The Beginning of the Second Commonwealth

Was the Persian king Cyrus who permitted the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their Temple Jewish? This is just one of the questions and intrigues surrounding the beginning of Jewish history in the Second Commonwealth.

Salvation from extermination at the hands of Haman changed Jews through the Persian Empire in the most profound ways. They achieved a new insight into their relationship with God, their commitment to His Torah, to themselves and to their place in the world.

Purim prepared them for the next great challenge, the electrifying announcement by Cyrus, king of Persia, undisputed ruler of the civilized world, who granted the Jews permission to return to their land and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-3).

Will the Real Cyrus Stand Up?

His announcement leads to one of the first great historical questions in Jewish history. Which Cyrus are we talking about?

In the Persian line of kings we find names like Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus. However, they were not personal names, but titles much like King, Kaiser, Caesar and Pharaoh. Therefore, many historians think that there were at least three or four Cyruses. We know that there were three Dariuses and three Xerxes. Which one are we dealing with?

To further complicate the matter, there is a Jewish tradition says that Queen Esther gave birth to a son from King Ahasuerus[1] and that his name was Cyrus.[2] Technically, according to Jewish law, he was Jewish. Was he the one who succeeded to the throne of Persia and granted permission to the Jews to return to their land and rebuild the Temple? That would make a lot of sense.

However, there are other opinions in Jewish tradition that say there was another Cyrus beforehand who originally granted the Jews permission.[3] Only later, after difficulties prevented the first Jewish settlers from effectively building the Temple (as we will discuss below), did Esther’s son take the throne and allow them to start rebuilding.[4]

A New Hope

Whichever Cyrus we are talking about, when the leader of the world’s undisputed superpower issued a decree permitting the Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple it had an electrifying effect. Perhaps we can perceive a glimpse of how Jews felt by comparing it to how the Balfour Declaration[5] in 1917 electrified the Jewish world 2,500 years later. Cyrus’s declaration went further, of course, in that it had the stamp of prophecy and he also granted the Jews the right to rebuild the Temple. Nevertheless, the news was electrifying in both cases.

At that time, the Jews had a government-in-exile — a “shadow government” — in Babylon led by a man named Zerubbabel, who was descended from the House of David. If the monarchy would be restored in the Land of Israel he would be the king.

Unfortunately, only a few thousand Jews actually returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem. Ezra would later lead a second group consisting of a larger number of Jews, but even then it was a still a relatively small amount.

Babylon and Israel

The Jews in the Babylon (now living under the aegis of the Persian Empire) were more than happy to doing everything in their power to make certain that the burgeoning colony of fellow Jews in the Land of Israel would grow – except contribute with their own numbers.

To their credit, the Babylonian Jewish community continued to develop Babylon into a center of Jewish life, which at times during the next millennium was even the center of Jewish life. Nevertheless, the fact that they failed to contribute with their actual numbers had a detrimental effect on the rebuilding efforts in the Land of Israel. Had the Jewish people been worthy they would have had miracles happen to them just as had happened in the days of Joshua, the Talmud says (Berachos 4a). Sadly, they did not merit it. Instead of miracles like the Jordan parting and the walls of Jericho falling down the returnees had to deal with the harshest of realities.

Will the Real Jews Please Stand Up?

When Zerubbabel and his party arrived in the Land of Israel they found a people who said that they were the real Jews. These were the Samaritans.

As we discussed previously, when the Assyrian Empire was at its height it destroyed the 10 tribes occupying the Kingdom of Israel to the north of Jerusalem and relocated them to parts of the world unknown. Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, homogenized the civilized world. He mixed it all up. No one was where they belonged any longer.

Into the northern part of the Land of Israel, Sennacherib brought a people from Cuthah (II Kings 17:24), and were thus called Cuthim or Kutim in the Talmud. They called themselves Samaritans because they settled and dwelled in the region of Samaria (which had been the capital of the 10 tribes).

They came as pagans and believed in foreign gods. However, after living in Samaria for a while they were struck by a plague of wild lions and concluded that the plague came about because the god of their new country was insulted that they were worshiping the gods of the country they had come from. Consequently, they converted to Judaism.

Over the next six centuries the Jewish leadership debated if in fact they were genuine converts. The Talmud cites two basic opinions about the Samaritans. One is that they were sincere converts and thus considered Jews. The other opinion is that they were the “converts of lions.” Their conversion was insincere from the beginning. The Talmud’s final opinion is that the Samaritan community did not withstand the test of time. They reverted to pagan ways and were not to be considered Jews.

When Zerubbabel came to Jerusalem the Samaritans claimed that they were Jews – and not only that, but that they were the real Jews because they stayed in the land; they did not go to Babylon with the exiles.

The Samaritans actually did perform some of the Torah’s commandments, and those they did they did exceptionally well, the Talmud says. Nevertheless, they did not observe the whole body of Torah ways, in addition to the fact that they were suspected of secretly worshipping their old gods. For all those reasons, Zerubbabel rejected them and their offer to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 4:3).

Spurned and insulted, the Samaritans mounted a two-fold campaign: terrorism and diplomacy. Terrorism is not new to the Middle East; it has long been part of the culture. The Samaritans now employed it whenever and wherever they could against the small Jewish enclave. At the same time, they also mounted a political campaign back in Persia (Ezra 4:5) telling the king, falsely, that the Jews were planning rebellion and that he should revoke the permit.

Unfortunately, they were successful. The permit to rebuild the Temple was revoked. According to the Talmud, when King Ahasuerus told Esther that he would grant her every wish “up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3) he meant until Jerusalem, until the building of the Temple (Megillah 15b). That much he would not and could not grant her, because the original permit had been officially revoked.

Where Jewish History Begins

This demoralized the Jews who had come. Thinking they had the permission of the government, they had sold their houses and businesses in Babylon, and had come a long way to rebuild their country. What they found when they arrived was a belligerent people who claimed to be the real Jews; a people who terrorized them and prevailed upon the Persian government to change its mind about their rights. What were they going to do now?

In short, they fell apart. They intermarried. They gave up Sabbath observance. They gave up on the Jewish religion. They gave up on the future of the Jewish people. They gave up on themselves.

This created a strange situation. The Jews living in exile in Babylon had synagogues, Torah institutions, prophets, sages and a vibrant Jewish lifestyle. Yet, the Jews who believed so much and gave up so much to go to the Land of Israel ended up intermarried, desecrating the Sabbath and despairing of a Jewish future.

Paradoxically enough, this is where we begin our discussion of Jewish history in the post-biblical era. This is where the Second Commonwealth began.

And it will be from this low point that one of the greatest personalities ever to live would emerge and change the face of history forever. His name was Ezra, and through his story the story of the Jewish people continues.

[1] Midrash, Leviticus Rabbah 13:5.

[2] Although he was called Darius, he was also known as Cyrus, the Talmud remarks (Rosh Hashanah 3b; Tosafos, first explanation). The name “Cyrus” first appears in Scripture in the Book of Isaiah (45:1), a couple of centuries before the events that now unfolded, and refers to him as “an anointed one.” According to Josephus (Antiquities 11, 1), when the Persian monarch read Isaiah’s prophecy he was astonished and resolved to be the one to fulfill what was written in it.

[3] Rashi to Haggai (1:1).

[4] Although he would have been very young at the time, his regent, Artaxerxes, held most of the power at court, and apparently an official climate of benevolence towards the Jews in Jerusalem prevailed among the ruling circles of Persia at this time.

[5] This was a decree by the British government, which controlled what was then called Palestine after the First World War, recognizing the land as the natural home for the Jewish people and encouraging their settlement there.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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