Of all the graces of God on the multifarious earth
only you alone knew my youth,
you were my garden on a hot June day
and at my head a pillow for the nights of winter
and I learned to hide in your scrolls the returns of my soul
and braid among your columns my dreams of holiness.
Do you remember still?—I have not forgotten
In an alcove, in the empty house of prayer
I was the last among the last to leave.
—H. N. Bialik, "Before the Book Closet"
From the introspection afforded by older age and religious reorientation, the great Modern Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik expressed these words of love and longing to, of all things, a dusty shelf of old Jewish books. The poet recalls earlier days spent indoors studying the Talmud and its vast commentarial tradition. This is not the only occasion on which Bialik returns to the simultaneously romantic and critical image of a yeshiva student hunched over a talmudic tome, illuminated by a flickering candle yet "facing the wall." Bialik was trying to make a point. For many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Eastern European Jews, the Talmud comprised their total existence. This was its blessing and this was its curse.
Since the Middle Ages, the Babylonian Talmud, or the Bavli, as it is conventionally known, has sat at the nerve center of the Jewish canon. As a result, it has been the recipient of and inspiration for an enormous amount of intellectual energy. More than merely constituting a storehouse of raw materials, however, the Talmud was—and for many it remains—a self-enclosed universe in which a life can be lived. Structurally, it is organized as a commentary on the early rabbinic legal compilation known as the Mishna. However, sober commentarial work is often cast aside and discussions veer off to consider anything from magical incantations and medical cures to rabbinic hagiographies, the shape of the godhead, and the ideal contours of the female body. 'The Talmud is an expansive meditation on the Hebrew Bible, earlier rabbinic sources, and virtually anything else that engaged the attention of its creators. In turn, over the centuries the Talmud has preoccupied the thoughts of Jews who immersed themselves in its study. In the eyes of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century members of the Jewish Enlightenment like Bialik, the enclosed and all-encompassing quality of traditional Talmud study held Jews back from participating in the wider world. As endless as the Sea of Talmud's horizons were, they were paradoxically confined to the "four ells of the law." A brilliant Jewish scholar might spend a lifetime tracing the Talmud's looping arguments and listening to its fanciful tales, and yet emerge only as a master of a narrow vastness.
While traditional Talmud study continued apace in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in some quarters the study of rabbinic literature underwent a radical change as classical Jewish texts were critically analyzed by practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums—the so-called Science of Judaism. The shift from traditional talmudic learning to its "scientific" study in the first half of the nineteenth century represented a revolutionary approach to rabbinic literature. For these new Talmudists, the rabbinic corpus was no longer conceived of as a complex of interlocking texts that express an eternal truth, rather as an assemblage of different works composed in various times, places, and circumstances. The task that lay before these scholars and their students was twofold—to chart the internal textual history of each of the rabbinic compilations and also to locate them in a particular geographical and cultural setting. For the majority of the classical rabbinic corpus, this meant considering the Greco-Roman environment of Roman provincial Palestine. In the case of the Babylonian Talmud, scholars would need to explore the cultural, religious, and linguistic milieu of the Iranian Empire, which in late antiquity included—and indeed was to some extent centered in—modern-day Iraq.
Some of the early critical scholars began to study Persian and familiarize themselves with subjects like Mesopotamian geography, ancient Iranian religions, and Sasanian history. With their broad interests and efforts to integrate the study of classical Jewish literature into an academic program of research, the new brand of Talmudists were in some ways the antithesis to Bialik's cloistered yeshiva student. This new generation of scholars pursued their studies not only in the shadow of the traditional Jewish book closet, but in impressive European libraries that housed tomes comprising the great classical and oriental traditions.
Modern critical research of the Talmud traces itself to this movement, and it has made enormous strides over the past century. Academic Talmudists now have at their disposal cutting-edge text-critical, source-critical, and literary-critical tools that have been continually developed and improved upon. Nevertheless, since the Second World War the attempt to understand the Bavli contextually has for the most part petered out. This is noteworthy since one of the most basic assumptions made by scholars of religion is that religions and their texts cannot be properly understood without considering the cultural and historical factors of their contexts. Indeed, it is not unusual for scholars studying classical rabbinic Midrash or the Palestinian Talmud to consult the archaeological record of Roman Palestine and the vast corpus of Greek and Latin literature that has survived from antiquity. Yet researchers of the Bavli often have proceeded as if they are cloistered in a traditional yeshiva study hall. This ignorance of the Bavli's context has come at the expense of gaining a deep appreciation of the Talmud's laws, narratives, and other forms of discourse.
At the turn of the last century, a senior scholar at Yeshiva University named Yaakov Elman began producing a series of studies that considered the impact of Persian culture on the Bavli, thereby challenging the inward-looking dynamic of talmudic research that had been in place for decades. This book takes its cue from Elman's groundbreaking research, which I review in some detail in the first chapter. For the moment, it is worth considering some of his work in order to illustrate what precisely is at stake when the Bavli's Iranian context is ignored.
Among other subjects, Elman's early research examines the distinctions between rabbis and their respective attitudes toward late antique Iranian culture. According to Elman, it is possible to classify some of the most important amoraim—the talmudic sages who flourished during the third to the fifth centuries C.E.—as either accommodating or resisting upper-class Persian mores. At the center of the Kulturkampf were two figures—the second- and third-generation amoraim Rav Naḥman and Rav Yehuda. Rav Naḥman lived in Maḥoza, which was located some fifteen miles southeast of modern-day Baghdad and was part of the metropolitan area that comprised the Sasanian winter capital, Ctesiphon. Aside from hosting a sizable Jewish population, Maḥoza also contained an important Eastern Christian community, held significance in Manichaean history, and had an administratively prominent Zoroastrian official. On the other hand, Rav Yehuda dwelled in the apparently less cosmopolitan town of Pumbedita, which was located in the vicinity of the modern-day Iraqi city of Fallujah at a distance of some sixty miles from the capital. Not surprisingly, Rav Naḥman is depicted in the Talmud as having been more of an accommodator to Persian culture while Rav Yehuda comes off as more of a resister to acculturation.
Elman's contextually informed understanding of these two figures, their particular geography, and the trappings of upper-class urban Iranian society allows for a colorful reading of an otherwise obnoxious talmudic passage that describes how Rav Yehuda was summoned to appear in front of Rav Naḥman in order to defend a verbal altercation with a Pumbeditan. Before the proceedings can get underway, Rav Yehuda ridicules Rav Naḥman repeatedly without provocation. His criticisms include apparent marginalia like Rav Naḥman's use of words not found in the rabbinic and everyday Aramaic lexicon, Rav Naḥman calling upon his minor daughter to come and serve the guests, and encouraging Rav Yehuda to send regards to his wife. Both the medieval commentator Rashi4 and the modern scholar Jacob Neusner explain Rav Yehuda's behavior as simply reflecting hostility toward Rav Naḥman's attempt to exert his authority over others.
While this assessment is partially correct, what goes virtually unnoticed is how much of Rav Naḥman's speech and behavior is encoded as upper-class Sasanian. Rav Naḥman offers his guest citrons—Persian haute cuisine—and unmixed wine, and he uses the Middle Iranian words and forms atrunga and anbaga instead of their rabbinic or popular Aramaic counterparts. Rav Naḥman's permissive attitude toward the place of women among men might be related to broader trends in late antique Iranian sexuality, while his daughter, Dēnag, bears an upper-class Zoroastrian female theophoric name. In other words, the passage represents not merely the complaints of a disgruntled amora, rather a critique of a certain kind of upper-class, highfalutin Babylonian rabbi and the world that he represents. Without knowledge of Sasanian culinary, gender, and linguistic habits, the larger import of Rav Yehuda's heavy-hitting critique is lost.
Another example to consider regards the development of halakha (rabbinic law). There are certain situations where rabbinic law requires complete ownership in order to fulfill a ritual obligation. According to the law as it is formulated in tannaitic literature (rabbinic works compiled around the third century C.E.), on the festival of Tabernacles one cannot fulfill the commandment to take the four species referred to in Leviticus 23:40 without owning them. In a case where there is only one set of the species available for a group of people to fulfill the obligation, the tannaitic legal compilation, the Tosefta, advises each person to accept the set as a "complete gift"—presumably one that can be retained indefinitely if the recipient so desires. Yet there is a surprising innovation attributed by both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds to Rav Naḥman and his school, wherein a temporary gift of the four species—that is, one transferred with the words "I give you this gift on condition that you return it to me"—is permitted and even encouraged.
The question arises as to how and why Rav Naḥman broke with the ancient rabbinic tradition. Elman demonstrates that the shift is understandable if we consider the Bavli's context, and in particular the significance of temporary ownership in Sasanian law. In its discussion of the laws of inheritance, the Book of a Thousand Judgments—an undated but probably seventh-century C.E. Sasanian law book—reflects a well-developed system of temporary ownership and gifts that parallels Rav Naḥman's stance here. It also helps explain a number of other Babylonian rabbinic innovations regarding legal ownership, perhaps along with receptivity toward sexual practices that can be charitably understood as temporary marriages.
Even when the Bavli explicitly engages the world outside the study hall, traditional and academic scholars alike often remain ignorant of the way Persian context can inform talmudic text. Take, for example, the following rather bizarre story that depicts Ifra Hormiz—according to a Jewish tradition the Sasanian queen-mother of King Shapur II—sending samples of menstrual blood to the fourth-century C.E. rabbi known as Rava.
Ifra Hormiz, the mother of King Shapur, sent [a sample of] blood before Rava. Rav Ovadia was sitting in his presence. [Rava] smelled it. He said to her: "This is blood of desire!" She said to her son: "Come [and] see how wise the Jews are!" He said to her: "It is quite possible that [he chanced upon it] like a blind man on a window." Thereupon she sent [Rava] sixty kinds of blood, and he identified them all, [but] the last one was lice blood, and he did not know [its origins]. [Nevertheless,] the matter was successful and he sent her a comb that exterminates lice. She exclaimed: "The Jews dwell in the chambers of the heart!"
The story's most obvious curiosity is its presentation of a powerful non-Jewish woman, who presumably was unconcerned with the Jewish rules of menstrual impurity, asking a rabbi to rule on the purity status of her genital discharges. The great eleventh-century commentator Rashi was bothered by this point and suggested that although Ifra Hormiz was indeed not Jewish, "she would keep the menstrual laws and she was close to converting." Nearly a millennium later, modern scholars Jacob Neusner and Albert de Jong essentially threw up their hands. Had these commentators more fully considered the significance of menstrual impurity in Zoroastrian culture and the competition between Jews and Zoroastrian on this matter, they would have been better positioned to unravel the meaning of this talmudic story and appreciate the intercultural dynamics that it reflects.
The enduring image of the Talmud as an impervious and self-sufficient work, and the reluctance of some Talmudists to fully consider the Bavli's context, requires this book to argue the obvious: The Bavli cannot be properly understood without seriously engaging the rich Iranian world in which it was produced, and particularly the textual remains of the rabbis' Zoroastrian neighbors. Yet the mere realization that the Bavli must be studied contextually is not enough. Many students of the Bavli and even of late antiquity are insufficiently familiar with the religious and ethnic communities of the Sasanian Empire and the various forms of evidence available to researchers who wish to understand late antique Iran. As of yet there is no comprehensive treatment of the different forms of interaction that took place between Babylonian Jews and their non-Jewish—especially Persian—neighbors. Similarly, there are no recent and up-to-date monographs that consider the complex ways in which Sasanian Jews perceived their Zoroastrians neighbors and vice-versa, and which analyze these texts using advances in lower and higher critical research. Finally, because of its young age the comparative study of the Bavli and non-rabbinic Sasanian texts has seen relatively little methodological and theoretical reflection.
The goal of this book is to set the stage for further "Talmudo-Iranic" research by working from the ground up. Chapter 1 surveys the textual and material remains of the Bavli's context. Chapter 2 discusses the various points of contact between rabbis and Zoroastrians in late antique Mesopotamia and highlights certain features of Sasanian society that may have allowed for non-Jewish and non-rabbinic ideas and modes of discourse to interact with Babylonian rabbis and thus shape the content and contours of the Bavli. Chapters 3 and 4 consider different forms of discourse that Sasanian rabbis and Zoroastrian priests constructed about each other. With this groundwork in place, Chapter 5 discusses a number of theoretical options available to scholars who wish to read the Bavli alongside Middle Persian literature.
A central concern of the book is coming to terms with the apparently insular and self-sufficient character of the Bavli—as articulated by Bialik. As I describe in some detail, the relatively closed nature of the Talmud and indeed of many Sasanian religious texts make it possible to incorrectly conclude that the different communities that produced these works were distant from one another. I suggest reading strategies that do not ignore the style and genre of the Bavli, Middle Persian literature, and other Sasanian texts, yet still allow for a mutually informed and informing reading of the different corpora. I also attempt to craft a methodology for drawing comparisons and parallels and thereby consider the different kinds of models that can be used to explain convergences and divergences between the Bavli and Middle Persian texts. Other methodological issues, like the orality of the Bavli and Middle Persian literature, which I believe relate to some of my concerns and also methodological responses, are also treated in some detail.
It is important to point out that many of the talmudic and Middle Persian texts cited in this study require sustained philological discussion. Particularly in the case of the rabbinic passages, it should be stressed that if there ever was a set of texts whose surface meaning should not be allowed to stand alone in scholarly inquiry, these are they. As such, this book continues the tradition of critical talmudic study in its suggestion of novel yet (I hope) cogently argued readings. With any luck, beyond offering new understandings of the texts the book provides insight into the intersections between Judaism and Zoroastrianism, the nature of the Bavli's relationship with Middle Persian literature, and the way that we, as scholars today, might read the Bavli within a vibrant world no less complex than our own.