views updated May 09 2018


EZRA (late fifth and early fourth centuries bce) was known for his restoration of the Law of Moses in the postexilic period and is generally regarded as the founder of Judaism.

Literary Sources

The account of Ezra's activity is contained in Ezra and in Nehemiah 89. The history covered by Ezra is a continuation from 2 Chronicles and is probably by the same author. It begins with the edict of Cyrus (538 bce), which permitted the return of exiles from Babylonia to their homeland and the chance to rebuild the Temple. Using some independent sources whose chronology is not clearly understood, the author attempts to trace the history of the Jerusalem community down to the time of Ezra (Heb., ʿEzraʾ), which begins only in chapter 7. Within chapters 7 to 9 there is a first-person narration by Ezra, often considered to be a separate source, "the memoirs of Ezra," although it cannot easily be separated from its context in 7:126 and chapter 10, where Ezra is referred to in the third person. It appears to have been composed after the style of the so-called Nehemiah memoirs.

On the basis of the Greek version (1 Esd. ) it appears that Nehemiah 8 originally followed and was a part of Ezra, so that the climax of the history was Ezra's reading of the law book to the Jerusalem community. A later editor who wanted to make the activity of Ezra and Nehemiah appear contemporary transposed this part of the history to its present position. Nehemiah 9, the prayer of confession of Ezra, also fits badly as a continuation of chapter 8 and is a later addition. At any rate the biblical portrait of Ezra is not a contemporary record but, in my view, is Hellenistic in date and must be used with caution in any historical reconstruction of the period.

Biblical Tradition

Ezra's introduction, in Ezra 7:15, identifies him as a priest and gives him a pedigree back to Aaron. But he is especially known as "the scribe of the law of God." The account indicates that he was given a special commission by the Persian king, Artaxerxes, to promulgate the Law of Moses not only in Judah but in the whole of Syria-Palestine. He also received considerable monetary support for the cult in Jerusalem. Ezra set out from Babylon with five thousand companions and great treasure and arrived in Jerusalem safely five months later. Shortly after he returned to Jerusalem he discovered that many Jews had intermarried with non-Jews, and after much soul-searching he set about to dissolve all the mixed marriages. In the second year after his arrival, in the seventh month, at Sukkot, Ezra brought forth the Law and read it to the people in a great public ceremony (Neh. 8). This is now followed (in Neh. 9) by a fast on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month, in which Ezra leads the people in a great confession of sins and a covenant renewal (Neh. 10) by which the people commit themselves to the support of the sanctuary, the observance of the Sabbath, and other laws of the Torah.

There are various layers in the biblical tradition concerning Ezra. The one that identifies Ezra as the scribe who brought the Law to the restored community in Jerusalem is clearly the oldest tradition. Many scholars believe that this tradition reflects the introduction of the Pentateuch into, and its formal acceptance by, the Jewish community in Jerusalem. For this reason the figure of Ezra represents a new era in which the community stands under the Law and its interpreters and becomes, in this view, a religion "of the book," so that it is often regarded as the beginning of Judaism. However, any notion of a radical discontinuity with the religion of the Jews in the late monarchy or exilic periods is quite unwarranted, because the Pentateuch itself embodies much from these periods.

Nevertheless, the mission of Ezra is now seen in the Bible through the eyes of the Chronicler, who considered his presentation of the Law as the climax of his history, and later Judaism did much to further enhance the significance of this event. Already within the biblical account the later levels of the Ezra tradition that portray him as a judge and reformer (Ezr. 910), or as an intercessor and covenant mediator (Neh. 910), cast him more and more in the image of a second Moses.

Historical Problems

The exact dating of Ezra's activity within the Persian period and especially his relationship to his near contemporary Nehemiah have long been matters of disagreement among scholars. The Book of Ezra dates the beginning of Ezra's activity to the seventh year, and Nehemiah to the twentieth year, of Artaxerxes. If these dates refer to the same king, then Ezra would be prior to Nehemiah, as the present biblical tradition suggests. But there is reason to believe that Ezra should be dated to the reign of Artaxerxes II (404359 bce) which would put him about 397 bce, well after Nehemiah. Ezra's return seems to presuppose a revitalized Jerusalem community with protective walls (Ezr. 9:9), while Nehemiah seems to know nothing of the large band of exiles that returned with Ezra. It also seems most unlikely that Ezra waited thirteen years after his arrival before promulgating his law if this was his primary commission. Another possibility is to view Ezra as coming during Nehemiah's second term of office, in the thirty-seventh year of Artaxerxes I, but this involves a textual emendation for which there is little justification.

Another area of debate is how to understand the law book that Ezra brought to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. Was it a particular part of the Pentateuch, such as the so-called Priestly code, or was it a more complete form of the Torah, much as it is today? And just exactly what was the nature of Ezra's commission from the Persian court and the scope of his authority? The way in which one answers these questions greatly affects one's understanding of the history of the restoration and the development and interpretation of the Pentateuch.

The Apocalypse of Ezra

Also known as 4 Ezra, the Apocalypse of Ezra is a Jewish work of about 100 ce that presents Ezra (also called Salathiel) as a prophet who experiences dreams and visions of an apocalyptic nature in the thirtieth year after the destruction of Jerusalem. In addition, just like Moses he hears the voice of God speaking from a thornbush and then withdraws from the people for forty days to receive a revelation from God. This revelation includes not only the Law of Moses that had been lost in the destruction of Jerusalem but also the complete twenty-four books of the Hebrew scriptures and seventy secret books for the "wise." Like Moses, Ezra also experienced an assumption to heaven.

How this earlier Ezra the prophet was thought to relate to the later Ezra the scribe is problematic. The common element is Ezra's association with the Law of Moses and his portrayal as a second Moses. This seems to have been carried to the point where in one form of the tradition, Ezra, like Moses, never got back to the land of Palestine. This extracanonical form of the tradition received great elaboration in the medieval period.

Ezra in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The Jewish aggadah regarded Ezra with great honor. He was not just a priest but the high priest and a second Moses. He was especially revered for restoring the Law of Moses, which had been forgotten, and for establishing the regular public reading of the Law. He is also credited with setting up schools for the study of the Law. The law that Ezra brought to the people was not only the written Law of Moses but included the unwritten law as well. In addition, he is also credited with writing parts of Chronicles and the Book of Psalms and is identified by some as the prophet Malachi.

Following 4 Ezra early Christian authors regarded Ezra as a prophet who under inspiration recovered all the ancient scriptures that had been destroyed by the Babylonian invasionnot just the Law of Moses. Some extracanonical works such as Enoch are also attributed to his prophetic recollection. Whether there were two Ezras, the prophet and the priest-scribe, or just one was a matter of debate.

The Qurʾān contains only one curious remark about Ezra, that the Jews believed him to be the son of God (sūrah 9:30). The basis for this statement is not clear and not reflected in any extant Jewish source.


The many literary and historical problems associated with Ezra make the literature on this subject enormous and controversial. For the historical reconstructions of the times of Ezra and Nehemiah one should compare the histories of John Bright, A History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia, 1981); Siegfried Herrmann, Geschichte Israels in alttestamentlicher Zeit, 2d ed. (Munich, 1973), translated by John Bowden as A History of Israel in Old Testament Times, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1981); and Peter R. Ackroyd, Israel under Babylon and Persia (London, 1970).

For a treatment of Ezra's place in the religion of Israel and especially his relationship to the Law, compare the very influential but somewhat controversial treatment by Yeezkel Kaufmann, Toledot ha-emunah ha-Yisreʾelit, vol. 4 (Tel Aviv, 1956), translated by Clarence W. Efroymson as History of the Religion of Israel, vol. 4, From the Babylonian Captivity to the End of Prophecy (New York, 1977), with the work of J. G. Vink et al., The Priestly Code and Seven Other Studies, "Oudtestamentische Studien," vol. 15 (Leiden, 1969).

Very helpful on matters of literary composition, text, and versions is the commentary by Jacob M. Myers in Ezra, Nehemiah, vol. 14 of the Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y., 1965).

For a review of recent scholarship and a comprehensive bibliography, see the article "Esra/Esraschriften" by Magne Saebo, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. 10 (New York, 1982).

New Sources

Bedford, Peter Ross. "Diaspora: Homeland Relations in Ezra-Nehemiah." Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002): 147165.

Esler, Philip F. "Ezra-Nehemiah as a Narrative of (Re-invented) Israelite Identity." Biblical Interpretation 11 (2003): 413426.

Janzen, David. "The 'Mission' of Ezra and the Persian-Period Temple Community." Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000): 619643.

Japhet, Sara. "Composition and Chronology in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah." In Second Temple Studies: Community in the Persian Period, edited by Tamara C. Eskenazi and Kent H. Richards, vol. 2, pp. 189216. Sheffield, 1994.

Pfann, Stephen J. "The Aramaic Text and Language of Daniel and Ezra in the Light of Some Manuscripts from Qumran." Textus 16 (1991): 127137.

John Van Seters (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 27 2018


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).


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]


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.).


views updated May 21 2018


One of the leading figures in the restoration of the Jewish community in Palestine after the Babylonian Exile. Ezra, whose late-Hebrew or Aramaic name ezrā (rendered in Greek as ζ[δ]ρας or σ[δ]ρα[ς]) means "help," traced his descent from the priestly line of Aaron through Seraiah (Ezr 7.15), the high priest who was executed by the Babylonians when they captured Jerusalem in 587 b.c. (2 Kgs 25.1821).

Priest (Ezr 7.11; 10.10) and "scribe of the Law of the God of heaven" (Ezr 7.12, 21), Ezra returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, leading a group composed of over 1,250 Jews from Babylon and Chasphialaymen, priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and Temple servants (Ezr 7.7; 8.120). Disdaining protection from the Persian king Artaxerxes, whose decree authorized Ezra's mission (Ezr 7.126), the caravan encamped at the river Ahava, fasted for a time to beg divine protection for the journey, and then proceeded safely to Jerusalem, where the travelers deposited the rich offerings that they had brought for the Temple (Ezr 8.2136).

According to Ezr 7.79, the journey started "on the first day of the first month" and ended in Jerusalem "on the first day of the fifth month" in the "seventh year" of King Artaxerxes. Despite this clear notation, the time of Ezra's arrival and activity in Jerusalem is very much in dispute. If the king mentioned in Ezr 7.7 is Artaxerxes I Longimanus (465424 b.c.), a ministry in the king's seventh year (458 b.c.) would place Ezra in Palestine before the first mission of nehemiah (definitely dated as 445433 b.c.). But this seemingly makes a failure of Ezra's missioncontrary to the constant Jewish view of himsince Nehemiah would then have to correct again the abuse of mixed marriages (Nehemiah ch. 13). Several other reasonse.g., Ezra's reforms seem to have been carried out in an abundant population and a rebuilt city (Ezra ch. 910), whereas Nehemiah both rebuilt the city and repopulated itargue rather for a Nehemiah-Ezra sequence of activity.

To avoid the chronological difficulty, some authors suggest that the king of Ezr 7.7 is Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404358 b.c.), whose seventh year was 397 b.c. Such a late dating of Ezra's mission, however, makes impossible the coordinated ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah, forcing proponents of this hypothesis to consider Nehemiah's name in Neh 8.9 as a later scribal insertion and to separate in time the material in Nehemiah ch. 10 from what precedes it in ch. 9. Another solution to the problem reads the "thirty-seventh year" (428 b.c.) in Ezr 7.7 instead of "the seventh year," the error in number being attributed to faulty textual transmission. This would make Ezra's mission contemporaneous with the second mission of Nehemiah (which began sometime between 433 and 424 b.c.) and would allow time for the rebuilding of the walls and population of Jerusalem.

Part of Ezra's commission from Artaxerxes (Ezr7.1126) was to regulate religious matters. Accordingly, Ezra, who was shocked to learn how much intermarriage with the peoples of the land had weakened the postexilic principle of Jewish exclusiveness (Ezra ch. 9), called an assembly of the people to tell them that they would have to put away their foreign wives (Ezr 10.111; see also Neh 13.2329). This they did, according to a prearranged system (Ezr 10.1244).

In another convocation (see Lv 23.24), Ezra read the Law to the people, who celebrated that day as one of joy (Neh 8.112). They observed the restored feast of Booths (Neh 8.1318; cf. Lv 23.3343). In Neh 9.110.40 an account is given of the great covenant with the God of Israel concluded under Ezra's direction. By this covenant the Jews pledged themselves to avoid intermarriage with foreign peoples, to observe the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year, not to exact debts, to pay the Temple tax, and to provide wood, sacrifices, and offerings for the Temple.

Not much else is known about Ezra. He is not mentioned with Nehemiah in the praises of Sir 49.13, but two apocryphal books bear his name. Rabbinic literature hails him as second to Moses in his role of giving the Law. The Talmud even says of him that had not the Law been given through Moses, Ezra would have been worthy to be its vehicle (Sanhedrin 21b), for he restored its legislation when it was forgotten (Sukkah 20a). On the Book of Ezra, see chronicler, biblical.

Bibliography: h. schneider, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:110103. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 687688.

[n. j. mceleney]


views updated May 29 2018


Ezra (active 5th century B.C.) was a Hebrew priest, scribe, religious leader, and reformer who vitally influenced Judaism.

The son of Seraiah, Ezra was a descendant of the ancient priestly house of Zadok. In 458 B.C., the seventh year of the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra obtained the King's permission to visit Judea, bearing with him the latter's gifts for the Holy Temple. The primary purpose of his mission, however, was to inquire into the deteriorating religious conditions of the Jewish community in Judea.

Ezra came at the head of a caravan of about 1,800 men, not including their women and children. They made the 4 month journey from Babylon without the benefit of military escort, thereby demonstrating their trust and reliance upon God.

Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra proceeded to reorganize the Temple services. In response to his vigorous program to persuade the people to observe the Mosaic Law, they entered into a covenant to keep the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year, as well as other precepts of the Torah. But the problem that perplexed Ezra most was that many of the Judean settlers had taken heathen wives from among the neighboring peoples. Mixed marriages had become so prevalent as to threaten the very survival of the Jewish community. Ezra induced his people to divorce their pagan wives and to separate from the community those who refused to do so.

Ezra's action was an extreme measure, but he felt that the critical situation warranted it. It aroused the ire of the Samaritans and other peoples, who resented the affront to their women. In retaliation the Samaritans denounced Ezra to the Persian king for attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which he evidently was not authorized to do. The King stopped the work, and the rebuilt part was razed.

Ezra convened an assembly of the people in Jerusalem (ca. 445) in order to bring about a religious revival. Standing on a wooden pulpit, he read aloud a portion of the Law of Moses, which the Levites expounded. At that time, too, Ezra reinstituted the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. It is probable that he died shortly after this episode. The traditional tomb of Ezra is located in Basra, Iraq, though Josephus stated that he was buried in Jerusalem.

The Talmud ascribes a far more important role to Ezra than that recorded in the scriptural book bearing his name. The Talmud asserts that Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given through him to Israel had not Moses preceded him. It also attributes to him many ancient laws, perhaps to give them prestige and authority. It states that he introduced the use of the square Hebrew script. Ezra also is said to have determined the precise text of the Pentateuch. Tradition regards him, moreover, as the founder of the Kenesset Hagdolah, the Great Assembly, which exercised supreme religious authority until the end of the 4th century B.C.

Scholars believe it was Ezra who replaced the altars and shrines in the villages with synagogues. Other prominent Jewish religious customs are associated with Ezra, who is generally credited with having removed the Torah from the monopoly of the priesthood and democratized it by teaching it to the people. Finally, Ezra is regarded as the savior of the national and religious life of Judaism at a most critical period.

Further Reading

R. Travers Herford discusses the period of Ezra in The Pharisees (1924). For background see John Bright, A History of Israel (1959), and G. A. Buttrick and others, eds., Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2 (1962). □


views updated May 08 2018


EZRA , family prominent in India in the 19th and 20th centuries. joseph ben ezra ben joseph khlef (d. 1855), one of the notables of the Jewish community in Baghdad, traveled to India at the beginning of the 19th century. Together with his sons Ezekiel and David, he settled in Calcutta, engaging in commerce and becoming very wealthy. After some time, he returned to Baghdad, where he died. The family was known as Baḥer (Ar. "sea"), possibly because they were among the first to cross the sea to India. The traveler *Benjamin ii first mentioned Joseph as among the most distinguished personalities of Calcutta in 1849. Joseph's son david (1797–1882) was president of the Calcutta Jewish community and one of the outstanding Oriental philanthropists. Contributing generously to charitable institutions in India and Iraq, he assisted the Palestinian sheluḥim ("emissaries") who often visited India, and also provided funds for the ransoming of captives. A street was named after him in Calcutta, where he built two magnificent synagogues: Neweh Shalom (1856) and Bet El (1870).

His son elias david (1830–1886) was also a wealthy philanthropist. In 1882 he opened a school for the poor in Calcutta and in 1883/84 built a synagogue named Maghen David after his father. He contributed 12,000 rupees toward the establishment of a zoological garden which became known as "Ezra House." In 1870, he married Mozelle (Mazal-Tov; 1850–1921), the daughter of Sir Albert *Sassoon. She founded a large hospital for the poor in Calcutta, named Ezra Hospital after her husband, and two yeshivot: Mazal Ẓome'aḥ and Knesset Eliahu in Jerusalem. Their son sir david (1871–1947), president of the Jewish community of Calcutta, was also a noted philanthropist. In 1912 he married Rachel (1877–1952), daughter of Solomon David Sassoon. Both were active in many spheres of public life: David was president of a scientific society for the study of nature in India; Rachel founded the League of Jewish Women in 1913 and administered two hospitals. In recognition of their services to India, David was knighted in 1927. During World War ii, they gave generous relief to refugees from Europe.


D.S. Sassoon, History of the Jews in Baghdad (1949), index.

[Abraham Ben-Yaacob]


views updated Jun 11 2018

Ezra. A priest and scribe after whom a book in the Hebrew Bible is named. Ezra himself was described as both a priest and scribe, and he had a major role in the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple after the Babylonian exile. Ezra was regarded as second in piety only to Moses.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Ezra a Jewish priest and scribe who played a central part in the reform of Judaism in the 5th or 4th century bc, continuing the work of Nehemiah and forbidding mixed marriages. Also, a book of the Bible telling of Ezra, the return of the Jews from Babylon, and the rebuilding of the Temple.


views updated May 29 2018

Ezra In the Old Testament, a continuation of Chronicles I and II. It records the priest Ezra's journey from Babylon to Jerusalem to spread the law of Moses.