National Gallery, London

Since the Middle Ages, the powerful and melodramatic story of Belshazzar has inspired poets, composers and artists. Rembrandt’s arresting portrayal, completed in 1634, shows an astonished Belshazzar rising from his seat at the orgy in Babylon to see a hand write on the wall. To the king’s right and left, gold and silver goblets, probably appropriated for the orgy from the Jerusalem Temple, spill their contents.

The careful hand writes in the square Aramaic script that was standard when the Book of Daniel was written. This script continued to be used through Rembrandt’s time and in fact is still in use today. Why then in Daniel 5:8 were the Chaldean sorcerers and wise men Belshazzar summoned, who surely knew Aramaic, unable to comprehend the message on the wall? A passage from the Talmud, the rabbinic compendium of Biblical law and commentary completed about the fifth century, may offer an explanation.

In the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 22a, the rabbis suggest that the Aramaic words may not have been written conventionally—in horizontal lines from right to left. Instead, the words that Daniel 5:2 tells us appeared on the wall—mene mene tekel upharsin—may have been written in code with letters transposed, or in horizontal lines from left to right, or even in vertical lines from top to bottom.

Like the Chaldean wise men, modern readers who know Hebrew may have trouble with the inscription in Rembrandt’s painting. But if you read it vertically from top to bottom and from right to left, the four words from the Book of Daniel appear very clearly. Rembrandt, like many other artists in Amsterdam in the 17th century, lived near the city’s Jewish neighborhood. His friendships with Jews and his painting of Jewish themes, often using Jewish models, are well-known. It’s very likely that a conversation with Jews who were versed in the Talmud gave Rembrandt the knowledge to interpret his “Belshazzar’s Feast” in this unique way.