וַיֵּאָסְפוּ כָל־הָעָם כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד אֶל־הָרְחוֹב אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי שַׁעַר־הַמָּיִם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לְעֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר לְהָבִיא 8:1
אֶת־סֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
Nehe. 8:1 And all the people gathered as one person to the plaza that was in front of the water gate, and they said to Ezra, the scribe, to bring the book of the Torah of Moses by which the Lord had commissioned Israel.
וַיָּבִיא עֶזְרָא הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה לִפְנֵי הַקָּהָל מֵאִישׁ וְעַד־אִשָּׁה וְכֹל מֵבִין לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ 8:2
Nehe. 8:2 And Ezra, the priest, brought the Torah before the congregation, both male and female, and anyone understanding enough to listen, on the first day in the seventh month.
Now the seventh month is the month of Tishrei. And the first day of that month is what we now call Rosh Hashanah , the head of the year. Did the people know that at this point, or did they learn of it while the Torah was being read to them? No way to tell. It is obvious from this verse that many of the Jews did not understand Hebrew. Also, notice that the Torah was not read in the Temple, but in an open plaza at the wall. Also notice that both men and women were present together. No mechitzah (curtain separating men and women in orthodox synagogues) and no segregation. What’s also of importance is that the Jews still observed the Jewish year and not the Babylonian year (in which Tishrei is the first month).
As near as I can tell, we should read Ezra, the scribe (v. 1), and Ezra, the priest (this verse), as the same person. This appears to be established in vss. 3 and 4 below.
וַיִּקְרָא־בוֹ לִפְנֵי הָרְחוֹב אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי שַׁעַר־הַמַּיִם מִן־הָאוֹר עַד־מַחֲצִית הַיּוֹם נֶגֶד הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים 8:3
וְהַמְּבִינִים וְאָזְנֵי כָל־הָעָם אֶל־סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה׃
Nehe. 8:3 And he read aloud to it in front of the plaza that was before the water gate from daybreak until midday that day in the presence of the men and women and those understanding, and the ears of all the people were regarding the book of the law.
Could Ezra have read the entire Torah in a half day, slow enough that it could be understood? Not likely! We’ll see below that apparently the rest of the Torah, maybe all of it, was read during the seven days of Succoth.
וַיַּעֲמֹד עֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר עַל־מִגְדַּל־עֵץ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ לַדָּבָר וַיַּעֲמֹד אֶצְלוֹ מַתִּתְיָה וְשֶׁמַע וַעֲנָיָה וְאוּרִיָּה 8:4
וְחִלְקִיָּה וּמַעֲשֵׂיָה עַל־יְמִינוֹ וּמִשְּׂמֹאלוֹ פְּדָיָה וּמִישָׁאֵל וּמַלְכִּיָּה וְחָשֻׁם וְחַשְׁבַּדָּנָה זְכַרְיָה מְשֻׁלָּם׃
Nehe. 8:4 And Ezra, the scribe, stood upon a wooden pulpit that they had made for the purpose. And Mattithiah, with Shema and Anaiah and Uriah and Hilkiah and Maaseiah stood near him at his right, and on his left side, Pedaiah and Mishael and Malchijah and Hashum and Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, Meshullam.
וַיִּפְתַּח עֶזְרָא הַסֵּפֶר לְעֵינֵי כָל־הָעָם כִּי־מֵעַל כָּל־הָעָם הָיָה וּכְפִתְחוֹ עָמְדוּ כָל־הָעָם׃ 8:5
Nehe. 8:5 And Ezra, the scribe, opened for the eyes of all the people, that it was above all the people, and at its opening all the people stood up.
This verse reveals another interesting fact. The people were sitting during the reading, and they stood up when Ezra raised the Torah for them to see the writing, a practice now known as hagbah.
וַיְבָרֶךְ עֶזְרָא אֶת־יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים הַגָּדוֹל וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל־הָעָם אָמֵן אָמֵן בְּמֹעַל יְדֵיהֶם וַיִּקְּדוּ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוֻּ לַיהוָה 8:6
Nehe. 8:6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people responded, “Amen, amen!” with a lifting of their hands, and they bowed down, faces earthward, as they paid homage to the Lord.
What a beautiful picture! The people lifting their hands and bowing low! Why isn’t that done today in Synagogues when the Torah is read? Many lift one hand, pointing toward the Torah, but none bow.
וְיֵשׁוּעַ וּבָנִי וְשֵׁרֵבְיָה יָמִין עַקּוּב שַׁבְּתַי הֹודִיָּה מַעֲשֵׂיָה קְלִיטָא עֲזַרְיָה יֹוזָבָד חָןָן פְּלָאיָה וְהַלְוִיִּם 8:7
מְבִינִים אֶת־הָעָם לַתֹּורָה וְהָעָם עַל־עָמְדָם׃
Nehe. 8:7 And Jeshua and Bani and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, were offering the people understanding for the law, as the people were at their standing place.
There was even commentary on the Torah, either during or following the reading.
וַיִּקְרְאוּ בַסֵּפֶר בְּתוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים מְפֹרָשׁ וְשׂוֹם שֶׂכֶל וַיָּבִינוּ בַּמִּקְרָא׃ 8:8
Nehe. 8:8 And they read in the book, in the Torah of God, distinctly, that could firm up understanding, as they gave insight into the reading.
וַיֹּאמֶר נְחֶמְיָה הוּא הַתִּרְשָׁתָא וְעֶזְרָא הַכֹּהֵן הַסֹּפֵר וְהַלְוִיִּם הַמְּבִינִים אֶת־הָעָם לְכָל־הָעָם הַיּוֹם 8:9
קָדֹשׁ־הוּא לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אַל־תִּתְאַבְּלוּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּוּ כִּי בוֹכִים כָּל־הָעָם כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה׃
Nehe. 8:9 And Nehemiah -- he was the tirshatha -- said, with Ezra, the priest, the scribe, and the Levites, who were instructing the people, to all the people, “Today, holy it is to the Lord, your God. You must not mourn or weep. For all the people were weeping after their hearing the words of the Torah.”
The title tirshatha meant governor in Persian and was apparently acceptable to Nehemiah and the Jews.
וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לְכוּ אִכְלוּ מַשְׁמַנִּים וּשְׁתוּ מַמְתַקִּים וְשִׁלְחוּ מָנוֹת לְאֵין נָכוֹן לוֹ כִּי־קָדוֹשׁ הַיּוֹם לַאֲדֹנֵינוּ 8:10
וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵבוּ כִּי־חֶדְוַת יְהוָה הִיא מָעֻזְּכֶם׃
Nehe. 8:10 Then he said to them, “Go, eat hearty meals and drink sweet libations, and send portions to who has nothing prepared for himself, for today is holy to our Master. So you must not grieve, for the joy of the Lord, it is your stronghold.”
וְהַלְוִיִּם מַחְשִׁים לְכָל־הָעָם לֵאמֹר הַסּוּ כִּי הַיּוֹם קָדֹשׁ וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵבוּ׃ 8:11
Nehe. 8:11 And the Levites were soothing to all the people saying, “Hush, for today is holy, and you must not grieve.”
וַיֵּלְכוּ כָל־הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וּלְשַׁלַּח מָנוֹת וְלַעֲשׂוֹת שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה כִּי הֵבִינוּ בַּדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר 8:12
Nehe. 8:12 Then all the people went to eat and to drink and to send portions and to enjoy great gladness, for they had received insight into the words that had been declared to them.
וּבַיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי נֶאֶסְפוּ רָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת לְכָל־הָעָם הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם אֶל־עֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל אֶל־דִּבְרֵי 8:13
Nehe. 8:13 And on the second day the heads of households for all the people, the priests, and the Levites, were gathered to Ezra, the scribe, so as to pay attention to the words of the Torah.
וַיִּמְצְאוּ כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יֵשְׁבוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּסֻּכּוֹת בֶּחָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ 8:14
Nehe. 8:14 And they found written in the Torah that the Lord had commanded by the hand of Moses that the children of Israel should dwell in booths because of a festival in the seventh month,
וַאֲשֶׁר יַשְׁמִיעוּ וְיַעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בְּכָל־עָרֵיהֶם וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי־זַיִת וַעֲלֵי־עֵץ שֶׁמֶן 8:15
וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת כַּכָּתוּב׃
Nehe. 8:15 and that they should proclaim. So they circulated an announcement throughout all their cities saying, “Proceed to the mountain and gather olive branches, and branches of the oil tree, and myrtle branches, and branches of palms, and leafy tree branches, to make booths as was written.
That festival is Succoth, the festival of booths. It begins on the fifteenth day of Tishrei. But what happened to Yom Kippur, which is on the tenth of the month? Did they skip it? It seems so. Maybe Ezra read only excerpts from the Torah and didn’t mention that holy day of afflicting one’s soul.
וַיֵּצְאוּ הָעָם וַיָּבִיאוּ וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם סֻכּוֹת אִישׁ עַל־גַּגּוֹ וּבְחַצְרֹתֵיהֶם וּבְחַצְרוֹת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים וּבִרְחוֹב 8:16
שַׁעַר הַמַּיִם וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר אֶפְרָיִם׃
Nehe. 8:16 Then the people proceeded and gathered, and made booths for themselves each on his housetop and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God and in the plaza of the water gate and in the plaza of the Ephraim gate.
I’ve often wondered how all the booths of the people could fit in front of the Temple. Now I think I know. Apparently, they were built all over Jerusalem, not just before the Temple.
וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כָל־הַקָּהָל הַשָּׁבִים מִן־הַשְּׁבִי סֻכּוֹת וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בַסֻּכּוֹת כִּי לֹא־עָשׂוּ מִימֵי יֵשׁוּעַ בִּן־נוּן כֵּן בְּנֵי 8:17
יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַתְּהִי שִׂמְחָה גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד׃
Nehe. 8:17 So the entire congregation of the returnees from the captivity made booths and dwelled in the booths as the children of Israel had not done so since the days of Joshua son of Nun down to that day, so the joy was very great.
Wow, Succoth had not been observed for centuries until that time? Even during the reigns of David and Solomon? Astonishing!
וַיִּקְרָא בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים יוֹם בְּיוֹם מִן־הַיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן עַד הַיּוֹם הָאַחֲרוֹן וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־חָג שִׁבְעַת 8:18
יָמִים וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת כַּמִּשְׁפָּט׃
Nehe. 8:18 And he read aloud in the book of the Torah of God day by day from the first day until the last day, and they observed the festival seven days, and a solemn assembly was on the eighth day according to ordinance.
We see from this verse that the Torah was read daily during the seven days of Succoth. And that Shemini Atzereth was observed on the eighth day as well.
This chapter provides some startling insights into Temple worship during the period immediately following the reconstruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. I wonder if any of this is acknowledged in the Talmud.
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