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Daniel of the Bible, His Life and Accomplishments

Daniel of the Bible, His Life and Accomplishments

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Daniel (3304-3399 / 457-362 BCE) was a celebrated Jewish scholar and master interpreter of dreams who was exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He is famous for successfully interpreting the proverbial “writing on the wall” and miraculously surviving the lions’ den. His book is included in the canon of sacred Jewish writings.

Early Life

The Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Land of Judea in 3319 (442 BCE) and destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. As was the standard practice of invading rulers, Nebuchadnezzar deported the Jewish intelligentsia and forced them to relocate to Babylon. Among them were Daniel, Chananya, Mishael and Azaryia (from the tribe of Judah1), all extraordinarily gifted young princes,2 selected to serve as chamberlains in the royal court.3 Under the tutelage of the chief officer, Daniel, who was already an accomplished scholar, achieved remarkable proficiency and expertise in many disciplines along with his three colleagues.4 Their insight and erudition in all areas, especially in the realms of mystical and esoteric knowledge, far outshone those of the other wise men of the kingdom.5 According to the Talmud, Daniel was endowed with an incredible gift of wisdom such that if one were to weigh his wisdom against the wisdom of all the wise men of the gentile nations, the wisdom of Daniel would outweigh them all.6

Nourishing the Soul

In order to augment the honor people would accord the idols of Nebuchadnezzar,7 all four of them were assigned new names associated with idolatry, but Daniel was designated the name of the most prestigious idol, Belshazzar.8

This had a galvanizing effect on the four of them, which further strengthened their resolve to abstain from the non-kosher royal cuisine that was available for their consumption.9 Instead, they survived on a meager diet of legumes and water,10 and miraculously their appearance was even healthier than those who partook of the royal dishes.11

Interpreter of Dreams

Being a master interpreter of dreams, Daniel heroically averted a royal decree issued in 3340 (421 BCE) to slay all the wise men of the kingdom12 for their failure to help Nebuchadnezzar recall a mysterious dream he had seen.13 Daniel and his colleagues entreated Heaven that the dream be revealed, and their request was granted.14 After expressing gratitude to the Almighty15 and attributing his insight to G‑d,16 Daniel proceeded to remind the king of his dream, and provided him with a striking prediction of the future,17 describing the successive kingdoms that would rise to power and dominate the civilized world, including the Median-Persian, Greek and Roman empires.18

The recollection of the dream and its accompanying interpretation so impressed the king, that he began to treat Daniel as though he were a deity, prostrating himself and attempting to offer libations and sacrifices before him.19 Daniel spurned these efforts of deification, so Nebuchadnezzar instead promoted Daniel to the position of governor of the entire province of Babylon and prime minister over all the wise men of Babylon, who of course were spared.20 The sages of the Midrash equate Daniel’s contribution with Joseph’s invaluable leadership of Egypt: “Had it not been for the Joseph, all of Egypt would have disintegrated, and without Daniel, all of the wise men of Babylon would have been destroyed.”21

Twelve years later (3352, 410 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar had another disturbing dream. Instead of summoning the other wise men of the empire, the king immediately sent for Daniel and requested his interpretation.22 The implications of the dream were alarming,23 but Daniel shared them with the king. He informed the king that he would be struck with insanity for seven years and would be reduced to the level of an animal.24 His kingdom, though, would remain intact and he would return to his reign upon recognizing the ultimate authority of G‑d.25

Charitable Advice

Daniel advised Nebuchadnezzar that to prevent the dream from turning into reality, he should distribute charity to the poor in abundance, and in the merit of these righteous deeds he might be spared from this fate.26 The king accepted the suggestion, and proceeded to open his treasury to distribute funds to the poor Jewish exiles who would ordinarily beg for alms.27 This act of benevolence delayed the fate that awaited him for 12 months.28 Once the year had passed, Nebuchadnezzar proudly surmised that the decree had been nullified, and returned to the pomposity that had characterized his behavior before the dream.29 As soon as he uttered his first words of conceit, the Divine decree was implemented, and he began to conduct himself as though he were an animal.30 Ultimately, at the end of seven years, Nebuchadnezzar returned to his senses and reclaimed the throne.31

Nebuchadnezzar died in the year 3364 (397 BCE) and was succeeded by his son Evil [pronounced eh-vil] Merodach whose reign extended for 23 years. He was followed by King Belshazzar who ascended the throne in 3387 (374 BCE).

The Writing on the Wall

As predicted by the vision of Daniel,32 the kingdoms of Mede and Persia began to rebel against the rule of Bablylon. After initially warding off the attacks and declaring victory, King Belshazzar and one thousand of his noblemen threw a great feast in celebration.33 While under the influence of wine, Belshazzar called for the gold and silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to be brought so that he, his nobles, wives and concubines could drink from them.34 After the vessels of the Temple were desecrated in such a manner, the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace. The king watched in alarm as the disembodied hand wrote a coded message that no one seemed to understand. Belshazzar declared, “Whoever can read this inscription and tell me its meaning will be attired in [royal] purple, wear a golden chain and reign third in the kingdom.” Despite their best efforts, the wise men of the kingdom could not unlock the mysterious message.35

On the advice of the queen, Daniel was summoned to the palace to interpret the inscription.36 Daniel declined the reward, but proceeded to censure the king for his brazen use of the Temple vessels, which would be the cause of the ill fate about to befall him.37 Reading the cryptic words, “mene mene tekel ufarsin” (literally, “measured, measured, weighed and divided”), Daniel explained: mene – G‑d has measured the duration of your reign, and it has come to an end; tekel – you have been weighed in the balance and been found wanting; preis – your kingdom is to be divided and given to Media and Persia.38

As Daniel portended, the disintegration of the Babylonian empire was soon to come. That very night Belshazzar was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards.39

In the Lions’ Den

With the death of Belshazzar, the combined armies of the Medes under Darius and the armies of Persia under Cyrus, were free to march into Babylon and conquer it. Darius was first to rule, in keeping with the prophecy that Mede would reign first.40

It was important for Darius to quickly assert control over the vast kingdom, so he appointed 120 functionaries to conduct the affairs of the many lands under his dominion. A supervisory council of three, one of whom was Daniel, would preside over all the activities of the functionaries.41 With time, it became increasingly clear that Daniel was much wiser than his colleagues, which prompted Darius to consider appointing him over the entire kingdom.42 When his colleagues became aware of this, they conspired to make Daniel guilty of treason.43

Purporting to act in the king’s best interests to solidify control over the empire, they proposed a decree that no citizen of the kingdom be permitted to address any request to any god or human other than the king for 30 days. Disobeying this command would be punishable by being thrown into a lions’ den.44 The decree was approved by the king, who signed the proclamation and issued the prohibition.45

Daniel Prays

Daniel was unfazed. He proceeded to climb to the upper story of his home where his windows faced Jerusalem, to pray three times a day as he had always done46 (a proof, incidentally, that Jews have prayed three times a day since time immemorial47). His enemies lost no time in reporting his illegal prayers to the king. Darius, who had come to value and respect Daniel, was deeply disturbed by this development,48 because he recognized that he would now be compelled to act upon his decree. After initially attempting to delay the order, Darius ordered Daniel to be thrown to the lions,49 wishing him “May Your G‑d, Whom you worship continually, rescue you!”

At dawn, Darius rushed to the lions’ den and called out, “Daniel, was the G‑d Whom you continually worshipped able to rescue you?” Miraculously, Daniel was not harmed.50 “My G‑d,” said Daniel, “sent His angel who shut the mouths of the lions so that they wouldn’t harm me!”51

Having witnessed this miraculous occurrence, Darius ordered those who slandered Daniel, along with their families, to be condemned to the lions’ den.52

The Talmud explains that Daniel was brought to endure this ordeal because he had provided king Nebuchadnezzar with advice to give charity to the Jewish poor in order to avoid Divine retribution.53 The Midrash, however, adopts the view that this incident occurred in order to sanctify the name of G‑d.54

It is interesting to note that portions of Daniel’s prayers have been incorporated into the daily liturgy as part of the penitential Tachanun prayer.55

The Talmud also mentions that in later generations, Jewish people would walk considerable distances on Shabbat to assemble and pray at the location where Daniel prayed, which was situated three miles from the city of Barnish.56

The Demise of an Idol

In his unceasing quest to ensnare his Jewish subjects into idol worship, king Nebuchadnezzar erected an idol in whose mouth he inserted the diadem—the tzitz of the high priest bearing G‑d’s ineffable name, which he had plundered from the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple—and as a result the idol began to utter astounding thing, including the words, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.” Daniel moved close to the idol and commanded, “I am the emissary of the Master of the Universe. I decree upon you to emerge from inside the idol!” Daniel uttered one of the Divine names,57 the tzitz emerged58 and the idol collapsed and broke.59

It should be noted that according to the Talmud,60 Daniel was not present during the assembly before the idol of Dura.61

Men of the Great Assembly

Prior to the return of the Jews to Judea in 3413 (348 BCR), the leading Jewish scholars of the time convened to form the most prestigious assembly of Jewish scholarship in recorded history, known as the Anshei Kneset Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly). Among them were Chagai, Zecharia, Malachi, Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, Azarya, Nechemia, Mordechai, Zerubavel and many others.62

One of the reasons they are referred to as the “Great Assembly” is because they “returned greatness to its original luster”63 by restoring and preserving the original language of the prayers as they were uttered by Moshe in the Torah.64 The Talmud65 explains that the original Amidah (standing) prayer included the words, “the great, powerful and awesome God.” However, when the prophet Jeremiah beheld “strangers croaking in His Sanctuary” in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, he omitted the word “awesome,”66 for “where are the displays of His awesomeness?”

Daniel, acted in a similar manner. He said, “Behold, strangers are enslaving His children, where are the displays of His power?” He therefore did not say “powerful” in his prayer.67

When the Great Assembly convened, they reinstated the original language of Moshe, explaining that “On the contrary! This is His magnificent display of strength for He restrains His will in that He shows a long-suffering countenance to the wicked by not punishing them immediately. And these are indeed great displays of His awesomeness, because if not for the awe of the nations for the Holy One, Blessed is He, how could one solitary nation survive among the 70 nations of the world?!”

The Talmud discusses the propriety of Jeremiah and Daniel altering the language of the prayer, explaining that “because they knew that G‑d is truthful and despises falsehood, they therefore would not speak falsehood to Him.” In others words, in their view, it was appropriate to praise G‑d for those attributes that He had manifested in the world at that time. Upon the return of the Jewish people to Judea, and with the renaissance of the Jewish people, the Men of the Great Assembly restored the original language, with the explanation that the bitter reality of the exile itself bears out G‑d’s power and awesomeness.68 In other words, during times of suffering the intention of the words may be different than during times of prosperity, but either way, the original language is valid.69

Stature in Scripture

The book of Daniel is a narrative woven with mystery and prophecy, containing cryptic descriptions of future events, mystical interpretation of dreams, profound visions about the Mashiach (Messiah) and the revival of the dead in the end of days. It is the primary source used by many Jewish scholars for calculating the exact date of the future redemption, information Daniel was commanded to render obscure.70

Daniel is perceived of as being on par with, or even greater than, Ezekiel the prophet, as they are both referred to in scripture with the honorific, “Son of Man.”71 The Zohar72 explains that this refers to their having refined their character to such a point that they would reflect the human-like Divine attributes (“Son of Man”) through which G‑d interfaces with existence. With regard to both Ezekiel and Daniel, we learn of their steadfast commitment to G‑d by refusing to partake of non-kosher food.73

Yet, there are some surprising distinctions between the two as well. The masters of Kabbalah point out that Daniel was privy to clearer prophetic visions than those of Ezekiel,74 despite not being a prophet like his colleagues, Chagai, Zecharia and Malachi.75 The Kabbalists explain that Daniel was unlike the other prophets in that he was not appointed by G‑d to convey and publicize Divine messages of prophecy as the others were.76 Because his visions would not be shared, he was permitted to perceive them with greater clarity and intensity.77

Identity in the Writings

Some identify Daniel as Hatach, who is mentioned in the Purim story as the individual who transmitted critical messages between Mordechai and Esther. He was referred to as Hatach (lit. “cut”) either because under Ahasuerus he was demoted to being an ordinary courier, or because under the subsequent regime (of Cyrus or Darius II78) all matters of state were determined (“cut”) by him.79

Daniel is also identified as Memuchan, the advisor to king Achashverosh who suggested that queen Vashti be put to death for disobeying the royal order to appear before the king during his feast.80 Memuchan means “prepared,” and Daniel was strategically placed by divine providence to be the agent through whom the miracle of Purim began to unfold.81

Ordinances

The Talmud82 discusses a law established by Daniel while in Babylon that was intended to make intermarriage less likely. The sages enacted various laws that were intended to ensure that Jews do not marry out of the faith, such as the ordinance against partaking of food items cooked by gentiles. In Daniel’s era, he decreed that a Jew may not partake of oil belonging to a gentile. Daniel qualified this ruling as applying only in big cities where the possibility of fraternizing with gentiles and ultimately marrying them was a greater possibility.

Spiritual Legacy

The name Daniel is a conglomerate of the Hebrew words “din,” meaning severity and restraint, and “E-l,” the Divine name associated with kindness and benevolence. The chassidic masters explain that the combination of these two opposites in a single name, implies that Daniel succeeded in transforming “din,” severity, into “E-l,” kindness.

As a paradigm of spiritual resilience Daniel displayed genuine self-sacrifice in the face of immense adversity, and holding onto his beliefs and religious practice despite the isolation of exile. Notwithstanding the spiritual darkness that enveloped him, Daniel personally retained a high level of Divine consciousness and aligned his conduct with its sacred values. He served as a shining example of genuine devotion to G‑d for all his Jewish brethren. In a way, he succeeded in transforming the spiritual desolation of his corner of the world into a state of redemption. In this merit, the book of Daniel is the sole volume of the Holy Scriptures to openly record Divine prophecy regarding the ultimate redemption and the time it will arrive.83

Footnotes
1.
See Sanhedrin 93b. R. Shmuel b. Nachmani contends that only Danial was from the tribe of Judah.
3.
Daniel 1:5. See Yeshaya 39:7 where Yechezkel was informed that his progeny would serve in the Babylonian royal court. According to the Talmud in Sandhedrin (93b), this prophecy was fulfilled by Daniel, Chananya, Mishael and Azaryia.
6.
Talmud, Yoma 77a.
7.
Alshich on Daniel 1:7.
18.
Daniel 2:29-43. See R. Sa’adia Gaon, Rashi and Malbim, ad loc.
21.
Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 2:17.
27.
Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 30:24. Rashi on Talmud Sotah 20b.
28.
Daniel 4:26. Talmud Sotah, ibid.
29.
Malbim on Daniel, 4:26.
32.
Daniel 2:39. See R. Sa’adia Gaon, Rashi and Malbim, ad loc.
37.
Malbim on Daniel 5:27
40.
Midrash, Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 3:6.
47.
Talmud Berachot, 31a.
48.
Rashi on Daniel 6:15.
53.
Talmud Bava Basra 4a.
54.
Sifri, Ha’azinu, 306.
55.
Daniel 9:15-19. See Siddur Tehillat Hashem (Kehot, 2006), p. 56-57.
56.
Talmud Eruvin 21a. Rashi, ad loc.
57.
Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 7:9 adds that Daniel requested permission of Nebuchadnezzar to approach the idol and kiss it. When his mouth was in very close proximity, he grabbed the tzitz with his mouth and removed it from the idol.
58.
This is alluded to in the verse (Jeremiah 51:44), “And I will visit retribution on Bel in Babylon, and I will take what he has swallowed out of his mouth, and nations shall no longer stream to him.”
59.
Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 7:9; Zohar, Terumah 175a.
60.
Talmud Sanhedrin 93a.
62.
Maimonides, Introduction to Mishneh Torah.
63.
Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 7:3. Cf. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 69b.
65.
Talmud Yoma, ibid.
68.
See R. Yaakov Emden, Migdal Oz, Beit Midot, Aliyat Hoda’a v’Halel la-Hashem, ch. 19. See also R. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, Ohr HaTorah, Shemot, vol. 8, p. 3100.
69.
See Sefer Hasichot 5751, vol. 1, p. 223, fn 74.
70.
Daniel 12:4. See Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 98:2 where it states that Daniel and our patriarch Jacob were two individuals to whom the date of the redemption was revealed but later forgotten.
71.
As noted by Seder Olam, ch. 20. See Ezekiel 2:1; Daniel 8:17.
72.
Vol. 1, p. 191a.
74.
See R. Elazar of Worms, Hilchot Ha-kisei, par. V’ha-kisei.
75.
See Talmud Megillah 3a.
76.
See Rashi, ibid. D’inhu.
77.
R. Meir ibn Gabai, Avodat Hakodesh, 4:19. Cf. R. Meir Paprish, Torah Or, Parshat Vayeira.
78.
See Rashi to Daniel 1:21. See also Metzudot David for an alternative explanation.
79.
Talmud Bava Basra 4a; Megillah 15a. Rashi, ad loc.
80.
See Targum Sheni to Esther 1:16.
81.
Targum Sheni, ibid. Midrash Panim Acherim, Esther 1.
82.
Talmud Avodah Zarah, 35b-36a.
83.
Talmud, Megila 3a; Ramban, Droshas Toras Hashem Temima, p. 132; Toras Menachem 5749, vol. 4, p. 169.
Rabbi Avrohom Bergstein serves as associate Rabbi at Congregation Anshei Lubavitch of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife Rivky and their children. Rabbi Bergstein also serves as dean of JLI’s Machon Shmuel - the Sami Rohr Research Institute.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Yefuneh Des Moines April 23, 2017

Thank you for this excellent teaching -- well written, very insightful and inspirational. B''H! Reply

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