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Historical Overview

May 9, 2009 | by Shimon Apisdorf

The key points of history show how easily the mighty can fall, and how survival of the Jews depends on a connection to God.

When we think of the ancient world, we think of civilizations like Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Greece and Rome. We think of rivers like the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates; and of rulers like Ramses, Hammurabi, Xerxes and Alexander.

The truth be known, for many of us this jumble of names is a historical stew of people and places which has little, if any, relevance. At the same time, for Jews of another epoch -- Jews who were Jews just like we are -- these names and places were as real to them as Warsaw, Berlin and Stalin were to our great-grandparents, and as alive as Chicago, Miami and Saddam Hussein are to us.

The story of Purim is set in an era which saw the Jewish people sovereign in the Land of Israel. That same period was witness to the end of their sovereignty and the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.

The following chronology, followed by a brief historical overview, will provide a working knowledge of the major events which precede and surround the story of Purim. Far from exhaustive, this section is meant only to provide general historical context in the place of general historical fuzziness.

Abraham and Sarah 1671 BCE 2080
Egyptian slavery begins 1428 BCE 2332
Exodus and Torah at Mount Sinai 1312 BCE 2448
Jewish people enter Israel 1272 BCE 2488
First Temple built 825 BCE 2935
Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar; Babylonian exile begins 422 BCE 3338
Media and Persia join forces to conquer Babylonia 372 BCE 3388
Cyrus becomes king of Persian empire 371 BCE 3390
Achashverosh ascends throne of Persian empire 360 BCE 3401
Haman becomes Persian prime minister; Esther becomes queen 356 BCE 3404
Miracle and victory of Purim; Mordechai is new Persian prime minister 355 BCE 3405
Second Temple built 352 BCE 3408
Miracle of Chanukah 139 BCE 3622
Second Temple destroyed; Roman exile begins 70 CE 3830
Babylonian Talmud compiled 500 CE 4260
First Crusade 1096 CE 4856
Expulsion of French Jewry 1475 5155
Spread of Chassidism 1772 5532
First Zionist Congress 1897 5657
Rebirth of Israel 1948 5708
Saddam Hussein declares himself to be the "new Nebuchadnezzar," attacks Israel, and is defeated in the Persian Gulf War which ends on Purim 1991 5751


The Jewish people, led by Joshua, entered the Land of Israel in the year 1272 BCE. After settling and developing the land and establishing both a monarchy and a sophisticated legal and judicial system, the building of the First Temple was begun in 832 BCE by King David, and completed three years later by his son King Solomon.

The First Temple stood for 410 years. During that time, a vibrant Jewish community flourished in the Israel -- with Jerusalem and the Temple as its spiritual, cultural and political center.

In the Near Eastern world which surrounded Israel, empires in Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia vied for power and prestige. After the allied forces of Egypt and Asyria failed in their attempt to conquer Babylonia, the Babylonians, with Nebuchadnezzar as their king, became the preeminent regional power. They controlled the trade routes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, amassed enormous wealth, and became the overlords of numerous cities and peoples. It was this Babylonian superpower headed by Nebuchadnezzar which employed its army to conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (commemorated as Tisha B'av).

The destruction of Jerusalem began the period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile. The Jews who survived the Babylonian onslaught were taken in humiliation to Babylon. There, with time, they were able to build a vibrant Jewish community and were, to a great degree, afforded the ability to conduct their religious and communal lives with a good deal of social independence.

Some 50 years after the beginning of the Babylonian Exile, King Darius of Media and King Cyrus of Persia embarked on a campaign which sought to subdue much of the Near and Middle East, including Babylonia. Shortly after Babylonia fell, Cyrus became the king of the entire Persian-Mede empire, and as such inherited the Jews of Babylonia as his subjects.

Having been slaves in ancient Egypt, sovereign in Israel during the First Temple period, defeated and exiled by the Babylonians, the Jews were now subject to the rule of one of the greatest empires ever to appear on the stage of history -- that of the Persians. It would be that empire and those kings, Cyrus and his successor Achashverosh, who would provide the stage, setting and landscape upon which the story of Purim took place.

For the rest of the story, read the Megillah!

Adapted from "One Hour Purim Primer," by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf.

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