Yerushalayim, the Beit HaMikdash and Ezra Perek 4 by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


This past June (2015-5775), more than twenty incoming TABC students, current TABC students and TABC alumni gathered, with Hashem’s help, for the twelfth annual Tanach Kollel, where we devoted a week to learning Sefer Ezra. This coming June 15th, 16th and 17th, we again, God willing, will devote another exciting week to the study of Tanach. We will be learning Sefer Daniel, one of the most fascinating Sefarim in the entire Tanach.

One of the issues the 5774 Tanach Kollel grappled with was the mystifying Perek 4 of Sefer Ezra. It is a pleasure to present the Tanach Kollel’s collective explanation of this challenging Perek, especially in honor of this coming Sunday’s celebration of Yom Yerushalayim.

The Content of Ezra Perek 4

Sefer Ezra begins with great excitement as the Persian emperor Koresh (Cyrus) grants us (in the year 539 BCE[1]) permission to return to Eretz Yisrael and to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. Perek 4 of Sefer Ezra, however, opens with tension recording that our enemies[2] offer to help us in our efforts to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, but our leaders (including Yehoshua Kohein Gadol and the governor Zerubavel) refuse their assistance. The refusal seems to stem from the fact that the Jewish status of these Samaritans is highly questionable, and consenting to their cooperation would wrongly confer legitimacy to their claims of Jewish identity.

Infuriated by our refusal to recognize the Samaritans as Jews, the Samaritans tenaciously resisted our attempts to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash and even hired representatives to successfully convince Koresh to retract his permission to rebuild the Mikdash.

Perek 4 of Sefer Ezra continues and notes that Samaritan resistance to our rebuilding project continues from Koresh until[3] the reign of Daryavesh (Darius, who reigned from 522-486 BCE according to the common chronology). Our Samaritan adversaries persist in the days of Achashveirosh (485-465 BCE, according to the common chronology) and write an accusation against us. Perek 4 continues and describes that during the reign of Artachshasta (Artaxerxes, king of Persia, 464-424 BCE), the Samaritans write a letter saying that if Jerusalem is rebuilt, Persian control of it will cease. Pasuk 23 records that Artaxerxes forces the rebuilding of Yerushalayim to cease. The letter of complai nt and Artachshasta’s response is presented at great length from Pesukim 8 to 22. Pasuk 24 then shockingly records that the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash ceases until the second year of Darius’ reign.

Profound Problems with Ezra Perek 4

The inclusion in Perek 4 of the letter to Artachshasta regarding our rebuilding the walls of Yerushalayim is utterly shocking. Sefer Nechemiah is devoted to a full description of the struggle to rebuild the walls of Yerushalayim in the year 445 BCE (according to the common chronology). By contrast, Ezra, Perakim 1-6, describes the struggle to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. The Artachshasta correspondence appears entirely irrelevant to this section of Sefer Ezra. Moreover, Perek 4 seamlessly transitions from describing in Pasuk 23 the interruption of the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash to recording the disruption of the building of the Beit HaMikdash in Pasuk 24. Why does Sefer Ezra in Perek 4 interpolate the rebuilding of the Jerusalem walls within a discussion of the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash?[4]

The Equation of Yerushalayim with the Beit HaMikdash

A solution to this enormous problem emerges from Rambam’s linking the holiness of Yerushalayim with the Kedushah of the Beit HaMikdash (Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 6:16). Rambam famously argues that even though the Kedushah Rishonah – the special holiness bestowed upon Eretz Yisrael which took effect when Yehoshua conquered Eretz Yisrael – elapsed with Nevuchadnetzar’s conquest of Eretz Yisrael, the Kedushah of the Beit HaMikdash remains intact. Rambam explains that while the Kedushah conferred by Yehoshua’s conquest may be reversed, the Kedushah of the Beit HaMikdash is irreversible, since its holiness is a result of Hashem’s eternal presence. Rambam classifies Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash in the same category and argues that, unlike the rest of Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem’s and the Beit HaMikdash’s holiness was not canceled by the Babylonian conquest. The holiness of Jerusalem is a result of God’s eternal presence, identical to the holiness of the Beit HaMikdash. 

Similarly, when the Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 4:1) writes that Shofar is blown on Shabbat in the Mikdash – but not in the rest of Eretz Yisrael – Rambam (Hilchot Shofar 2:8) writes that Shofar is blown not only in the Beit HaMikdash but also in all of Yerushalayim on Shabbat. Once again, when the Mishnah (Sukkah 3:12) records that on a Torah level one is obligated to take the Four Minim only in the Beit HaMikdash during the last six days of Sukkot, Rambam (Peirush HaMishanayot Sukkah) includes the entire city of Yerushalayim in this obligation[5].

We should note that Rav Soloveitchik invoked this point when many Jews asked in the aftermath of the Six Day War and the subsequent building of much of Yerushalayim whether they should continue reciting the “Nacheim” prayer – which describes Yerushalayim among other things as “desolate without inhabitants” – on Tishah BeAv, since the prayer seems to be entirely inappropriate in a time when hundreds of thousands of Jews live and thrive in Jerusalem.

Rav Chaim David HaLeivy (Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav 1:14) calls for adding one word to “Nacheim,” namely “SheHayeta,” which clarifies that the city that was desolate without inhabitants, but it still mourns during times of prosperity due to the continued absence of the Beit HaMikdash. However, most Rabbanim, including Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Nefesh HaRav pp.78-79), opposed changing the text of “Nacheim.” Rav Soloveitchik argues that referring to Yerushalayim as desolate refers to Jerusalem in its status as an extension of the Beit HaMikdash, a status from which Jerusalem derives its special Halachic standing. As long as the Beit HaMikdash is not rebuilt, we view Yerushalayim as desolate and degraded.

Explaining Ezra Perek 4

By anachronistically inserting the correspondence regarding our rebuilding the walls of Yerushalayim within the discussion of our rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash, Sefer Ezra equates the rebuilding of Jerusalem with the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash. In fact, the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash was incomplete until the walls of Yerushalayim were complete.

The reasoning for this equation is straightforward. Yeshayahu (Perek 1 is a prime example) and many other Nevi’im condemn as repulsive those who offer generous Korbanot in the Beit HaMikdash and behave unethically outside its precincts. The Kedushah of the Beit HaMikdash must overflow into everyday life and not remain confined within its walls. For this reason, Hashem includes many ethical commands in the second half of Sefer VaYikra, the Sefer designated as Torat Kohanim, devoted to the laws of the Beit HaMikdash and Korbanot. The holiness of the Mishkan described in the first half of Sefer VaYikra must be extended and applied to our mundane activities discussed in the second half of Sefer VaYikra. The ethical conduct of everyday life in Jerusalem in close proximity to the Beit HaMikdash serves as a paradigmatic example of how the Kedushah of the Temple must extend beyond its four walls, as taught by Sefer VaYikra.


Chazal (Bava Batra 14b) view Ezra and Nechemiah as one Sefer even though the portion called “Ezra” focuses on the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash and that which is called “Nechemiah” focuses on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. By synthesizing these two projects, even though they took place nearly seventy years apart from each other (according to the common chronology), Sefer Ezra teaches that the holiness of Yerushalayim stems from its being constituted as an extension of the Beit HaMikdash. The mysterious Ezra Perek 4 is not a mystery at all. Ezra Perek 4 powerfully conveys the message that in order for the holiness of the Beit HaMikdash to be expressed authentically, it must be extended and applied to ordinary life in Jerusalem’s markets, homes and interpersonal connections.

[1] This year is in accord with the common chronology which is supported by both Persian and Greek historical records as well a straightforward reading of Ezra Perek 4, which lists the order of the kings as Cyrus, Darius, Achashveirosh (the Jewish version of the Persian name Chashirash – see Esther 10:1, which presents Achashirash as a “Ketiv” alternative to Achashveirosh, seemingly clinching the identification of Xerxes with Achashveirosh) and Artachshasta. This order of Persian kings conforms to the common chronology of Persian kings but differs from the mainstream view of Chazal (see, for example, Rashi to Ezra 4:6), that the order is Koresh, Achashveirosh and then Daryavesh. The strictly Orthodox commentary Da’at Mikra presents a Peshat (basic and straightforward) explanation of Sefer Ezra-Nechemiah conforming to the common chronology. Malbim (Ezra 7:1) presents Radak and the Ba’al HaMa’or, who regard alternatives to Chazal’s chronology. Malbim regards this as a legitimate and viable alternative.

[2] These enemies appear to be the Shomeronim (Samaritans), as they mention that they were brought to Eretz Yisrael by an Assyrian king. See Melachim II 17:24-41 for the story of their forced transfer to Eretz Yisrael by the Assyrians and their subsequent highly questionable conversion to Judaism. A tiny community of Samaritans survive and live near Har Gerizim, which they regard as holy (as recorded in Chullin 6a). A video entitled “Are Samaritans a Disappearing People?” (available on You Tube) describes their current situation.

[3] Tanach Kollel members/Torah Academy of Bergen County students Hillel Koslowe and Gavriel Kruman note that the fact that our Perek describes the time as from Koresh until Daryavesh (and not simply in the days of Koresh and Daryavesh) indicates that there was at least one other ruler between Koresh and Daryavesh. This, Hillel and Gavriel note, seems to refer to Cambyses, who served as emperor, according to Greek and Persian sources, between Koresh and Daryavesh. Rashi to Daniel 11:2 also makes mention of Cambyses.

[4] Rashi (Ezra 4:7) solves this problem by identifying (based on Rosh Hashanah 3b) the Artachshasta of Perek 4 with either Koresh or Daryavesh (Rashi explains that Artachshasta is the title given to all Persian kings, as Par’oh is the title given to every Egyptian ruler). Rashi, however, does not explain why a discussion of the building of Jerusalem’s walls is inserted in a discussion of the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.

[5] Rav Yitzchak Yosef, in Yalkut Yosef (Orach Chaim 658:1), writes that some have the custom to bring their Lulav to the Kotel on each of the last six days of Sukkot to fulfill this Mitzvah on a Torah level in accordance with Rambam’s view. 


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