Persia and the Jews - Jewish History
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Jews under Persian rule

Western wall
The remains of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

November 2016 - In 536 BC, Cyrus the Great, the king of the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus believed that religious freedom was important to keeping his empire together, and he wanted each area (satrapy) of his empire to rule itself, so he let the Jews go home from Babylon (BA-bi-lon), ending the Babylonian Captivity. Of course the Jews were very happy. Not all the Jews chose to leave Babylon: by this time a lot of the Babylonian Jews had been born in Babylon, and people had businesses and houses and their kids were in school, so many of them decided to stay. Many of them continued to be Jewish, though, and for hundreds of years there was a big Jewish community in Babylon.

But other Jews, including Nehemiah (neh-huh-MY-uh), did choose to go back to Israel. When Nehemiah and his followers got back to Israel, they were upset to find that the many Jews who were still living in Israel were not following the Law strictly. Even worse, many of these Jews had married Canaanites or Ammonites or Arabians! So the Babylonian Jews worked hard to force all these other Jews to obey the Law better, because they were afraid God would be angry with them. And they rebuilt their Temple in Jerusalem (the Second Temple).

This was the time of Esther (ESS-ter), a Jewish woman from Babylon who married a Persian king and was able to save the other Babylonian Jews from being killed by Haman (HEY-man), the king's advisor. This is the basis of the Jewish holiday called Purim (POOH-rim).

The story of Jonah is also set in the Persian Empire. According to the Bible, God told Jonah to go and preach about Judaism in the Persian city of Nineveh, but Jonah didn't want to go there. Instead he got on a ship going from Joppa (in Israel) to Tarshish. After God got mad at him, Jonah did go preach in Nineveh (near Babylon). This shows that Jews travelled all around West Asia at this time.

Learn by doing: put on a Purim play about Esther and Haman
Alexander and the Maccabees
First Jewish Revolt

Bibliography and further reading about the Jews under Persian rule:

Children's Bible

Alexander and the Maccabees
More about Judaism
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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