I Can Read the Writing on the WallBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
The next incident occurred during the reign of King Belshazzar, the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. (The text calls Nebuchadnezzar his father, but it is not uncommon for Scripture to call a person’s grandfather his father. And don’t confuse Belshazzar with Belteshazzar, which was Daniel’s Babylonian name.)
Belshazzar threw a feast for 1,000 of his officers and he drank a huge amount in front of them, counter to the normal behavior of kings. While he was drunk, Belshazzar called for the golden vessels of the Temple, which his grandfather had captured, so that he and his guests could drink out of them. This was done and the drunken party-goers praised their idols of metal, wood and stone. And then…
A mysterious disembodied hand appeared and wrote on the wall. Everyone saw the floating hand, so they knew that this was a miracle and not simple graffiti. The king’s expression changed and he became afraid. He called for his astrologers and advisors, offering honor and power to the one who could decipher the enigmatic inscription. None of them could, to the distress of the king.
The queen (possibly referring to Belshazzar’s mother or grandmother, rather than one of his wives) suggested that the king call Daniel, AKA Belteshazzar, who was previously quite good at unraveling mysteries for Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was brought before the king and given the task of reading the message. If he could, Belshazzar said, Daniel would be made head of a third of the empire. Daniel accepted the job, but he told Belshazzar to keep the rewards or to confer them on someone else.
Daniel began by telling Belshazzar that G-d gave greatness to Nebuchadnezzar, including dominion over the world. Nebuchadnezzar had the ability to do whatever he wished. But when he became too full of himself, that mighty ruler was deposed and forced to live as a wild animal, as we saw in the previous chapter. He remained in this state until he understood that G-d rules the world and can delegate whomever on Earth He wants. Despite his familiarity with this history, Belshazzar did not humble himself. He tried to raise himself above G-d by partying with the Temple vessels – and while praising his idols, to boot! This is why G-d sent the message, which reads:
M’nei M’nei T’keil U’farsin (counted, counted, weighed and divided). The meaning of this is that G-d has counted out the years of Belshazzar’s rule, weighed him in the balance, and now He will divide the kingdom between the Persians and the Medes. Despite Daniel’s earlier refusal, Belshazzar ordered him awarded the reward that had been promised. That very night, Belshazzar was assassinated.
The question remains as to why no one else could read the writing. Many explanations are given: it was written in code, like an anagram; it was broken up into unusual blocks of letters; it was written in the so-called “Assyrian” script (like our Hebrew) rather than the more familiar ancient Hebrew script of the time. However G-d chose to obscure the writing, one thing is certain: He didn’t want anyone but Daniel delivering the message.