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Babylonia was an ancient country in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers; corresponding approximately to modern Iraq. Babylonia is the Greek form of the name babili – sometimes translated as gate of God – known from cuneiform texts.


The area was settled by the Sumerians in the third millennium B.C.E. Sargon I (24th century B.C.E.) founded the Akkadian dynasty, which dominated the area for 200 years. At a later period (c. 1850 B.C.E.) the Amorites (mar-tu, “people of the west”) ruled over northern Babylonia. The city gained greater strength during the time of Hammurabi (1792–1750 B.C.E.) when it extended its influence over most of southern Mesopotamia, as well as over parts of northern Mesopotamia. Later rulers of the area were the Hittites, Kassites and the Assyrians. The Assyrian kingdom was overthrown in 612 B.C.E. and succeeded by the neo-Chaldean kingdom of which the outstanding figure was Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.E.). However, 25 years after his death, the country was captured by Cyrus, king of Persia, and ceased to exist as an independent kingdom.

For a full description of this period up to Cyrus see Mesopotamia.

Achaemenid Period

A turning point in Near Eastern history was heralded by the Medes’ conquest of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, in 612 B.C.E., and arrived when Babylon fell to the Achaemenid Persians in 539. After two millennia of Semitic rule in the ancient Near East, an age was beginning in which Iranians and then others would dominate; but the new masters of the area would continue to draw heavily on the older cultural heritage.

The first important Achaemenid, Cyrus, conquered Media in 549, Lydia in 546, and Babylon in 539; next, Cambyses took Egypt in 525; then Darius extended the empire into northern India by some time before 513. This conquest ranks in its speed and its scale with the later exploits of Alexander (for whom it may have served as a model) and with the initial spread of Islam. While Persepolis, in an upland valley of what is today southwestern Iran, remained the Achaemenids’ ceremonial capital, much of the business of the extended empire was handled from Susa, at the edge of the Mesopotamian plain. Babylon, further to the west, became a more local administrative center.

Organized into a score of satrapies or provinces and held together by an effective system of roads, communications, and standardized coinage, the empire introduced a largely new conception of legitimacy or imperial ideology to the area. The ancient Near Eastern empires had often ruled by the forcible displacement of local institutions or had placed them in subservient vassal relationships by treaty. The Achaemenids, though still relying on the universal language of force, sought to exercise it by posing as heirs of local dynastic traditions and by following wherever expedient the local idiom. Thus in Egypt the Persian kings ruled as pharaohs, and in Babylon as kings of Babylon; and Isaiah 45 provides evidence that Jews in Babylonia on the eve of the Persian conquest expected Cyrus to be the anointed of the Lord. On taking Babylon, Cyrus did not in fact promulgate the Judean cult but restored a variety of local cults. He relates in a cylinder inscription (Pritchard, Texts, 315) that he restored to their localities the divine images which Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, had carried off to Babylon. Later, Darius reprimanded his satrap Gadatas in Asia Minor for abuse of local shrine property (text in A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, 156). The policy seems to have been one of religious tolerance provided that subject populations were politically docile (Ezra 1 and 4–7); Xerxes’ inscription in which he tells of suppressing the worship of daevas, gods false by Zoroastrian standards (text ibid., 232) could be interpreted either as a case of political rebellion or of heresy in the Iranian heartland, to which the lenient policy of more westerly regions was inapplicable. In any event, diversity of religion under imperial patronage appears to have replaced the Near East’s earlier close association of palace and temple wherever Jews were concerned.

Exiled from Judea by the Babylonians in 597 and 586 B.C.E., a small community of leading Judeans whose experience was to be adopted as the spiritual heritage of all Israel had been settled along the canals of Babylon (Ps. 137:1), such as the Chebar (Ezek. 1:1) and in ruined sites, such as Tel-Abib (Ezek. 3:15), Tel-Melah, and Tel-Harsha (Ezra 2:59; Neh. 7:61), which they were apparently expected to rebuild and cultivate (cf. Jer. 29:4–5). The initial feeling in this “foreign land” was one of intense yearning for Jerusalem (Ps. 137). Some not clearly datable biblical materials may describe this experience, such as the Tower of Babel account (Gen. 11, commonly regarded as much earlier), which associates the problem of linguistic diversity with the locality of Babylon; but Ezekiel provides the clearest contemporary evidence for conditions at the start of the Exile.

Following the Achaemenids’ permission to return to Palestine and restore the Judean cult, there is virtually no specific evidence concerning the status of the Jewish community of Babylon. That such a community remained there is evident from its mention, for example, as the home of Ezra, and from its existence in post-Achaemenid times. Later tradition emphasizes the continuity of the Babylonian community; the Seder Olam Zuta sets forth a line of exilarchs back to the deported Jehoiachin (Jeconiah), the next to last of the kings of Judah – evidence at least that the idea of exiles who did not return was credible later on. Scholars have sought to document Jewish business success in Babylonia on the basis of personal names in cuneiform texts of the family of Murashu in Nippur from the reign of Artaxerxes I, an attempt which while plausible puts severe strain on the linguistic evidence. That, in the course of time, Jews attained positions of privilege and responsibility is inferred from Nehemiah’s service as cupbearerat the Achaemenid court. Some may not have been trusted; Eusebius (Eusebius Werke, ed. by R. Helm 7 (1956), 112–3) relates Artaxerxes III’s deportation of Jews to Hyrcania, on the Caspian Sea, as the result of a revolt around 350 B.C.E.

Seleucid Period

Alexander led a Macedonian army in the conquest of Babylon in 331 B.C.E. and died there after his Bactrian and Indian campaigns in 323. His generals thereupon dismembered his empire in a struggle for control of it. The dynasty of Seleucus, which was to rule Mesopotamia for two centuries, was heir to a domain without a stable ethnic base or heartland. Whereas Persians had been rulers of “Iran and non-Iran,” as later usage put it, the Macedonian Seleucids were rulers only of non-Macedonia. Seleucid imperial policy, therefore, began as a colonial policy throughout all the realm: it called for the founding of new cities, populated by immigrant Macedonian and Greek garrisons, administrators, and merchants, strategically situated and fortified along the principal roads and rivers. Seleucia on the Tigris, founded by Seleucus I, was one of these, and it tended to flourish at Babylon’s expense. Antiochus I transferred a considerable Semitic population to Seleucia from Babylon in 275 B.C.E., a policy of centralization causing a decline in Babylon’s material fortunes which is documented in cuneiform literature.

The initial Hellenization of Babylonia was followed in time by a more complex interaction between Seleucid institutions and those of the indigenous populations. In the name of royal if not divine prerogative, Antiochus III began to tap temple treasuries to pay the indemnity he owed after losing to the Romans, but encountered stiff resistance and was killed during one such attempt at a temple in Elam in 187. Antiochus IV sought to strengthen a shaky empire by extending Greek communities and institutions in the older centers of the empire, including a refurbishing of Babylon. But it was a desperate and futile attempt to stem the tide of history, and amounted to a Greek veneer on Semitic Babylon; the old local institutions survived, and individuals bore double, Greek-Babylonian, names. The Babylonia which came under Parthian rule in 129 B.C.E. was still ethnically and culturally heterogeneous.

With the Greeks as a ruling minority in Babylonia, the Jews as a subject minority appear to have prospered by trusting and being trusted. Josephus reports that Alexander reaffirmed the privileges which the Persians had accorded them (Ant., 11:338). Jews served in the Greek armies: Josephus (Apion, 1:192) mentions Alexander’s excusing Jewish soldiers on grounds of religious scruples from the army’s work on the temple of Bel in Babylon; and a Jewish contingent (in c. 220 B.C.E.) aided in the defense of Babylonia against a Galatian invasion (II Macc. 8:20). Antiochus III sent 2,000 Jewish families, about 210 B.C.E., as settlers to assist in an effort to control Asia Minor (Jos., Ant., 12:147–53).

The extent to which during the second century B.C.E. the declining fortunes of the Seleucids undermined any common interest between the Jews of the Babylonian Diaspora and the imperial government is difficult to judge, again owing to the scarcity of sources; but Babylonian silence during the Maccabean uprising in Palestine suggests that, to the end of Seleucid rule, loyalties were determined with reference primarily to local rather than distant conditions. A mark of Seleucid times which lasted when others passed was the Babylonian Jews’ use of the Seleucid era (counting the years from 312 B.C.E.) as the basis of dating under Parthian and Sassanian rule down to the time of the geonim.

[Willard Gurdon Oxtoby]

Parthian Period

The Parthians, an Iranian people, were originally a nomadic tribe called the Parni. They had settled in the region east and north of the Caspian, called Parthia, and so came to be called by the name of that territory. The Arsacid dynasty was founded about 240 B.C.E. by Arsaces, and all subsequent rulers bore that name. The expansion of the Parthian territory began with the annexation of Hyrcania, but moved slowly until the Seleucid Empire had been weakened elsewhere. Then the Parthians rapidly inherited the portions of the empire east of the Euphrates. Mithridates I, the real founder of the Parthian Empire, ascended the throne in 171, reached Media in 155, and Seleucia on the Tigris in 141. For the next 20 years, Babylonia was contested by Parthians, Seleucids, and the Hellenistic state of Characene. By 120, however, Mithridates II had permanently established his rule on the Euphrates’ frontier. Since the Parthians were fundamentally a military aristocracy, they were concerned with fostering local support among indigenous populations. They made little effort to win over the conquered peoples to their culture and religion. They preserved Greek legal forms and allowed the Jews to continue their usual way of life. The Greek colonies in the region accepted Parthian rule, which promised free access to, and preserved the security of, the trade routes of Central Asia. The Seleucids’ attitude to the Jews was favorable, and the Jews allied themselves with their regime.

From around 120 B.C.E. to their fall in 224 C.E., the Parthians treated the Jewish settlements well. Palestinian Jewry under the Hasmoneans and Arsacid Parthia had a common interest in the destruction of Seleucid power. In 140/39, a circular from Rome informed the various countries of the civilized world, including Parthia, of Roman friendship for the Jews (I Macc. 15:16–24; Jos., Ant., 14:145–7). In 129 B.C.E. Hyrcanus was forced to accompany the Seleucid Antiochus VII in a Parthian campaign. As soon as he could, he returned to Palestine and reestablished his independence of the Seleucids. According to tannaitic tradition (TJ, Ber. 7:2, 11b; Naz. 5:5, 54b; Eccles. R. 7:12) a Parthian embassy was sent to the court of Alexander Yannai (104–78 B.C.E.). It may be that the embassy was intended to arrange joint opposition to the rise of the Armenian Tigranes, who invaded both Palestine and Parthian Babylonia around 87 B.C.E., and exiled Palestinian Jews to his empire. After their great victory over Rome at Carrhae, in 53 B.C.E., the Parthians for more than a decade became the dominant power in the Middle East, and attempted to contest Roman rule in Palestine. In 40–39 B.C.E., they deposed Herod, the ally of Rome, and put in his place as ruler of Judea Antigonus, nephew of Hyrcanus the Hasmonean. Elsewhere in the Middle East they replaced pro-Roman with pro-Parthian dynasties. The Parthian general, Pacorus, was killed in a brief engagement in 38 B.C.E., whereupon the Parthians withdrew across the Euphrates. Rome quickly reestablished her hegemony, which was never again seriously threatened by the Parthians. For the next century, domestic instability paralyzed the Parthian government.

Information on Babylonian Jewry under Parthian rule is not abundant. There is information on a Babylonian Jew, Zamaris (Zimri), who emigrated to Palestine during Herod’s reign. He went with his feudal retinue (Jos., Ant., 17:23ff.). All the information about him points to him as a Babylonian Jewish noble, who had fully mastered the arts of war as practiced by the Parthians. In later times, we hear of Babylonian Jews called Arda, Arta, and Pyl-y Barish; Arda/Arta would be the equivalent of the Hebrew Barukh, justified or blessed. Pyl-y Barish, meaning elephant rider, is also an Iranian name. These Jews (referred to in Git. 14b; TJ, Kid. 3:4, 64a) were dressed like Parthian nobles, in the tall bashlyk (“high hat”) characteristic of the nobility. They were, moreover, well acquainted with the common law, for they insisted that rabbinical collectors of funds for the Palestinian schools supply them with a quit-claim for a silver cup being transported to Palestine. The Palestinians reported that the nobles had great power: “If they give an order to arrest you, you are arrested; to kill you, you are killed.” They enjoyed the usual retinue of horses and mules. It may therefore be inferred that among the Jews in Babylonia was an upper class of “assimilated” nobility, familiar with Parthian culture and possessing considerable legal learning, as well as authority in the Jewish community. About the traditions and culture of the mass of Jews, who were farmers and tradesmen, nothing is known. It may be supposed that they revered the Scriptures, Jerusalem, and the Temple cult. There are many references to Babylonian pilgrimage before 70 C.E. The Babylonian Jews accepted the Jewish calendar from the Jerusalem authorities. Traditions on Hillel and Nahum “the Median” are confused, enigmatic, and in no way probative. What sects or groups existed is not known. About 40 C.E., the royal family of Adiabene, situated between two tributaries of the Tigris, converted to Judaism. Josephus reports (Ant., 18:314ff.) that two Jewish brothers, Anilaeus and Asinaeus (Ḥanilai, Ḥasinai) established a “Jewish state” in Babylonia, which lasted from about 20 to about 35 C.E.

Babylonian Jewry did little, if anything, to support the war against Rome. Its chief interest lay in the Temple cult. When the Temple was destroyed, the Romans quickly employed Josephus to absolve them of war-guilt, and he addressed himself specifically to “our brethren across the Euphrates.” Similarly, the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132–135 attracted no perceptible support from the Babylonian Jews. By contrast, when Trajan invaded the Parthian Empire, in around 114 to 117, a great rebellion broke out behind his lines in the Jewish-occupied territories he had taken. The Jews in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica also revolted. The chronology of Trajan’s campaign is difficult to establish. It is not known for sure when the Jewish rebellions took place, or whether they were coordinated. The Babylonian one, however, seems clearly related to the Parthian cause.

The Jews normally profited from their position on both sides of the contested frontier between Rome and Parthia. The exilarch and patriarch, moreover, cooperated in the silk trade, one of the chief commodities of international commerce. Silk was imported to Babylonia from the Far East, transshipped for reweaving according to Roman taste from the coarse, thick fabric of China to the preferable sheer weave desired in Rome, and then manufactured into garments. The textile factories of Syria and Palestine thus depended upon a steady supply of silk. Ḥiyya, Simeon the son of Judah ha-Nasi, and Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel together traded in silks at Tyre (Gen. R. 77:2) and Judah b. Bathyra of Nisibis and Abba b. Abba, father of Samuel, similarly were in the silk trade (Mid., Sam I. 10:3). Other evidences of Jewish participation in the silk trade are found in Christian Syriac sources (W. Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents, 14). Silk merchants were, indeed, among the chief transmitters of Pharisaic Judaism and Christianity in the Orient. The earliest Christian apostles to Edessa and elsewhere in the Parthian Empire were originally Jewish silk merchants. Any effort to rearrange the trading routes of the Middle East thus would adversely affect the Jewish merchants of Babylonia and Palestine. Jewish opposition to Trajan may well have been motivated by considerations of international trade. But even without that the memory of the Roman destruction of the Temple would certainly have supplied a sufficient cause for opposition. Whether a messianic impulse motivated still others is not proved one way or the other. Further unrest in Palestine in the time of Parthian-Roman struggles, specifically in 161–165 and 193–197, suggests that some Jews regarded Parthian success as the harbinger of the Messiah. This is made quite explicit by Simeon b. Yoḥai, who said that if a man saw a Persian (Parthian) horse tethered to a gravestone in Palestine, he should listen for the footsteps of the Messiah.

Pharisaic Judaism exercised little influence in Babylonian Jewry before the destruction of the Temple. Only two Pharisaic authorities resident in the Parthian empire are known. One was Judah b. Bathyra, who was stationed at Nisibis, and was in charge of collecting and transmitting the contributions of the Jews of Mesopotamia to the Temple in Jerusalem. The other collection center was at Nehardea, in Babylonia, where lived Nehemiah of Bet Deli, about whom little more is known than that he lived in Babylonia before 70 C.E. and was originally a Palestinian Pharisee (Yev. 16:7). The first rabbinical academies were established in Parthian territory as a direct consequence of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. During the war and the consequent repressions, the students of Ishmael fled from Palestine to Huzal, in central Babylonia, and some of those of Akiva went to Nisibis. The latter, however, soon returned while those of Ishmael remained. There they educated the first native-born and -bred rabbis of Babylonia, in particular Aḥai the son of Josiah, and Issi b. Judah; other Babylonian tannaim included the group from Kifri, Ḥiyya, Rav, Rabbah b. Ḥana; and among the later figures were Ḥanina b. Ḥama, and the Nehardeans Abba b. Abba, father of Samuel, and Levi b. Sisi.

Nathan, son of the exilarch, was sent by his father to Palestine for studies with Akiva. The exilarch probably extended a warm welcome to Palestinian refugees, and certainly made use of the graduates of their academies in his courts and administration. Among Babylonian Jewry was a class of native-born aristocrats, who probably acted, like other Parthian nobles, as local strongmen. In attempting to create a central administration for the Jewish community, the exilarch found useful the well-trained lawyers coming out of the Pharisaic-rabbinic schools, who were eager to enforce “the Torah” as they had learned it in Pharisaic traditions, and, unlike the Jewish nobility, were dependent solely upon the exilarch for whatever power they might exercise. For his part, the exilarch made use of the rabbinical bureaucrats to circumvent the power of the local Jewish nobility. Their claim to exposit “the whole Torah” as revealed to Moses at Sinai would have won for themselves and their patron considerable popular attention and support. The Palestinian schools after 140 were anxious to retain control of the new academies in Babylonia. When, therefore, in about 145 C.E. Hananiah, a nephew of R. Joshua b. Hananiah, presumed to proclaim the Jewish calendar in Babylonia, the Palestinians sent two sages, one of them the grandson of the last high priest in Jerusalem, to rebuke him (Ber. 63a; TJ, Sanh. 1:2, 19a; Ned. 6:13, 40a).

Sasanian Period

The change of dynasty from Arsacids to Sasanians represented more than the mere exchange of one Iranian royal family for another. The Parthians had, as stated, few, if any, cultural pre-tensions. They bore no special fealty to a particular divinity or cult. They ruled their vast empire mostly through local satraps or (as in the Jewish instance) ethnic-religious figures, dependent upon them for legitimation, but bound mainly by ties of feudal loyalty. Throughout the whole period of their rule, they made extensive use of the Jews, in particular, as allies in international politics and trade. When Artapan V fell, Rav lamented, “The bond is parted” (Av. Zar. 10b–11a), and rightly so, for the ancient alliance between Iran and Israel in Babylonia had come to an end.

The Sasanians on the other hand sought not merely to reign but to rule. They originated as a priestly family in a temple in Staxr, in Fārs (Persia), and never neglected the divinities who, they believed, had favored them with a royal throne and empire. They moreover determined to rule directly, not merely through feudal powers, and so established great bureaus of administration in the capital Ctesiphon. They claimed the Achaemenids as their ancestors, and intended to recreate the glorious empire of their alleged forebears, including its religion. Unlike the Arsacids, they had had no experience in ruling a heterogeneous population. While the Arsacid Empire had gradually expanded from northeastern Iran so that it slowly gained experience in governing Hellenes, Jews, Syrians, Babylonians, and other Semites, not to mention other Iranian peoples, the Sasanians came to power suddenly. They emerged in a few years from the obscurity of a provincial temple to the authority of the whole Iranian Empire. They supposed, therefore, that they might quickly convert everyone to the worship of Ohrmazd, Anahita, and other divinities held sacred in Persia proper, and they founded a “state-church,” hierarchically organized just like the secular bureaucracy, to achieve just that end. As a result the situation for Jewry suddenly deteriorated.

The Sasanian administration used the Mazdean religion to strengthen its hold on Iran proper, including Babylonia, as well as on Armenia, Georgia, Adiabene, and other regions. The Jews probably suffered, but certainly not alone. The times of Ardashir (224–41) proved difficult. There are, however, few unequivocal accounts of “persecutions of the Jews” or of Judaism. Two important talmudic stories show that the status of the Jewish community had changed radically. First, the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 117a contains the story of the execution of capital punishment in a Babylonian Jewish court by R. Kahana. Rav thereupon said, “Until now, the Greeks [= Parthians], who did not punish bloodshed, were here, but now the Persians, who do punish bloodshed, are here.” R. Kahana was advised to flee to Palestine. Second, R. Shila administered lashes to a man who had intercourse with a gentile woman. The man informed against the Jewish judge, who successfuly hoodwinked the Persian agent (frestak) who had come to investigate the execution of judgment without proper government authorization (hermana). These stories prove that the status of the Jewish government required renegotiation. Apparently at the outset the Jews supposed they could continue as before. The Sasanian regime quickly made it clear that they could not. There are, moreover, some references to “decrees against Judaism.” The Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 63b, records that the Mazdean Mobads “decreed concerning meat… the baths… and they exhumed the dead.” Use of fire on Mazdean festivals was restricted; Rav was asked whether one may move a Ḥanukkah lamp “on account of the Magi” on the Sabbath (Shab. 45a). An equivocal reference suggests that “the Persians destroyed synagogues” (Yoma 10a). In any event, Jews clearly at this time preferred the rule of Rome, as is clear from Rav’s statement (Shab. 11a).

When Shapur I came to power in 242, however, he extended freedom of religious and cultural life to all the disparate peoples of the Iranian Empire, hoping eventually to unify the disparate empire, possibly through the syncretistic teaching of Mani, who included in his pantheon Jesus, Zoroaster, and Buddha (though not Moses). Further, since the Persians planned to renew war with the West, it was to Shapur’s advantage to reconcile the peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, whose brethren lived on the other side of the frontier. Shapur’s success with Babylonian Jewry was complete. During his raid into Asia Minor in 260, he besieged Caesarea-Mazaca, the greatest city in Cappadocia. The Talmud (MK 26a) reports that when the amora Samuel heard Shapur had slain 12,000 Jews there, “he did not rend his clothes.” The same account reports that Shapur told Samuel he had never killed a Jew in his life, “but the Jews of Caesarea-Mazaca had brought it on themselves.” In the west, however, Shapur’s armies pillaged, burned, and killed; they were out not to build a new empire in the Roman Orient, but to destroy an old one. So the Jews, among other peoples behind the Roman lines, fought for their lives and for Rome. A far greater threat to Babylonian Jewry came from the transient Palmyrene Empire, created by Odenathus (Papa b. Nezar of talmudic sources), who in 262–263 conducted a quick invasion of central Babylonia and devastated Jewish settlements there. Since Jewish and Palmyrene merchants competed with one another, an economic motivation may have played some part in the attacks on the Jews. The Palmyrene siege of Ctesiphon was raised by Shapur, but not before Nehardea was destroyed. The Jews of both Palestine and Babylonia applauded the fall of Odenathus’ wife and successor, Zenobia.

Since the chief threat to Jewry lay in the cessation of the right to self-government, it was important to Samuel and to the exilarch whom he served to regain autonomous government. The early Sasanian regime, as noted, insisted upon supervising the Jewish court system. The best way to end that supervision was to agree at the outset that “the law of the land is law.” This Samuel decreed (see Dina de-Malkhuta Dina ). The saying specifically applied to rules of land acquisition and tenure, collection of taxes, and similar matters of interest to the state. It was a strictly temporary and narrowly political agreement, which did not affect the religious or cultural policies of the Persians. The rabbis continued to work through prayer and study of Torah to hasten the coming of the Messiah, who would end the rule of all pagan kings and put into power the King of the king of kings.

Shapur I was succeeded by Hormizd I (272–73), Bahram I (273–76), Bahram II (276–92), and Bahram III (292). In the time of the Bahrams, Kartir, a leading Mazdean religious official, became a powerful influence in state policy. Calling himself “Soul-savior of Bahram,” Kartir first saw to the martydom of Mani and the banishment of Manichaeans. He then turned to the extirpation of other non-Mazdean religions; in his famous inscription, he refers to his “opposition” to Jews, Brahmans, Nazoreans, Christians, and Manichaeans, among others. Shapur’s policy of religious toleration, not to mention syncretism, was thus effectively reversed. There is little evidence in rabbinical sources to verify Kartir’s claim to have given the Jews much trouble. The Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 16b–17a, tells the story that a Magus came and removed a lamp from the room of the ailing master, Rabbah b. Bar Ḥana, who thereupon exclaimed, “Merciful Lord! Either in your shadow or in the shadow of the son of Esau!” Judah b. Ezekiel further refers to the exclusion of Jews from the offices of canal supervisor and chiliarch (Ta’an. 20a). But the Jews seem to have suffered less than did the Manichaeans, who were martyred and banished, and the Christians, whose churches were destroyed. No rabbi is known to have enjoyed the attentions of the king of kings, but possibly the rabbis simply did not preserve stories of what contacts did take place, presumably because exilarchic agents and not they were involved in the negotiations. In the time of Narseh (293–301), whatever persecutions earlier took place were brought to an end. Narseh renewed the tolerant policy of his father, Shapur. The reference of Seder Olam Zuta to a persecution of Jews in 313 is unverified by any earlier, more reliable source. Shapur II (309–79), crowned king at his birth, was then four years old. The Sasanian government was weak, and the empire was in a state of disorder. Perhaps a local Mobad or government authority somewhere made trouble for the Jews. In 331, Rabbah b. Naḥamani, head of the academy of Pumbedita, was arrested because he was accused of assisting Jews to evade taxes. According to a legendary account the heavenly court required Rabbah’s traditions on a matter of ritual cleanness, so he was called to heaven (BM 86a), but one can hardly base upon that a general persecution of the Jews. The Talmud contains stories about the friendship for the Jews of Shapur’s mother, Ifra Hormizd, who is otherwise unknown (BB 8a, 10b; Ta’an. 24b; Nid. 20b, Zev. 116b). In any event, during the reign of Shapur II, the Jewish community was unmolested. That is an important fact, for in the same period, particularly after Shapur II unsuccessfully besieged Nisibis in 339, the Christian community was devastated. Priests and bishops were put to death and monks and nuns tortured and forced to violate their vows. Ordinary Christians were pressured to apostatize. In 363, Julian “the Apostate” invaded the Iranian Empire and besieged Ctesiphon. Among the many towns and villages he destroyed was one Jewish town, Birta, specifically referred to by Ammianus Marcellinus and Sozomen (3,20). Piruz Shapur, with its large Jewish population, and probably Maḥoza, the Jewish suburb of Ctesiphon, were also destroyed. After Julian had proclaimed his intention of rebuilding a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a local Babylonian pseudo-messiah called upon Maḥozan Jewry to follow him to Palestine. The Persian government massacred those who did so. The fortunes of war, rather than a specific Jewish policy, thus caused considerable hardship between 360 and 370. In his Armenian campaigns after 363, Shapur II deported from Armenia to Isfahan and other parts of the Persian Empire large numbers of Armenian Jews and Christians, with the intention of strengthening the economy of the territories sheltered from Rome by the Zagros mountains, including Fārs proper.

The Babylonian Talmud contains references to Yezdegerd I (397–417), who supposedly had some contacts with leading rabbis as well as with the exilarch. The persecution of Christians, renewed in 414, was not marked by similar treatment of the Jewish communities. Bahram V (420–38) is not referred to in Jewish sources. Yezdegerd II (438–57) in 456 decreed that the Jews might not observe the Sabbath. He was, according to Jewish sources, shortly thereafter swallowed by a serpent, in answer to the prayer of the heads of the academies Mar b. R. Ashi and R. Zoma. Firuz (459–86) persisted in his father’s anti-Jewish policy. The Jews of Isfahan were accused of having flayed alive two Magi. Half of the Jewish population was slaughtered and their children given to Mazdeans. Firuz “the Wicked” also killed the exilarch Huna Mari, son of Mar Zutra I. The year 468 is called in the Talmud “the year of the destruction of the world,” and, from that date to 474, synagogues were destroyed, study of Torah was prohibited, children were forcibly delivered to the Mazdean priesthood, and, possibly, Sura was destroyed. The next significant trouble took place in the time of Kovad I (488–531), when Mazdak arose as a prophet of the doctrine of community of property and women. Kovad accepted the doctrine and, among other groups, the Jews were persecuted when they rejected Mazdakism. The exilarch Mar Zutra II gathered an armed force and defended the Jewish community for seven years. He was captured and killed in 520, in Maḥoza. Nevertheless, a number of Jews then served in the Persian armies fighting the Byzantines. Information on the century between Kovad’s death and the Arab conquest (640) is slight. Chosroes (531–78) was well liked by Iranian and Arab historians. The Jews were apparently well treated. The Christian Nestorians in his day found refuge in Persia from Christian Byzantine persecution. Apparently some persecutions of Jews recurred under Hormizd IV (579–80), and Pumbeditan rabbis took shelter in Firuz Shapur, near Nehardea, then under Arab rule. Under Chosroes Parwez (590–628) Jewish life returned to normal. When the Persians invaded Palestine and took Jerusalem in 614, they were enthusiastically welcomed by local Jewry.

For the continuation of Jewish history in this area see Iraq. See also Academies; Exilarch; Babylonian Talmud.

[Jacob Neusner]



A. Berliner, Beitraege zur Geographie und Ethnographie Babyloniens im Talmud und Midrasch (1883); S. Daiches, The Jews in Babylonia in the Time of Ezra and Nehemiah according to Babylonian Inscriptions (1910); Juster, Juifs, 1 (1914); A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948); Taubenschlag, in: Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 7–8 (1953–54), 169–85; S.K. Eddy, The King is Dead, Studies in the Near Eastern Resistance to Hellenism (1961). J. Oates, Babylon (1986); H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and A. Kurht (eds.), Achaemenid History, vol. 2 (1987); M. Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mespotamia and the Ancient Near East (1990); S. Dalley, “Babylon and the Hanging Gardens: Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconciled,” in: Iraq, 56 (1994), 45ff. PARTHIAN AND SASANIAN PERIODS: Neusner, Babylonia, 4 vols. (1965–69); S. Funk, Die Juden in Babylonien, 2 vols. (1902–08); J. Obermeyer, Die Landschaft Babylonien im Zeitalter des Talmuds und des Gaonats (1929); A. Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides (19442); M. Beer, Ma’amadam ha-Kalkali ve-ha-Ḥevrati shel Amoraei Bavel (1962); R.N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia (1962).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.