The Iranian Talmud

The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context

Shai Secunda
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Iranian Talmud
    Book Description:

    Although the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli, has been a text central and vital to the Jewish canon since the Middle Ages, the context in which it was produced has been poorly understood. Delving deep into Sasanian material culture and literary remains, Shai Secunda pieces together the dynamic world of late antique Iran, providing an unprecedented and accessible overview of the world that shaped the Bavli. Secunda unites the fields of Talmudic scholarship with Old Iranian studies to enable a fresh look at the heterogeneous religious and ethnic communities of pre-Islamic Iran. He analyzes the intercultural dynamics between the Jews and their Persian Zoroastrian neighbors, exploring the complex processes and modes of discourse through which these groups came into contact and considering the ways in which rabbis and Zoroastrian priests perceived one another. Placing the Bavli and examples of Middle Persian literature side by side, the Zoroastrian traces in the former and the discursive and Talmudic qualities of the latter become evident. The Iranian Talmud introduces a substantial and essential shift in the field, setting the stage for further Irano-Talmudic research.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0904-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    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...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Sea of Talmud and Its Shore: The Talmud and Other Sasanian Remains
    (pp. 8-33)

    The Bavli’s influence on Judaism can hardly be overstated. It has constituted the primary source for Jewish law and theology across the centuries and throughout the Diaspora and has also served as a touchstone for post-talmudic forms of learning such as Jewish philosophy and mysticism. Imaginative talmudic stories have engendered and intersected with Jewish folklore and have inspired other forms of artistic expression as well. It could also be argued that the Bavli has managed to infiltrate the very structure of Jewish consciousness via its influence on the medium of language. The Talmud’s terse and eccentric lexicon has influenced Jewish...

  6. CHAPTER 2 In the Temple and Synagogue: Locating Jewish-Zoroastrian Encounters in Sasanian Mesopotamia
    (pp. 34-63)

    Sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries of the Common Era, a Mesopotamian “magician” inscribed the following incantation upon a simple hemispherical bowl:

    Cursed. Overturned, (overturned, overturned,) overturned, overturned, overturned, overturned. Overturned is the earth and heavens, overturned are the stars and the planets, overturned are markets and alleys, overturned is the talk of all the people, overturned is the curse of the mother and her daughter, of the daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law, of men and women who stand in the open field, and in the village and on the mountain, and the temple(s) and synagogue(s).¹

    In form and content,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Constructing “Them”: Rabbinic and Zoroastrian Discourses of the “Other”
    (pp. 64-84)

    One of the Bavli’s more amusing stories about Jews and Zoroastrians describes a dispute between a late fourth-and early fifth-century Babylonian amora named Amemar and an unnamed Zoroastrian priest:

    היל 'מא ¹ןימרהאד יאתתל ךגלפמ זימרוהד יאליעל ךגלפמ רמימאל אשוגמא אוהה היל רמא

    היעראב אימ ירובעל זימרוהל ²ןימרהא היל קיבש יכיה

    A certain magus said to Amemar: From your waist upwards is of Hormiz. From your waist downwards is of Ahreman. [Amemar] said to [the magus]: [If so,] how does Ahreman let Hormiz pass urine through his land?³

    The magus claims that the human body can be divided into two domains....

  8. CHAPTER 4 Closer Than They May Appear: Alternative Depictions of Sasanians and Zoroastrian Priests in the Bavli
    (pp. 85-109)

    This strange talmudic vignette, although not quite at the level of Borges’s famous quotation from the Chinese encyclopedia,³ houses a deliciously motley crew of animals, clergy, sinners, and sages who are supposedly consumed by strife. Dogs and birds struggle for scraps of food, while prostitutes battle it out for fees. Less clear, however, is why Zoroastrian priests and Babylonian rabbis are thought to be plagued by hatred. Another question has to do with the relationship between the different components of the list: Ostensibly, hatred is the sole organizing principle at work in the passage. Nevertheless, one still wonders, for example,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 In Iran: Reading the Talmud in Its Iranian Context
    (pp. 110-143)

    L. P. Hartley’s oft-cited epigraph about the foreignness of the past has in itself become a kind of purloined letter, invisible on account of its very ubiquity. This is a problem even when the historical period under consideration is well attested, yet it presents an even greater challenge in cases where the surviving record is fragmentary. As I have described previously, the material and textual remains that are available for reconstructing Jewish and Zoroastrian life in Sasanian Iran are, quantitatively speaking, rather meager. The evidence that has come down to us is almost entirely literary and it presents numerous difficulties...

  10. In Lieu of a Conclusion
    (pp. 144-146)

    In this book I have attempted to encourage, ground, and theorize the study of the Bavli in its Sasanian Iranian context. I began by introducing Talmudists to previously ignored, extra-talmudic evidence that I believe is indispensable for producing historically informed readings of the Bavli. In that first chapter, I drew attention to a serious challenge presented by our sources. Like many religious works, the Bavli, Middle Persian texts, and other Sasanian confessional literatures appear to function within their own discursive universes. These different traditions are built out of distinctive textual heritages and religious languages. I deferred this issue to the...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 147-214)
    (pp. 215-238)
    (pp. 239-246)
    (pp. 247-252)
    (pp. 253-258)