Building the Second Temple

When Cyrus granted permission to build the Bais Hamikdash, 42,360 Jews, led by Zerubabel, a grandson of Jehoiachin, and the prophets Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, came to Jerusalem and began the work. At first they rebuilt the Altar, for Jewish law permits offering sacrifices on Temple Mount even if the Temple building is not in existence. Construction was stopped by Ahasuerus and did not continue during his lifetime. Shortly after the end of the Purim story, in 3406, Ahasuerus died and was succeeded by Darius II, his Jewish son through Esther. Two years later, in 3408, the Jews were given permission to resume work on the Bais Hamikdash. This was exactly 70 years after the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash in 3338 and is the true interpretation of Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy.

After four years, in the year 3412, the second Bais Hamikdash was completed. Although its sanctity was not equal to the first Bais Hamikdash -- the Holy Ark was missing, along with several other sacred objects – it became the spiritual center of the Jewish people. Despite their reverence for the new Holy Temple, numerous physical attributes reminded the Jewish people of its lower status. Spikes were attached to the roof to prevent birds from alighting – something unnecessary in the first Bais Hamikdash, for birds sensed its great holiness and did not rest there. In addition, a representation of the Shushan skyline was placed over the entrance to the second Bais Hamikdash, remindingthe Jewish people of their status as subjects of the Persian Empire.

Ezra

“If Moses had not preceded him, G‑d would have given the Torah to the Jewish people through Ezra” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b). Although he was a strong and charismatic leader, only 1,500 Jews answered Ezra’s call to join him on the trip to Eretz Israel. No Leviim came along, and Ezra penalized their tribe for the lack of interest shown by depriving them of the right to receive maaser rishon, the 10% tithe that farmers in the land of Israel must give the Leviim. There are two opinions in the Talmud as to the exact nature of this penalty. One opinion holds that before they were punished, the Leviim had the exclusive right to receive the maaser rishon, but that after the penalty the Kohanim (priests) also became eligible to get it. The other opinion maintains that even before the penalty a farmer had the option to give the tithe to either Kohanim or Leviim, whereas after Ezra’s penalty he could only give it to Kohanim.

When this great teacher journeyed to the land of Israel, he found widespread ignorance and weak observance of Torah. As such, he forced the small percentage of intermarried Jews to divorce their non-Jewish spouses and began a successful campaign of mass Torah education. In addition, Ezra decreed 10 enactments aimed at improving the quality of Jewish life both materially and spiritually. Among these decrees was the requirement to read the Torah in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays, and Sabbath afternoon. He also ensured that peddlers selling cosmetics and other women’s items make the rounds of outlying settlements, thereby making such things available to women living in these isolated areas.

Rabbinic tradition states that once again the Jewish people squandered a golden opportunity — if they would have made aliyah to Eretz Israel en masse, G‑d would have ushered in the Messianic Era.

Nehemiah

In the year 3426, Nehemiah received authority from the Persian king to become governor over the Jews in Jerusalem. Upon arrival, he found the community in miserable conditions, and that the wall of the city has been burned down. Undaunted, Nehemiah rebuilt the wall in several weeks. (This is not the present wall around the Old City of Jerusalem, which was built by the Turks in the 1500s.) Appalled by commercial activity on the Sabbath (which, although not forbidden by the Torah if no writing is done, nevertheless is not within the spirit of Sabbath), Nehemiah stopped it and instituted rules of muktzah, items whose handling on the Sabbath is forbidden.

Problems Faced by Ezra and Nehemaih

The issues that Ezra and Nehemiah encountered in Eretz Israelbear a striking resemblance to the problems faced there in modern times. For example, Eretz Israel was a poor, barren land, and the vast majority of Jews preferred to live in the relative comfort of foreign countries. Torah observance was weak, particularly in keeping the Sabbath, and many Jews were ignorant of Torah laws. Terrorism was rampant: the book of Nehemiah describes the struggles combating Arabs and other nations who tried to sabotage rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall.