Yeshua Taught in their Synagogues

Luke 4:14-15

After their two days staying with, and teaching the Samaritans, Yeshua and his talmidim then continued on to Galilee.

Now after the two days He departed from there and went to Galilee. John 4:43 NKJV

So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they also had gone to the feast. John 4:45 NKJV

Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.      Luke 4:14-15 NKJV

The word “synagogue” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Beit Knesset’, meaning ‘House of Assembly‘.  Other Hebrew terms, less frequently used, describe the synagogue as a ‘House of Study‘, or a ‘House of Prayer‘.  Whereas the structure and function of the priesthood and tabernacle (later replaced by the temple) were commanded by God through Moses, synagogues grew organically out of the Jew’s desire to maintain their identity as a community of God regardless of who ruled over them.  Since the synagogue belonged to the local community that built and maintained it; there never was a higher authority that determined its policy, namely how it should be built, decorated, administered, or what sort of liturgy was to be used in it.  Thus, the diversity among synagogues so evident in the first century (1).   It was, therefore, not until well after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD that the structure and governance of the synagogues was standardised.  

Synagogue – the centre of Jewish community life

During Yeshua’s day each was structured according to the needs of the local community and functioned according to the teachings accepted by the local community, hence there was variety in architecture and how they operated.  They were multi-functional institutions answering the many needs of the entire Jewish community in each location: schools (Josephus, Antiquities  16.43), hostels, courts (Acts 22:19), a place to collect and distribute charity (Matt 6:2), for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289), for communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216), and for worship which focused on prayer, reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures.

The synagogue was the social, intellectual, spiritual, political and legal centre of the Jewish community’s life in that village. (2) (3) Worship and study, friendship and community celebration, schooling, collection and distribution of charity, governing of the community and court proceedings were all done in the synagogue and by the synagogue rulers.  The synagogue was thus the heart of every Jewish community and being a member in good standing was essential to being accepted in the Jewish community. (4) (5) (6) 

Synagogue architecture…

Architecturally, synagogues were public buildings constructed, where possible, near a body of water for a mikveh and for the Tashlikh ceremony on Rosh HaShanah, or on the highest point in town, or on a raised platform.  They had a large hall for Shabbat services and many also had smaller rooms for study. 

They generally had a Mikveh (ritual bath / baptismal pool) for ritual washings, and this had to contain enough water for a person to walk down into it, squat and be completely submersed with water.  The Mikveh had one set of steps for people to walk down into it as ceremonially ‘unclean’ and another set of steps for them to walk up out of the water ceremonially ‘clean’.  Synagogues also had kitchen facilities for community feasts, and accommodation for visitors.  

In some cases, the front façade of the main hall had three doors.  Inside there were benches, made of wood or stone, along three or sometimes four sides of the room, with a break for the door of course. (7) 

Within Jewish tradition one stood to read from the Torah and Prophets (t. Sukkah 2.10), so the centre of the room would have a small platform for the readers to stand on, and it is possible that a small menorah (seven-branched candlestick), like the one in the Temple, also stood on that platform.  The floor was usually dirt or flagstones, and common people probably sat on mats on the floor, while the important people sat on the stone benches (Matt. 23:6).  There was a seat for the reader of the Torah called the Moses Seat (or the Seat of Honour), because the Torah recorded the words of Moses so the reader was taking Moses’ place (Matt. 23:2). The Torah scrolls and the writings of the prophets were either kept in a portable chest and brought to the synagogue for worship or were kept in the Synagogue itself in a permanent Torah cabinet. (8) (9)

A Greek inscription dating to the first century dedicating a synagogue gives us some insight into their architecture and functions, as well as the importance that the people placed on lineage:

Theodotos, son of Vettenus, priest and ruler of the synagogue, son of a ruler of the synagogue, grandson of a ruler of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments, and also the guest chamber and the upper rooms and the ritual pools of water for lodging for those needing them from abroad, which his fathers, the elders and Simonides founded.

Three sacred spaces in Judaism

In Yeshua’s day there were three sacred spaces in Judaism, each of which had its own ordered rituals: Temple, Synagogue and Home (10).   Yeshua attended and ministered in each of these spaces.   For the Jews the Temple was the place of the presence of the transcendent God on earth and so the daily Temple worship involved sacrifice accompanied by worship in music and song.  It was patterned after 1 Chronicles 16:4-6 where David appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD with lyres, harps, cymbals and trumpets, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD.  Twelve was the absolute minimum number of musicians the Mishnah deemed appropriate for the daily psalm, and there was no maximum number. (11) Whereas the temple was governed by priests and its functions undertaken by priests, the synagogue was governed by local elders of the community and all but one optional function was undertaken by the laity.  Priests and Levites were welcome to participate in synagogue life but they had no special role except that only priests could offer the blessing of Aaron from the Torah (Num. 6:23-27) at the end of the service. (8)

Synagogue as centre of community justice…

The Synagogue provided the structure whereby a qahal (community) became rooted in God.  Its primary purpose was the dispensation of justice, which was defined as the study, teaching and application of the Tanakh (Torah (Law of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings) – ie what we refer to as the Old Testament) and the Oral Law.  Jewish tradition placed the roots of the synagogue in Jethro’s advice to Moses (Exodus 18) to select able men who feared God as rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens to judge the people.  In light of that and Boaz’ gathering of ten elders of Bethlehem to witness the legal transaction that gave him possession of the land that belonged to Naomi, and Ruth as his wife (Ruth 4:2-12) Jewish tradition demanded a minimum of ten persons for any public or official religious gathering.   Less than ten persons was not a community and did not qualify for a communal gathering.  The Mishnah preserves the ruling concerning this required minimum number:

If there are less that ten present, the congregation may not recite the Shema with its benedictions, nor may one go before the ark [to lead the prescribed congregational prayers], nor may priests lift up their hands [in pronouncing the blessing], nor may one read the portion of the Torah or the Prophets, nor may one observe the stations [when burying the dead] or say the mourners’ benediction or the mourners’ consolation, or the benediction over newlyweds, nor may one mention the name of God in the invitation to recite the blessing after the meal. Also [the redemption value of dedicated] immovable property [is assessed] by nine and a priest, and similarly, [the valuation vow] of a person. (Megillah 4:3)

The importance of this religious quorum cannot be overestimated. Rabbi Eliezer, a member of the generation that witnessed the destruction of the Temple, freed one of his slaves so that there would be a quorum of ten for the “Eighteen Benedictions,” the central prayer of the synagogue service. (12)

First Century Jewish society was communal, not individual, and that community was defined as being more than ten people.  At this time women could be counted among the ten for a quorum to enable a Shabbat Synagogue Service to go ahead.   The wellbeing of the individual, the family and the community were intimately tied to the proper functioning of the Synagogue and its officers.  

Synagogue Officials

Rulers of the Synagogue, הכנסת ראש ro’sh ha-keneseth, governed the community.  They formed the בית דין Bet Din, bench of three judges, who dispensed justice to the community.  They were also empowered to collect taxes, buy and sell public property such as Torah scrolls, pay for the construction and maintenance of the synagogue, and pay the salaries of town officials – agronomos (market inspectors), Chazzan (synagogue officers), city guards and teachers.  Ro’sh ha-keneseth had to be tsadiqim (righteous men), that is men who knew Torah and Halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from both the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah”) and followed these as the pattern of their lives.  These synagogue rulers were also responsible for the conduct of the synagogue services.  When the congregation had assembled it was the ruler’s duty to select the various persons to take the leading parts in the service on that day and send the Cḥazzān to notify them what part they were to perform – prayer, reading from the Scriptures, preaching or translating.   

חזן Cḥazzān (attendant) was the other regular official of the Synagogue.  They were generally provided with a salary for their service.  Their primary role was to keep the synagogue clean and appropriately lit and to care for its sacred scrolls.  At the proper stage of the service the attendant would take the appointed scroll out from the ‘ark’ where they were kept, unwrap it and give it to the person chosen to read, then return it to its rightful place when they were finished reading.   He also blew the shofar at sunset of Friday to announce the arrival of Shabbat.  All work would cease and the people gather in their homes to eat the Sabbath meal which had been prepared that afternoon. The same word, Cḥazzān, was used for the synagogue police who would bring those accused of Law breaking to be judged by the Bet Din and were responsible for whipping synagogue members found guilty.   This scourging was carried out in front of the Bet Din who proclaimed during the scourging “If do not carefully observe all the words of this Law…” (Deut. 28:58). 

Except in an occasional large synagogue the following positions were not permanent appointments and did not attract any salary, but were just filled on the day by those chosen by the Synagogue ruler from the congregation gathered once a quorum had been reached.

מתרגמן Meturgeman (interpreter or translator) would be appointed for each service. This man was skilled in languages and stood by those that read, to translate the Hebrew reading into the vernacular language of the synagogue so everyone could understand the message.

שליח צבור Sheliach Tzibbur (angel – or messenger – of the assembly) were required to be humble, be knowledgeable of the rules of prayer and the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew text, have an agreeable voice, proper dress and a beard.  They would recite the prayers on behalf of the congregation, often with musical intonation – representing the community before God in prayer.  They could also be called upon to be messengers of the Bet Din and under their authority transmit Halakhah (Jewish community law), supervise the conversion procedure and lay hands. 

פרנסים Parnassim (administrative officers) were responsible for the care of the poor, and often included at least one woman.   They were in charge of the Mikveh, collection of alms for the poor administration of these funds, visiting the sick, attending to the orphans and widows.  According to Pe’ah 8,7, the collecting was to be done by at least two persons and distributed by three. 

דרשן Darshan (expounder) was the preacher who expounded the Torah in a sermon, delivered after the reading from the Prophets.  This office was also in charge of helping anyone plead their case before the Bet Din.  Some would be travelling preachers, visiting many different communities with their messages.

בעל מסרה  Ba’al Masorah (master of the tradition) was responsible for teaching proselytes in their process of conversion and integration into the Jewish community.  He would also help defend against any deviation from the accepted doctrines and practices of the community as defined by the Bet Din.  (13)  (14)

A Shabbat Service

On Saturday morning the community gathered in the synagogue, then the Ro’sh ha-keneseth (there could be one or more of these synagogue rulers) appointed members of the congregation to various roles in the service.  There was no uniform set order of service that synagogues followed, but most often their pattern was similar to the following:

  • Their service began with blessings offered to God, prayers read with musical intonation by the Sheliach Tzibbur appointed for that day and possibly responses by the congregation. 
  • The whole congregation recited the Shema:  “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI echad [Hear, Isra’el! ADONAI our God, ADONAI is one];(Deut. 6:4) 
  • More structured prayers read by the Sheliach Tzibbur and there may also be responses by the congregation or some spontanious prayers.
  • The Torah scrolls would be brought out by the Chazzan and would be read by the one(s) appointed that day.  In some synagogues one person would be appointed to read while others might have as many as seven readers of different portions.  If Hebrew was not understood by the congregation then a Methurgeman would be appointed to targum (translate) after each verse of the Torah and every three verses of the Nevi’im. 
  • Following the Torah portion, a selection from the Nevi’im (prophets) would be read by the same or another reader. 
  • After all the readings, the one appointed Darshan for that day would teach on what had been read.  The teaching incorporated open responses by those assembled (questions and answers) rather than being a strict monologue. 
  • The service ended with a benediction using the Aaronic blessing found in the Torah (Num. 6:24-26), if a priest was present to offer it. (8) (15) (16)

Music in Jewish Worship

The Tanakh (Jewish Scriptures) clearly exhorts, and gives honoured examples of, praising and worshipping God with musical instruments, song and dance:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: “Sing to the Lord, For He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider, He has thrown into the sea. Exodus 15:20-21 NKJV

Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land.     Leviticus 25:9 NKJV

After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.   1 Samuel 10:5-6 NKJV

Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet. 2 Samuel 6:14-15 NKJV

Then Zadok the priest took a horn of oil from the tabernacle and anointed Solomon. And they blew the horn, and all the people said,  “Long live King Solomon!” 
And all the people went up after him; and the people played the flutes and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth seemed to split with their sound. 1 Kings 1:39-40 NKJV

Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets.       1 Chronicles 13:8 NKJV

Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren,  Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari,  Ethan the son of Kushaiah;  and with them their brethren of the second  rank: Zechariah, Ben, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeiel, the gatekeepers; the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound the cymbals of bronze;  Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah, with strings according to  Alamoth;  Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel, and Azaziah, to direct with harps on the Sheminith; Chenaniah, leader of the Levites, was instructor in charge of the music, because he  was  skilful;  Berechiah and Elkanah were doorkeepers for the ark; Shebaniah, Joshaphat, Nethanel, Amasai, Zechariah, Benaiah, and Eliezer, the priests, were to blow the trumpets before the ark of God; and Obed-Edom and Jehiah, doorkeepers for the ark. 1 Chronicles 15:16-24 NKJV

David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who bore the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah the music master with the singers. David also wore a linen ephod. Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn, with trumpets and with cymbals, making music with stringed instruments and harps. 1 Chronicles 15:27-28 NKJV

And he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the Lord God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God. 1 Chronicles 16:4-6 NKJV

…and with them Heman and Jeduthun, to sound aloud with trumpets and cymbals and the musical instruments of God. Now the sons of Jeduthun were gatekeepers.    1 Chronicles 16:42 NKJV

Moreover David and the captains of the army separated for the service  some of the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should  prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals. And the number of the skilled men performing their service was: Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah; the sons of Asaph were under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied according to the order of the king. Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with a harp to give thanks and to praise the Lord. Of Heman, the sons of Heman: … … All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer in the words of God, to exalt his horn. For God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. All these were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, stringed instruments, and harps, for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the authority of the king. So the number of them, with their brethren who were instructed in the songs of the Lord, all who were skilful, was two hundred and eighty-eight.                  1 Chronicles 25:1-7 NKJV

 …and the Levites who were the singers, all those of Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, stood at the east end of the altar, clothed in white linen, having cymbals, stringed instruments and harps, and with them one hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets—  indeed it came to pass, when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying:
“For He is good,  For His mercy endures forever,”
that the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.   2 Chronicles 5:12-14 NKJV

And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the Lord by His prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had finished offering, the king and all who were present with him bowed and worshiped. Moreover King Hezekiah and the leaders commanded the Levites to sing praise to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshiped.

Then Hezekiah answered and said, “Now that you have consecrated yourselves to the Lord, come near, and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord.” So the assembly brought in sacrifices and thank offerings, and as many as were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings.  2 Chronicles 29:25-31 NKJV

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord:
“For He is good,   For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.    Ezra 3:10-11 NKJV

 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps.                                               Nehemiah 12:27 NKJV

Praise the Lord with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.  Sing to Him a new song; Play skilfully with a shout of joy. Psalm 33:2-3 NKJV

Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy;    
And on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God.     
Psalm 43:4 NKJV

They have seen Your procession, O God,
The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.
The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after;
Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.
Bless God in the congregations, The Lord, from the fountain of Israel. Psalm 68:24-26 NKJV

Also with the lute I will praise You — And Your faithfulness, O my God!
To You I will sing with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.        
Psalm 71:22 NKJV

Sing aloud to God our strength; Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song and strike the timbrel, The pleasant harp with the lute.
Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, At the full moon, on our solemn feast day.        Psalm 81:1-3 NKJV

Sing to the Lord with the harp, With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the Lord, the King.                         Psalm 98:5-6 NKJV

Awake, lute and harp! I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise You, O Lord, among the peoples,
And I will sing praises to You among the nations.      
Psalm 108:2-3 NKJV

I will sing a new song to You, O God;
On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You,       
Psalm 144:9 NKJV

Let them praise His name with the dance;
Let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes pleasure in His people;
He will beautify the humble with salvation.             
Psalm 149:3-4 NKJV

Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
                         Psalm 150:3-5 NKJV

And in every place where the staff of punishment passes,
Which the Lord lays on him,
It will be with tambourines and harps;
And in battles of brandishing He will fight with it.
    Isaiah 30:32 NKJV

Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel!
You shall again be adorned with your tambourines,
And shall go forth in the dances of those who rejoice.
  Jeremiah 31:4 NKJV  

Since the beginning of the nation, back in Exodus, music had been an integral part of Jewish worship of God.  Something happened during the second temple period which would change all that, and it had nothing to do with what was thought proper for worship.  Rather it was the laws that they built around Shabbat which brought an end to playing musical instruments in Jewish worship.   Influential Pharisees feared that a musician might be tempted to replace a string or otherwise repair or tune his instrument when playing on the Sabbath, and they classed such an act as falling into the forbidden category of work called “repairing a utensil”, and so prohibited the playing of any musical instrument on the Sabbath. This ruling of the Sanhedrin affected the synagogue services, rendering their worship devoid of music.    Only in the temple did the prescribed instruments for worship continue to be played, on Shabbat, and every day.

Shabbat Laws

Keeping Shabbat (the Sabbath) was the fourth of the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses.  Here is what God said about it:

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.       Genesis 2:3

“Remember the day, Shabbat, to set it apart for God. You have six days to labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat for ADONAI your God. On it, you are not to do any kind of work – not you, your son or your daughter, not your male or female slave, not your livestock, and not the foreigner staying with you inside the gates to your property.  For in six days, ADONAI made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. This is why ADONAI blessed the day, Shabbat, and separated it for himself.            Exodus 20:8-11 CJB

“On six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is to be a holy day for you, a Shabbat of complete rest in honour of ADONAI. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.  You are not to kindle a fire in any of your homes on Shabbat.”        Exodus 35:2-3 CJB

“You are to take fine flour and use it to bake twelve loaves, one gallon per loaf.  Arrange them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure table before ADONAI. Put frankincense with each row to be an offering made by fire to ADONAI in place of the bread and as a reminder of it. Regularly, every Shabbat, he is to arrange them before ADONAI; they are from the people of Isra’el, as a covenant forever.     Leviticus 24:5-8 CJB

“On Shabbat offer two male lambs in their first year and without defect, with one gallon of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, and its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Shabbat, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.”         Numbers 28:9-10 CJB

Happy is the person who does this, anyone who grasps it firmly, who keeps Shabbat and does not profane it, and keeps himself from doing any evil.  Isaiah 56:2 CJB

“If you hold back your foot on Shabbat from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call Shabbat a delight, ADONAI’s holy day, worth honouring; then honour it by not doing your usual things or pursuing your interests or speaking about them.  If you do, you will find delight in ADONAI – I will make you ride on the heights of the land and feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Ya’akov, for the mouth of ADONAI has spoken.”  Isaiah 58:13-14 CJB

Thus says the LORD, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the Sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem.”   Jeremiah 17:21

In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.  So I admonished them on the day they sold food. Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the Sabbath, even in Jerusalem. Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the Sabbath day?
“Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”   
Nehemiah 13:15-18

In order to enforce regulations against work on Shabbat, the Jewish religious leaders created a legal definition of what work was prohibited.  They concluded that what God ceased from in Genesis 2:1-3 was creating, and saw a connection between this and construction of the tabernacle. From that, they defined thirty-nine categories of activity needed for the construction and use of the Tabernacle, which were thus designated as ‘creating’ and therefor forbidden on Shabbat (and could receive the death penalty from the Sanhedrin).  The thirty-nine categories of forbidden activities, based on the Oral Torah which was being developed and debated in Yeshua’s day are:

  1. Planting (Hebrew: זורע Zorea) Not only planting is included in this category; other activities that promote plant growth are also prohibited. This includes watering, fertilizing, planting seeds, or planting grown plants.
  2. Ploughing (Hebrew: חורש Ḥoresh) Included in this prohibition is any preparation or improvement of land for agricultural use. This includes activities whose purpose is not agricultural such as dragging chair legs in soft soil thereby unintentionally making furrows, or pouring water on the ground or making a hole in the soil.
  3. Reaping (Hebrew: קוצר Koṣer) Removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth is considered reaping. Climbing a tree is forbidden, for fear this may lead to one tearing off a branch. Riding an animal is also forbidden, as one may unthinkingly detach a stick with which to hit the animal.  (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28)
  4. Gathering (Hebrew: מעמר Me’amer) Initial gathering of earth-borne material in its original place. E.g. After picking strawberries, forming a pile or collecting them into one’s pockets, or a basket. Collecting rock salt or any mineral (from a mine or from the Earth) and making a pile of the produce. However, a bowl of apples that falls in a house can be gathered as 1) they do not grow in that environment and 2) they were already initially gathered in the orchard.
  5. Threshing/Extraction (Hebrew: דש Dosh) It refers to any productive extraction and includes juicing fruits and vegetables and wringing (desirable fluids) out of cloths, as the juice or water inside the fruit is considered ‘desirable’ for these purposes, while the pulp of the fruit would be the ‘undesirable.’ As such, squeezing (S’ḥita) is forbidden unless certain rules are applied. 
  6. Winnowing (Hebrew: זורה Zoreh) Sorting undesirable from desirable. The separation of chaff from grain, or any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible.  Rubbing a couple of grains in your hand to remove the husks before eating them would be considered “winnowing” and therefore forbidden.  (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28)
  7. Sorting/Purification (Hebrew: בורר Borer) Any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible or desirable that which was inedible or undesirable. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. Or, if there is a bowl of mixed peanuts and raisins, and one desires the raisins and dislikes the peanuts: Removing (effectively sorting) the peanuts from the bowl, leaving a ‘purified’ pile of raisins free from unwanted peanuts, would be Sorting/Purification as the peanuts are removed and therefor considered a serious transgression. However, removing the desirable raisins from the peanuts does not purify the mixture, as one is left with undesirable peanuts (hence unrefined), not a refined component as before, and is thus permissible.
  8. Dissection Hebrew: טוחן (Toḥen) Dissection can arise in simply cutting into pieces fruits or vegetables for a salad. Very small pieces would involve ‘Dissection’, therefore cutting into slightly larger than usual pieces would be permitted, thus avoiding cutting the pieces into their final, most usable, state.
  9. Sifting (Hebrew: מרקד Meraked) This is essentially the same as Sorting / Purification (see above), but performed with a utensil specifically designed for the purpose of sorting, such as a sieve, strainer, or the like.
  10. Kneading/Amalgamation (Hebrew: לש Losh) this prohibited activity is the combining of solid and liquid together to form a paste or dough-like substance.
  11. Cooking/Baking (Hebrew: אופה/בישול Bishul/Ofeh)  Any method of heating food to prepare for eating is included in this prohibition.
  12. Shearing (Hebrew: גוזז Gozez) Severing/uprooting any body-part of a creature.
  13. Scouring/Laundering (Hebrew: מלבן Melaben) Cleansing absorbent materials of absorbed /ingrained impurities.
  14. Carding/Combing Wool (Hebrew: מנפץ Menafeṣ) Separating/disentangling fibres.
  15. Dyeing (Hebrew: צובע Ṣovea) Colouring or enriching the colour of any material or substance.
  16. Spinning (Hebrew: טווה Toveh) Twisting fibres into a thread or twining strands into a yarn.
  17. Warping (Hebrew: מיסך Meseḥ) Creating the first form for the purpose of weaving.
  18. Making Two Loops/Threading Heddles (Hebrew: עושה שתי בתי נירין Oseh Sh’tei Batei Nirin) Forming loops for the purpose of weaving or the making of net like materials.
  19. Weaving (Hebrew: אורג שני חוטין Oreg) Forming fabric (or a fabric item) by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them.
  20. Separating Two Threads (Hebrew: פוצע שני חוטין Poṣe’a) Removing/cutting fibres from their frame, loom or place.
  21. Tying (Hebrew: קושר Kosher) Binding two pliant objects skilfully or permanently via twisting.
  22. Untying (Hebrew: מתיר Matir) The undoing of any tied (see Tying) or spun (see Spinning) binding
  23. Sewing (Hebrew: תופר Tofer) Combining separate objects into a single entity, whether through sewing, gluing, stapling, welding, dry mounting, etc.
  24. Tearing (Hebrew: קורע Kore’a) Ripping an object in two or undoing any sewn connection.
  25. Trapping (Hebrew: צד Ṣad) Forcible confinement of a living creature, the confining of a creature to make it easier to capture in one’s hand.
  26. Killing (Hebrew: שוחט Shoḥet) Ending a creature’s life, whether through slaughter or any other method.
  27. Flaying/Skinning (Hebrew:מפשט Mepashet) Removing the hide from the body of a dead animal.
  28. Curing/Preservation (Hebrew: מעבד Me’aved); sometimes referred to as “Salting” ( מולח Mole’aḥ). Preserving any item to prevent spoiling for a long period of time.
  29. Smoothing (Hebrew: ממחק Memaḥek) Scraping/sanding a surface to achieve smoothness.
  30. Scoring (Hebrew: משרטט Mesartet) Scoring/drawing a cutting guideline.
  31. Measured Cutting (Hebrew: מחתך Meḥateḥ) Cutting any object to a specific size.
  32. Writing (Hebrew: כותב Kotev) Writing/forming a meaningful character or design.
  33. Erasing (Hebrew: מוחק על מנת לכתוב שתי אותיות Moḥek [al menat lichtov shtei otiyot]) Cleaning/preparing a surface to render it suitable for writing.
  34. Construction (Hebrew: בונה Boneh) Contributing to the forming of any lasting structure. The action of joining different pieces together, e.g. inserting the handle of an axe into the socket is a derived form of this activity.  Also, making a protective covering (or a ‘tent’) is forbidden.
  35. Demolition (Hebrew: סותר Soter) Demolishing for any constructive purpose. For example, knocking down a wall in order to extend or repair the wall would be demolition for a constructive purpose. Combing a wig to set it correctly and pulling out hairs during the procedure with a metal toothed brush or comb would be constructive ‘demolition’, as each hair that is removed in the process of the wig (a utensil) is progressing its state towards a desired completion.
  36. Extinguishing a Fire (Hebrew: מכבה Meḥaveh) Extinguishing a fire/flame, or diminishing its intensity. While extinguishing a fire is forbidden even when great property damage will result; in the event of any life-threatening fire, the flames must be extinguished, by the principle of pikuaḥ nefesh.
  37. Ignition (Hebrew: מבעיר Mav’ir) Igniting, fuelling or spreading a fire/flame. This includes making, transferring or adding fuel to a fire. This is one of the few Sabbath prohibitions mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Exodus 35:3). Judaism requires Sabbath candles to be lit before the Sabbath; it is forbidden to light them on the Sabbath. They are intended to take the place of candles which cannot be lit on the Sabbath.
  38. Fine-tuning / Repairing a Utensil (Hebrew: מכה בפטיש Makeh Bapetish). This activity refers to completing an object and bringing it into its final useful form.  This is the prohibition by which instruments cannot be tuned nor a string replaced which lead to the prohibition on any playing of a musical instrument on Shabbat and thus barred instruments from the synagogue.
  39. Transferring Between Domains / Carrying (Hebrew: הוצאה Hotza’ah) Transferring something from one domain type to another domain type, or transferring within a public thoroughfare. All areas are divided into four categories: a private domain, a public thoroughfare, an open area and an exempt area.  Transferring an object from a private domain to a public thoroughfare, or the reverse, is forbidden. Transferring an object between an open area to a private domain or public thoroughfare is prohibited. Transferring an object between an exempt area and any other domain is permissible. In addition, transferring an object for a distance of four cubits (or more) in a public thoroughfare or open area is forbidden.

In Yeshua’s day, some of this had been handed down through the generations as “traditions of the elders”, and some was still being newly formed and debated.  Yeshua joined in such debates and even called into question traditions of the elders when these brought forth actions which were contrary to the intent of Scripture.  In 1st Century Jewish society, the job of protecting Shabbat, and defining the other laws of the community,was ascribed to the members of the Sanhedrin – hence all the political intrigues engaged in to get a majority representation on the Sanhedrin.  For each of these thirty-nine prohibitions they made rulings as to what the Jewish people were commanded or forbidden to do in keeping with the prohibition – and such rulings were the “Law”, sometimes even referred to as the “Torah” of the Jewish people.  Breaching these rulings was considered to be breaking God’s law, even when the ruling had little relationship to what God had written for us in Scripture.  

Thus, despite all the exhortations in Scripture for the Jewish people to praise and worship God with instruments, they were forbidden to be played as part of the Shabbat Service in the Synagogue.  In another context Yeshua said of the religious leaders: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9)   Music did, however, remain an essential part of services in the Holy Temple. This kind of rabbinical enactment—a prohibition designed to prevent desecration of Shabbat—is called a shvut.  In general, a shvut was deemed not to apply in the Holy Temple.  Music accompanied even those Temple rituals that were deemed not to essentially require musical accompaniment in order to be obedient to Torah.  However, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, this left the Jewish people totally devoid of music in their worship as they had enculturated the prohibition against such in their Synagogues on Shabbat. (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23)

Reference List

1. Levine, Lee I. The First Centurary Synagogue: New Perspectives. Arg. 77 : Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift, 2001.
2. Lacey, Ian. Synagogue Services. Israel & Judaism Studies. [Online] NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, 2007. [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
3. Spigel, Chad. First Centurary Synagogues. Bible Odyssey. [Online] [Cited: 3rd April 2019.]
4. The First-Centurary Synagogue – New Perspectives. Levine, Lee I. Jerusalem : Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift. Arg., 2001, Vol. 77.
5. Laan, Ray Vander. He Went To Synagogue. That The World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 25th July 2019.]
6. —. He Went To Synagogue. That the World May Know. [Online] [Cited: 3rd Dec. 2016.]
7. Spigel, Chad. First Century Synagogues. Bible Odessey. [Online] [Cited: 2nd April 2019.] Chad Spigel, “First Century Syn
8. Turnage, Marc. Exploring the Practices and Customs of the First Century Synagogue. [Online] 9th August 2016. [Cited: 19th April 2019.]
9. Synagogues – Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Hachlili, Rachel. May/June, s.l. : Biblical Archaeology Society, 2015.
10. Matthews, Doc. History of Christianity: Early Christian Worship. Youtube. [Online] [Cited: 17th April 2019.]
11. The Exclusion of Musical Instruments from the Ancient Synagogue. McKinnon, James W. s.l. : Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 1979, Vol. 106, pp. 77–87.
12. Sauter, Megan. Ancient Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora. Biblical Archiology. [Online] 3rd September 2016. [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
13. Killian, Greg. The Synagogue – Bet HaKnesset. Bete Munah. [Online] [Cited: 9th November 2019.]
14. Gafni, Professor Isaiah. Jewish Life in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 29th July 2019.]
15. The Ancient Synagogue Service. Burton, Ernest De Witt. The Biblical World, Vol. 8, pp. 143-148. 01903578.
16. Hegg, Tim. The Public Reading of the Scriptures in the 1st Century Synagogue. s.l. : Torah Resource, 2007.
17. Shurpin, Yehuda. Why can’t we connect to G-d through music on Shabbat? Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 9th November 2019.]
18. Activities Prohibited on Sabbath. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
19. EISENBERG, RONALD L. Shabbat’s Work Prohibition. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
20. Palatnik, Lori. Laws of Shabbat for Beginners. Aish He Torah. [Online] [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
21. OU Staff. The 39 Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law. OU. [Online] 17th July 2006. [Cited: 11th November 2019.]
22. Melamed, Rabbi Eliezer. Laws of Shabbat – Volume 1. s.l. : Yeshivat Har Bracha Maggid Books.
23. Lizorkin, Ilya. Aspects of the Sabbath in the Second Temple Period. 2006.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* In what ways was worship in the Synagogue like worship in your church, and in what ways was it different?
* What were the functions that the synagogue fulfilled in Jesus’ time, and what functions does your church fulfil now?
* Compare the rolls of the synagogue officials with the roles of leaders within your church.
* What do you think of the 39 laws that the Jews made to ensure their people kept the Sabbath as God had commanded? Can you think of any instances when Jesus commented on any of their Sabbath rules?
* What are your thoughts on their reasons for excluding the playing of musical instruments in their synagogue worship and the ultimate result of such being that after the destruction of the second temple in 70AD, all Jewish worship has been without musical instruments? Is this practice of excluding instruments from worship in agreement with the scriptures?

Developments in Judaism under Persian Occupation (430 – 332 BC)

Read Nehemiah 8-13

Nehemiah was written around 430 BC.  Persian kings continued to rule over the Jewish people for the next hundred years.  During this time there were concerted efforts to re-establish Jerusalem as the centre of Jewish religious life.  To this end, groups of Torah scholars were set up in Jerusalem to help establish it as the hub of Torah authority, as well as the epicentre of the sacrificial system. They let it be known that all important questions of Jewish law should be sent to Jerusalem and there is historical evidence of a faraway group of the Jewish diaspora writing to the High Priest with questions about how they should practise the Torah (1).   

The elaborate garments worn by the priests are described in Exodus 28, and again in Exodus 39:1–31. Four of these garments are worn exclusively by the High Priest. They alone are called בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ, the holy garments. The ephod’s precious stones, inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes, are said to serve as אַבְנֵי זִכָּרוֹן “stones of reminder” to remind God of Israel, and the same is true of the twelve stones on the breastplate. Thus by his very person, the High Priest personifies the whole of the Israelite people לִפְנֵי ה’ “before YHWH,” (Exodus 28:12, 29; 39:7). The Urim and Thummim, connected with the breastplate, enable the High Priest, each time he enters the sanctuary, to inquire of God for His judgment on matters (Exodus 28:30). The robe is “worn” for its bells, their sound alerting the divine presence to the High Priest’s approach as he enters the sanctuary “so that he not die” (Exodus 28:35). Finally the diadem on Aaron’s head is said to remove from God’s abode any wrongdoing connected with Israel’s offerings and to ensure, by means of the inscription proclaiming that Israel’s worship is קֹדֶשׁ לַה’ “Holy to Yhwh,” that God graciously accept their sacrifices (Exodus 28:38). Thus the High Priest’s garments transform him who “wears” them into a walking embodiment of the whole nation of Israel, and they play indispensable roles in the worship that he enacts on Israel’s behalf. Having such a High-Priest, we come boldly to the throne of grace.

There remained, however, significant Torah schools in Babylon and the role of the synagogue in Jewish life did not diminish with the re-establishment of temple worship.   Jews now had two centres of spiritual authority and worship – the central authority of the temple in Jerusalem and the local authority of the synagogue. Influencing both of these were the Torah schools in both Babylon and Jerusalem.

Several of the innovations of the Babylonian exile were continued and built upon in Jerusalem, and throughout the diaspora, after the temple was rebuilt. These were attributed to Ezra’s highly respected leadership in Torah study and teaching. Being a scribe, Ezra also produced copies of the Torah and other Jewish religious books (notably the Nev’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings) that would come to be accepted as part of the Hebrew Scriptures). The practises further developed during this period included the prominent use of the singing of Psalms, prayer and instruction as part of the Synagogue service. Synagogue worship and rabbinical teaching continued to operate alongside the temple worship and reading of Torah (2). Formalised prayers that had been developed to replace temple worship during the exile continued to be used and a universal Jewish prayer service was established (3).  To give these prayers a clear framework the wording of the Shemoneh Esrei, Eighteen Blessings, was standardised as well as the blessings before and after food, before and after performing a mitzvah (good deed done within a religious duty and keeping of the commandments), and before and after the Sabbath (Kiddush and Havdalah) (4).

When Yeshua Blessed Food What Did He Say?

Before partaking of any food, a brachah rishonah (preceding blessing), is said. There are six different blessings, each beginning with the same words: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, (Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the Universe), and concluding with a few words related to the type of food eaten.

For any meal that containes bread the blessing is: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz. (Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.)

For wine or grape juice the blessing is: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam borei p’ri hagafen. (Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the
Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.

A longer grace (Birkat-HaMazon) is said after the meal. Thanking God for what has been received and appreciated. Reciting the blessing after the meal is a mitzvah written in the Torah, Deuteronomy 8:10 states, “And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.”  This blessing (which is actually a series of four blessings) is mandated for use following any meal in which bread has been eaten, since according to Jewish law, eating bread officially constitutes a meal.
I. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who feedest the whole world with goodness, with grace and with mercy. Blessed art Thou, O, Lord, Who feedest all.
II. We thank Thee, O Lord, our holy God, that Thou hast caused us to inherit a goodly and pleasant land, the covenant, the Torah, life and food. For all these things we thank Thee and praise Thy name forever and ever. Blessed art Thou, O, Lord, for the land and for the food.
III. Have mercy, O Lord, our God, on Thy people Israel and on Thy city Jerusalem, and on Thy Temple and Thy dwelling place and on Zion Thy resting place, and on the great and holy House over which Thy name was called, and the kingdom of the house of David mayest Thou restore to its place in our days, and build Jerusalem soon. Blessed art Thou, O, Lord, who buildest Jerusalem.
IV. Blessed are You, O Lord, the Good and Who does good, our Father and our King.

During this period the Levites translated the Torah into the Aramaic vernacular and explained it so the people could understand.

“The Levites … instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.  They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” Nehemiah 8:7–8  

This made it much more accessible to the diaspora for many of whom Aramaic was now their mother tongue.  For those in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem, Hebrew was emphasised even though many still used Aramaic as a trade language.  Everything in the Temple and synagogues of Judea was in Hebrew, as was the learning in the synagogue schools. (5)

Origins of the Sanhedrin and Recognising the inspiration of all the TaNaKh (OT)

Ezra is credited by rabbinical Judaism with having brought like-minded Torah scholars together for what became called the “Great Synagogue,” or Sanhedrin following on from the Nehemiah 8-10 gathering, although there is no historical evidence of a Sanhedrin existing at this time. Ezra certainly engendered a grass-roots movement of Torah study and public Torah reading and explanation, which was much needed because many of the population were now Aramaic speakers who lacked understanding of the finer nuances of the Hebrew language.  With like-minded scholars and students he is said to be responsible for the canonisation of the Prophets (Nev’im), and Writings (K’tuvim) into the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible – what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). (6) (7) (8).   

TaNaKh is an acronym referring to the traditional Jewish division of the Bible into Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Kituvim (Writings). The Tanakh that Ezra and his disciples compiled, and that Yeshua and all the original apostles grew up with, and is still used by Jews today, consists of twenty-four books.  This is less than the usual Christian count of thirty-nine because each of the following are considered to be a single book: 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi), and Ezra-Nehemiah.   The order, groupings and names of books are also different to the Christian Bible.  The TaNaKh is divided into:
1. Torah (Law/ Teachings) – consisting of the five books of Moses;
2. Nevi’im (Prophets) – consisting of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & the twelve minor prophets;
3. K’tuvim (Writings) – consisting of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. 

In Christian Bibles, following Greek tradition, the books are named according to their main theme, but in Jewish Bibles the books were named according to their first words.  What we call Exodus (the book about the Jewish exodus from Egypt) the Tanakh calls Sh’mot (Names), because it starts with “These are the names…”.  Hence we do not see Yeshua or the B’rit Hadasha (New Testament) writers using the same referencing of the Tanakh as Christians do today.

Not all priests were in agreement with the Canonisation of the Nevi’im and K’tuvim, giving them the same status as the Torah, although they generally saw great spiritual value in these works.  Thus a division started appearing in Jewish religious thought and practise between those who believed that their lives should be based just on the Torah or just the Torah and the Nevi’im, and those who believed that their lives should be based on the whole Tanakh.

Yeshua would endorse all three sections of the Tanakh in Luke 24:44 “that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Torah of Moses and the Nev’im (Prophets) Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (by “Psalms” Yeshua was using the Jewish convention of stating the first to refer to the whole. The K’tuvim (Writings) section in the Tanakh begins with the book of Psalms, not Job as in our OT).  It was not until much later that the dispute was settled unequivocally in Jewish circles. Only after the Sadducees had lost all power and influence with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple did Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakki convene the Council of Yavneh, in about 90 C.E., to conduct a final Jewish review of the canon where the whole Tanakh at last was confirmed as the Jewish canon.

The Jewish “Oral Law”

Halakhah also continued to be developed and passed down orally from sage (rabbi) to talmidim (disciple / student) after the restoration of the temple and sacrifices. They taught: “Be deliberate in judgment; raise many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah” (Avos 1:1). This fence around the Torah consisted of rules and practises deemed necessary to keep the people from straying away from Torah observance, or their cultural heritage, and becoming in any way like their heathen neighbours.   

Halakhah – הֲלָכָה, the Way – is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from both the “written Torah” and the “oral Torah”.  As such it consists of:
* Mitzvot D’Oraita (an Aramaic word meaning “from the Torah”) – the 613 commandments (mitzvot מִצְווֹת, plural of mitzvah מִצְוָה) that Jewish rabbis and sages had reasoned from the Torah; plus
* Mitzvot D’rabbanan (Aramaic for “from the rabbis”) all three categories of rabbinic commandments, which also became known as the “Oral Torah” and came to be attributed to Moses’ revelation on Mount Sinai, thus giving them, according to many pharisees, the same status as the Written Torah (ie. books of Moses, first 5 books in the Bible). :
~ Gezeirahlaws instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidently violating a Torah Mitzvot.  Commonly referred to as a ‘fence’ around the Torah.
~ Takkanotlaws unrelated to the Biblical commandments that were created by the rabbis for the public welfare, to ‘make the world a better place’. 
~ Minhag – all long-standing customs of the community.

An example of how this developed is in one of the dietary laws.  The Torah states: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26).  The Mitzvot D’Oraita derived from that verse decrees: “Do not eat flesh with milk” – the 164th commandment in their list of 613 commandments “from the Torah”.  This is then explained by the rabbis to be a prohibition on consuming any meat with any dairy products – a cheeseburger would be “illegal” for an observant Jew to eat.   Then, to prevent the people from accidently consuming any meat and cheese together Gezeirah were instituted which included declaring that any utensils, pots and pans with which they are cooked, plates and flatware from which they are eaten, and anything used in cleaning such as the towels with which the utensils that have come in contact with meat are dried, cannot be used with dairy, and vice versa.   The only “safe” way to run the household is to have two sets of pots, pans and dishes – one for meat and one for dairy.  In addition to all that, one must wait a significant amount of time between eating meat and dairy (different schools dictated different amounts of time) because fatty residues or meat particles could cling to the mouth and therefore still be present when the dairy was consumed if enough time had not lapsed between the two.

These rabbinical teachings came to be considered of equal authority to the Torah and by around 100 BC were starting to be referred to by some scholars as the Oral Law.   This elevation of cultural practises and rabbinic reasonings to the same status as the Torah was again not accepted by all priests or Torah scholars.  Among those who espoused the Oral Law there was considerable debate over what the correct practises, interpretations and laws were. (4). Even the mitzvot d’oraita (Torah commandments) contained differences in listings of commandments between the different schools (9).

There was, however, little dispute over the number of commandments (mitzvoth) because of the significance attached to the number 613.  The Talmud notes that the Hebrew numerical value (gematria) of the word “Torah” is 611, and there’s a midrash that says the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard by the Jewish people directly from God, so 611+2 = 613. These are divided into 365 negative commandments (do not do) “like the number of days of the sun”; and 248 positive commandments (do this) “like the parts of a person”. Other significances have also been given to the numbers 613, 365 and 248, all pointing to the overriding importance placed on the keeping of mitzvot d’oraita. (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) 

Many of the mitzvot cannot be observed apart from the temple in Jerusalem, although they still retain religious significance. According to one standard reckoning, out of the total 613 mitzvoth, there are 77 positive and 194 negative commandments that can be observed today, of which 26 apply only within the Land of Israel. (15) (16)

Development of the Permanent Jewish Calendar…

A major accomplishment of the Torah scholars of this period was the development of a permanent Jewish calendar.  The Jewish calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. However, if it were a strict lunar calendar then every year would be 11¼ days less than the solar year. The problem then would be that in three years an entire month would be lost.   Therefore, the Jewish sages added a leap month to the Jewish year. The solar and lunar years line up exactly every 19 years so seven times every nineteen years an entire month, Adar I, is added.

Jewish leadership under the Persians…

Torah scholars who gained renown were generally referred to as sages during this period, but sometimes the term of honour, rabbi (‘master/teacher’), was used – this term gained increasing popularity over the centuries that followed.

The High Priests during this period included men of noble character and those corrupted by power and greed. Although the First Temple saw only 18 High Priests throughout its 400 years, over 300 served during the Second Temple’s 420 years! Several were righteous, and their combined service accounts for around 141 of those years. Soon after Nehemiah the position of governor faded from view and the High Priest was left as the single governing authority over Judea under the Persians.

After Eliashib, who was High Priest during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, his son Joiada (Nehemiah 12:10) held this position from 433-410 BC.  As the sole leadership position, the High Priesthood ceased to be determined purely on a religious hereditary basis and became subject to Persian appointment.  Joiada’s son, Joshua, was promised the High Priesthood by Bagoses, general of Artaxerxes II.  He was killed by his brother, Johanan, in the temple during a quarrel.  Bagoses, being horrified that Johanan as a priest would perpetrate murder in the temple, forbade him from entering its holy precincts again.  Johanan justified his act, took up the High Priest’s office and entered the temple for the duties of that office from 410-371 BCE. Bagoses had the Persians respond by attacking the temple and imposing a tribute on the Jews. 

Johanan’s son Jaddua (also known as Shimon Ha Tzaddik / Simion the Just) served as High Priest from 371-320 BCE.  He restored the temple, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and earned the respect of all.  Tradition has it that Simion met Alexander the Great on his way to attack the Temple. Alexander prostrated himself and promised to treat the Jews benignly, explaining that before every battle he would see a vision of Simion leading his troops to victory. Simion is also traditionally considered to be one of the last members of the Great Assembly, and there are claims that after his death men ceased to utter the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) aloud. (17) (18) (19)

Developing Messianic Expectations…

This was also a time of developing Messianic expectations in the aftermath of exile and cessation of the Davidic dynasty.  In the light of what God had promised King David, hope arose that He would someday restore a godly king to Israel: 

Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”          2 Samuel 7:16 NASB

 “I will save my flock; they will no longer be prey; and I will judge between sheep and other sheep. I will raise up one shepherd to be in charge of them, and he will let them feed — my servant David. He will pasture them and be their shepherd. I, Adonai, will be their God; and my servant David will be prince among them. I, Adonai, have spoken.”                                Ezekiel 34:22-24 CJB

For many, the expectation went beyond just a godly Davidic descendant to reign over Israel and extended to one who would also rule justly over all the gentile nations.  Such expectations were fuelled by scriptures such as these that hinted that the coming anointed one, the Messiah, would be God Himself:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might,the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord – and He will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what He hears with His ears; but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth.  He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth; with the breath of his lips He will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be His belt and faithfulness the sash around His waist.   Isaiah 11:1-5 NIV

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.  Daniel 7:9-14 NIV

Other scriptures that were interpreted in the light of the Messianic hope during this period included (20):

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.  Genesis 49:10 NIV

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.   Numbers 24:17 NIV

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.    Zechariah 9:9 NIV

Developing Understanding of the World to Come…

Associated with this development of doctrines of the Messiah were also those of Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come), which included immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead in an age to come.  While the focus of Judaism remained on living and doing the best in the here and now, the present troubles and injustices were not seen the end of the story; there was a reward, an inheritance, still to come for those who lived in obedience to Yahweh.  As Daniel had prophesied that so many troubles would come to the Jewish people in the foreseeable future, it was comforting to know that was not all there was to come.(21)           

As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”    Daniel 12:13 NIV

Your dead will live, my corpses will rise; awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust; for your dew is like the morning dew, and the earth will bring the ghosts to life.   Isaiah 26:19 CJB

At that time, your people will be delivered, everyone whose name is found written in the book. Many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth will awaken, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting shame and abhorrence. But those who can discern will shine like the brightness of heaven’s dome, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. Daniel 12:1b-3 CJB

 These doctrines were not developed in any systematic way during this period, as it was before the systematic thinking of Hellenization had impacted this part of the world and the Torah scholars were organic rather than systematic thinkers.  The general picture that emerged was firstly of the state of the soul in heaven after the death of the body, followed by the Messianic age here on earth “at the end of days” and then the resurrection of the dead which embraced a nationalistic hope of the resurrection of all Israel. (21)

Enlightened by these revelations in the Nev’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings), many sages and scholars also saw evidence of existence after death in the Torah.   Several noteworthy people are referred to as being “gathered to their people”, which they understood as a separate event from the physical death of the body or the burial.  Examples included: Gen. 25:8 (Abraham), 25:17 (Ishmael), 35:29 (Isaac), 49:33 (Jacob), Deut. 32:50 (Moses and Aaron), and II Kings 22:20 (King Josiah).  Genesis 17:14 and Exodus 31:14 refer to sins for which the punishment is being kareit “cut off from his people”, which they saw as referring to the soul losing their position in Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come). (22)                     

Reference List

1. Jewish The Men of the Great Assembly. Jewish History. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug. 2016.]
2. Dell Markey, Demand Media. What Effects Did the Babylonian Exile Have on the Jewish Religion? The Classroom. [Online] 18 Aug 2016.
3. Astor, Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov. The Beginning of the Second Commonwealth. Jewish [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug. 2016.]
4. The Sanhedrin English. Historical Overview. The Sanhedrin. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug 2016.]
5. Keyser, John D. Hebrew and Aramaic – Languages of First Century Israel. Hope of Israel. [Online] [Cited: 25th Aug 2016.]
6. Encyclopedia Judaica: The Great Synagogue. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.]
7. Hirsch, Emil G. Ezra the Scribe. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.]
8. Mindel, Nissan. Ezra the Scribe. [Online] Kehot Publication Society. [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.]
9. Levine, Jason. Judaism: The 613 Mitzvot (Commandments). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 29th Sept. 2016.]
10. Hartman, Osher Chaim Levene & Rabbi Yehoshua. 613: Your Wish is My Command. Aish. [Online] [Cited: 28th Sept. 2016.]
11. dlevy. Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School, or why 613 is a Meaningless Number. Jewschool – Progressive Jews & Views. [Online] [Cited: 28th Sept. 2016.]
12. The Number 613: Properties and Meanings. VirtueScience. [Online] [Cited: 28th Sept. 2016.]
13. McGough, Richard Amiel. The Number 613. The Bible Wheel. [Online] [Cited: 29th Sept. 2016.]
14. Rich, Tracey R. A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments). Judaism 101. [Online] [Cited: 29th Sept. 2016.]
15. Chaim, Chofetz. Sefer HaMitzvot HaKatzar (in Hebrew). Jerusalem : Feldheim., 1990.
16. HaCohen, Yisrael Meir. The Concise Book of Mitzvoth: The Commandments which can be Observed Today. s.l. : Feldheim, 1990.
17. God’s Secret. 2nd Temple History and More – Persian and Hellenistic Periods (538-142 BCE). [Online] 19th Sept. 2008. [Cited: 19th Sept. 2016.]
18. The Jewish Temples – High Priests of the Second Temple Period (516 BCE – 70CE). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] AICE. [Cited: 14th March 2020.]
19. Gniwisch, Leibel. The High Priest in Jewish Tradition. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 14th March 2020.]
20. Evans, Craig A. A Closer Look: Messianic Expectations. Christianity Today. [Online] 7th March 2012. [Cited: 5th Nov. 2016.]
21. Jacobs, Rabbi Louis. Jewish Resurrection of the Dead. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 6th Nov. 2016.]
22. Rich, Tracey R. Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife. Judaism 101. [Online] [Cited: 6th Nov. 2016.]
23. Palley, Kate. What is Birkat Hamazon, or Benching? My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 6th May. 2023.]
24. Staff. Laws of Blessings After Eating. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 6th May 2023.]
25. Ben C. Smith. The Jewish food blessing and the Didache eucharist. Biblical Criticism & History Forum . Thu Oct 01, 2020 [Online] [Cited: 6th May 2023.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and some of the following questions…

* What were some of the changes in Judaism during this time?
* What happened with the high priests became both the civic and spiritual leaders of the Jewish community?
* How can we prevent church leaders becoming corrupted by money and/or power?
* What are some of the similarities and differences between Jewish culture during this, and your culture?
* What “oral laws” has your community, church or denomination developed?
* What did the OT scriptures say about the coming Messiah?

A New Judaism – without Land or Temple (586 – 537 BC)

Read Exodus 19-35:3; Leviticus 7:22-27, 11-20, 23-27;
Deuteronomy 4-26; Jeremiah42-52; Ezekiel 29-34
& Daniel 3-8
The Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple, and the city of Jerusalem, with fire. This destruction, and later disasters in Jewish history, are mourned with fasting by the Jews every year on 9th Av. This day of mourning is called Tisha B’Av. (Image from an 1850 painting by David Roberts).

Judgment brought repentance and renewed religious fervour

The loss of the temple and sacrificial system left a vacuum in Jewish religious life and identity that had to be filled with something.  Sin (failure to keep Torah) had brought this destruction upon them, but there was no more sacrifice for sin without the temple where such sacrifices had to be made.  So how could the people find any redemption?

There was only one thing they could do, seek redemption through repentance and obedience to the commands of the Torah that could be followed outside of the temple, such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, purity laws, and dietary prescriptions (1). The captives set about purifying their religion by rejecting all foreign gods and practices and focusing on that which God had commanded through Moses (2).  They gave up all idolatry and were never again led into its evil practices as they been before.  A vital sense of repentance was created, and private devotion and prayer encouraged.  Their elaborate nation-wide ceremonials, great festivals and temple sacrifices were replaced with local community prayer, fasting and Sabbath observances.  The latter included assembling the people together for prayer and the reading of the scripture (3). Study of the Torah became the focus of practice, with weekly meetings in public study houses (1).  The result was the rise of the Synagogue among the Jews dispersed throughout the Babylonian Empire (4).   Having Jewish life in the dispersion revolve around the Synagogue, and the teachings of the Synagogue, protected the Jews from the integration that had caused the northern kingdom of Israel to disappear into the melting pot of nations.

Priestly role of teaching Torah now open to all men

This rise of the Synagogue in turn resulted in a significant shift in the role of teaching the people the meaning and practice of Torah. From Moses until the end of the first temple period the Levitical priesthood had been responsible for the whole sacrificial system; maintenance of the tabernacle and then the temple; ministering to God through music, song, prayer and incense; and with teaching the people Torah observance, reading the books of Moses to them and explaining their meaning (Deut. 17:18-20; 28:58-63; Deut. 30:9-10; Deut. 31:24-26; Joshua 1:8; Joshua 23:6; 2 Kings 22:13; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Kings 23:21; 1 Chr. 16:37-40; 2 Chron. 18; 2 Chron. 31:2-3; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 8; Neh. 10:28-29; Neh. 13:1 & Daniel 9:13).   Jewish religion had centred on the Temple and the Temple was the domain of the Levitical priests, only they were qualified to serve in its precincts.

There were no such restrictions on service in the Synagogue.   As Synagogues were established wherever ten Jewish families could gather, many of them did not have any Levites as members, so the reading of Torah and leading of the services often fell to those of other tribes.  Thus a new class arose as scholar, teacher and spiritual leader to explain God’s expectations to the common people – the Rabbi (4).  Although not an official title until after the destruction of the second temple, the function of rabbi began to develop during the Babylonian captivity. 

Aramaic was the international language of the ancient Near East. It is a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew. The Jews in Babylon quickly adopted the Aramaic language as they started businesses, traded with their neighbours and rose to positions of political power and social influence.  The language of the Torah remained Hebrew. As increasing numbers of Jews, particularly the younger generations, spoke Aramaic in their everyday lives, the Synagogue Torah reading increasingly included explanation of the meaning of the text in Aramaic. (5) 

From repentance, to observance, to legalism

The necessity of remaining as a distinct people while scattered throughout the Babylonian empire expanded the rabbinical role from just reading and explaining the Torah to ‘building a fence’ around the Torah, legislating additional laws and enforcing cultural traditions and customs to keep the Jews separate from all other peoples (6).  Thus began the development of oral traditions added to the Torah to explain its meaning in practice as a minority in a pagan society (7).  Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, plus additional laws instituted by the rabbis, plus the customs of the community, became jointly known as halakhah and all became binding on every member of the community as Jewish Law or “the path that one walks / the way” (8).  Whereas the prophets speaking God’s heart to His people made it easy for the most simple person to understand what God requires of us; “to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8), the teachers of the law made it so intricate and complicated that only highly trained scholars had any hope of understanding all the requirements they attributed to God.

Halakhah  הֲלָכָה, is often translated as “Jewish Law” although a more literal (and more appropriate) translation is “The Way” or “the path that one walks”.  The word is derived from the Hebrew root ‘Hei-Lamed-Kaf‘, meaning to go, to walk, or to travel. Halachah is “the way” for a Jew to walk through life, “the way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life; encompassing civil, criminal and religious law.

During the Babylonian captivity teachings began to emerge in connection to the Torah that were not in the text. These involved interpreting, modifying and enacting rules of conduct for every aspect of Jewish life. This body of teaching continued to be developed over the following centuries and became extensive, dictating every aspect of Jewish life by the time of Christ.

Halakhah was developed from three sources:
1) Mitzvot D’Oraita (Commandments from the Torah)- the 613 mitzvot (commandments) that were developed by the rabbis from what God gave the Jewish people in the Written Torah. Some are direct quotes from scripture but others have a fairly tenuous relationship to what is written in the Torah. These 613 mitzvot are subdivided into 248 positive commandments, “mitzvot aseh” (commandments to do), and 365 negative commandments, “mitzvot lo ta’aseh” (commandments not to do).
2) Mitzvot D’Rabbanan (Laws Instituted by the Rabbis) – these rabbinic laws are also referred to as mitzvot (commandments) and are considered to be as binding as Mitzvot D’Oraita. Mitzvot d’rabbanan are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah, takkanah and minhag.
…..a) Gezeirah (literally “fence”) are the fence rabbis built around the Torah – laws instituted to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah. For example, a gezeirah commands Jews on the Sabbath (Shabbat) not to even handle an implement that could be used to perform ‘prohibited work’ (such as a pencil, money, or a hammer), because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work.
…..b) Takkanah (literally remedy or fixing) is a rule unrelated to biblical laws that was created by the rabbis for the public welfare. For example, the “mitzvah” to light candles on Chanukkah, a Jewish holiday instituted after the Hebrew scriptures were written.
3) Minhag Mitzvot are customs that developed for worthy religious reasons and had continued long enough to become a binding religious practice, often referred to in the Gospels as “traditions of the elders“. These ‘traditions of the elders‘ are considered a binding part of halakhah (the ‘Oral Law’ / the ‘Way’), just like a mitzvah, a takkanah or a gezeirah. (8, 9)
The word “minhag” is also used in a looser sense, to indicate a community or an individual’s customary way of doing some religious thing. For example, it may be the minhag in one synagogue to stand while reciting a certain prayer, while in another synagogue it is the minhag to sit during that prayer.

Imagine how audacious it would have sounded when Yeshua (Jesus) came and claimed to be “the Way” (John 14:6).   Instead of following the Halachah of the community, He was the embodiment of the Halachah of God. He challenged the culture of His people with the culture of His kingdom.

“…the God we serve is able to save usBut even if He does not

585 BC King Nebuchadnezzar celebrated his conquests by making an image of gold, thirty metres high and three meters wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  Then he summoned the provincial officials to the dedication of his image, among them were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who would now have been in their thirties and spent half their lives in Babylon.   These three refused to fall down and worship the image of gold that Nebuchadnezzar had set up and so were tied up and thrown into a blazing furnace that had been heated seven times hotter than usual in the king’s rage.    The soldiers who threw them in were consumed by the flames, as were the ropes that bound them, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were walking around unharmed in the furnace with a fourth man whom Nebuchadnezzar described as looking like a son of the gods.  Such was the impact of this that Nebuchadnezzar promoted these three faithful ones and decreed that anyone who spoke against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses turned into piles of rubble. (Daniel 3)

A true friend urges repentance

Three years later Nebuchadnezzar had another dream which greatly disturbed him.  Again, none had the wisdom or courage to give the king the interpretation of his dream except Daniel.  The dream contained a warning that Nebuchadnezzar would be cut down and appear destroyed, left wandering with the wild animals and eating grass like cattle for seven “times” until he acknowledges that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men, at which time his kingdom would be restored to him.  Daniel pleaded with Nebuchadnezzar to repent and renounce his sins by doing what is right and being kind to the oppressed.  Twelve months later, as Nebuchadnezzar’s heart was lifted up in pride declaring: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my power and for the glory of my majesty,” God’s judgment fell upon him, and he became so insane that he was driven away from people and lived out in the open eating grass.   In due season Nebuchadnezzar repented of his pride, raised his eyes toward heaven and his sanity was restored, and with that his kingdom as well. (Daniel 4)

Wrongdoing brings fear, which incites rebellion

Back in Judah, the Babylonians had allowed some of the poorer survivors of their conquests to remain to tend the land and placed Jedediah, a grandson of Josiah, over them (2 Kings 25:22). He was soon murdered (2 Kings 25:25) and the people, fearing that Nebuchadnezzar would avenge his death, decided to flee into Egypt (2 Kings 25:26). Jeremiah had warned them against taking this decision (Jer.42:9-22.) but was overruled and, along with his scribe Baruch, was dragged along with them (Jer.43:6-7). They settled in the Egyptian town of Tahpanhee (Jer.44:1), and built a Jewish community there, keeping many of the customs of their heritage but continuing in disobedience to God and every direction He gave them through His prophet Jeremiah.   Tradition has it that they eventually stoned Jeremiah to death (13) (14) (15).  In 569 BC Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt in fulfilment of Jeremiah 43:8-13; 46:13-26 and Ezekiel 29:19, taking captives back to Babylon.

Babylonian succession

Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC and was succeeded by his son, Evil Merodach in 561 BC.  Just five years later Evil Merodach was succeeded by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law Nabonidus. Then in 553 BC Nabonidus left his son, Belshazzar, to reign as coregent in Babylon while he travelled west into Arabia to gain more land and rebuild temples in the Assyrian city of Harran. (13)    Neither Nabonidus nor Belshazzar were popular with the people, having alienated the priests, politicians and military alike.

Empires come and go

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel, who was now about 67yo, had a prophetic vision while lying on his bed.  Scripture records five interwoven prophetic visions which Daniel received over a period of 68 years.  These fuelled Jewish Messianic expectations and speculations.  The first, as we had seen, was back in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, 604 BC, when as a teenager Daniel had a vision of the king’s dream of a great statue with golden head, silver chest, middle and thighs of bronze and legs of iron that was struck by a stone that became a great mountain which filled the whole earth (Daniel 2).   In Daniel’s second recorded vision, 52 years later, the great sea of humanity was stirred, and four different beasts came up out of it (Dan. 7:2). These were four kings (Dan. 7:17) who correlated to the four kingdoms depicted in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:31-41).  

The significance of these four beasts was that they were Gentile kings whose kingdoms would rule over Israel one after another until the coming of Messiah

As in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, they were judged by the Ancient of Days who gave everlasting dominion and glory and a Kingdom to “One like the Son of Man” (Daniel 7).   These first two visions both began with a depiction of that already ruling over the Jews – the Babylonian Empire.

First Beast – Head of Gold –
Babylonian Empire

The first beast in Daniel’s vision was “like a lion and had eagles’ wings” (Dan 7:4).  The lion is used as a symbol for Babylon in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:7; 49:19; 50:17), and eagles symbolize Babylonian armies (Jeremiah 49:22).   This correlates with the head of fine gold in Nebuchadnezzar’s image, whom Daniel had identified as Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God had given the kingdom of Babylon (Dan. 2:37-38).  Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian ruler who had conquered the Jews in his expansion of the empire. (14)  “Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it.” (Dan. 7:4).   This could be referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s mental break and restoration (Dan. 4:19-37) or just to the weakening of the kingdom after his death.  

Daniel’s third vision, just two years later and still under Belshazzar’s rule, was of a ram and a goat and the fierce king who would arise in the latter time of the goat’s kingdom (Daniel 8).  This was depicting the next two kingdoms that were yet to rule over Israel, and it correlated with the next two beasts of Daniel’s earlier vision.

In 539 BC, the first major event predicted in these prophetic visions took place, Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians.   Belshazzar sought to display his greatness by holding a massive feast for a thousand of the Babylonian nobles, gave orders that the gold and silver vessels from the temple in Jerusalem be used for the wine as they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.  The sudden appearance of a hand writing on the wall revealed what they had been too busy reveling to notice – God’s judgment had arrived, and the kingdom of Babylon had been given to the Medes and Persians.  That same night Belshazzar was slain by the Medo-Persian army who had diverted the Euphrates River so they could enter under the city wall through the lowered water.

Chest & Arms of Silver – Second beast/Bear – Ram with Long and Longer Horns Medo-Persian Empire

The second beast was like a bear (Dan. 7:5).  The second kingdom in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream had been the chest and arms of silver, which would arise after Babylon (Dan. 2:39a).  This kingdom is seen in Daniel’s third vision as a ram with two long horns, one longer than the other, and none could stand against him as he came from the east butting westward, southward and northward (Dan. 8:3-4). That ram is identified as the kings of Media and Persia in Daniel 8:20. The bear of Daniel 7 is described as being “raised up on one side”, just as the ram had one horn longer than the other, and Persia was stronger than Media. The combined strength of the Persians and the Medes led to the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC with the resulting extension of their empire over much of the Middle East, including Israel. Isaiah had prophesied the Medes overthrow of Babylon 175 years before (Isaiah 13:17-20), noting their disdain for silver and gold, the very gods that Belshazzar was worshipping when they broke into the city, overran it and killed him (Daniel 5). (15) Jeremiah had also prophesied that God would raise up the Medes to destroy Babylon (Jer. 51:11, 28-31).

As we continue on our journey towards Messiah’s birth, we will see how accurately Daniel’s prophesies foretold what was to come and how each historical fulfilment increased the expectation that God would send their Messiah.


1. Thomas, Christine M. Exile to Babylon and Diaspora. Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. [Online] Winter Quarter 2006. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.]
2. Hooker, Richard. The Jewish Temples: After the Babylonian Exile (538 – 332 BCE). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.]
3. Tidwell, Josiah Blake. The Captivity of Judah. Bible Hub. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.]
4. Dell Markey, Demand Media. What Effects Did the Babylonian Exile Have on the Jewish Religion? The Classroom. [Online] 18 Aug 2016.
5. Spiro, Ken. Babylonian Exile. SimpleTo Judaism Online. [Online] [Cited: 16th Aug 2016.]
6. Landis, Brad. A Hedge Around the Law. Bradlis7. [Online] 9th October 2013. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.]
7. Jacobs, Louis. Encyclopedia Judaica: Halakhah. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.]
8. Rich, Tracey R. Halakhah: Jewish Law. Judaism 101. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.]
9. MJL. Halacha: The Laws of Jewish Life. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 7th March 2020]
10. Emil G. Hirsch, Victor Ryssel, Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg. Jeremiah. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.]
11. Bible Pages. The prophet Jeremiah – where did he die? Bible Pages. [Online] 28th July 2016. [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.]
12. Sacred Texts. Chapter XXXII Of The Death of the Prophets; How They Died, and (where) Each One Was Buried. Sacred Texts. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.]
13. Timeline for the Life and Times of Jeremiah. Generation Word. [Online] [Cited: 22nd Oct. 2016.]
14. Rashi. Daniel – Chapter 7. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 23rd Oct. 2016.]
15. Walvoord, John F. 6. The Medes And The Persians. [Online] [Cited: 23rd Oct. 2016.]

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and consider the following questions…

* What is your response to difficulty and hardship?
* What has God taught you through the troubled times in your life?
* What were some of the healthy responses that the Jews had to their great losses?
* What were some of the unhealthy responses that they had to their losses?
* In seeking to live wholeheartedly for God, how can we avoid becoming legalistic or judgmental?
* Has your church made up extra rules to try to make your people pure and righteous?
* What are the customs in your church? How do those customs strengthen your community? Do any of those customs cause any problems?