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The Return to Zion (Hebrew: שיבת ציון, Shivat Tzion, or שבי ציון, Shavei Tzion, lit. Zion Returnees) is a term that refers to the event in which the Jews returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile following the decree by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, the conqueror of the Babylonian empire in 538 BC, also known as Cyrus's Declaration.
The term was first coined, after the Destruction of the Second Temple (mentioned in the Song of Degrees), and afterwards was attributed to the event of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first temple, to the Land of Israel following the decree of Cyrus the Great.
Biblical term vs. modern term
The Biblical term of "The Return to Zion" was later on borrowed from this event and was adopted as the definition of all the immigrations of Jews to the Land and the State of Israel, Aliyah, in our modern times, beginning from the Aliyah, in the midst of the 19th century, to Jaffa, of the followers of Rabbi Judah Bibas and Rabbi Judah Alkalai, known as the Herald of Zion (מבשרי ציון) pioneers of modern Zionism, and up to the rest of the Aliyot made after the establishment of the State of Israel. The period between the biblical Return to Zion and the modern Return to Zion, consisted of many attempts of small groups to immigrate to the Land of Israel, and this period, could be roughly divided into two categories: One is the Aliyah during the Middle Ages and during the period of Renaissance, and the other is the Aliyah during the modern era (18th century and at the start of the 19th century).
The Babylonian empire, under the ruling of Nebuchadrezzar II occupied the Kingdom of Judah between 597-586 BC. The Babylonian army, under the commandment of Nebuzaradan, also named "chief executioner" [chief Headsman] by the bible, had destroyed the first Holy 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 along side 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 (1 Chronicles 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 where the same person). The Jews in Babylon never lost the affinity they had for Jerusalem as well as their faith in salvation.
The Return to Zion
A number of decades afterwards, 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 Great, the ruler of the Persian Empire that had conquered the region and granted the Jews the right to worship their God in Jerusalem, in some form of an Autonomy. Around 50,000 Jews made Aliyah to the Land of Israel, following the decree of Cyrus the Great, whereas some remained in Babylon. The return of the deportees to Judah during the next 110 years to follow since the decree of Cyrus the Great is known as "The Return to Zion", an event that Jews ever since have been inspired by .
The Zion Returnees have 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 was 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 Yehud. 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 self governing of Yehud Medinata has known to inspire the future generation 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 Returnees to the Land of Israel were also faced with some difficulties:
- There were some tension created 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 Samaritan because the Samaritans have perceived themselves as Jews in every count, whereas the Zion Returnees have treated them as Goyim (non Jews, Gentile).
- Additional difficulty was the livelihood, due to the consecutive years of a harsh Drought that hit the land of Israel, shortly after The Return to Zion.
- There were also some security difficulties aspects because the City Walls of Jerusalem was destroyed and did not provide defense.
- In addition to all those difficulties, the struggles between the communities' leaders, was also a factor because 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 a statehood 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 the first time in human history where people who were exiled from their own homeland by the force of a foreign ruler had returned to reestablish their own joint national home on their native Soil, which they were forced to leave, in addition to its contribution to the National Identity notion of the people of Israel that had always been different from other people and nations.
The Zion Returnee's waves of 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 form its ruins and to reestablish the Holy Temple on 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:
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 to Kohen Gadol (High Priest), in 538 BC.
According to the story detailed in Book of Ezra 42,360 made Aliyah in this wave of Zion Returnees to Jerusalem and Judah. Among them, 24,144 men, 4,289 Kohens (Presits), 74 Levites, 128 Singers, 139 Gatekeepers (Singers and Gatekeepers were the roles of the Levites in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that had been past from one generation to another), 392 Nethinim, 652 could not tell their fathers' houses and their seed, and 12,542 women and children. In addition to those Returnees, 7,337 servants and handmaids joined in. They also brought up their working animals: 736 horses, 246 mules, 435 camels, 6,720 donkeys . A Smaller portion of this wave of Aliyah was well to do, possibly one-sixth of the Zion Returnees, whereas the rest were of a lower class and poor. The Zion Returnees, in this Aliyah, were of the Tribe of Judah 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 has evolved; probably even the sons of the Kohen Gadol have married alien women. This wave of Aliyah had been on good terms with the Persian Government, whom allowed the Zion Returnees to run a religious autonomy. However, the economy situation was not very 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, which the Zion returnees suffered from. At those times the Jews have reinstituted the sacrificial offerings to god with the reestablishment of the Alter 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 has 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 had suffered from harassment at the hands of the Samaritans. Despite the disruptions and delays in the construction works of the Temple and Jerusalem, on the part of various foes, the Zion returnees have managed to complete the construction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 516 BC.
The third Aliyah of the Zion Returnees was led by Ezra the scribe, in 458 BC. Around 5,000 Jews made Aliyah 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 Talmid (disciple) of Jeremiah and one of the leading figures among Jews, but too old and weak to make such Aliyah 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 Jew 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 Kohens, Levites and Nethinim were given tax exemption, and he 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 has 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 Kohen Gadol (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.
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 have joined him, but the Book of Nehemiah depicts a strong army escort supplied by the king.
Nehemiah requested to temporarily 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 a tough economic situation, 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 the poor ones of 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 Ensconced himself inside the Holy Temple and placed back the Levites. He stopped the commerce on the Shabbath and acted against mixed marriage that evolved during his absence. In that conjunction, he drove out the Grandson of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) for his own mixed marriage.
In his time Jerusalem's Jewish population had grown considerably.
- History of ancient Israel and Judah
- Yehud Medinata
- Jewish diaspora
- Pre-Zionist Aliyah
- Gathering of Israel
- Book of Ezra
- Book of Nehemiah
- Cyrus the Great
- Cyrus cylinder
- Babylonian empire
- Achaemenid Empire
- Persian Jews
- Solomon's Temple (First Temple)
- Second Temple
- Temple in Jerusalem
- Shavei Zion (Moshav) (a Moshav of cooperative agricultural community)
- Yehud (Today a City in Israel)
- Yehud Medinata (The Province of Judah)
- Yehud coinage
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Psalms 126 
- ↑ (Book of Ezra 5:8) 
- ↑ (Book of Ezra 2)
- ↑ Babylonian Talmud: Order Moed,Tractate Megillah 16b
- ↑ (Book of Ezra 7)
- ↑ (Nehemiah 2)
- ↑ (Nehemiah 5)
- ↑ (Nehemiah 6:15)
- The Return to Zion Jewish virtual library
- The Land of Promise: The Return to Zion MFA.gov.il
- HISTORY: Second Temple Period - Return to Zion MFA.gov.il
- The Persians Jewish virtual library
- Ezra and Nehemiah: The Return to Zion myjewishlearning.com
- Yehud Medinata map, CET – Center For Educational technology
- Yehud Medinata map, CET – Center For Educational technology
- Ramat Rahel – Later periods on the coins of Yehud, Jewish virtual library
- The Great Assembly Jewish virtual library
- Ezra the Scribe Chabad
- Between Cyrus and Balfour Declarations [Hebrew and introduction in English], Ancient and modern Return to Zion, Menahem Stern, Friedman shin publisher, 2005   
- Where the alien women in fact exiled? [Hebrew], Yonina Dor, The question of being aloof during the times of the Return to Zion, The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006 
- Book of Ezra
- Book of Nehemiah
- The History of Coins: How We Got From Shekels to Sela'im on coins and Yehud coins, Jewish virtual libraryyi:שיבת ציון