Ezra and Nehemiah

These two reformers charted a course for the future of Judaism.

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Under Persian rule, each subject people was allowed to live by its ancestral laws, which were enforced by the imperial government. Violations of the laws of the group to which one belonged constituted an offense against the state precisely because they led to instability. The maintenance of order in Judea, for example, would ensure the security of the land bridge to Egypt, and therefore the king required, in his own interest, that Jewish law be observed.

Reading the Torah, Following Its Laws

Immediately preceding the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) soon after his arrival, Ezra read the Torah publicly to the entire people. Indeed, this was a covenant‑renewal ceremony in the strict sense. To make the Torah understandable to them, he had it explained. By this time, Aramaic, a West Semitic language, had become the spoken language of much of the Persian Empire and was the vernacular of most Jews. The biblical account relates that the people were greatly saddened when they learned that they had been lax in following the law, and it was only with difficulty that Ezra was able to restore the joy of festival season. Throughout the festival the law was read on each day.

Nonetheless, Ezra continued to face violations of the Torah regulations. Mixed marriages were a substantial problem. The increase must have resulted from the small size of the Judean population and the attendant difficulty in finding spouses. Ezra led the people to enter into a covenant by which they voluntarily expelled the 113 foreign wives in the community. Already in this period the law that Jewish identity is determined through the mother was operative. The biblical narrative singles out the families in which the mother was not Jewish, for such unions led to the birth of non‑Jewish children. Despite Ezra's considerable efforts, however, we can be sure that intermarriage continued, although on a much smaller scale.

Reforming Jewish Life

The high point of Ezra's careerwas certainly the covenant renewal and reformation of Jewish life recorded at the end of the Book of Nehemiah (chaps. 9 and 10). The covenant he instituted bound the people to abstain from mixed marriages, refrain from work on the Sabbath, observe the laws of the sabbatical year, pay taxes for the communal maintenance of the Temple, and provide wood offerings for the sacrificial altar, first fruits, and tithes […] Those who date Ezra's arrival to the second term of Nehemiah see the covenant as the culmination of the joint efforts of the two men, but the biblical sources do not place them together.

Ezra now fades from the scene. He is often credited with having created post-biblical Judaism, a view somewhat over­stated. What this leader, teacher, and scholar did was to establish the basis for the future of Judaism: from here on, the canonized Torah, the Five Books of Moses, would be the constitution of Jewish life. By pointing post-biblical Judaism on the road of scriptural interpretation, Ezra had ensured the continuity of the biblical heritage.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.