Puneet Varma (Editor)

Return to Zion

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Return to Zion

The return to Zion (Hebrew: שִׁיבָת צִיּוֹן‎, Shivat Tzion, or שבי ציון, Shavei Tzion, lit. Zion returnees) is a term that refers to the event written in the biblical books of Ezra-Nehemiah in which the Jews returned to the land of Israel from the Babylonian exile following the decree by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, the conqueror of the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, also known as Cyrus's Declaration.


Although the term was first coined after the destruction of the Second Temple (mentioned in the Song of Degrees Psalms 126:1), it was attributed to the event of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile to the land of Israel after the destruction of the first temple, following the decree of Cyrus.

The biblical meaning of "the return to Zion", Aliyah, was borrowed later from the ancient event and was adopted as the definition of all the immigrations of Jews to the land of Israel and the State of Israel in modern times. The modern Aliyah began in the midst of the 19th century, to Jaffa, of the followers of Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Rabbi Judah Alkalai, known as the Herald of Zionism (מבשרי הציונות) pioneers of modern Zionism, and up to the rest of the Aliyot (plural of Aliyah) made after the establishment of the State of Israel.

The period between the return to Zion and the modern one consisted of several attempts of small groups to immigrate to the land of Israel, and this period could be roughly divided into two categories: one for the Aliyah during the Middle Ages and during the period of Renaissance, and the other for the Aliyah during the modern era (18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century).

Babylonian exile

The Babylonian empire, under the ruling of Nebuchadnezzar II occupied the Kingdom of Judah between 597–586 BC. The Babylonian army, under the command of Nebuzaradan, also named "chief executioner" [chief Headsman] by the Bible, had destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem. The king of Judah, Zedekiah, was forced to watch his own two sons being slaughtered, and thereafter, his own eyes were put out and he was exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 25). The population of the middle class and above was also deported alongside king Zedekiah, whereas the kingdom of Judah was left only with the poor ones.

The deportees were led by Sheshbazzar, also named the prince of Judah, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel a descendant of king David. Sheshbazzar, who was probably Shenazzar the son of Jeconiah, king of Judah (1Chronicles 3:18), was picked by Cyrus to lead the deportees, but Zerubbabel was appointed shortly afterwards as a representative of the Persian Empire in the land of Israel (though some claim Zerubbabel and Sheshbazzar were the same person). A remnant of Jews in Babylon never lost the affinity they had for Jerusalem as well as their faith in salvation.

The return to Zion

According to the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, a number of decades later in 538 BC, the Jews in Babylon were allowed to return to the land of Israel, due to Cyrus's declaration, the decree of Cyrus, the ruler of the Persian empire that had conquered the region and granted the Jews the right to worship their God in Jerusalem, in a form of autonomy. Around 50,000 Jews made Aliyah to the land of Israel, following the decree of Cyrus as described in Ezra, whereas most remained in Babylon. The return of the deportees to Judah during the next 110 years to follow since the decree of Cyrus is known as "the return to Zion", an event that Jews ever since have been inspired by.

The Jewish autonomy

The Zion returnees had settled in what became known as Yehud Medinata. Yehud, or Judah, was a self-governing Jewish province under the ruling of the Persian Empire, and included a small piece of territory out of Eretz Israel (the land of Israel), containing Jerusalem and Judea, which even issued their own small silver coins inscribed with the three letters Y-H-D. The borders of Yehud Medinata can be marked today as between Shephelaht Lod (Lod's lowland), Tel Azekah, Keilah, the Dead Sea, Jericho, and Bethel.

The Yehud Medinata autonomy has inspired future generations of Jews, their notion of their own national identity and aspirations, the need to end 2000 years of exile since the Babylon captivity, and to continue to make Aliyah to the land of Israel. The ancient name Yehud Medinata also resembles to the name of modern Hebrew name Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel).

Difficulties after the return

Ezra-Nehemiah records that the returnees to the land of Israel were also faced with some difficulties:

  • There was tension between the Zion returnees and the local Israelites who resided in the areas of Judea, Samaria and Benjamin.
  • Additional religious tension was created between them and the Samaritans who perceived themselves as Jews on every count, whereas the Zion returnees treated them as Goyim (non Jews, Gentile).
  • Consecutive years of a harsh drought in the land of Israel shortly after the return to Zion.
  • Security difficulties because the city walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed and did not provide defense.
  • In addition to all those difficulties, friction developed between the leaders of the returned community. While Joshua the son of Jehozadak (Joshua the High Priest), was satisfied with the religious autonomy granted to Jerusalem by the Persians, Zerubbabel aspired to full independence.
  • Therefore, though feelings of disappointments were developed among the Zion returnees, which also delayed the construction of the second temple that eventually was completed only in 516 BC.

    Despite all the difficulties, the return to Zion was believed by some as the first time in human history where a people exiled from their homeland by the force of a foreign ruler had returned to their native soil to re-establish their own joint national home and thereby further contribute to, and encourage the notion of a distinct national identity for the Jewish people.

    Stages of the return to Zion (biblical account)

    According to the books of Ezra-Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible, the return to Zion occurred in several waves of Aliyah.

    Sheshbazzar's Aliyah

    Sheshbazzar's Aliyah (those claiming that Zerubbabel and Sheshbazzar were the same person, associate Sheshbazzar's Aliyah with Zerubbabel's Aliyah), had occurred near after Cyrus's Declaration, in 538 BC. Approximately 1,000 young Jews made Aliya in what became known as Sheshbazzar's Aliyah, out of the notion to redeem the land of Israel from its ruins and to re-establish the holy temple on the Temple Mount. This Aliyah was named after its leader Sheshbazzar because most scholars have agreed that he is a descendant of the house of Jeconiah, king of Judah.

    The Book of Ezra depicts Sheshbazzar's Aliyah as a consent and encouragement of the Persian King Cyrus:

    11 All the vessels of silver and gold were five thousand, four hundred; Sheshbazzar brought up [ He'ela / Aliyah ] everything when the exiles were brought up [ He'alot / Aliyah ] from Babylon to Jerusalem.

    Zerubbabel's Aliyah

    The second wave of Aliyah, known as Zerubbabel's Aliyah, was led by "Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel", the grandson of Jeconiah, king of Judah, and a descendant of the house of David as well as "Joshua the son of Jehozadak" who was appointed as high priest (Kohen Gadol), in 538 BC.

    According to the account in the book of Ezra, 42,360, not including servants or handmaids, made Aliyah in this wave of Zion returnees to Jerusalem and Judah. Among them, there were 24,144 ordinary men (57.12%) and 12,452 women and children (29.46%). There were also 4,289 priests (10.15%), 74 generic Levites (0.18%), 128 Singers (0.3%), 139 Gatekeepers (0.33%) (Singers and gatekeepers were specific roles of Levites in the holy temple in Jerusalem that had been passed from one generation to another), 392 Nethinim (0.93%), and 652 people who could not tell their fathers' houses and their ancestry (1.54%). 90 other people (0.21%) appear to have joined in, to complete that count of 42,360. In addition 7,337 servants and handmaids joined in, boosting the population to 49,697. They also brought up their working animals: 736 horses (one for about every 68 people), 246 mules (one for every 202 people), 435 camels (one per 114 people), and 6,720 donkeys (one for every 7 people). A smaller portion of this wave of Aliyah was well born, possibly one-sixth of the returnees, whereas the rest were of a lower class and poor. The Zion returnees, in this Aliyah, were of the Tribe of Judah, Tribe of Levi and the Tribe of Benjamin, and settled in their cities and places from before the destruction of the first temple, Solomon's Temple, as many of them kept scribed documents indicating their land tenure status of land ownership in various places.

    Due to the return of many single men, and the lack of Jewish single women, a phenomenon of mixed marriages with alien women developed. This wave of Aliyah had been on good terms with the Persian government, which allowed them religious autonomy. However, the economic situation was not well – there was a lack of infrastructures due to the consecutive ruins in the aftermath of the destruction of the first temple, taxes and many housing needs, as well as consecutive years of harsh drought and other natural disasters that hit the land of Israel. At those times the Jews reinstituted the sacrificial offerings to God with the re-establishment of the Altar in 538 BC (כ"ה בכסלו, שנת ג'רכ"ב). This event was prior to the reconstruction of the newly emerging temple in Jerusalem, which restored the status of Jerusalem as the heart and soul of the Jewish people. The Samaritans made proposals for co-operation in the work, but their proposals were declined. Consequently the Jews suffered some harassment at the hands of the Samaritans. Despite the disruptions and delays the Zion returnees managed to complete the construction of the holy temple in Jerusalem in 516 BC.

    Ezra's Aliyah

    The third Aliyah was led by Ezra the scribe, in 458 BC. Around 5,000 Jews were in this wave of Zion returnees.

    The Talmud mentions that Ezra was delayed in making Aliyah to the land of Israel, because he had to stay alongside his Rabbi, Baruch ben Neriah, a disciple of Jeremiah and one of the leading figures among Jews, but too old and weak to travel to the land of Israel. The situation was not easy at the time in the land of Israel in many ways. The economic burden of heavy taxes was tough for the Jews there. Politically; the harassments from various enemies had increased, and they even managed to influence the Persian government to order the stopping of the construction works of refortification of Jerusalem's city walls. Religiously, the mixed marriage was a spreading phenomenon that was perceived as a major threat to the culture and the future of the Jews as a nation. Ezra, who was one of the greatest scholars of that generation, made Aliyah in order to improve the situation for the Jews in the land of Israel, and indeed began a serious of initiatives upon his arrival in Jerusalem, that was to influence the life of the Jews there and the days of the Second Temple.

    Ezra made Aliyah with an official approval of the Persian government and license to take out all donated money from exiled Jews and government officials to the holy temple and Jews living in Israel. He was also permitted to transfer holy vessels to the temple in Jerusalem, and a decree was given to the government treasurers to allocate them with money, wheat, wine and oil. In addition, all which served in the holy temple, the priests, Levites and Nethinims were given tax exemption, and Ezra was authorized to appoint magistrates and judges and to teach the law of God to the people of Israel, as well as the authority to impose penalties of confiscation, banishment or execution, if needed.

    Along with other scholars, Ezra established the Great Assembly, which served as the highest authority of deciders on the Halakha in cases of religious laws and as a body of leaders to the nation of Israel. In addition, he served in the holy temple as the high priest.

    Ezra decided on many regulations of the religious laws, Takanat Chachamim, with the purpose of resuming public order in the aftermaths of the destruction of the first temple and the Babylonian exile. Notably, strengthening Jewish relationship to Torah, strengthening Jewish identity, and preventing assimilation. In that conjunction, he revolutionized the usage of the Hebrew alphabet.

    Nehemiah's Aliyah

    The fourth Aliyah was led by Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah, in 445 BC. Prior to that, he served as the royal cupbearer to the king of Persia and as Man of the Great Assembly. It is not clear how many Zion returnees joined him, but the Book of Nehemiah depicts a strong army escort supplied by the king.

    Nehemiah requested a temporary leave of absence to go to Judah, to the place of his forefathers, in order to rebuild Jerusalem and repair its city walls and his request was approved by the king. For this purpose, he was given permission to cut down woods and was escorted by the army.

    Nehemiah divided the construction work into 42 groups of families; each was responsible for its own district. Since Nehemiah found out in advance about the plan of Judah's enemies to come together and wage war against Jerusalem and to wreak destruction, each group would be building and watching at the same time; and thus he managed to prevent it, "The builders of the wall and the carriers of the loads were loading, with one hand doing the work and one holding the sword" (Nehemiah 4:11). In order to ensure the security of Jerusalem, he ordered the builders to lodge overnight in Jerusalem and to blow the horns immediately, when needed.

    Due to the economic distress that the people of Israel were under, Nehemiah had to face a public crisis during the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah heard the Jewish people's complaints and got angry at the Jewish nobles and officials for taking advantage of the crisis to make money off the poor Jews, especially those serving in the holy temple that were tax exempt, whereas the rest of the people of Israel were feeling the economic burden of heavy taxes by the Persian government. Nehemiah assembled a public hearing and contended with the nobles of Judah. He urged them to restore to the poor their fields and houses and relinquish their loans, and in order to set a personal example, he was the first to follow his own steps, proclaiming that he and his close associates would forgo their debts. He managed to get their assurances on this matter, but did not settle with their assurances and put them under oath that they should do according to this promise.

    On the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, 52 days after the work began, the whole wall was completed. Jews from all classes had taken part in the reconstruction work that provided the poor Jews with livelihood and payments.

    After twelve years in the land of Israel, he kept his promise and returned to Persia to the service of his royal master, but due to the deteriorating security, religious and social conditions in the land of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem in 431 BC, escorted by the army.

    He acted with decisiveness upon his return. He ousted Tobiah the Ammonite who settled himself inside the holy temple and placed back the Levites. He stopped the commerce on the sabbath day and acted against mixed marriage that evolved during his absence. In that conjunction, he drove out the grandson of the high priest for his own mixed marriage.

    In Nehemiah's time, Jerusalem's Jewish population had grown considerably.

    Cyrus cylinder

    The biblical book of Ezra includes two texts said to be decrees of Cyrus the Great, conqueror of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, allowing the deported Jews to return to their homeland after decades and ordering the Temple rebuilt. The differences in content and tone of the two decrees, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic, have caused some scholars to question their authenticity. The Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient tablet on which is written a declaration in the name of Cyrus referring to restoration of temples and repatriation of exiled peoples, has often been taken as corroboration of the authenticity of the biblical decrees attributed to Cyrus, but other scholars point out that the cylinder's text is specific to Babylon and Mesopotamia and makes no mention of Judah or Jerusalem. Professor Lester L Grabbe asserted that the "alleged decree of Cyrus" regarding Judah, "cannot be considered authentic", but that there was a "general policy of allowing deportees to return and to re-establish cult sites". He also stated that archaeology suggests that the return was a "trickle" taking place over decades, rather than a single event.


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