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Talmud & Middle Persian Culture

Jews and Persians lived in close proximity in Mesopotamia for over 12 centuries; for nearly all that time one or another Iranian dynasty ruled the country as a province of its empire.

For nearly the entire amoraic period (220–500 C.E.), Babylonia was ruled by the Sasanian dynasty (224–651 C.E.) (Frye). By and large, the two communities coexisted peacefully; as the late third-century R. Huna put it, the Babylonian "exiles" were at ease in Babylonia, as the other exiles – those in the Roman world – were not (Men. 110a). The Persian king of kings wanted it that way. The Jews were a large minority in a vital province; Mesopotamia was both the breadbasket of the Empire and the province most vulnerable to Roman invasion. Jews, unlike the Christians who could become a fifth column once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 317, would support the regime if they were satisfied. Indeed, Mesopotamia was so important that the capital was at Ctesiphon, right across the River Tigris from Babylonia. The Jews were thus a bulwark of the Empire – if they were kept satisfied and politically quiescent. As a result, the Sasanians resisted pressure from the Zoroastrian Church to persecute these minorities.

Again, the official religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, was comfortable and even familiar to the Jews, with its theological doctrines of creation by the benevolent and omniscient Ohrmazd, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, judgment, creation, the fight against evil, the coming of the messiah, the ultimate defeat of evil, the renewal of creation, and the resurrection of the dead. This was true of its ethical system as well, with its emphasis of right thought, right speech, and right action, and its ritual system with the stress on the avoidance of idolatry, its hatred of sorcery, sodomy, and contact with menstruant women and dead bodies, as well as its valorization of such rabbinic doctrines as the importance of oral transmission and the authority of the rabbis. True, the operation of the sociological/psychological principle of the narcissism of small differences would have meant that leaders of both religions would have stressed their differences rather than similarities, but as the evidence preserved in the Babylonian Talmud indicates, Jewish acculturation to Persian religion, mores and culture was high. Its positive valuation of life in this world – procreation, agricultural and economic activities, as opposed to the world-denying views of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, was also in tune with Jewish values.

As a result of this long-term peaceful coexistence and basic similarity in world-view, we might well have expected what in fact we find: a large number of parallels, mutual and one-way influences and borrowings, etc. These manifest themselves in several areas of Babylonian-Jewish rabbinic life: in lifestyle, in legal and theological borrowings, and in sensibility.

Thus, two prominent Babylonian rabbis – Rav and R. Nahman – adopted the Iranian institution of temporary marriage in their own lives, and contracted such marriages when away from home (Yoma 18b, Yev. 39b), without a trace of moral disapproval from colleagues or the Babylonian Talmud's redactors. Rav and Rava and others permitted polygyny in a much more positive way than do Palestinian sources (Yev. 65a, Pes. 113a), and in general, Babylonian sources betray a much more positive, less ascetic attitude to sex than do Palestinian ones.

However, cultural influences are much more complicated than mere influence one way or another. As James Russell has observed, "influences from one quarter…do not preclude promiscuous intermingling with material from another tradition…; influences need not be a graft, but can be also a stimulus that brings into prominence a feature that had been present previously, but not important" (Russell, 6). Thus, the Babylonian Talmud's attitude to women, as expressed by some of its most influential figures, such as Abaye and R. Papa, echoes exactly the sentiments of a Middle Persian wisdom text, the Book of Joisht i Friyan (70–71, ll. 252–256): "It is not what you think, but what I think. You think that wives have great joy from various sorts of clothes and the suitable station as mistress of the house, if she can call such a thing her own. Now, it [is] not so. Wives [have] great joy being with their husbands." The last is later identified with sex. Compare the Babylonian Talmud: "Abaye said: With a husband [the size of] an ant her seat is placed among the great. R. Papa said: Though her husband be a flax beater she calls him to the threshold and sits down [at his side to show her married status]. R. Ashi said: Even if [her husband] has a demeaning family name [she accepts it and] requires no lentils for her pot. And all of them fornicate and attribute [the offspring] to their husbands" (Yev. 118b and Ket. 75a). "A man is obligated to make his children and household happy on the festival, as it is written, 'You shall rejoice on your festival' (Deut. 16:14). How does he make them happy? With wine. R. Judah says: Men with what is suitable for them and women with what is suitable for them. Men with wine, and women – with what? R. Joseph taught: In Babylonia with colored garments, and in the Land of Israel with linen garments"(Pes. 109a). Finally, there is the famous statement recorded in the Mishnah in the name of R. Joshua: "A woman prefers a kab [of food] and nine kabs of sex to nine kabs [of food] and abstinence" (M. Sot. 3:4; see TB Sot. 20a). Whether or not these statements are "merely" folk-sayings transmitted by these authorities, or their own, or falsely attributed to them, is irrelevant. The redactors thought enough of the statements to transmit them in the names of three of the most prominent amoraim in the Babylonian Talmud, whose immense prestige then lay behind them, and R. Joseph adds clothes to the mix in a halakhic context. This conglomeration of statements expresses the same mindset as the Middle Persian text. In the end, the "truthful Hifrih" adds R. Joshua's observation to the mix. Women want clothes, social position – but without sex, the others are hardly worth it. Both these texts relate to the same social context.

In this context we may note the rabbinic institution of the "rebellious wife," the moredet (Ket. 62a–b), which finds its exact counterpart in the Sasanian atarsagāyīh, "insubordination," to which an entire chapter of the Sasanian Law Book is devoted, with similar definitions (refusal of marital relations and domestic "work" and personal spousal service) and penalties (Macuch II, 25–29, 97–120, Perikhanian, 252–259). In this case, as in others, the differences are sometimes as illuminating as are the similarities, and historians of Jewish and Sasanian law ignore them at their peril (see: Elman, "Marital Property in Rabbinic and Sasanian Law"). The rabbinic concept of ona'ah, "overreaching" in sales, may be paralleled by MHD 37:2–10, with the same three-day period stipulated, but with a quarter rather than a sixth of the price (TB BM 49b–51a, 69a). Then there is the institution of me'un ("refusal"), whereby a underage girl could be married off by her mother or brothers, but could, upon reaching her majority, leave her husband (M. Yev. 13:1, 4, 7 and TB Yev. 107a); for the parallel, see MHD 89:15–17. Examples could be multiplied, and the reader is referred to the studies referred to above.

In the legal sphere we find the same phenomenon. Some parallels involve matters with which every legal system must deal, and are most likely the result of independent development. Similar conditions – economic, social, and religious – produce similar concerns. But studying each in isolation prevents us from gaining a complete picture of the conditions under which each system developed, and the way that each responded to common problems. Is it not unlikely that the rabbis and the Iranian jurisconsults were faced with a rash of fraudulent land-sales, with people claiming to own land they did not, as evidenced by TB BM 14a–b and the Sasanian Law Book 8:13–9:5 The hunger for arable land, certainly in short supply in the Persian Empire, would likely yield such a scheme in Jewish Babylonia (because of the density of population) and Iran (because of the arid conditions of its plateaus and mountains).

The adoption into the rabbinic system of the Sasanian institution of temporary gifts is another noteworthy event. According to both Talmuds (Suk. 41a and TJ Suk. 3:10 [54a]), this innovation was introduced by R. Nahman, who is criticized elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud for being too Persianized by half (see Kid. 70a–b). It is not surprising that even his close disciple, Rava, expressed hesitations in this regard (Kid. 6b and BB 137b).

This influence extended to the theological realm as well. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud is much more concerned than the Jerusalem Talmud with the vexatious problem of theodicy, with the influential amora, Rava, taking the lead, as Y. Elman has demonstrated in a series of studies published in the early 1990s. The reason for this seems clear. Zoroastrianism's dualistic theology would seem to provide a relatively simple solution to the problem. Why do the righteous suffer? It is the doing of the Evil Spirit, Ahreman. The Babylonian Talmud, in the person of Rava, provides us with a portrait of his highly acculturated hometown, Mahoza, a suburb of the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, whose inhabitants were skeptical of rabbinic authority (see Sanh. 99b–100a, Mak. 22a). Rava himself seems to have fashioned a theological response to the problem, one which included at least one borrowing of a popular Zoroastrian theme, the dependence of vital elements of human life on fate, and not mitzvoth.

One of Rava's most radical statements on the topic fits perfectly within the context of the Middle Persian debate on "fate" and "works." Rava attributes to the workings of fate – mazzal – the three elements that we may see as components of individual contentment: "[length of] life, [surviving] children, and sustenance" (MK 28a). Rava asserts that these three aspects of human life are astrologically determined and are not dependent on religious merit; he proves this by contrasting the lives of two great – "righteous" – authorities of the previous generation, Rabbah, the head of the Pumbeditan school, and his own father-in-law, R. Hisda.

Rava said: [Length of] life, children, and sustenance depend not on merit but [rather on] mazzal. For, take Rabbah and R. Hisda [as examples]. Both were absolutely righteous rabbis; [the proof of this righteousness is that] each master prayed for rain and it came. [Despite this,] R. Hisda lived to the age of 92; Rabbah only lived to the age of 40. In R. Hisda's house – 60 marriage feasts, in Rabbah's – 60 bereavements. At R. Hisda's house there was purest wheat bread for dogs, and it went to waste; at Rabbah's house there was barley bread for humans – and that could not be found.

This statement is not Rava's sole contribution to the matter, however. Rava reshapes R. Joseph's statement in Sot. 21a as to the limited utility of Torah-study and the performance of mitzvot; he asserts (in Ber. 5a) that in some cases one's merit may bring upon him yet more suffering, albeit "sufferings of love." As if all this were not enough, he reflects on the perilous nature of Israel's life in exile as played out in his own life (Hag. 5a–b). All of these (the limited protection from the exigencies of human existence afforded by Torah study and the performance of mitzvot, humanity's own frail nature, and the "sufferings of love") contribute to the tragic dimensions of the human condition – a recognition that lies at the heart of Zoroastrianism's dualistic view of the universe.

Rava's saying fits extremely well with the situation in Zoroastrian thought, where the theme of astrology versus merit, or "works," as the Middle Persian phrase has it, appears in many Middle Persian compilations, though, as usual, preserved only in post-Sasanian compilations. Still, Rava's apparent citation of a Babylonian Aramaic proverb has a striking parallel in a Middle Persian one. A saying attributed to Ādurbād ī Mahraspandān, the high priest roughly contemporary with Rava, but also transmitted anonymously, provides a striking parallel, though, of course, parts of the following may well include folk sayings, and statements taken from oral tradition but attributed to the high priest: "They say that the blessed Adurbad, son of Mahraspandan, divided the things of the material world into twenty-five parts: five (he assigned) to fate, five to action, five to habit, five to substance, and five to heredity. Life, wife, children, authority, and wealth are mostly through fate. Righteousness and wickedness and being a priest, warrior, and husbandmen are mostly through action. …" (Shaked, Wisdom, 174–175). Thus Rava's dictum has its direct referent in a Middle Persian saying. Moreover, while Rava's position is a novum in the Babylonian Talmud and in rabbinic literature in general, it is common in Iranian sources. Whether personal reflection impelled Rava's theological musings in this direction, or whether it was the pressure of the more acculturated members of his community, or whether his own encounters with Zoroastrian theology that motivated this conclusion – or, more probably, a combination of all of these – it is clear that Rava's statement, and the many later passages that follow this line in the Babylonian Talmud, relate to this interdenominational discussion In fine, then, the stark difference between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, to which Elman called attention then also, must be laid at the door of the Middle Persian background of the Babylonian Talmud.

Middle Persian attitudes and doctrines made inroads in the Babylonian rabbinic elite culture, in law, in theology, and in general cultural attitudes, as well as in non-rabbinic Jewish attitudes. If anything, the ease that Babylonian Jews felt in the Iranian Exile extended to language as well, but an evaluation of the evidence requires a somewhat different paradigm than historians have developed for the Jewish encounter with Graeco-Roman culture. In any case, the Babylonian rabbinic elite display the influence of Persian culture, law, theological and general Weltanschauung. This is all to be expected, not only because of their long, relatively peaceful sojourn in Mesopotamia, but also because Zoroastrianism was, if anything, on the whole, a more benign presence than either Roman paganism or Christianity. Moreover, its theological and ritual structure was more in tune with that of Rabbinic Judaism than Roman paganism was, and while it shared an expectation of a messianic advent with Judaism, that advent was in the future, and therefore not a subject for acrimonious debate as it was with Christianity.


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[Yaakov Elman (2nd ed.)]

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