Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah (Nechemiah ben Chachalyah) was appointed as the governor of Israel by the Persian king Darius during the beginning of the Second Temple period. He was instrumental in rebuilding the defenses of Jerusalem and the surrounding area and provided much-needed stability and management to the fledgling Jewish community who had just returned there from Babylon.

In This Article:

Early Life

Nehemiah was born in Babylon and raised in exile. He was a clever and composed person and was appointed to be the cupbearer1 of King Darius.2 Although the sages had forbidden the drinking of gentile wine, Nehemiah was given a special dispensation to do so due to his distinguished position.3

Journey to Jerusalem

One day, in the 20th year of the reign of King Darius, Nehemiah was speaking to his friend Hanani. He asked Hanani how the Jews who had journeyed to Israel years earlier were doing. The Temple had been rebuilt more than 12 years before this, and the Jews of Babylon were eager to hear news of their fellow Jews’ lives.

Hanani related to him how the Samaritans of the area had been enraged by the completion of the Temple and had descended on Jerusalem, destroying the walls and ransacking the city. The situation was worsening by the day.4

Overcome with sadness, Nehemiah began fasting and weeping. His grief continued unabated for several days. He prayed to G‑d to help his brethren in Israel, to forgive them for their unfaithfulness and to fulfill His promise to gather all the Jews back to the land of Israel.5

The next month, Nehemiah was called in to serve King Darius wine. Despite his best efforts, his grief could not be contained, and King Darius realized immediately that something was wrong. After being pressed to share what was on his mind, Nehemiah told the king that the plight of the Jews in Israel weighed heavily upon him, and that he wished more than anything else to travel to Israel, with the permission of the king, in order to assist the Jews with rebuilding the city and protecting them from their enemies.6

Moved by his sincerity, Darius allowed Nehemiah to travel to Israel, giving him travel permission, and timber from the royal storehouse to be used for roofing. Accompanied by an armed royal escort, Nehemiah gathered a few of his friends and set out for Jerusalem.7

Rebuilding the Walls

Three days after arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah went on a secretive night excursion to evaluate the damage to the city walls and assess the possibility of repairing them. He traveled up and down the length of the wall, noting the areas that had been breached and the towers that had been burned. Although it was painful to see, the evaluation of the extent of the damage also gave him room to hope.8

The next morning, Nehemiah gathered the leaders of the Jewish tribes and exhorted them to begin rebuilding the walls so that they would be protected from their enemies. He told them of the approval that he had received from King Darius and of the supplies that he had been given.

Strengthened by his words and the support of the king, the people feverishly began rebuilding the walls.9 They divided the wall into sections, with each family and tribe responsible for the repair of one section.10

When the Samaritans, headed by a man named Sanballat, heard that the Jews were attempting to rebuild the walls, they became enraged. They organized a force of fighters to attack the builders and prevent the wall from being rebuilt. The idea that a group of refugees could gain independence and military security was not something they were willing to tolerate.11

Knowing of the danger, Nehemiah took steps to protect the workers and allow the project to continue. He split the men into two groups, one of which would always be armed and would stand guard, while the second one continued the work. He also gave each group trumpets to blast in case of attack, so that the other defenders could rally to them quickly. Additionally, everyone was encouraged to sleep in Jerusalem during the construction, even if they lived in other towns, so that the could join the night guard. Nehemiah himself took part, standing guard night and day.12

The work continued unabated for 52 days, morning to night. Finally, the wall had been completely re-enclosed. It still only stood at half its previous height but had no more breaches or openings. Only the doors of the gates were yet to be completed. Finally, after years of fear, the Jews of Jerusalem felt secure.

Read More: Why Haven’t Jews Rebuilt the Temple Yet?

Economic Reforms

One of the primary issues that Nehemiah had to deal with was the staggering wealth inequality. The widespread poverty in the land had forced many to borrow large sums of money from the wealthy. Later, when they were unable to pay the debt back, they had to pawn off all their possessions one by one in order to repay their loans. The situation had deteriorated to the extent that some of the poverty-stricken populace had already sold their daughters into slavery to pay off their debts. With mounting debt and no source of income now that their fields and vineyards had been repossessed, many of the Jews had no way of pulling themselves out of the red. With no other recourse, many saw no options other than selling themselves as slaves.13

Nehemiah immediately set out to rectify this. He gathered the nobles and wealthy men and began berating them in front of a large crowd. He reminded them of how money was being continuously raised to buy back Jews from slavery, and that their actions were likely to force many of their brethren to sell themselves as slaves voluntarily.

Leading by example, Nehemiah announced that he would forgo all money owed to him by the poor, and would be returning any property that he had collected from them in lieu of payment. He encouraged the wealthy that had gathered there to do the same.

His words were heeded, and those gathered there agreed to return all confiscated property and forgo any outstanding debts. This drastic reform allowed many a clean slate and jump-started the economy of the land.14

Additionally, Nehemiah refused to accept payment for the entirety of his tenure as governor of Jerusalem. This was in stark contrast to his predecessors, who had used their power to levy high taxes to support lavish lifestyles. Nehemiah also hosted more than 150 people daily for meals, paid for from his own pocket.15

Nehemiah’s Trip to King Darius

After 12 years16 of serving as the governor of Jerusalem, long overstaying the date that he had originally been given, Nehemiah returned to Babylon to King Darius. After a short time there, Nehemiah once again begged to return to Jerusalem and resume his duties. Once again his request was granted.

Although he had not been gone that long, Nehemiah returned to find that Tobiah, an Ammonite official and an enemy of Nehemiah who had opposed the rebuilding of the walls, had actually been given a room in the Temple for his possessions. That room had housed many important items, including the money allotted to pay the Levites for their time in the Temple. With no payment forthcoming, the Levites had abandoned their posts and returned to their homes to work their fields.

Overcome with rage, Nehemiah had all of Tobiah’s possessions thrown out of the room and the entire room purified. He ordered that the Levites be paid once again, and coaxed them to return to their posts. He also doubled down on tithes, making sure that they were properly collected and sent to the Temple.

Then he appointed new officials to be in charge of the rooms of the Temple, trustworthy men who would not do such a thing again.17

Strengthening Observance of the Sabbath

The observance of the Sabbath had slowly eroded over the time that the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, and despite his best efforts, Ezra had been unsuccessful in reversing the tide. During Nehemiah’s absence things had deteriorated even further. It was common to see people crushing grapes on the Sabbath, and vendors publicly displayed their wares for sale.18

Nehemiah tackled the problem from another angle, using practical obstacles and preventative edicts to change the culture, rather than relying solely on Ezra’s methods of inspiration and education. He instructed that the gates of Jerusalem be closed at sunset on Friday evening and remain locked throughout the Sabbath. This ensured that merchants and vendors could not bring in their goods to sell. Many a merchant was forced to spend the Sabbath outside the city walls. If Nehemiah saw vendors arriving on the Sabbath, he warned them not to do so again. Levites were posted at all the gates to make sure that no one entered on the Sabbath.19

Read: Ezra the Scribe

He also convened the court and instituted the laws of muktzeh, forbidding handling certain items on the Sabbath.20 These restrictions helped curb the transgression of the Sabbath in a very short period of time.

Read More: The Shabbat Laws

Nehemiah also enforced the oath that the Jewish men had taken to divorce their gentile wives, punishing those who retained them or took new ones.21

Although Nehemiah’s administration was strict, it led to an era of prosperity and security, as well as spiritual revival. Nehemiah’s contributions were crucial to the development of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel in his times.

Writings of Nehemiah

Nehemiah wrote his own book, and the end of the book of Chronicles. Some attribute the book of Ezra to him as well.22