On July 8 this year we started the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha
Be’av (Ninth of Av) which commemorates the destruction of the Solomonic Temple
by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. They not only destroyed the Temple but also razed
the city of Jerusalem and took thousands of its inhabitants into exile to
This was the second time the Babylonians had conquered
Jerusalem. They had already attacked it in 597 BCE but had not wreaked havoc or
They took our king Jehoyachin and the upper classes into
exile and installed his uncle, Zedekiah, in the role of puppet king, and left it
at that. But when, eleven years later, Zedekiah attempted to throw off the
Babylonian yoke with the help of Egypt, the Babylonians got wind of the
conspiracy and came back in force to inflict utter destruction, kill thousands,
and take further thousands into captivity.
It looked like the end of the
road for us and Jerusalem.
But who were the Babylonians? Their empire was
cruel, but their people at home were civilized.
Their capital, Babylon,
was one of the most beautiful in the East and their rituals were interesting.
The center of the city was the multi-towered processional way that led up to the
Ishtar Gate, the finely tiled and highly colored monumental arch, now
reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
At the annual New Year
ceremony, the local gods were paraded along the processional way and the
festival of 10 days commenced with a private ritual near the gate.
the statue of Marduk, god of the city, confronted the Emperor, and the High
Priest slapped the Emperor’s face and pulled his ears until he cried, confessed
his sins and pleaded for mercy. It was only then that the High Priest,
representing Marduk, gave the Emperor the right to carry on his rule for another
SO MUCH is clear from the early Akitu (New Year ceremony) cuneiform
tablets and shows that each year the all-powerful Emperor was subjected to
ritual humiliation, and made to show repentance, before he was allowed to
continue his rule, and before the agricultural year could safely
The ceremony took place also near to the famous ziggurat, called
Etemenanki, meaning “foundation of heaven and earth,” a pretty exact
specification of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis 11:4.
was built with a casing of valuable burnt brick, which has subsequently been
robbed over the centuries, and the resulting mass of the internal unburnt brick
now remains on site as a heap of mud set in a pool of stagnant
Much of the rest of the city lies hidden south of the suburbs of
Baghdad, in spite of Saddam Hussein having taken pains to have important
sections rebuilt in the old style, to try and impress on visitors that the
modern state formed a continuity with the splendors of the ancient
The New Year renewal ceremonial was conducted over the first 10
days of the year, that started in Nisannu, equivalent to our first month of
spring, Nisan. All the names of our other months follow the Babylonian titles,
and our square Hebrew script was altered during the Exile from the previous
ancient ideographic Paleo-Hebrew to the modern square script, under the
influence of the shapes of the Babylonian and Akkadian
Similarly our yearly calculations, incorporating a leap month
three times in 19 years, are derived from a form of the Babylonian Metonic cycle
which corrects the lunar calendar to bring it into line with the reality of the
solar system.. Even the 10 days of the Babylonian New Year ceremony are
reflected in our 10 days of repentance that fall at the beginning of the year
from Rosh Hashana (New Year) to the Atonement Fast of Yom Kippur.
connection we see that our four traditional fasts, besides the Day of Atonement
and the Fast of Esther, are all connected with the Babylonians, three relating
to their destruction of Jerusalem and the fourth, the Fast of Gedaliah,
commemorating the day that our royalists murdered the Babylonian- appointed
governor Gedaliah, when the people were expecting such terrible retaliation from
the Babylonians that many fled to Egypt carrying the prophet Jeremiah with
When Zedekiah rebelled, Jeremiah had foreseen the terrible
destruction that was to come and he had warned our people that the only way to
avoid it was to submit to the foreign yoke, but he was ignored and vilified for
his unpatriotic prophecies. When he saw that Exile was inevitable, he advised
the people to settle in the foreign land, build houses and take wives, and live
in peace with their surroundings (Jer. 29:5-7) and in a way that is what
happened. The people carried on their lives, and it looks as if the Priests and
Levites even continued with their religious duties.
commentators claim that the synagogue was founded during the Exile, but there is
no evidence for that (in fact synagogues first appear in Egypt in the third
century BCE). However there is some evidence to show that there may have been a
Jewish temple in Babylon. When Ezra returns to Israel, he is short of Levites
for the renewed temple and he calls for them to be sent from Casiphia (Ezra
8:17), where we can presume they were officiating throughout the Exile. Casiphia
today is located near to Baghdad.
If this is correct, it would explain
why Joshua the High Priest was still officiating and why he is described in
Zechariah 3:4 as appearing in filthy garments. It was not, as some commentators
explain, because his children had married out, but because he had acted as Cohen
Gadol (High Priest) at a local Jewish temple in Babylon, away from the
prescribed one in Jerusalem.
ALTHOUGH BY the waters of Babylon we sat and
wept, many significant things happened there.
The calendar year and
months were regulated, the Hebrew script was modernized, the priestly ritual
continued and many of our traditions were collected and compiled.
after all Ezra who, on the Return, read the Torah to the people for the first
time (Neh. 8:3), and they fell down when they heard it.
It must have been
Ezra who had collected the many traditions and put them in order so the people
could hear them, comprehend them, and live by their rules. They had to put away
their foreign ways and partners, it was hard and even life-threatening, but it
welded everyone into a nation of Godfearers that had its own religious
philosophy and regulations.
It was the hardship and pressure of the Exile
that had achieved this, and when Zerubbabel and the High Priest Joshua led the
people back in the first and second waves of the Return to Zion, it meant that
we were now a unified nation, different from the Babylonians and the early Bnei
Yisrael, and welded into a people that could survive for thousands of years. We
were now an entity that could weather the take-over of Jerusalem by the
Seleucids and survive another massive destruction of the city by the Romans, 600
years after that of the Babylonians.
We rightly mourn the terrible
destructions of Jerusalem perpetrated by the Babylonians and the Romans, but the
Babylonian Exile was the crucible in which our future was forged.The
writer is a Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological