The Babylonian King Nebuchednezzer exiled the Jews of Israel to Babylon in the year 587 BCE. Then, after defeating the Babylonian Kingdom, the Persian King Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to Israel in the year 538 BCE. Cyrus also permitted the returning Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
It is very difficult if not impossible to determine the precise number of Jews who were exiled from Israel to Babylon. But it does seem that not all of the Jewish community in its entirety in Israel was exiled there.
It also appears that Jewish life in exile in Babylon was not an endless case of oppression and want in vile captivity. Quite the contrary.
Babylon became such a home-away-from-home that the Talmud (Kesubos 111a) went so far as to say that one who lives in Babylon is as though he lives in the Land of Israel and will be spared the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” the terrible sufferings that will herald his coming. There is even an opinion in the Talmud that Jews were forbidden from leaving Babylon until God would come and redeem them. They should not go back to the Land of Israel on their own. Even though that was not the accepted opinion in Jewish law, and it was not accepted in practice, nevertheless it was an idea that was floated about. Such an idea could gain currency only if there was a hospitable climate.
The Jewish people survived in Babylon because the Babylonian policy allowed the Jews to settle in towns and villages along the Chebar River, which was an irrigation channel. The Jews were allowed to live together in communities; they were allowed to farm and perform other sorts of labor to earn income. Many Jews eventually became wealthy. This was probably because of the influence of certain Jews who ministered in the palace of Babylon, like Daniel and his friends. It is also likely that the Lord purposed that the Jews would settle down there and get comfortable. Then after the 70 years were complete it would be a test of faith to pick up and return to Jerusalem. During captivity the Jews were encouraged by the prophet Jeremiah from Jerusalem to take wives, build houses, plant gardens and take advantage of their situation because they were going to be there for seven decades.
By contrast, the Jews who were exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Judea established a Jewish community that lasted continuously until modern times, a period of more than 2,500 years. For well over 1,500 of those years the Babylonian Jewish community flourished to the point that, after the destruction of the Second Temple, they even became the undisputed center of Jewish life.
The singular and most important achievement of the Babylonian Jewish diaspora community is unquestionably the creation of the Babylonian Talmud, but this did not come out until 1000 years after the return from exile in 536 BCE.
The fact is only a small minority of the exiled Jews in Babylon returned to Israel in 536. But the Jews in Israel felt a community and a religious need to communicate with the diaspora community in Babylon. In particular the Jews in Israel felt a need to communicate to the Jews in Babylon an accurate message about the beginning of each Jewish month.
Methods of long range communications were obviously very primitive in the year 500 BCE. But the Jewish community in Israel devised a method based on the day’s best technology. They employed “mesuot” Hebrew torches.
On the eve of the new Jewish month the community in Jerusalem would dispatch messengers to the tops of mountains along a chain in the Jordan Valley leading to the Babylonian border. So there would be a signal relay employing mesuot starting from the Mount of Olives to the mountain Sartaba in the Jordan Valley near Jerusalem – all the way to the other messengers on the other mountains in the chain – until the signal and the message about the new month reached Babylon.
From the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to Sartaba and from Sartaba to Grofina and from Grofina to Hauran and from Hauran to Beth Baltin. [The messenger] on Beth Baltin did not budge from there but went on waving to and fro and up and down until he saw the whole of the diaspora before him like one bonfire. (Talmud Babli)
Undertaking long range communications in this way in the year 500 BCE is exceptional. No other ethnic or religious group ever organized itself in the way the Jews of Israel did in those days for the purpose of sending a message to their diaspora brethren. Remarkably, despite oceans of literature in the Jewish world dealing with every in and out of every matter imaginable, no one has ever examined the rationale or the underlying community motivation behind the mesuot or the urge to deliver the message of the new month.
The issue essentially has two parts. What was the underlying community motivation in Israel to send a message to the diaspora community in Babylon? Why did they choose to send the message of the new Jewish month?
One motivation of the Jewish community in Israel was surely to exercise leadership, to ride herd as it were, and take measures to ensure that the diaspora Jewish community in Babylon understood that the Jewish community in Israel was boss. The understanding was that the diaspora Jews in Babylon had to listen and adhere to what the Jews in Israel were telling them.
Beyond the hierarchical relationship however there was also surely a plane on which the impulse to communicate with the Jews in Babylon was simply a communal impulse to take measures so that the distant diaspora Jews and the Jews at home in Israel would have a meaningful form of contact.
But the bottom line is the content of the message. Why was it so important for the Jews of Israel then to signal the Jews in diaspora in Babylon about the accurate beginning of the new Jewish month?
Mainly because knowing the accurate beginning of the new Jewish month enabled the Jews in Babylon to fix their monthly calendars properly and observe holidays and other significant Jewish events on their appointed days. This approach also includes the related interest to avoid mistakes in fixing dates during the month. The Jews in Israel sent this exceptional message to the Jews in Babylon in order to keep them in line, and not fall into the trap where the days of their month were unaligned with the source in Jerusalem.
It isn’t possible to determine how long the Jews in Israel in those days continued employing the method of mesuot to communicate with the Jews in Babylon.
It also isn’t possible to determine why they stopped. Although there is speculation that the Samaritans interfered with the method and lit mesuot on the mountaintops on days that were not the first of the month and undermined the whole process.
The mountain Sartaba still sits where it always was in the Jordan Valley near Jerusalem. What the mesuot prove and stand for is that it is possible to unify the Jewish nation, in diaspora and in the Jewish homeland, through communications. This is the paradigm the mesuot represent in Jewish history. The mesuot and the first relay point at Sartaba are paradigms of Jewish idealism, and they will always be a Jewish national inspiration and a reminder of what can be done given the desire and the interest.
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