Review of Shai Secunda, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 272 pp. $55.00.

By Simcha Gross

Nearly forty years ago, after scholars such as Saul Lieberman had thoroughly contextualized Palestinian rabbinic literature within its Greco-Roman cultural and historical environment, Jacob Neusner conducted a similar study for Babylonian Jewry, asking “How much Iranian in Jewish Babylonia?”[1]  His answer: not much.  Neusner argued that the rabbis did not know much about Iranian religion and culture, and therefore could not possibly have consciously incorporated Zoroastrian motifs, themes, or laws into rabbinic texts, and the few that did make it in, Neusner surmised, were due to the rabbis’ ignorance of their origin. The limited Persian material of which the rabbis do seem aware is little more than the commonplaces associated with daily life in a Persian society.  According to this view, as opposed to Palestinian rabbinic literature, the study of the Bavli should turn its focus inwards, contextualizing the Bavli within Jewish and rabbinic history alone. Neusner’s essay marked the start of a thirty year lapse in the comparative study of the Bavli and Persian cultures.

This view is now falling out of scholarly favor.  Today, there is a burgeoning field of Talmudo-Iranica (also called Irano-Talmudica), mostly inspired by Yaakov Elman, which seeks to situate elements of the Bavli in its Persian and Zoroastrian environment.  Talmudo-Iranica is itself a subset of a scholarly effort to situate the Bavli in its larger socio-historical, religious, and cultural context(s).  For example, parallels have been drawn between motifs and tropes in the Bavli and their equivalents in Manichaean, Armenian, Syriac, and monastic Christian, and of course, Zoroastrian sources, as well as with Hellenistic texts that migrated eastward; even Akkadian influences have been suggested. [2]

Most of these studies simply assume what is self-evident to any historian, but has heretofore gone largely unnoticed in the study of the Bavli: texts and the communities which form them do not live in isolation from their larger societies.  Thus, the Bavli should not be placed in a linear rabbinic chain with Palestinian rabbinic literature as its antecedent and Geonic literature as its successor, devoid of all outside influences. The Bavli needs to be appreciated as a complex cultural creation of a specific community at a given point in time within a given societal setting.

These studies typically focus on a specific cultural and textual parallel between the Bavli and Persian society, but seldom take a step back to ask the following three questions: what kinds of Persian texts have parallels in the Bavli, how have these texts made their way into the Bavli, and what does that tell us about the rabbis and editors who produced the Bavli. Many of the aforementioned studies would, no doubt, simply argue that the kinds of motifs and folklore they study are quite popular and would therefore be available from basic interactions in the marketplace, or even just from living under a government with iconography, coins, and other such institutional frameworks that reproduced certain common cultural and religious themes. But this leaves the scholar of the Bavli desiring more specificity.

Enter Shai Secunda’s new book The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context. Secunda seeks to explore possible avenues of positive contact and exchange between the Persian religious and “intellectual elite” (p. 20), the Zoroastrian priests, and the Babylonian rabbis, and in this book he makes a robust argument in favor of the historical and theoretical plausibility of these kinds of interactions. He does this by walking the reader through the material and literary evidence before honing in on a few key texts and what they may tell us about the nature of Babylonian Jewish and Persian interaction(s). In light of his focus, each chapter of the book attempts to make an argument for, or reject potential (and actual) arguments against, this kind of personal, elite communication and exchange. While readers, such as this one, are sure to disagree with Secunda about some of the evidence amassed in the book, on the whole Secunda amply supports his case for the need to read the Bavli in its Iranian context.

What material and textual elements of Babylonian Jewry exist outside of the Babylonian Talmud? Scholars have often lamented the dearth of literary and material remains from both Jews and non-Jews in Babylonia, which makes contextualizing the Bavli, in their view, near impossible. Secunda argues that in fact we do have some material outside of the Babylonian Talmud.  There may be Jewish literary remains outside of the Bavli, such as vestiges of other Babylonian rabbinic texts or ideas that made their way into later Geonic works, or migrated to Palestine and are found in Palestinian texts like Ecclesiastes Rabbah. Similarly, David Brodsky has argued that Kallah Rabbati may in fact be an Amoraic Babylonian rabbinic composition.[3] And there are also some material remains of Babylonian Jewry.  Shaul Shaked published 24 seals that are both Jewish and Sasanian.  More well-known are the magic bowls which are both informed by, and seem to inform, the community that created the Bavli.[4]

Though Secunda is most interested in literature produced by the “intellectual elite” of the various Persian communities, working with the Pahlavi/Middle Persian texts these elites produced presents serious difficulties. This literature was orally transmitted for centuries, is on the whole anonymous, and is consequently quite difficult to date or to ascribe provenance.  The texts themselves are written in a complex script that is difficult to interpret, and there are few critical editions upon which scholars can rely.  Moreover, the texts do not easily lend themselves to the comparative enterprise, as they are produced by “elite, insular” groups more interested in “their own canonical and semi-canonical texts and institutions, and most often engage members of their text-community to the exclusion of all others…” (p. 27).  The Bavli itself suffers from many of the same problems: difficulty of interpretation, unreliability of attributions, and a text with an unknown date of composition.  Alas, these similarities between the two bodies of literature do not help the comparative project.

There is also surprisingly little evidence of Jews and Zoroastrians living within the same communities, and in fact there seems to be more evidence of Jewish and Syriac Christian coexistence.   Indeed, no fire temples, the sacred places of Zoroastrians, have been found in Babylonia, the part of the Persian Empire in which Jews lived.  It is undeniable that Jews and Zoroastrians lived near and were familiar with one another, and the stories in the Bavli about Jews interacting with Persians attest to this, but details of this coexistence in terms of locations, population sizes, and general demographics are still largely unknown.

Could the Babylonian rabbis, who seem to have at least written primarily in Aramaic, have engaged in actual conversation with Persian speaking priests, or was there a language barrier, as Neusner argued? While the Bavli does have Persian loanwords, and many of these loan words deal with realms beyond the expected areas of law and civil administration, their quantity pales in comparison to the quantity of Greek loanwords in Palestinian rabbinic literature.  Stories of dialogues between rabbis and Persians help Secunda argue that conversations between these two groups were possible.  And from various other tantalizing clues, including magic bowls and seals which identify Jews with Persian names and texts that suggest that interethnic marriage and conversion were not unheard of (though how common is again impossible to gauge), we can see that the borders between these groups were somewhat porous.

At this point Secunda has laid the historical foundations for arguing that it is, at the very least, possible that Babylonian rabbis and Persian priests could have had conversations. But do we have any evidence that they did? Secunda devotes the lion’s share of his attention to an elusive reference to what may have been a center of religious dialogue, the bei abeidan, which appears in three stories in the Bavli.  Following Shaul Shaked’s suggested etymology, Secunda understands this term to refer to some kind of non-Jewish religious institution or structure (perhaps of the Mandaic god Bagdana, hence the house/temple of Bagdana), a view supported by the story’s context in the Bavli.  In each, rabbis are approached by some unnamed “other” and asked why they didn’t come to the bei abeidan, and each time the rabbis provide some obviously forced excuse to justify their absence.  In one story, a rabbi ambiguously acknowledges that he attends the bei abeidan because he is “one of them,” and he comes to harm as a result (b. Shabbat 116a).  Based on one comment in the same sugya as well as its general placement in b. Shabbat, it seems that Jewish scrolls were stored in the bei abeidan (although the scrolls’ contents are unclear).  Secunda suggests that this was a temple in which interreligious dialogue took place.  He compares this with a tradition in the Pahlavi Denkard, which describes a presumably mythical history of the collection and storage of Zoroastrian sacred texts in a governmental treasury.  All of this lends a veneer of plausibility to the suggestion that Jews and Zoroastrians engaged in some form of religious dialogue and exchange in a set time and at an official institution dedicated for that purpose.[5]

Of course, Secunda is well aware of the problems with this suggestion. Two of the three bei abeidan passages are about early Palestinian sages (one in discussion with an unspecified Caesar, and therefore clearly situated in the Roman west rather than in Persia), and the Babylonian rabbis named in the last story lived in the third century, some three centuries prior to the imagined scene in the Denkard.  What’s more, the suggestion that interreligious dialogue is taking place in the bei abeidan passages is hard to substantiate. There are, to be sure, stories about sages avoiding the bei abeidan, but this tells us nothing about what actually happens there. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that the bei abeidan is a religious institution at all.[6]  It is, moreover, counterintuitive to derive from stories of sages avoiding the bei abeidan that Jews attended the bei abeidan with any kind of regularity or enthusiasm.  And while the Persian parallel text, the Denkard, does imagine a process whereby Zoroastrian texts and scientific wisdom of other groups are collected by Persian kings, the goal is explicitly to include those things that can be disassociated with the other religions (hardly the library of Alexandria as imagined in the Letter of Aristeas). In short, Secunda’s analysis of the bei abeidan passage affords a possible interpretation, but also highlights the difficulties with affirming that interpretation (or any other) too confidently.

Someone with even minimal familiarity with both of these bodies of literature would be aware of the harsh and often shocking things these groups said about each other. Is it really possible, given their views of each other, that they engaged in conversation and exchanged ideas? Secunda argues that while both groups deride the other, they do so in terms that are strikingly similar. Secunda focuses on one passage in particular, b. Shabbat 75a, which contains a debate between two of the early Babylonian Amoraim as to what precisely is wrong with “magianism,” whether it is a form of sorcery or blasphemy.  The Zoroastrian sources for their part depict Judaism as one of, and sometimes the paradigm of, “bad laws,” demonically transmitted evil teachings that are the opposite of the good tradition of Zoroastrianism.  To these sources, Judaism is the yang to Zoroastrianism’s ying.  Interestingly, the Babylonian Talmud contains a similar idea, comparing the Babylonian rabbis to the ‘ministering angels’ while comparing the Zoroastrians to ‘destroying angels’ (b. Qiddushin 72a).

What are we to make of communities that portray the other as the opposite of all that is good?  Secunda argues that this actually reflects a grudging respect for the other tradition.  The Hebrew expression “כבדהו וחשדהו” – respect and beware – properly captures Secunda’s argument.  It is worth quoting Secunda in full: “It may not be going too far to say that the stark depiction of Judaism as perfectly opposing Zoroastrianism accords the former a kind of respect, as if to say: ‘Judaism is a religion worth reckoning with, and here is why it must be avoided’” (p. 80 – he reiterates this on pp. 85 and 87 as well).

Secunda should be commended for approaching polemics with more nuance, suggesting that they need not always be taken literally, and in fact may sometimes encode the opposite message than the one they seem to profess.  At the same time, it is difficult to see how these texts are quite so different from similar polemics between other competing groups that we would be unlikely to read as evincing even grudging respect.  Thus, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, those on the side of good are the sons of light, while the bad are the sons of darkness.  Just as in the Bavli and Zoroastrian text above, the War Scroll pairs both of these groups with groups of good and bad angels, respectively.[7] This hardly seems like closeted respect.[8] The polemics here may therefore be more similar to general polemics than to backhanded compliments.

That conversations could have taken place between the rabbinic and Persian elite may also be seen, argues Secunda, in a number of dialogues in the Babylonian Talmud that depict the Persian king speaking with a rabbi.  These stories are similar to Palestinian depictions of Rabbi Judah the Prince speaking with Emperor Antoninus, but Secunda shows how the Bavli goes further in depicting the Persian King Shapur as engaging in rabbinic conversations. In contrast to the negative polemic discussed previously, the rabbinization of Shapur seems overwhelmingly positive.  To Secunda, this suggests yet again that “there may be reflected here a sense that the two communities engaged in mutually recognizable forms of discourse, especially of the legal or scholastic variety” (p. 104).

However, there are other possibilities.  The rabbinization of Shapur may have less to do with any historical reality, and more to do with the Babylonian Talmud’s almost obsessive need to rabbinize anything and everything that comes their way, including references to Jesus.[9]  Moreover, Secunda’s connecting the Shapur stories with the Antoninus stories seems to point only to the phenomenon of ancient minorities enlisting local leaders to authorize their own groups or movements.  Indeed, in his dissertation, Jason Mokhtarian suggests that dialogues about Shapur in the Bavli are part of a larger eastern use of Shapur to endorse competing claims of authority. [10]  Alexander the Great is similarly rabbinized in Palestinian rabbinic texts.[11] While Secunda is certainly right that the discourse about Shapur differs starkly from the depictions of Persians or the magi in the Bavli, this may be less a function of a generally positive attitude towards Persians, and more a function of a particular treatment of kings by minority cultures in antiquity.[12]

Secunda closes with an about-face.  While the heart of the book was an argument for the actual direct contact between priests and rabbis at a given moment in time, Secunda now argues that this kind of a historical context is not necessary to read these two corpora comparatively. He advocates moving away from a “smoking gun” litmus test of contact, which he rightfully argues is both stifling for the field and not how complex cultural processes occur, and instead suggests adopting a more “eclectic and dexterous strategy” (p. 114).  He provides two examples of Bavli texts that are not simply a grafting of Persian beliefs onto Jewish ones, but rather evince a complex exchange where earlier Palestinian texts and Persian texts mutually inform each other, leading to the creation of new ideas and texts found in the Bavli.[13]  Secunda here lays the groundwork for a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common in rabbinics, where one text is suggested to have parallels in texts from multiple cultures.[14]  Whereas skeptics might argue that the sheer multiplicity of possible cultural contributions undercuts the entire comparative enterprise, Secunda would argue that this is no problem at all: text production is not limited to a single moment in time, and texts and their component parts have long histories of production.  These texts have their own histories, and somewhere along their respective journeys they intersected.

Secunda’s final and most innovative suggestion to find parallels without direct contact is to see the Talmud as always and invariably “Iranian.”  Ideas and texts, like language, are only understood within the context of their surrounding cultural orbit, and are therefore always similar to, informed by, and/or in opposition with those around them.  The Babylonian Jews who produced and received the texts in the Bavli must have formed and interpreted those texts in light of the practices and beliefs that surrounded them. In other words, there was (and still is) no way to read the Talmud without its Iranian backdrop.

Secunda’s book provides a welcome historical and methodological backbone for the growing field of Talmudo-Iranica and the larger project of contextualizing the Bavli, as well as showing how important this approach is to properly understanding the Bavli.  He engages with some of the most fundamental texts and questions relevant to anyone interested in the comparative project and the historical contextualization of the Bavli.  Students of the Bavli will greatly benefit both from reading his book and from following his lead.

Simcha Gross is a third year PhD student at Yale University’s Department of Religious Studies, concentrating in Ancient Judaism.

[1] Jacob Neusner, “How Much Iranian in Jewish Babylonia,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 184-190.

[2] For a comprehensive bibliography, see Shai Secunda, “Reading the Bavli in Iran,” Jewish Quarterly Review 100 (2010):311-312 fn. 6.

To list only a few:

Persian/Zoroastrian: Yaakov Elman, “‘He in His Cloak and She in Her  Cloak’: Conflicting Images of Sexuality in Sasanian Mesopotamia,’’ in Discussing Cultural Influences: Text, Context, and Non-Text in Rabbinic Judaism, ed. Rivka Ulmer (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2007), 129–63; idem, ‘‘Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages: Accommodation and Resistance in the Shaping of Rabbinic Legal Tradition,’’ in Cambridge Companion to Rabbinic Literature, ed. M. Jaffee and C. Fonrobert (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 164–69; Reuven Kipperwasser and Dan Shapira, ‘‘Irano-Talmudica I—The Three-legged Ass and ‘Ridya¯ ’ in B. Ta’anith: Some Observations about Mythic Hydrology in the Babylonian Talmud and in Ancient Iran,’’ AJS Review 32.1 (2008): 101–16.

Eastern Christianity: Naomi Koltun-Fromm,  Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community (New York: Oxford UP, 2010); Daniel Boyarin, ‘‘Hellenism in Jewish Babylonia,’’ in Cambridge Companion to Rabbinic Literature, 336–63, Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Hellenism: Boyarin op. cit.; Richard Lee Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine (New York: Oxford UP, 2006).

Manichaeism: Yishai Kiel, “Study vs. Sustenance: A Rabbinic Dilemma in Its Zoroastrian and Manichaean Context,” AJS Review (forthcoming).

Akkadian: M.J. Geller, “An Akkadian Vademecum in the Babylonian Talmud,” in From Athens to Jerusalem: Medicine in Hellenized Jewish Lore and in Early Christian Literature, ed. S. Kottek and M. Horstmanshoff (Rotterdam: Erasmus, 2000), 12-32.

[3] See his A Bride without a Blessing (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006).

[4] Gideon Bohak, “Magical Means for Dealing with Minim in Rabbinic Literature,” in The Image of the Judaeo-Christians in Ancient Jewish and Christian Literature, ed. P.J. Tomson and D. Lambers-Petry (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 267-79; idem, “Babylonian Incantation Bowls—Past, Present and Future,” Pe‘amim 105-106 (2005-2006): 253-65 (Heb.).

[5] He also argues in this chapter that Rav’s prohibition against learning from a magus (b. Shabbat 75a) shows that at least some Jews were engaged in conversation with Persian magi (p. 43).

[6] The only counter claim to this seems to be the linguistic similarity of the bei abeidan and the temple of the Mandaic god Bagdana. But, given that the passage doesn’t seem to be about the Mandaic temple in particular, and doesn’t explicitly thematize religion at any point, it is unclear to me whether the “religious” aspect of this structure is what was intended by the word choice, or whether the context itself challenges Shaked’s, and in turn Secunda’s, proposed etymology.

[7] Similarly, David Brodsky has recently suggested that some Babylonian rabbis and Zoroastrian priests legislate murdering the “other,” even though this law was probably never put into practice. David Brodsky “Getting away with Murder: Xenophobic Laws in Rabbinic and Zoroastrian Texts from Late Sasanian Babylonia” (forthcoming).

[8] See also Beth Berkowitz, Defining Jewish Difference: From Antiquity to the Present (New York: Cambridge UP, 2012), 77-111, where she shows how the Sifra to Leviticus 18 constructs a gentile chain of transmission that is parallel in form but opposite in content to the rabbinic chain as imagined in texts like Avot 1:1. This is another example of rabbis depicting others as their near opposite without showing any kind of concealed respect.

[9] Richard Kalmin has written about this extensively. See, for example, his “Christians and Heretics in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity,” HTR 87 (1994): 155-169.

[10] Jason Mokhtarian, “Rabbinic Portrayals of Persia: A Study of Babylonian Rabbinic Culture in its Sasanian Context” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, 2011), chapter 3, pp. 70-115.

[11] See, for example, Ory Amitay, “The Story of Gviha Ben-Psisa and Alexander the Great,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 16 (2006): 61-74.

[12] Though there is evidence that later Persian kings did invite Christians to court to dispute, but while these accounts sometimes depict the Persian king as understanding the arguments and choosing a side, this part of these accounts seems unlikely. See Joel Thomas Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (Berkeley: University of California, 2006), 178-179.

[13] As Secunda notes, this approach is indebted to Michael Satlow’s ideas in “Beyond Influence: Toward a New Historiographic Paradigm,” in Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Contexts and Intertext, eds. Anita Norwich and Yaron Z. Eliav, Brown Judaic Studies 349 (Providence: Brown University Press, 2008), 37-54.

[14] For example, the story of Rav Kahana on b. BQ 117a and Rashbi in the cave on b. Shabbat 33b-34a.

Rav Kahana: for Persian parallels, see Daniel Sperber, “On the Unfortunate Adventures of Rav Kahana: A Passage of Saboraic Polemic from Sasanian Persia,” in Irano-Judaica (ed. Shaul Shaked; Jerusalem 1982), 83-100, reprinted as “The Misfortunes of Rav Kahana: A Passage of Post-Talmudic Polemic,” in ibid., Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1994), 145-164; for Armenian sources, see Geoffrey Herman, “The Story of Rav Kahana (BT Baba Qamma 117a-b) in Light of Armeno-Persian Sources,” Irano-Judaica 6 (Jerusalem, 2008): 53-86.

Rashbi in the cave on b. Shabbat 33b-34a: for Hellenistic sources, see Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “Plato in Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai’s Cave (b. Shabbat 33b-34a): The Talmudic Inversion of Plato’s Politics of Philosophy,” AJS Review 31 (2007): 277-296; for originally Coptic monastic Christian sources, see Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, “The Making of a Monk-Rabbi: The Background for the Creation of the Stories of R. Shimon bar Yohai in the Cave,” Zion 76 (2011): 279-304 (Hebrew);” for Manichaean and Zoroastrian sources, see Yishai Kiel, “Study vs. Sustenance: A Rabbinic Dilemma in Its Zoroastrian and Manichaean Context,” AJS Review (forthcoming).


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