This past summer, twenty high school-age young men participated in TABC’s fifth annual Tanach Kollel. We devoted a week to learning Sefer Daniel in depth, aided by Rav Yaakov Meidan’s outstanding new Sefer entitled Galut VeHitgalut. In this series, we shall share some of the fruits of our learning. In this essay, we shall focus on the famous writing on the wall that occurred at Belshatzar’s feast, an event recorded in the fifth chapter of Sefer Daniel.
Background: Who was Belshatzar?
Belshatzar was the last ruler of the Babylonian Empire and was defeated by the Persian-Median Empire. Chazal (Megillah 11b) state that he was the grandson of Nevuchadnetzar, the infamous emperor who conquered Yerushalayim and destroyed the first Beit HaMikdash. According to Chazal, Belshatzar was the son of Evil Merodach (mentioned in Melachim 2:25:27), who succeeded his father, Nevuchadnetzar, as the Babylonian emperor. (For a brief presentation of the possibilities regarding how to reconcile the secular historic account of the Babylonian emperors with Chazal’s approach, see Daat Mikra to Daniel 5:26 footnote 57 and Rav Meidan’s Galut VeHitgalut p. 132.)
Sefer Daniel records that in the third year of his reign, Belshatzar made a great feast, during which he used the utensils from the Beit HaMikdash as goblets for drinking wine with his wives and concubines. Sefer Daniel does not state Belshatzar’s motivation for using these utensils, but Chazal (ibid.) explain that Belshatzar had (correctly) calculated that seventy years had passed since his grandfather Nevuchadnetzar assumed the throne. Belshatzar believed that the seventy years (prophesized by Yirmiyahu in 25:8-14 and 29:10-14) after which the Jewish exile would end referred to seventy years from Nevuchadnetzar’s ascension to power. Seeing that he remained in power and that his empire had not been overtaken by another, as promised by Yirmiyahu, Belshatzar made a great feast celebrating the non-fulfillment of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy. He used the utensils of the Beit HaMikdash to highlight the fact that the Beit HaMikdash, in his view, would not be rebuilt.
The Writing on the Wall
Belshatzar was in for a surprise when during the meal a mysterious hand appeared and began to write on the wall. Belshatzar did not understand the writing or the message of the words, but he realized that it foretold something very dire. The color of his face changed and his body shook. He called for his interpreters to explain the message, but they were unable to do so. The queen mother (see Ibn Ezra and Daat Mikra to Daniel 5:10) came to the banquet hall and informed Belshatzar of the fact that Daniel had in the past interpreted Nevuchadnetzar’s dreams when no one else could.
Thereupon, Daniel was summoned, and he explained that the writing stated the Aramaic words “Meneih, Meneih, Tekeil UFarsin,” “Counted, counted, weighed, and divided.” Daniel interpreted the message as saying that Hashem had numbered Belshatzar’s kingdom, had weighed his personal merits, had found him lacking, and therefore had decided to split the kingdom between the Persian-Median Empire. “Numbering” the kingdom refers to the seventy years that Hashem has allocated to the Babylonian Empire (see Daat Mikra to Daniel 5:26), which had come to an end. Belshatzar was found wanting due to the severe disrespect he showed towards the utensils of the Beit HaMikdash, using them in a way even the evil Nevuchadnetzar did not (see Daniel 1:2). That very evening, Daniel’s interpretation was fulfilled - the Persian-Median forces conquered Babylon and killed Belshatzar.
Rav Meidan (ad. loc. pp. 144-146) argues that this event had a great impact on Am Yisrael and other nations. We find (Ezra chapter one) that Koresh (the Persian Emperor Cyrus) in the very first year of his reign issued his famous proclamation permitting the Jews and the utensils of the Beit HaMikdash to return to Yerushalayim. What motivated Koresh, a pagan king, to issue this decree at the very outset of his reign? Rav Meidan asserts that the events of Belshatzar’s feast affected Koresh to the extent that the latter was concerned lest Belshatzar’s fate befall him. He learned from Belshatzar that his success as an emperor hinged upon revering the Beit HaMikdash and its utensils.
Counting and Weighing
A crucial question must be posed at this juncture. Was Belshatzar killed because the seventy years allocated to Babylon elapsed, or was he killed because of his poor behavior? In other words, would Belshatzar have been killed even if he had not abused the Beit HaMikdash’s utensils?
Rav Meidan (ad. loc. pp. 139-144) argues that the straightforward reading of the Pesukim seems to indicate that both factors equally contributed to Belshatzar’s downfall. Sefer Daniel implies that it was the combination of the counting of the years and Belshatzar’s poor behavior that made Hashem decree his end. This is quite a startling insight, since it teaches that despite Yirmiyahu’s prophecy that the reign of the Babylonian emperors would terminate at a specific time, this decree did not necessarily have to be carried out. In other words, prophecy does not eliminate the exercise of people’s free will.
Rav Meidan cites a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Rut 507) that illustrates this concept. There was a man to whom Eliyahu HaNavi appeared, and Eliyahu informed him that God had decreed six good years, which he had the choice to enjoy immediately or at the end of his life. The man asked to consult his wife, who advised him to take the good years at once. She also advised him to engage in many acts of kindness so as to merit an extension of the six years. After six years, when Eliyahu reappeared to herald the end of the six good years, the man once again asked to consult his wife, and she advised him to tell Eliyahu that if he found a more deserving individual, he should take the gift of good years and give it to that other person. Hashem heard their argument and saw the couple’s good deeds and granted them even greater good despite the end of the decreed time of good years.
Rav Meidan adds another astonishing point. He notes that Yirmiyahu prophesied that the fall of the Babylonian Empire would herald the redemption of the Jewish people. Despite this fact, the redemption could have been postponed if not for the poor behavior of Belshatzar. Rav Meidan argues that this works in the other direction as well. The redemption of Am Yisrael would not arrive automatically at the time prophesied by Yirmiyahu. Rather, Am Yisrael would have to earn the redemption. This idea is expressed in Yirmiyahu 29:10-14, where Yirmiyahu teaches that at the termination of the seventy years, the redemption will come only if we pray to Hashem and wholeheartedly seek Him. Chazal seem to be expressing this idea in the Mishnah that states, “Everything is foretold, yet free will is granted” (Avot 3:19). (For further discussion of Chazal’s views regarding the trigger for the Geulah, see Sanhedrin 97b-98a.)
Support for the “Earned Redemption” Principle
The Tanach Kollel students noted that we find a similar idea regarding the redemption from Egypt. They pointed out that only when Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem did the process of the redemption begin (Shemot 2:23-25; see Rashbam and Ramban to Pasuk 25). The dual cause of Yetziat Mitzrayim seems to be expressed in Shemot 6:5, where Hashem states that He heard the cries of Bnei Yisrael and remembered the Brit Bein HaBetarim (where Hashem told Avraham Avinu that the suffering would last for four hundred years). Perhaps this means that Hashem considered the fact that the appointed time for the Geulah had arrived and therefore the time was ripe for a positive response to Bnei Yisrael’s prayers.
In fact, Ramban (Shemot 12:40, discussed at length in an essay available at www.koltorah.org) argues that we left Mitzrayim four hundred and thirty years after the Brit Bein HaBetarim, not after the preordained four hundred years. The delay, according to Ramban, was due to Bnei Yisrael being deemed unworthy of redemption at the expiration of the four hundred years. My Talmid Dani Yaros expressed the idea as follows: The appointed times of four hundred years and, later, seventy years are not times established for automatic Geulah. Rather, these are times when Hashem will engage in a “performance appraisal” to determine if we are worthy of redemption.
This might explain why Rashi (Daniel 7:25 and 8:15) and many other great Meforshim predicted the date of the arrival of Mashiach (based on Pesukim in Sefer Daniel). Rashi, for example, predicts that the time is the year 1397 C.E.; Rambam in his Iggeret Teiman predicts the year 1212 C.E.; and the Malbim (Daniel 12:12) states that by the year 1928 C.E., the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt. One may ask why these great scholars continued to make such predictions when prior predictions by earlier giants did not materialize. An answer might be that these times were ripe for the arrival of Mashiach had we been worthy of it. The Meforshim come to teach us that in the years that they mentioned, Am Yisrael will be up for a “performance appraisal” and that we must do our utmost to improve in order to be found deserving of the final redemption at those times.
The “Earned Redemption” Principle and Medinat Yisrael
This “earned redemption” principle is quite relevant regarding Medinat Yisrael. For example, two stories circulate among religious Jews regarding why Hashem did not allow Hitler (Yemach Shemo) to enter Eretz Yisrael, instead handing him his first defeat at the battle of El Alamein in 1943 despite all expectations to the contrary. One story (cited in Gray Matter 1 p. 138) is that Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog stated that we are promised that there will not be a destruction of the third major Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael (for an elaboration of this view, see Rav Hershel Schachter’s BeIkvei HaTzon pp. 214-215). The second story (cited in Gray Matter 2 p. 262) is that at that time, a group of leading Chassidic Rebbes met in Yerushalayim and resolved to construct as many Mikvaot as possible throughout Eretz Yisrael in order to merit being spared from Hitler’s armies. The Rebbes fulfilled their promise after the deliverance at El Alamein.
I asked the students which of these stories appeared to constitute the true reason for this redemption (based on our study of Sefer Daniel). The overwhelming response was that both stories were true. The time was ripe for redemption in Eretz Yisrael, but we needed to earn the redemption as well. We concluded that the same applies to Medinat Yisrael and the question of whether it constitutes “Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu,” “the beginning of the sprouting of our deliverance,” the term from the Tefillah for Medinat Yisrael recited in Religious Zionist congregations (composed by Rav Herzog and Nobel Laureate Shai Agnon). Medinat Yisrael may constitute the beginning of the Geulah, but Geulah will come only if we deserve it. This places a great responsibility on us, as we cannot simply do as we wish and rest assured that the Geulah will come. Rather, we must do our utmost to insure that Medinat Yisrael truly constitutes Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu and follows a proper path that will lead to the ultimate redemption.