The Fast and the Feast
The Fall of Bavel: When is the Anniversary?
Let us analyze a scene that took place in Bavel [Babylon], at midnight, on an unknown day of an unknown month. It is 3391 AM, 52 years after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash.
A regal-looking man is wandering the dark roads of Bavel, and his Jewish brethren are keeping a lookout for the man.
“Hey! There he is! Rabbeinu Daniel, all the bad and harsh prophecies which Yirmiah the prophet prophesied have already come upon us. But the one good prophecy which he prophesied has yet to come about!”
They ask him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”
He is surprised, Don’t they know? He answers, “To the fast!”
Moments later, the Chaldeans1The people from Kasdim spot Belteshazzar (as Daniel was called by Babylonian kings). The Chaldeans are on the lookout for him, too.
“Hey! There he is! Belteshazzar,2Not to be confused with Belshazzar, the king of Babylon. you are coming with us. The King has ordered your presence!”
His Jewish brethren call out to him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”
He is surprised., Don’t they understand? He answers, “To the feast!”
This narrative is not fiction, nor a contradiction! Let’s try to discover exactly when this event took place.
On which day and which month was it?
Let’s have a look at how the Midrash explains it.
The Night of Bavel
The narrative above was inspired by a passage in Midrash Shir Hashirim, where the interaction between Daniel and his fellow Jews, as well as that with the Chaldeans, is explained.
The Midrash interprets several phrases of Shir Hashirim, as follows:3Midrash Shir Hashirim 3:4.
“Upon my couch at night.” This refers to ‘layla shel Bavel’, the Night of Bavel.
“I sought the one I love.” This refers to Daniel.
“I sought but found him not.”
“I must rise and roam the town, through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” This refers to Daniel.
“I sought, but found him not.”
“I met the watchmen.” This refers to the Chaldeans.
“Have you seen the one I love?” This refers to Daniel.
Where did he [Daniel] go? One opinion says, to his fast, while another opinion says to a feast.
The opinion that says he went ‘to his fast’ means, he went to seek compassion regarding the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Daniel prayed, “O, our God, hear now the prayer of Your servant…”4It should be noted that this prayer was prayed by Daniel, years later, in the times of Cyrus.
The opinion that says he went to a feast means he went to read the writing [on the wall] of King Belshazzar, that spelled out the phrase “Mene mene tekel upharsin.”
This Midrash describes the time when all the Jews gathered around Daniel, and they said, “Rabbeinu Daniel! All the bad and harsh prophecies that Yirmiah the prophet prophesied came upon us. The one good prophecy which he prophesied, has yet to come about. Did he not say, ’After seventy years are completed for Babylonia, I will remember you and perform My favorable promise, enabling you to return to this place’?”5Yirmiah 29:10.
They were asking a fair question. A period of 70 years had passed under Babylonian rule, so why hadn’t the Redemption come?
“Bring me the Book of Yeshaya!” said Daniel.
Daniel read to them an encouraging prophecy from the Book of Yeshaya (which will be cited below).
This interaction happened on the Night of Bavel.
What is meant by “the Night of Bavel”?
It refers to the last night of the Babylonian empire, before it was given into the hands of the Persians.
That was the same night that Belshazzar’s famous feast took place.
In order to discover the date on which the Night of Bavel took place, we must ask a question: Which period of seventy years were the Babylonian Jews referring to?
Title: Die Mauern von Babylon – The Walls of Babylon
Source: Bilderbuch für Kinder
Author: Friedrich Justin Bertuch
Edition: Industrie-Comptoir 1792
Title: The Banquet of Ahasuerus
Author: Jacopo del Sellaio (1442 – 1493)
Date: c. 1485
Museum: The Uffizi, Room 26
Title: Evil Merodach, Bab[ylon] Rex – Evil Merodach, King of Babylon
Source: Epitome historico-chronologica gestorum omnium patriarcharum, ducum, judicum…
Publisher: Sumptibus Fausti Amidei, 1751
Title: The fall of Babylon; Cyrus the Great defeating the Chaldean army
Author: John Martin (1789–1854)
Source: Wellcome Library no. 20811i
Belshazzar’s Feast, When?
On Pesach night, at the Seder, we sing two piyutim, one on the first Seder night and a different one on the second night.
On the first night, we sing “VaYehi BaChatzi HaLaylah,” authored by the poet, Yanai, and on the second night, we sing “VaAmartem Zevach Pesach,” by the poet, Rabbi Eliezer Hakalir.
Both piyutim speak of the feast of King Belshazzar. However, the first piyut mentions the exact time that this event happened, which was BaChatzi HaLaylah, at midnight, for which a source can be found in Midrash Shochar Tov.6Midrash Shochar Tov, Shemos 11. The second piyut, however, by Rabbi Eliezer Hakalir, points out the exact date it transpired, which was Pesach eve. But there is no Midrashic source for this, we must find a different proof of the date.
Yet, according to the Midrash, Daniel was fasting. If, in fact, that date was a fast-day, it obviously wasn’t Pesach night, since one is prohibited to fast on Yom Tov. So, there is a contradiction between the Midrash, and Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir’s opinion.
If the feast of King Belshazzar didn’t happen on Pesach night, when did it happen?
Let’s go back to the scene that took place on the streets of Bavel.
The Jews approached Daniel with a claim that seventy years had passed, and therefore it was time for the redemption, yet it wasn’t happening. They approached Daniel at midnight. Why couldn’t it wait until the morning?
Perhaps the answer is that it was the very night that the seventy years ended!
We know, however, that in the year 3391 AM, only 52 years had passed since the Churban. So, upon which calculation did the Jews base their claim that the seventy years were over?
Actually, Achashverosh did the math for us.
The Gemara explains how Belshazzar calculated the 70 years:7Megilah 11b.
Rava said, “What is the meaning of ‘kesheves Achashverosh’ – when he sat? It is intended to indicate that he did not act immediately upon his ascension to the throne. He waited until his mind was settled, and he had overcome his anxiety regarding the redemption of the Jewish people. He calmed himself by saying, ‘Belshazzar, the king of Babylonia, calculated and erred with regard to when the 70 years would end. I too will calculate, but I will not err.’”
What was his calculation? With regard to Yirmiah’s prophecy, it is written that there will be a return to Eretz Yisrael. “After seventy years are completed for Babylonia, I will remember you and perform My favorable promise, enabling you to return to this place.”8Yirmiah 29:10.
Elsewhere, it is written slightly differently:
In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, thought out the calculations, regarding the number of years in the word of Hashem to Yirmiah the prophet, that He would complete for the desolation of Jerusalem seventy years.9Daniel 9:2.
Belshazzar calculated the length of the Babylonian rule as follows. There were:
- 45 years under the rule of Nevuchadnezzar
- 23 years under the rule of Evil-Merodach
- 2 years under Belshazzar’s own rule
This made a total of 70 years that had passed without the Redemption occurring.
Relying on that calculation, Belshazzar was certain that the prophecy of Yirmiah would no longer be fulfilled. He therefore decided that he would use the vessels of the Holy Temple at his feast.
So we can assume that the seventy years that the Jews were counting started from the reign of Nevuchadnezzar. That was the very same calculation that King Belshazzar had made.
That is why the Jews were challenging Daniel and asking why the Redemption had not come.
For the same reason, Belshazzar took out the vessels of the Holy Temple.
70 Years to the Day
Let’s discuss when the 70 years of Babylonian rule ended.
Indeed, Rav Saadia Gaon writes10Some dispute that he is the author of this commentary. in his commentary about the day of Belshazzar’s feast:
That very day he [Belshazzar] fought with Koresh and Daryavesh, who laid siege on Babylon, and he was victorious. He returned in delight and ordered a feast for his generals and warriors…and that very day was the end of the seventy years of the Babylonian exile. He told himself, “Since they [the Jews] weren’t redeemed, they will not be redeemed anymore.11Daniel 5:1.
This idea, that this day was the precise 70th anniversary of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign, can be found in the passuk with which the Jews confronted Daniel: “Vehaya chimlos shiv’im shana – and it will be when the seventy years will be filled,” the Babylonian empire will fall. This indicates that the seventy years would be seventy full years, exactly to the day.
In this way, we can understand the following verse in the prophecy of Yirmiah:
The word which came to Yirmiah concerning all the people of Judea, in the fourth year of King Yehoyakim son of Josiah, King of Judea, which was the first year of Nevuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia.12Yirmiah 25:1.
Why does the prophecy point out the regnal year of the Babylonian king, Nevuchadnezzar, in addition to King Yehoyakim’s regnal years? As discussed, this gives us a clue as to when exactly the seventy years started, from which we can also calculate when they ended.
The Source for the Math
Achashverosh made the following calculation: that Nevuchadnezzar reigned for 45 years, Evil-Merodach reigned for 23 years, and Belshazzar reigned for 2 years. The Gemara explains the sources of these calculations.
The 45 years of Nevuchadnezzar’s rule
This calculation, is based on two verses that date the events:
- King Nevuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against the city while his troops were besieging it. Thereupon, King Yehoyachin of Judea, along with his mother, his courtiers, his commanders and his officers, surrendered to the King of Babylon. In the eighth year of his reign, the King of Babylon took King Yehoyachin captive.13Melachim 2 24:12.
- In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Yehoyachin of Judea, on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month, King Evil-Merodach of Babylon, (in the year he became king,) took note of King Yehoyachin of Judea and released him from prison.14Yirmiah 52:31.
Yehoyachin was taken into exile in the eighth regnal year of Nevuchadnezzar.
Nevuchadnezzar died in the 37th year of Yehoyachin’s exile. So, it is a matter of simple arithmetic that 8 years + 37 years = 45 years of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign.
The 23 years of Evil-Merodach’s rule
What is the calculation of Evil-Merodach’s 23 years?
The sources explain it as follows: “The twenty-three years of Evil-Merodach are known through Gemara.” The word Gemara means ‘study’.
What is the study that brings us to the calculation of the length of Evil-Merodach’s reign?
In Daniel, we read the following: “That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Daryavesh the Mede received the kingdom, being around sixty-two years of age.”15Daniel 5:30–6:1.
Why is it so important for us to know Daryavesh’s age?
Rabbi Yossi tells us in Seder Olam:
“And Daryavesh the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.” What is the meaning of that which the verse states, “being about sixty-two years old”? Only that the day when Nevuchadnezzar entered the heichal, in the days of Yehoyachin, his fiend was born, and that is Daryavesh.16Seder Olam, 28.
When did Nevuchadnezzar enter the heichal, during the reign of Yehoyachin?
We know these facts about the eleventh year of Yehoyakim’s reign:
- It was the last year of Yehoyakim’s reign.17Divrei HaYamim vol. II 36:5: “Yehoyakim was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem.”
- It was the same year of Yehoyachin’s reign.18ibid 36:5,9: “Yehoyachin was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem.”
- It was the same year of Yehoyachin’s going into exile.19ibid 36:10: “At the turn of the year, King Nevuchadnezzar sent, to have him brought to Babylon with the precious vessels of the House of Hashem, and he made his kinsman Tzidkiyahu king over Judea and Jerusalem.”
- It was the year of Daryavesh’s birth.
- It was the eighth year of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign.
Thus, we can deduce that 62 years after the birth of Daryavesh, was the 70th year of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign.
Belshazzar himself claimed it to be his second year. We deduct 45 years and 2 years from 70 years, and we are left with 23 years of the reign of Evil-Merodach.
So, now we have the source and calculation of the seventy years. We know that this was the 70th anniversary of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign. This was the time when the prophecy of Yirmiah was supposed to have been fulfilled.
When the “Night of Bavel” Occurred
We do not yet know, on which date “the Night of Bavel” occurred. If we can discover the exact date that Nevuchadnezzar succeeded to the throne, we would automatically know when the “Night of Bavel” took place.
We find a clue in the Midrash, when it discusses the fact that the only time we fast at night is on Tisha B’Av. We also fast at night, of course, on Yom Kippur, but it could not have been Yom Kippur, as that would contradict the verse mentioned in the Midrash that Daniel went to his fast, to seek out compassion regarding the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Yom Kippur night is not the time to mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.
Was the Night of Bavel, then, on Tisha B’Av eve?
The Feast That Took Place on the Fast
Our sages do not tell us when Nevuchadnezzar was crowned. However, Divrei HaYamin LeMalchai Bavel – the histories of the Babylonian kings, provides a date.
In the Jerusalem Chronicle it says:
For twenty-one years Nabopolassar had been King of Babylon, when, on 8 Abu [Av] he went to his destiny; in the month of Ululu [Elul] Nevuchadnezzar rturned to Babylon and on 1 Ululu [Elul] he sat on the royal throne in Babylon.20https://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-5-jerusalem-chronicle.
The above-mentioned Nabopolassar, according to the chronicle, is the father and predecessor of Nevuchadnezzar.
The chronicle clarifies the date of Nabopolassar’s death, and this identifies the date of the beginning of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign to be the 8th day of Av.
Therefore, Belshazzar’s feast, which was on the 70th anniversary of this date, was also on the 8th day of Av, at midnight. According to Jewish law, that is the night of Tisha B’Av!
Tzafoh HaTzafis, Aroch HaShulchan
Let us revisit the scene that took place in Babylon,
on Tisha B’Av at midnight, 3391 AM.
It is the 70th anniversary of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign.
52 years have passed since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.
Daniel is wandering the dark roads of Bavel, and his Jewish brethren are on the lookout for him. Most probably, he is going home after reading the Eichah.
“Hey! There he is! Rabbeinu Daniel, all the bad and harsh prophecies which Yirmiah the prophet prophesied have already come upon us. The one good prophecy which he prophesied has yet to come about!”
They ask him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”
He is surprised. Don’t they know? He answers, “To fast, it’s Tisha B’Av, isn’t it!?”
Moments later, the Chaldeans spot him, since they too are on the lookout for him.
“Hey! There he is! Belteshazzar [Daniel], you are coming with us. The King has ordered your presence!”
His Jewish brethren call out to him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”
He answers, “To the feast, I guess. History is about to happen! The prophecy of Yeshaya the prophet is about to be fulfilled!”
What does Yeshaya the prophet foresee for that very night?
“Tzafoh hatzafis, aroch hashulchan – set up the watch, set the table.”21Yeshaya 21:5. This refers to Belshazzar’s feast, for Yeshaya prophesied that Bavel would fall at the time of the feast.
As the verses continues, “And there they come, mounted men – horsemen in pairs!”
“Then each spoke up and said, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon! And all the images of her gods have crashed to the ground!”
“That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Daryavesh the Mede received the kingdom.”22Daniel 5:30–6:1.
We now understand what the Midrash means by the “Night of Bavel”. We also know the date of the fall of Babylonia. That was the night on which both a fast and a feast took place, and a most pivotal night in the making of Jewish history.