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History of IsraelFirst Exile

Only a few generations after the period of glory and prosperity under King Solomon, the Israelites suffered defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, and then 200 years later, the Babylonians, two hostile countries neighboring to the north in what are today Syria and Iraq, respectively.

The Temple (Beit HaMikdash, in Hebrew) was destroyed, its holy objects looted, and the Jews exiled. This was the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora, an era which saw Jewish communities and Torah learning flourish outside the Holy Land. However, no matter how successful the Jews became in their foreign communities (largely in Babylonia), their connection to the Land of Israel never disappeared. One of the most famous psalms, Psalm 137, eloquently describes the Jewish people crying on the river of Babylon, swearing that they will never forget the holy city of Jerusalem, as crucial to one's identity as one’s own right hand.

The exile was a traumatic event in Jewish history. In one fell swoop, the Jewish people lost their independence, their Temple, and their homeland. With the northern kingdom having been exiled approximately 200 years before, the exile of the kingdom of Judah was the final blow—an end to the complete Jewish presence in Israel.

Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler, had allowed only the poorest people to remain in Jerusalem. The period of the Babylonian captivity in the Holy Land prior to the Temple's destruction had fundamental effects in Jewish religion and culture. The current Hebrew alphabet was adopted by those who remained in Israel, replacing the traditional Israelite alphabet. It was the last period of intense Divine prophecy, mainly through the prophet Ezekiel. And it was at this time that the Torah began to be canonized by leading scholars of the Great Assembly who remained in Jerusalem. The division of "tribes" was lost, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, which continued to have its unique role as workers of the Temple.

This was also the first time since the reign of King Saul that the Jewish people found themselves without a leader. Sages and scholars began to emerge as leaders, most notably Ezra and Nehemia, exiled sages who led the eventual return of the Jewish people to their homeland from Babylonia.

Gedaliah, the Jewish leader appointed by Nebuchadnezzar as governor over the remaining indigent Jews in Jerusalem, began to revitalize the city and with it, the hopes of the people. However, Gedaliah was assassinated by a fellow Jew who resented his proximity to Babylonian rulership, and the remaining Jewish families, fearing retaliation from the Babylonians, fled to Egypt.

It was not until the rule of King Cyrus of Persia, in 538 BCE, that the Jews were finally allowed back into their Holy Land.