Last week, we saw that many Jews did not return to the Land of Israel during the 'Shivat Tzion' in the Days of Ezra and Nechemiah and explored the reasons why.
So who did return?
The Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:1) records that those who did ascend with Ezra were plagued with problematic or questionable lineage: Chalalim, converts, slaves, Mamzerim, Netinim (
Of some of the Olim, scripture records that “they could not tell their fathers' houses, and their seed, whether they were of Israel” (Ezra 2:59 and Rashi, ad Loc. Cf. Nechemiah 7:61. See also Kiddushin 70a). Of others, “they searched for their genealogical record, but they could not be found, and they were banned from the priesthood" (Ezra 2:62; Neh. 7:64. See also Kiddushin 69b and Ketubbot 24b). Bava Batra 15a records that even Ezra wrote a record charting his own pedigree before ascending!
Addressing the confusion, Ezra instructs those with questionable lineage to ascend together with him so the rabbis in Israel could confront the issue and prevent intermarriage (See Rashi to Kiddushin 69b, s.v. m’saya leih l’Rabbi Elazar). The Talmud (Kiddushin 69b) states: “Ezra did not go up from Babylonia until he made it like fine sifted flour, and only then did he ascend."
The Jewish People were assimilated and many had intermarried (See Ezra, Chap. 9. See also Rashi and Radak to Zechariah 3:3). Shocked by this ‘transgression of the Exile’ (Ezra 9:4, 10:6), Ezra responds by mourning and fasting, weeping, praying, 3and making a formal confession of this sin in front of the Holy Temple. Ezra then gathers together the Jewish People and enters them into a covenant to divorce their gentile wives (See Ezra, Chap. 9; 10:1-17).
The returnees were uneducated and assimilated. Shabbat became a market day (Nechemiah 13:15-16). Some had forgotten how to celebrate the festival of Sukkot (See Kuzari 3:63 based on Nechemiah 8:14). When Ezra gathers the Jewish People together to read from the Torah for them, they weep (Nechemiah 8:9). Rashi (ad Loc.) explains that they wept because they had not properly observed the Torah. Perhaps the experience was additionally traumatic because the words of the Torah were so foreign to them.
In response, Ezra and Nechemiah usher in a 'Spiritual Renaissance.' The Talmud (Sukkah 20a) states: “When Torah was being forgotten by Israel, Ezra ascended and re-established it.” Ezra is even compared to Moshe Rabbeinu (See Sanhedrin 21b). In order to restore the Jewish Nation spiritually, Ezra makes a series of enactments (Bava Kamma 82a. See also Berachot 22b; Megillah 31b). Nechemiah has the Jewish leadership sign a Brit Amanah, a Covenant of Faith, in order to re-affirm their commitment to Torah Law (Nechemiah, Chap. 10).
**Next week we will explore how despite the challenges they faced, those who ascended created an 'eternal attachment to the Land, and a sanctity that endures forever.**