The Persian Talmud

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Iran makes for an awful lot of news these days, and—the green shoots of democratic dissidence excepted—virtually none of it is good.  But then there is the past: a recent conference in Jerusalem brought together scholars from Europe, Israel, and the United States, as well as some Iranian expatriates, who have been intensively researching the buried treasures of the field known as "Irano-Judaica."  The gathering, together with the publication of a volume titled The Talmud in its Iranian Context, underscores one of the most exciting developments in Jewish scholarship: the effort to put the "Babylonia" back into the Babylonian Talmud.

Babylonian Jews had lived for six centuries under the Persian Parthian empire when, in 224 C.E., the land fell to another Persian dynasty, the Sassanians, who ruled until the Muslim conquest in the mid-7th century. In addition to the official religion of Zoroastrianism,  Sassanian Babylonia was home to Christians, Jews, and a range of syncretistic sects, all standing at the geographic and cultural crossroads of Greco-Roman culture from the west, Hindu and Buddhist influences from the east.

Despite its dualism, which put it at odds with monotheism, Zoroastrianism's moralism and eschewal of sorcery were in some ways more congenial to Jews than Greco-Roman paganism; also, both Jews and Zoroastrians vigorously engaged in the study and interpretation of ancient texts (respectively, the Torah and the Avesta).  At least until the mid-5th century, moreover, when the atmosphere turned chilly, establishment Zoroastrianism was relatively tolerant of Jews and Judaism. It was in this period that the discussions recorded in the Babylonian Talmud took place, although the editing proceeded for several centuries thereafter.

Modern historical studies of the Babylonian Talmud—the Bavli, to use its Hebrew name—have understandably focused on the Hellenistic and, later, Christian milieus that were so influential in the formation of Western Jewry. For decades now, academic Talmudists have also devoted much energy to understanding the composition and editing of the talmudic text itself. By contrast, and with exceptions, the Iranian element has been relatively slighted. In the 1960s, Jacob Neusner began to frame some of his research in terms that encompassed the study of Sassanian Babylonia; in 1982, the late E.S. Rosenthal urged the mastery of Middle Persian, the Sassanian lingua franca, as a gateway to Talmud study; Isaiah Gafni made deft use of Persian sources in his researches into talmudic history. But today's efflorescence, capped by the conference in Jerusalem, is above all the fruit of unflagging efforts by Yaakov Elman of New York's Yeshiva University.

Knowledge of Middle Persian language, history, and culture is obviously helpful for understanding such things in the Bavli as place names, folk proverbs, and the practicalities of agricultural and commercial life. More significantly, such study sheds light on the social and political structures of talmudic times, the cultural processes at work among Jews and non-Jews alike, and even the Talmud's distinctive theological views and literary methods. Situating the Bavli in its Sassanian context hardly effaces the differences between Judaic and Persian culture; rather, it helps clarify points of similarity and difference and how each group understood and, within a multicultural environment, observed its own boundaries.  

Thus, as the scholar Maria Macuch points out in The Talmud in its Iranian Context, although the Bavli does not use explicitly religious terminology taken from Zoroastrian scriptures, it does avail itself of technical legal terms and of the daily vernacular of the law courts—with which, it seems, the rabbis were familiar. (After all, it was the 3rd-century Babylonian sage Samuel who decisively declared in the Talmud that dina d'malkhuta dina, the kingdom's law is the law.) Another clarifying point is registered by Richard Kalmin. Why were the rabbis of the Bavli so much harsher on the issue of professional dream interpretation than their counterparts in the Yerushalmi or "Jerusalem" Talmud? Answer: they wanted to keep their own and their people's distance from the Persian Magi.

If Persian history can be a significant resource for study of the Talmud, the Talmud can be a significant resource in turn for Persian history.  Gafni's student Geoffrey Herman comments: "As a product of integrated Sassanian subjects, . . . the Babylonian Talmud has few parallels among Sassanian sources. Indeed, it has the potential to convey to us some of the flavor of life in the Sassanian Empire that few other sources offer."

Shai Secunda, a rising star in the field of "Irano-Judaica," has noted the relative paucity of contemporary work on Iranian Jewry during the many centuries after the coming of Islam. This brings us back with a jolt to the realities, and the dangers, of today. Excavating the distant past will hardly solve those dangers. But by immeasurably enriching our knowledge of how Jews and Persians once lived and thought, it can help us understand how they built identities that still have the power to shape our world—if not today then, we may hope, tomorrow.

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