The history of galut
For almost as long as the Jewish nation has existed, it has been persecuted and forced to wander from land to land: starting with slavery in Egypt, to the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, to the Crusades, the pogroms, the Holocaust, and finally, modern day anti-Semitism.
The Beginning: Egypt (1523 BCE – 1313 BCE)
The beginning of all galut, the root from which it grew and branched off, was when Jacob and his children left Canaan (as Israel was then called) because of famine and traveled to Egypt for food.2 There they settled, prospered and began to grow numerous.3 Fearing the growth of this nation, Pharaoh enslaved the children of Israel.4 After a period of 210 years, G‑d sent salvation through His servant Moses, smiting the Egyptians with the ten plagues.5 The Jewish people were redeemed and started their 40-year journey in the desert on their way back home to the Land of Israel.
The Four Exiles
The prophet Daniel had a vision that subtly hints to the four exiles of the Jewish nation:
I saw in my vision by night…four great beasts…The first was like a lion…and behold, another beast, a second one, similar to a bear…Afterwards I beheld, and there was another, similar to a leopard…After that, as I looked on in the night vision, there was a fourth beast—fearsome, dreadful and very powerful.8
In Daniel’s prophecy, each creature symbolizes an exile that the Jewish people were to undergo. The first was Babylon, the second Media/Persia, the third Greece, and finally Edom, commonly identified as Rome.9
Babylon (423 BCE – 372 BCE)
Babylon was the first exile. Until then, the Holy Temple stood in the heart of Jerusalem, and G‑dliness and miracles were still apparent and abundant. And then, what had been the bustling, lively and vibrant Jewish nation was no more. In the year 3338 (423 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, lay siege to Israel and laid it to waste.
When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Holy Temple, he exiled 10,000 of the brightest and most promising of the Jewish nation (including Daniel, Chananya, Mishael and Azariah), leaving behind the labourers to work the fields. The Jewish people who remained in Israel under the rule of King Zedekiah began rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet Jeremiahbegged the king to end this foolish rebellion and submit to Nebuchadnezzar before it was too late,10 but his warning fell on deaf ears. The remainder of the Jews in Israel were crushed and sent into exile: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion.”11
However, even in the darkest night there was a glimmer of hope, as the Jewish people began to adapt to their new surroundings. The Jews began to flourish in Babylon, setting up communities, building ritual baths and establishing study halls.
Persia/Media (372 BCE – 348 BCE)
In 3389 (372 BCE), King Darius I of Persia conquered Babylon, thus starting the second exile for the Jewish people. He was favorably inclined toward the Jews, and appointed Daniel the prophet as chief minister of the realm. (The famous story of Daniel being accused of rebelling against the king and being thrown into the lion’s den occurred during this time period.12) After ruling for just one year, Darius died in 3390 (373 BCE).
The crown was then passed on to Cyrus the great. He too favored the Jewish people, and under his rule they were given permission to return to Israel to rebuild the Holy Temple. When Cyrus gave this authorization, 42,360 Jews went to Jerusalem and began the work. King Cyrus ruled for three years, from 3390-3393 (373 BCE – 376 BCE).
Then King Ahaseurus stepped in, and the Purim story began. Construction of the Temple was stopped by Ahasuerus and did not continue during his lifetime. Shortly after the end of the Purim story, in 3406 (351 BCE), Ahasuerus died and was succeeded by Darius II (his son from Esther). Two years later, in 3408 (353 BCE), the Jews were given permission to resume work on the Temple, and in 3412 (349 BCE) it was completed.
(See here for a full historical account on the Babylonian and Persian exiles.)
Greece 371 BCE – 140 BCE
Persia, once the strongest empire, then fell to the mighty hands of Alexander the Great in the year 3390 (371 BCE). This meant that Israel was now under Greek rule. The rulers of Greece did not displace the Jewish people or destroy the Temple. However, that is not to say that many Jews were not influenced by the Greek lifestyle, one of indulging in physical delights and glorifying the body. In fact, many Jews began to assimilate and conform to the Greek way of life.
In the year 3413 (348 BCE), Ezra the Scribe13 (who preceded the Greeks and lived during the Persian exile) led many of the Jewish people back to Israel in an attempt to rejuvenate both the land and the Jewish way of life. Many rabbinic enactments were instituted at this time to accomplish this goal.14
Alexander’s reign was short, and after his death his empire was divided among his four generals who ruled over different areas of the kingdom, one of which was Egypt. In the year 3515 (246 BCE), the ruling Ptolemy (as most kings were so named) of Egypt gathered 72 Jewish elders and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. This was a major tragedy for the Jewish people, as until this point G‑d’s Torah had always been written in the holy language of Hebrew, and to make any slight change or mistranslation would leave room for grave errors.15
Antiochus IV soon succeeded to the throne in 3586. Unlike his predecessors, Antiochus did not take kindly to the Jewish people. He murdered thousands of them and imposed harsh decrees, suppressing many Jewish laws such as circumcision and Shabbat.
In the year 3621 (140 BCE), a small group of Jews known as the Maccabeesstood up against the tyrant and defeated his armies, driving him out of Israel. The Jewish people were free from foreign rulership once more. We celebrate this miraculous victory with the holiday of Hanukkah. (See here for a full historical account of the Hanukkah story.)
Rome (69 CE – Present)
The Roman Empire brought the final blow for Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the final exile for the Jews, one that has lasted for nearly 2,000 years and has not yet ended.
The Jewish people during that time were split into four factions: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Sicarii and Zealots. Some of these groups began rebelling against the mighty empire.
The Emperor Nero saw this as treason and sent his best general, Vespasian, along with his son, Titus, and 60,000 Roman soldiers to quell the revolt.
Finally, in the year 3829 (69 CE), an oppression that started with heavy taxes ended with mass murder. The Jewish people were butchered and slaughtered, their homes ransacked and the Holy Temple burnt to the ground. And since then, the Jewish people have been persecuted and exiled. (Seehere for a full historical account on the Roman exile.)
In the year 1096, the First Crusade destroyed Jewish communities across Europe and in Israel. In 1144, the first recorded blood libel took place. In 1190, Jews were massacred in England during the Third Crusade. A public burning of the Talmud took place in Paris in 1242. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England.16 The Spanish Inquisition occurred in 1478. In 1648, Jews were massacred by Chmielnitzki’s forces (what is known as gezeirat tach v’tat). In 1918, over 60,000 Jews were killed during the Russian revolution. Finally, during the Holocaust: six million Jews were slaughtered.
In the words of Mark Twain:
The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone…The Jew saw them all, survived them all.
For a chassidic perspective on the four exiles, see here.
The Dispute of Exiles
So what exactly constitutes an exile? As mentioned above, the Jewish people were exiled from a few countries in Europe. Why don’t they fall into the count?
All opinions agree with the identities of the first three exiles, as they are clearly inferred from the book of Daniel.17 The controversy revolves around the identity of the fourth and final exile, which is referred to as “Edom.”
All the sages agree that the word “Edom” typically refers to the Romans.18However, there are certain prophecies in which the word “Edom” is used, not necessarily in reference to Rome, but in reference to other nations, such as in Daniel’s prophecy.
Bearing this in mind, Avraham Ibn Ezra believes that the fourth kingdom to place the Jewish people in exile (“Edom”) were the Yishma’eilim, i.e.,those who follow Islam. The reasoning behind this is that the fourth animal in Daniel’s prophecy is described as a fearsome and powerful beast, and he viewed the Islamic rulership as the most severe towards the Jews.19
In contrast to this, Nachmanides maintains that the Empire of Rome was the last exile the Jewish people endured. Nachmanides explains that the four kingdoms are not defined by their power or strength, but by the fact that they placed the Jews in exile in the first place. He comes to this conclusion because, despite the many other threats to our existence that came after the Romans, we have not yet been redeemed from this specific exile.20,21
In his work Ner Mitzvah, the Maharal of Prague observes that though the Islamic empire was a “strong and mighty” nation, it is not included among the four exiling empires. He explains that the four empires included in the count actually wrested kingship and power from Israel, thus enabling these nations to delay the redemption. For as long as they ruled, the nation of Israel’s dominion was not restored.
Islam on the other hand, notwithstanding it’s greatness and superiority, did not deny Israel’s kingship, and is therefore not considered an exiling nation.
Exile as a Remedy
The question remains: Why? For what purpose did G‑d place the Jewish people in exile, not once but four times?
The Talmud relates a story: During the destruction of the Holy Temple, G‑d found our forefather Abraham standing in the ruins. Abraham began to plead on behalf of the Jewish people:
[G‑d] said, “What is My beloved doing in My house?”
Abraham replied, “I have come concerning the fate of my children.”
[G‑d] said, “Your children sinned and have gone into exile.”
“Perhaps,” said Abraham, “they only sinned in error?”
He answered, “She has wrought lewdness.”
“Perhaps only a few sinned?”
“With many,” came the reply.
“Perhaps if You had waited for them, they would have repented,” he pleaded.
From this story, we can see the gravity of the sins committed, and that exile was necessary to cleanse the Jewish nation of these sins. However, punishment was not the only item on G‑ds’ agenda. There is a grander master plan behind the four exiles.
The Talmud offers the following explanation for the phenomenon of galut: “R. Eleazar also said: The Holy One, blessed be He, did not exile Israel among the nations save in order that proselytes might join them.”24
We can deduce from here that exile serves a dual function: Firstly, to serve as a punishment for our sins. Secondly, so we can be a light unto the nations and inspire the world for the better.25 (See here for more on this topic.)
May it be in this merit that G‑d will take us out of galut and gather us from the four corners of the earth to the Land of Israel, Amen.