By Anke Halner - Hebrew and Spanish Student @ St Anne's College, Oxford
The Jewish experience during the time of The Second temple, which stood between 349 BCE and 70 CE, differed extensively from that of The First Temple period through which Israelites were mainly not under the control of other groups but were free to rule over themselves. During the era of The Second Temple, Jews were under the foreign rule of a wide range of political powers: the Persians, the Hellenists, and eventually the Romans. It was a period in which Israel as a people was forced to defend itself not only on a physical level but also on an intellectual level. This short article will give a brief description of events up to the Revolt of the Maccabees at the end of the era of the Hellenists.
Persian Rule - 538-332 BCE
About fifty years after The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, King Cyrus II, often referred to as Cyrus the Great, defeated Babylon and took control of the Babylonian empire which included Israel. Israel was now part of the Persian empire. It was under this empire that the Jews were permitted, by Cyrus, to rebuild the Temple. Despite interference from Samaritans who brought a halt to the rebuilding of the Temple, in 353 BCE (exactly 70 years after The First Temple was destroyed), Temple building was resumed and completed in 349 BC.
Not only did this era of Persian rule mark the construction of The Second Temple but it was also during this time that many Jews who had previously been in exile in Babylon returned to Israel. Both Ezra HaSofer (known as Ezra the Scribe) as well as Nehemiah played a significant role in the Jewish return to Israel as well as the total reinvigoration of the Jewish way of life within the land. Ezra, who was a priest (part of the priestly lineage of Aaron) as well as a scribe, was the leader of the second flood of Jews to return to Israel from Babylon (further reading listed below). Nehemiah was assigned as the governor of Israel by the Persian King of the time (King Darius); Nehemiah’s role was crucial regarding the rehabilitation of the Jews as a people – he secured and increased the defence of Jerusalem, tackled financial poverty amid the Jewish people and again significantly contributed to the revival of the Jewish way of life and a return to their heritage.
The Hellenists and the Hasmonean era
Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire In 332 BCE - this meant that Israel was no longer under the political roof of the Persian empire but rather under that of the Greeks. The death of Alexander in 322 BCE and the resulting division of his empire led to the eventual placement of Judea under the control of the Seleucid empire in 198 BCE. It is interesting to note that although Jews did not have to fear physical persecution by virtue of their Jewish ancestry, all Jews who did not intellectually and practically submit to the notions of Hellenism suffered terrible persecution. Between 169 BCE and 167 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes strived to eliminate the essence of Judaism through the Hellenization of all Jews. As stated in The Book of Maccabees:
‘‘Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God, and also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and call it the temple of Olympian Zeus...(6)’’ (Source https://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48939692.html )
The observance of Shabbat, the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot were all forbidden as well as studying the Torah and solely eating Kosher foods. Circumcision was also eventually forbidden – as written by historian Rabbi Berel Wein in his Echoes of Glory:
‘‘Women who allowed their sons to be circumcised were killed with their sons tied around their necks. The scholars of Israel were hounded, hunted down and killed. Jews who refused to eat pork or sacrifice hogs were tortured to death ... Even the smallest hamlet in Judah was not safe from the oppression of the Hellenists. The altars to Zeus and other pagan deities were erected in every village, and Jews of every area were forced to participate in the sacrificial services. (p. 63)’’ (Source https://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48939692.html )
In 140 BC, the Maccabean Revolt (a Jewish rebellion against the Hellenists – including Hellenized Jews) succeeded in regaining control of Judea, giving rise to a period of Jewish monarchy under the Hasmonean dynasty.
Hellenism: ‘‘Ancient Greek culture or ideals; the imitation or adoption of ancient Greek language, thought, customs, art, etc eg.’the Hellenism of Alexandrian Jews.’; the characteristics of Greek culture, especially after the time of Alexander the Great; civilization of the Hellenistic period.’’ Definitions from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/hellenism
https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/111905/jewish/Ezra-the-Scribe.htm Chabad article by Nissan Mindel
https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2836114/jewish/Under-Babylonian-and-Persian-Rule.htm Chabad article by Yosef Eisen
https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4166033/jewish/Nehemiah.htm#reforms Chabad article by Mendel Adelman