in the Diaspora, for financial and political support. 

In any case, and beyond the fascinating parallelism between then and today, it is important to know that by 480 BCE the Jews in Israel were part of the Persian Empire. Consequently, they were also subject to the decree of Haman (Every Jew in the Kingdom of Ahashverosh will be killed) and the (good?) Samaritans were ready to help Haman to carry out his mission.    

(to be continued…)

Cyrus' Edict (ca. 538 BCE)

 In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: "Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. Also let the gold and silver utensils of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be returned and brought to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; and you shall put them in the house of God." (Ezra 6:3-5)

"Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth had the LORD, the God of heaven given me; and He had charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people - the LORD, his God, be with him - let him go there. (2 Chronicles 36:23)
Haman's edict (ca. 480 BCE) 
"Then Haman said to King Ahashverosh, 'There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king's laws; it is not in the king's best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king's administrators for the royal treasury.'.... On the thirteenth day of the first month the royal secretaries were summoned. They wrote out in the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman's orders to the king's satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. These were written in the name of King Ahashverosh himself and sealed with his own ring. Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews-young and old, women and children-on a single day... A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.". (Esther, Chapter 3)