The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia


Words written by a mysterious hand on the wall of Belshazzar's palace, and interpreted by Daniel as predicting the doom of the king and his dynasty. The incident is described as follows: Once when King Belshazzar was banqueting with his lords and drinking wine from the golden vessels of the Temple of Yhwh, a man's hand was seen writing on the wall certain mysterious words. Frightened by the apparition, the king ordered his astrologers to explain the inscription; but they were unable to read it. Daniel was then summoned to the royal palace; and the king promised him costly presents if he would decipher the inscription. Daniel read it "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin" and explained it to mean that God had "numbered" the kingdom of Belshazzar and brought it to an end; that the king had been weighed and found wanting; and that his kingdom was divided and given to the Medes and Persians (Dan. v. 1-28).

Talmudical Explanations.

The first question which presents itself to the critic—namely, why could the inscription be deciphered by Daniel only—engaged the attention of the Talmudists, who advanced various answers. Certain of them concluded that the Hebrew writing had been changed in the time of Ezra, so that even the Jews that were found in the royal court could not read an inscription written in archaic characters. But those who followed R. Simeon in maintaining that the writing had not been changed found other solutions for the problem; e.g., it was written in the cryptographic combination of , each letter of each pair being substituted by its companion, e.g., ; or the words were written thus: , one above the other, having to be read vertically; or , each word backward; or, again, , the first two letters of each word being transposed (Sanh. 22a). It is evident that the author of the Book of Daniel meant that the inscription was written in characters familiar to the king and the wise men of Babylon, but that, as often happens with ancient inscriptions, the transposition of certain letters baffled every attempt to decipher them.

Views of Modern Scholars.

Various difficulties of the writing present themselves also in Daniel's interpretation: e.g., the repetition of is not explained, and instead of the plural , the singular without the conjunctive ו is translated. It is true that Theodotion and Jerome, by giving three words only to verse 25, make it uniform with verses 26-28 (Theodotion reading "Mane"), and that the Septuagint, though differing from Theodotion as to the meaning of the words, has also only three words, which it transfers to verse 17. Nevertheless the discrepancy in the Masoretic text as well as the grammatical construction of the words has greatly puzzled the modern critics. It may be noted that the author chose words which had a double meaning and that Daniel, accordingly, gave the king a dual interpretation,applying both meanings of the words. Thus he interpreted as "to count" and "to finish"; , to "weigh" and "to be wanting"; , "to divide" and "Persia." The question now arises as to the grammatical construction of these words. According to Theodotion, Jerome, and Josephus ("Ant." x. 11, § 3), they are substantives; but according to the Septuagint they are verbs in the perfect passive, which, owing to their vocalization, are difficult of explanation. Clermont-Ganneau, in a long article on this subject ("Journal Asiatique," series 8, viii. (1886), 36 et seq.), first advanced the opinion that they are names of weights, namely, a mina, a shekel, and a peras, which last-named in the Talmud means a half-mina (comp. the expression in 'Eduy. iii. 3), and that may be the dual form, "two half-minas." Thus the mina would be an allusion to Nebuchadnezzar; the shekel, which in value is a very small part of the mina, to Belshazzar; and the two half-minas to Media and Persia (comp. Ta'an. 21b). But as this interpretation does not show how the words predicted the fall of Babylon, Clermont-Ganneau admits the possibility of the first two words being verbs, but suggests that the ו of should be affixed to the preceding word, which may be vocalized either , "they weighed," or , "weigh"; in either case having as its direct object.

Among the many other suggestions offered by modern scholars that of J. Marquart may be mentioned ("Fundamente Israelitischer und Jüdischer Geschichte," 1896, p.73). He thinks that the legend of Belshazzar's vision is connected with that of Heliodorus, and that possibly the writer of Dan. v. was of the Maccabean age. Marquart makes no emendation in the text of the passage in Daniel; but if his suggestion is well founded the sentence may be amended to read as follows: = "Smite, smite, slay, thou horseman!" As to the historicity of the inscription, Boissier points out that predictions written by a mysterious hand are referred to in a cuneiform tablet (see "Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch." 1896, xviii. 237).

  • Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl.;
  • D. Margoliouth, in Hastings, Dict. Bible;
  • J. D. Prince, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, Baltimore, 1893.
S. M. Sel.
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