Ezra HaSofer

Ezra picture

Ezra, son of Seraya the Priest, also known as Ezra the Scribe, “a scribe expert in the Teaching of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), led the second wave of immigration that went up from Babylonia to Jerusalem, as part of the Return to Zion. Ezra’s aliya and activities are described in the Book of Ezra (chapters 7-10) and the Book of Nehemiah (chapter 8).

Overview

Ezra left for Jerusalem, equipped with an official letter of appointment from the King of Persia, who had granted him the status of spiritual leader, with authority to appoint judges and to judge the people according to the laws of the Torah.

Ezra first worked to strengthen the status of the Torah – “to study the Teaching of the Lord so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel” (7:10). To this end, he held public ceremonies in Jerusalem, which included the public reading of the Torah, and the removal of foreign wives. Ezra was a scholar, proficient in the Torah – its writing, its interpretation, and its study – and was appointed to teach the Torah and its laws to the people, “so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel” (7:10).

Ezra was an ideological leader, who worked to set up a politico-religious framework based on the Torah, and the Sages also saw him as a legislator and leader in the style of Moshe. Through his leadership and actions, Ezra sought to bring the returnees back to their state at the time they received the Torah.

Ethiopian Festival of Sigd 

His Life

Ezra, the son of Seraya, was descended from a large family of Cohanim (Priests) from the House of Zadok, the family from which the High Priests had been selected to serve in the Temple. He lived in Persia during the reign of Artaxerxes I, who ruled between the years 464-423 BCE.

Remains of the city of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. Photo: Mr Minoque (Wikimedia Commons).

In addition to his being a priest, Ezra also had the title of Sofer, or Scribe, a title whose meaning is subject to debate. Some researchers claim that those who held this title were proficient in Torah, copying the books of the Torah by hand and teaching Torah. Other researchers claim that Sofer was the title of a high official in the Persian government. However, from our sources it is hard to determine what Ezra’s position may have been in the Persian government, or what his powers were. It may be that he was in charge of Jewish affairs and religious services in Babylonia, or perhaps throughout the whole of the Persian Empire. One might assume that Ezra’s connections with the Persian royal court helped him obtain permission to move to Jerusalem with the king’s support.

Some scholars assume that political motives related to difficulties within the Persian kingdom influenced the fact that Ezra the Scribe was given permission to go up to Jerusalem. During that period, Persia was afraid that its rule over Egypt was being undermined, through rebellions taking place there against Persian rule. Hence, Artaxerxes sought to strengthen his rule in the area, and to base forces loyal to him there. The returnees to Zion were loyal to Persia, and for this reason the king permitted Ezra to lead another group of immigrants to Jerusalem. The king issued Ezra with a letter of appointment, giving him the status of spiritual leader and the authority to appoint judges who would rule the people in accordance with the laws of the Torah. The letter of appointment granted him authority not only over the Jews living in Judea, but also over the Jews in the Governorate of ‘Beyond the River’ – an area that stretched westward from the Euphrates, between Babylonia and Egypt. It should be noted that the king granted Ezra powers only in terms of religious autonomy, but not political powers. The letter of appointment can be read in the Book of Ezra (7:12-26).

And so, on the first day of Av, in the year 457 BCE (the middle of the 5th century BCE), Ezra came to Jerusalem, accompanied by about 1,750 immigrants. Those who came with Ezra were the third generation of the exiles in Babylonia, and they arrive in Jerusalem after a journey that lasted about four months – from Nissan to Av. It would seem that these dates mark, for Ezra, the beginning of a new period – from Destruction and exile to the Exodus from Babylonia and the rebuilding of the Temple and of Judah. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they sacrificed 12 burnt offerings, corresponding to the number of tribes of Israel, as an atonement for the sins of the whole people.

Ezra worked hard to strengthen Torah and the observance of its laws, and he organized a massive ceremony at which the Torah was read before the whole population. This ceremony took place in Jerusalem on the first and second days of Tishri, and then continued throughout the festival of Sukkot. At this ceremony of reading the Torah, the whole of the people was present – “men and women and all who could listen with understanding” (Nehemiah 8:2). Since most of those who had arrived from Babylonia could not understand Hebrew, the reading of the Torah was accompanied by explanations and translation to Aramaic.

Ezra also aspired to strengthen the Jewish character of the community of immigrants from Babylonia, given the situation in which numerous intermarriages had taken place. He worked against intermarriage, and encouraged the returnees to divorce their non-Jewish wives and separate themselves from the neighboring nations.

Ezra Acts Against Mixed Marriages

About four months following Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem, he was approached by a number of the leaders of the people, who told him that marriages with the neighboring peoples were a very common phenomenon, particularly among the nobles – members of the upper classes and the Cohanim. The fact that it was only some of the leaders who approached Ezra indicates the disagreement that existed among the leadership and the people over this issue. Both those that supported intermarriage and those that opposed it relied on an interpretation of Biblical sources. The Torah forbade marrying members of the seven Canaanite nations, stating: “You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons” (Deut. 7:3). The reason for the prohibition was a religious one: the fear of abandonment of the Jewish religion and the observance of idolatrous practices: “For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord‘s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out” (Deut. 7:4). Similarly the Torah prohibited marriage with the Ammonites and Moabites, giving a nationalist explanation for this: “Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt…” (Deut. 23:5).

Some of the nobles did not refrain from intermarriage, believing that the prohibition against intermarriage applied only to those nations that the Torah explicitly prohibited. They argued that this prohibition did not apply to marriage to other non-Jewish peoples. The nobles also argued that the reason for the Torah’s prohibition was the concern over the penetration of idolatry into the Jewish people. On the other hand, the non-Jewish wives whom they had married were not idol-worshippers, coming instead from families that believed in the God of Israel. According to the nobles, marriage to gentile women was not a negative phenomenon but the opposite – they could contribute to the dissemination of Judaism and to the acceptance of the God of Israel among the neighbouring nations. The nobles who offered these arguments were expressing a universalist doctrine – an approach that supported the inclusion of members of other peoples within the Jewish people. They relied on an interpretation of the words of the prophet Isaiah, who emphasized “For My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), and believed that the prophet was calling for gentiles to join the Jewish people.

Imagine an argument between Ezra and one of those who opposed the prohibition of intermarriage. Write down their conversation. You can include the dialogue or report on it in the blog that you will write for Ezra.

Ezra represented those who disagreed with the universalist approach. His doctrine required that the purity of the Jewish people be maintained, and forbade Jews from intermarrying with members of any other nation, at any time and in any place, since the Jews are a “holy people,” while the other nations are impure. According to Ezra’s approach, intermarriage carried with it the danger of religious assimilation among the nations, and he saw it as a severe transgression that could lead to another exile.

Ezra went into deep mourning over the information about the intermarriages; he tore his clothes, pulled out his hair and fasted: “When I heard this, I rent my garment and robe, I tore hair out of my head and beard, and I sat desolate” (Ezra 9:3). Some researchers claim that Ezra already knew of the phenomenon of intermarriage when in Babylonia. They assume that he reacted in this way because he wanted to be seen as having responded to the people’s initiative, rather than imposing Torah law by virtue of the powers granted him by the king. As recounted in the Book of Ezra, his emotional response had an effect on the people. A great crowd gathered around him and wept bitterly: “While Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the House of God, a very great crowd of Israelites gathered about him, men, women, and children; the people were weeping bitterly” (Ezra 10:1). The community encouraged Ezra to exploit the powers given to him and expel the foreign women and their children. The option of conversion of the gentile women did not come up at all. However, an emotional response was not sufficient, and Ezra began to take practical steps.

Initially Ezra made the Cohanim and Levites swear that they would assist him, and thus gathered a group of supporters around him. He then called an assembly of the people, going so far as to threaten those who did not attend with having their property confiscated. At this public assembly, which some see as the beginning of the Knesset Hagdolah, the Great Assembly, it was decided to appoint a special court that would work to expel the foreign women. As a result of the investigations by the court, the Jewish lineage of 113 people was found to be defective, but it is not clear whether this was the reason for deciding to expel the non-Jewish women. At the same time, we do know that the family members who were affected by the expulsion order were embittered by the decision, and that tensions developed between the Jewish people and the surrounding nations.

There are some who see the Book of Ruth as presenting the opposite message from that expressed by Ezra against intermarriage. Read the story of Ruth, and explain why.

discussion on mixed marriages