- EZRA (Heb. עֶזְרָא; "(YHWH) helps"), priest and scribe who played a major role in the rebuilding of the Temple, after the return from the Babylonian exile. -The Man and His Mission Ezra whose name means "help" (possibly a shortened form for עֲזַרְיָה "The Lord has helped," the name of two of his ancestors (7:1, 3) was, along with Nehemiah, one of the two notable figures of the post-exilic community in Judah (sixth–fifth century B.C.E.). His work is known from the last three chapters (7–10) of the book that bears his name, and from chapter 8 of the book of Nehemiah (see Ezra and Nehemiah, Book of ). Ezra was both a priest, whose ancestry is traced back to Aaron (7:1–5), and a scribe "well versed in the law of Moses" (v. 6, 11). Just as another Persian king, cyrus , had done in his time (538), so also one of his successors, artaxerxes i (465–424), issued a royal edict to Ezra granting permission for Jews to go with him to Jerusalem. Ezra was permitted to bring with him gold and silver donations from other Jews, and regular maintenance expenses of the Temple were to be provided from the royal treasury. Ezra's mission was "to expound the law of the Lord" and "to teach laws and rules to Israel" (v. 10). For this purpose he was granted not only a royal subsidy, but he was also empowered to appoint judges, enforce religious law, and even to apply the death penalty. In response to critics who argue that such a concern by a Persian king for a foreign cult would be unlikely, the Passover papyrus issued by darius ii in 419/18 to the Jews at Elephantine in Egypt regarding the date and method for celebrating the Passover (Porten) has often been cited. Nevertheless, the question of imperial authorization of Jewish law by the Persian Empire continues to be a subject of debate (Watts). -Date The date of Ezra is problematic as is his relationship with Nehemiah, because apart from Neh. 8:9, and two other minor references (Neh. 12:26, 36), the two are never mentioned together. According to their respective books, Ezra assumed his mission in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (458) and Nehemiah came in the 20th year of the same king (445). This would mean that Ezra, who came at the express command of Artaxerxes to implement and teach the law, did not conduct his first public reading of the Law until 13 years later. Another problem for the biblical chronology is that Ezra found many people in Jerusalem but, according to Nehemiah, in his time, Jerusalem was unpopulated. For these reasons and others, some scholars believe Ezra came to Jerusalem much later, either in the 37th year of Artaxerxes I (428) or in the seventh year of Artaxerxes II (397) (see discussion in Klein). -His Journey to Jerusalem Ezra's four month journey to Jerusalem is described by Ezra in a first-person memoir. After listing the names of the leaders returning with him, Ezra discovers there were no Levites in his party so he had to muster up 38 Levites from some Levitical families. Another problem was security. Because Ezra had originally made a declaration of trust in God before the king, he felt it inappropriate to request from him the customary escort. Thus he accounted the party's safe arrival in Jerusalem with all its treasure intact as a mark of divine benevolence. -Ezra's Reaction to Reports of Intermarriage When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem he was informed that some people, including members of the clergy and aristocracy, had contracted foreign marriages. Immediately upon hearing this news Ezra engaged in mourning rites, tore his garments, and fasted and, on behalf of the people, confessed their sins and uttered a prayer of contrition. At the initiative of one of the leaders of the community Ezra was urged to take immediate action. An emergency national assembly was convened, and Ezra addressed the crowd in a winter rainstorm calling upon the people to divorce their foreign wives. The assembled crowd agreed to Ezra's plea, but because of the heavy rains and the complexity of the matter (Ezra's extension of legal prohibitions of marriages that had previously been permitted), they requested that a commission of investigation be set up. After three months the commission reported back with a list of priests, Levites, and Israelites who had intermarried. It is often thought that Ezra's action insisting on the divorce of foreign wives and their children, together with Nehemiah's concern that the children of these foreign women could not speak the language of Judah (Neh. 13:24), represented a shift in Israelite matrimonial law. Previously offspring of intermarriage was judged patrilineally; now it was to be on the matrilineal principle (for a different view, see Cohen). -The Reading of the Torah Chapter 8 of the book of Nehemiah records that Ezra publicly read the Torah on the first day of the seventh month (Rosh Ha-Shanah). He stood upon a platform with dignitaries standing on his right and left. The ceremony began with an invocation by Ezra and a response by the people saying "Amen, Amen" (v. 6). During the reading the people stood while the text was made clear to them (or translated for them (into Aramaic) by the Levites (van der Kooij). The people were emotionally overcome by the occasion and wept. However, they were enjoined not to be sad rather to celebrate the day joyously with eating, drinking, and gift giving. The day after the public reading, a group of priests and Levites continued to study the Torah with Ezra and came across the regulations for observing the feast of Tabernacles on that very month. A proclamation was issued to celebrate the festival which was done with great joy, and the Torah was again read publicly during the entire eight days of the festival. -Significance of Ezra's Torah Reading Ezra's reading of the Torah inaugurated a new element in Jewish life whereby the Torah was read and explicated on regular occasions in public. This public reading also led to the democratization of knowledge of the Torah among Jews, since prior to this event most parts of the Torah were under the exclusive provenance and control of the priests (Knohl). (David Marcus (2nd ed.) -In the Aggadah Ezra was still studying under Baruch b. Neriah in Babylonia when Daniel and his companions left for Palestine. He regarded the study of the Torah as of greater importance than the task of reconstructing the Temple. Therefore it was only after his master's death that Ezra decided to gather the exiles who had not gone up earlier with Daniel and who desired to return to the Holy Land and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (Song R. 5:5). Ezra had another reason for remaining in Babylon after Daniel's departure: he was considerate of the feelings of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, of the high-priestly family of Zadok. Joshua would have been embarrassed by Ezra's presence in the Land of Israel, in view of the latter's greater qualification for the office of high priest. Ezra, therefore, remained in Babylon until Joshua's death. After Ezra went to the Land of Israel, he was appointed high priest. He had carefully worked out his own pedigree before he left Babylonia (BB 15a) and in order to insure the purity of those remaining there he took with him all those of doubtful or impure descent (Kid. 69b). He was so zealous in spreading the Torah, that rabbis said of him, "If Moses had not anticipated him, Ezra would have received the Torah" (Tosef., Sanh. 4:7). He restored and reestablished the Torah that had been almost completely forgotten (Suk. 20a). He ordained that public readings from the Torah take place not only on Sabbaths, but also on Mondays and Thursdays (Meg. 31b; TJ, Meg. 4:1, 75a). He also had the Bible rewritten in "Assyrian" characters, leaving the old Hebrew characters to the Samaritans (Sanh. 21b). He established schools everywhere to fill the existing needs and in the hope that the rivalry between the institutions would redound to the benefit of the pupils (BB 21b–22a). He also enacted the ordinances known as "the ten regulations of Ezra" (see BK 82a–b; TJ, Meg. loc. cit.) and together with five of his companions, compiled the Mishnah (tractate Kelim, in A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 2 (1853), 88). Aside from the book which bears his name, Ezra wrote the genealogies of the Book of Chronicles up to his own time (BB 15a) and had a hand in writing the Book of Psalms (Song R. 4:19). The rabbis identify him with the prophet Malachi (Meg. 15a). He is one of the five men whose piety is especially extolled by the rabbis (Mid. Ps. to 105:2). -In Islam Muhammad claims (Sura 9:30) that in the opinion of the Jews, ʿUzayr (Ezra) is the son of God. These words are an enigma because no such opinion is to be found among the Jews, even though Ezra was singled out for special appreciation (see Sanh. 21b; Yev. 86b). The Muslim traditionalists attempt to explain the words of Muhammad with a Muslim legend, whose origin appears to stem from IV Ezra 14:18–19. The people of Israel sinned, they were punished by God, the Holy Ark was removed, and the Torah was forgotten. It was due, however, to Ezra's merit that his heart was filled with the Torah of God, which he taught to the people of Israel. When the Holy Ark was returned to them and they compared that which Ezra taught them with the text of the Sefer Torah in the Holy Ark, the words they found were identical. They deduced from this that Ezra was the son of Allah. Ţabarī cites another version of this legend: the Jewish scholars themselves hid the Ark, after they were beaten by the Amalekites. H.Z. Hirsch-berg proposed another assumption, based on the words of Ibn Ḥazm (I, 99), namely, that the "righteous" who live in Yemen believe that ʿUzayr was indeed the son of Allah. According to other Muslim sources, there were some Yemenite Jews who had converted to Islam who believed that Ezra was the messiah. For Muhammad, Ezra, the apostle (\!) of the messiah, can be seen in the same light as the Christians saw Jesus, the messiah, the son of Allah. An allusion to the figure of Ezra as the apostle of the messiah is found in a tale which is widespread among the Jews of Yemen, according to which Ezra requested that they immigrate to Ereẓ Israel, and because they did not, he cursed them. Yemenite Jews have therefore refrained from naming their children Ezra. According to some Muslim commentators, ʿUzayr is the man who passed by the destroyed city (of Jerusalem; Sura 2:261) and did not believe that it could be rebuilt (see jeremiah ). (Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg) -Tomb of Ezra There are a number of traditions concerning the site of Ezra's tomb. According to Josephus it is in Jerusalem; others hold that he was buried in Urta or in Zunzumu on the Tigris; but the general accepted version is that his tomb is situated at 'Uzēr, a village near Basra. This tradition is mentioned by benjamin of tudela , pethahiah of regensburg , Judah Al-Ḥarizi , and other travelers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who visited Babylonia. The tomb is in a building covered by a cupola and on its walls are written a variety of inscriptions. Nearby, there is a khan in which the visitors to the tomb gather, and which also contains shops where Arab and Jewish merchants offered their wares in the period between Passover and Shavuot, the time of pilgrimages to the tomb. The visitors lit candles and made solemn vows. Special prayers were said (e.g., one was that composed by R. Joseph Ḥayyim Al-Ḥakam , contained in his book Mamlekhet Kohanim, Baghdad, 1873). The Muslims fear the tomb and ascribe to it supernatural powers, and many legends are linked to it. (Abraham Ben-Yaacob) -BIBLIOGRAPHY: J.M. Myers, Ezra, Nehemiah (1965); D.J. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (1984); H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah (1985); J. Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah (1988); A. van der Kooij, "Nehemiah 8:8 and the Question of the 'Targum'-Tradition," in: G.J. Norton and S. Pisano (eds.), Tradition of the Text: Studies Offered to Dominique Barthélemy in Celebration of his 70th Birthday (1991), 79–90; R.W. Klein, "Ezra-Nehemiah, Books of," in: D.N. Freedman (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary, 2 (1992), 731–42; S.J.D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness (1999); J.W. Watts (ed), Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch (2001); B. Porten, "The Passover Letter (3.46)," in: W.W. Hallo (ed.), The Context of Scripture, 3 (2002), 116–17; I. Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible's Many Voices (2003). IN THE AGGADAH: Ginzberg, Legends, 4 (1913), 354–9; 6 (1928), 441–7. IN ISLAM: Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, 10 (1327 A.H.), 78–79; Nīsābūrī, ibid., 68–69; Ţabarī, Tafsīr, 3 (1323 A.H.), 19–20 (to Sura 2:261); Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 A.H.), 291–3; H. Speyer, Biblische Erzaehlungen… (1961), 413; H.Z. Hirschberg, in: Leshonenu, 15 (1947), 130–3. TOMB: Ben-Jacob, in: Edoth, 1:1 (1945), 37–40. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: EIS2, 10, 960, S.V. 'Uzayr (incl. bibl.).
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.