Babylon and Beyond

The Babylonian exile set certain patterns into motion as to how Jewish history would function. To a great extent those patterns have held true throughout the ages, and they can be seen in our time in many uncanny and parallel ways.

The Ten Tribes had been exiled about 150 years before the destruction of the Temple. In those 150 years, more than a million Jews simply disappeared from the face of the Earth. What happened to them is one of the great historic mysteries.

By contrast, the Jews who were exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Judea established a Jewish community that lasted continuously until modern times, a period of more than 2,500 years. For well over 1,500 of those years the Babylonian Jewish community flourished to the point that, after the destruction of the Second Temple, they even became the undisputed center of Jewish life.

Why was their fate different?

Eleven years before the destruction of the Temple, King Nebuchadnezzar had taken some 10,000 of the elite among the Jews and transplanted them to Babylon in an attempt to weaken Judea and prevent it from rebelling. In so doing, he unwittingly set up the next 2,500 years of Jewish history. In little more than a decade, those 10,000 Jews — which included prophets and sages like Ezekiel,[1] Daniel and Ezra, as well as the entire Sanhedrin – created the foundation of the Jewish future.

As an illustration, Ezekiel established a Torah academy in the Babylonian town of Sura that lasted continually until the year 1001 CE, a period of more than 1,600 consecutive years. To put that in perspective, the oldest running educational institution in the Western world is Oxford University, which is about 900 years old.

When the Temple was destroyed and throngs of bedraggled Jewish survivors were forcibly exiled to Babylon they did not come to a completely non-Jewish country. The new exiles arrived to a community that already had synagogues, Torah academies and other institutions teeming with prophets, scholars and leaders. That is the prime reason why they did not go the way of the Ten Tribes.

This underscores the first rule of exile: Whoever came first shaped the experience. The Torah scholars came first to Babylon, as well as to North Africa and Spain many centuries later. That established the character of one type of exile. In the mid-1800s, the Reform Jews were the first to come to the United States. That established a different type of Jewish exile.

It depended upon who was at the door greeting you when you came.

You Call This Exile?

Babylon was the Jewish peoples’ first experience of exile since the days of biblical Egypt. Egypt had been slavery, blood, toil, tears, abuse and atrocities. By contrast, Babylon was relatively benign, particularly after the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the ascension to the throne of his son Evil-Merodach.

The Talmud (Pesachim 87b) says that God knew, so to speak, that the Jewish people were not ready to survive the terrible rigors of Roman exile, which would be so replete with murder, constant persecution and uncertainties. Therefore, He exiled the Jews to Babylon first.

Jews became very wealthy and rose to positions of prominence rapidly,[2] as they almost always do in their lands of exile. Babylon came to feel like home in many ways, the Talmud points out (Pesachim 87b-88a). After all, Abraham had come from there. Furthermore, the Babylonian language, Aramaic, was close to the language of the Jewish people (Pesachim 87b).

Babylon became such a home-away-from-home that the Talmud (Kesubos 111a) went so far as to say that one who lives in Babylon is as though he lives in the Land of Israel, and will be spared the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” the terrible sufferings that will herald his coming. There is even an opinion in the Talmud that Jews were forbidden from leaving Babylon until God would come and redeem them. They should not go back to the Land of Israel on their own. Even though that was not the accepted opinion in Jewish law, and it was not accepted in practice, nevertheless it was an idea that was floated about. Such an idea could gain currency only if there was a hospitable climate.

As the minority culture Jews were always affected by the majority culture. However, they were able to absorb it in such a way as to make it Jewish. That process began in Babylon. For example, in the Five Books of Moses and until the Babylonian exile the months were called by a Hebrew number: for example, the “First Month,” the “Second Month,” etc. However, the names in use now like Tishrei, Kislev, Tammuz, etc. are all Babylonian. Even more strangely, Tammuz, which takes place in the heat of the summer, was the Babylonian god of fire, whom they burned children to. It is even mentioned in the Bible as the name of one of their gods. Yet, it became a part of Jewish life.

The pattern of Jewish immigration throughout the centuries existed in direct relation to the kind of a country they lived in. Jews in Spain had such fond memories of their Golden Age that even when things turned bad half of them did not leave. They stayed, converted and somehow thought they would ride out the storm. By contrast, in Eastern Europe when the gates of immigration opened millions of Jews departed because of the bitterness and persecution.

When the opportunity arose for Jews of Babylon to return to their land only a very small number answered the call. This was largely because they had carved out a niche for themselves in Babylon. It was not perfect, but it had a lot of advantages.

“God Placed Me In Darkness”

Nevertheless, after all was said and done, Babylon was an exile.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) commented that the verse, “God placed me in darkness” (Lamentations 3:6) refers to the Babylonian Talmud (as opposed to the Jerusalem Talmud, which was composed and completed in the Land of Israel more than a century earlier). Under the best circumstances Babylon was still darkness (Avodah Zarah 26a).

The Talmud says that even with all the positive things the Jews of Babylon always had an insecure feeling about themselves. Exile breeds insecurity. They were strangers even though they were not strangers.

The Rise of Persia

After a long reign of 45 years (Megillah 11b), Nebuchadnezzar died and was succeeded by his son, Evil-Merodach, who freed the imprisoned Jewish kings, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah (II Kings 25:27). He ruled 23 years (Megillah 11b) and was succeeded by his son Belshazzar.

Even as he took the throne, a new empire to the east was gathering strength: Persia, which comprised roughly the same area as modern-day Iran. The Persians sensed correctly that Babylon was a paper tiger. They had gone soft and the time to strike was fast approaching.

The Babylonians were either unaware of them or had underestimated them. Perhaps part of the surprise was that they did not expect Persia to become allied with the Medes. Either way, they had mp answer to a Persia-Media alliance.

You are Weighed in the Scales and Found Wanting

Even given Babylonian complacency, it was remarkable how quickly they lost their empire.

As King Belshazzar was hosting a grand banquet one evening, getting drunk on wine imbibed from the gold and silver utensils of the Temple that his father had taken as booty (Daniel 5:2-3), a human-like suddenly finger appeared and etched the epic handwriting on the wall (ibid. 5:5). Despite his drunken stupor, the king was so frightened that he sobered up immediately. They eventually called in the prophet Daniel to interpret the cryptic message.

“You are weighed in the scales, and found wanting,” the prophet said. “Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:26-28).

The imagery of the scales is striking. One of the dangers of a country rising to prominence is that its deeds get scrutinized. A second-rate country that does not aspire to becoming a world empire does not have its files in heaven pulled, so to speak. The forces of natural history are allowed to continue in the ordinary way – always under Divine guidance, of course – until the moment they rise to the top. Then everything is placed in the balance scale. An insignificant event takes on disproportionate importance. Suddenly, things happen out of the ordinary and events move extremely quickly.

That is what happened to Babylon. Literally overnight, the Persians and Medes swept in, slew Belshazzar and took over the Babylonian Empire.

The prophet knew that the real reason for the end of Babylon was retribution for destroying Judea and the Temple (Jeremiah 51:24). However, the triggering event[3] was Belshazzar’s obscene misuse of the Temple utensils (Megillah 12a).

Sooner or later God collects all debts. When He does, even the mighty are doomed. Having assumed greatness and thrust into the limelight, Babylon was weighed in the scale and found wanting. They were thrown off their pedestal literally overnight. “Between one drink and another” – one empire displaced another.[4]

Back to Babylon

The Babylonian exile set certain patterns into motion as to how Jewish history would function and how the Jewish people would act in foreign lands. To a great extent those patterns have held true throughout the ages, and they can be seen in our time in many uncanny and parallel ways.

The Babylonian exile still exists in the sense that the historical patterns launched during its time are still present. Babylon was a land where Jews had judges, leaders, institutions, an Aramaic-speaking community, Jewish autonomy, etc. It all existed in Jewish Babylon, and is implanted in the nature of exile thereafter.

This ties the chain of tradition tighter so that we are better able to assess the situation we find ourselves in and hopefully be better able to see where we are going as well.


[1] Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon when he was 25, along with the others exiled along with King Jehoiachin. He was imprisoned for five year and then began prophesying (Am Olam).

[2] Midrash, Tana d’bei Eliyahu, Chapter 5.

[3] “The Holy One, blessed be He, does not exact punishment until his measure of guilt is filled” (Sotah 9a).

[4] Midrash, Song of Songs Rabbah 3:4.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

3 Responses to “Babylon and Beyond”

  1. Andrew Russell says:

    What a wonderful place. I have learned so much.. thank you!

  2. [...] Babylon became such a home-away-from-home that the Talmud (Kesubos 111a) went so far as to say that one who lives in Babylon is as though he lives in the Land of Israel and will be spared the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” the terrible sufferings that will herald his coming. There is even an opinion in the Talmud that Jews were forbidden from leaving Babylon until God would come and redeem them. They should not go back to the Land of Israel on their own. Even though that was not the accepted opinion in Jewish law, and it was not accepted in practice, nevertheless it was an idea that was floated about. Such an idea could gain currency only if there was a hospitable climate. [...]

  3. Herman King says:

    Persia (Iran)released the jews to return home. Why the present day animosity Israel has for Iran?