A Brief History of Iranian Jews

(Part 1 of 2)

by Massoume Price

Iranian Jews are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country. The origin of Jewish Diaspora in Persia is closely connected with various events in Israel's ancient history. At the time of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser III (727 BC) thousands of Jews were deported from Israel and forced to settle in Media. According to the annals of another Assyrian king, Sargon II, in 721 BC, Jewish inhabitants of Ashdod and Samaria in present day Israel were resettled in Media after their failed attempt against Assyrian dominance. The records indicate that 27,290 Jews were forced to settle in Ecbatana (Hamadan) and Susa in South West Persia. These settlers are referred to as one of the 'Ten Lost Tribes of Israel' in biblical records.

The next wave of the Jewish settlers arrived to escape persecution from the Assyrian king Nabuchadadnezzar II. Many were settled in Isfahan around 680BC. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great the founder of Achaemenian Empire also brought many Jews into the country. In 539 BC, Cyrus entered Babylon with little resistance. The temple of Marduk their major deity was restored and Cyrus crowned himself in the name of Marduk.The Jewish exiles in Babylon were permitted to go home and reconstruct the temple of Jerusalem and some chose to emigrate to Persia. The restoration was confirmed by Darius the Great and commenced at the time of Artaxerxes I. Under Darius around 30,000 Jews left Babylon to start work on the temple.

Hacham Yedidya Shofet, shlita the Former Chief Rabbi of Iran and
current Spritiual Leader of the Worldwide Persian Jewish community

The mild treatment Achaemenian accorded their conquered subjects was part of the Imperial doctrine. The policies of the central administration encouraged autonomy in internal affairs with little intervention from the Persians. For instance, the Satrap (Governor General) of Judah, which constituted the fifth Satrapy, had his own local governor in Samaria with the right of supervision over the deputy in Judah.

From 516 BC, there was no Persian deputy in Judah. At first Shabazzar from the ancient Davidic House was the regional leader in Jerusalem. He was followed by Zerubbabel another Jewish aristocrat. In the fifth to fourth century BC, the rulers of Judah where also appointed among the local residents. Seals used by the ruler of Judah in the fifth century BC identify him as Yehoazar. In 458 BC, the Jew Ezra is appointed the deputy of Judah. The same Ezra had served up to this time as a scribe in the central administration in Susa, the Capital of the Persian Empire.

Correspondence left by Ezra and his successor Nehemiah, who likewise had been in Susa prior to this, indicates a strong Jewish community, united around the local temple and headed by the high priest. This community had its own organs of self-administration, in whose affairs the Persians did not intervene. Gradually, the high priest became the governor of Judah.

Semi autonomous temple communities were not exclusive to the Jews. They existed throughout the Persian Empire. Cyprus, Cilicia, Lycia and other Phoenician cities and principalities in Asia Minor had their own local rulers. Even such remote tribes as the Arabs, Colchians, Ethiopians, Sakai, etc were governed by their own local chiefs. All kept their religion and gods with little interference from the Achaemenian administration.

Persians occupied the highest positions in the state apparatus. At the same time they extensively utilized cultural, legal and administrative traditions of the conquered nations. In the Murashu family documents (present-day Iraq, ancient Babylonia) of the 23 high royal officers, only eight have Iranian names. Various ethnic and religious minorities followed their own legal code in personal matters such as marriage and family law. For example Jewish settlers of Elephantine (Egypt) under Persian administration remained monogamous and the husbands did not have the right to take a second wife. Monetary and property disputes were settled and decided by the special "court of the Jews".

The conquered people were also given land allotments in exchange for taxes and military service. Among these settlers were all groups such as Babylonians, Aramaeans, Jews, Indians and Sakai, etc. In Susa itself, besides the local population and the Persians, there were large number of Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews and Greeks.

There were no restrictions with respect to religious freedom and practices. Hundreds of objects regarded sacred by various ethnic and religious groups are discovered both in Susa and Persepolis. In the Fortification texts discovered at Persepolis many foreign deities are mentioned. These cults and their priests received rations and wages for maintenance.

A priest serving the Elamite god Humban receives 4 marrish of beer, of which two were for the Akkadian god Adad. In 500 BC, the priest Ururu, having received 80 bar of grain from the storehouse, exchanged it for eight yearling sheep, of which two were used for sacrifices to the god Adad. The Persian religion was against offering of livestock for sacrifices and Zoroaster banned the practice, however others were not prevented from practicing such rituals.

The Elamite god Humban is mentioned more frequently in the texts than other foreign gods. As evident from the Fortification texts, both Elamite and Persian priests served this deity. Cambyses (Cyrus' son and successor) frequently expresses his respect for all things sacred. He worshiped Egyptian gods and goddess and patronized the Elephantine temple of the Jews. In a mosaic in British Museum, Darius is crowning himself in Egypt, in the name of Egyptian gods, dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Marriage contracts testify to mixed marriages amongst all groups including Jews. The practice was so common that the Jewish governors Ezra and Nehemiah objected it. They clamped down on these marriages and punished Jews who would marry outside the religion. Many documents, texts and contracts mention Jewish names engaged in trade, disputes or as property owners.

In the fifth century BC, in Nippur documents, 100 such Jewish families are identified. They are land owners, tradesmen or were in the royal service. For instance a certain Hannani, the son of Minnahhin, occupied the post of supervisor over the king's poultry". The Jew Nehemiah was a confidant of Artaxerxes I, occupying the important post of royal cupbearer in the civil service hierarchy.

Jews often appear also as contracting parties and witnesses. One Elephantine papyri mention an Iranian, Choresmian Dargamana, the son of Harshina, who served in the Elephantine garrison in the detachment of the Persian Artabana. He owned his own house and made claims to some plot of land. Daragamana complained to the judges that a certain Jew from the detachment of the Iranian Varyazata had occupied the field unlawfully. In the court the defendant sworn by the god Yahu (Yahweh) that Dargamana himself has transferred to him the lot in question, the plaintiff gave up his claim.
In another document, the Carpian Bugazusht, the son of the Persian Bazu, sold a house to a Jew. This house was located beside the house of another Persian, Shatibar. Various documents show, Egyptian, Aramaeans, Jews and Phoenicians entered into joint business deals, contracted mixed marriages, adopted each other's customs and worshiped not only their own god, but also the gods of the aliens who lived in one city or another.

In short, freedom of religion, movement, occupation and marriage were guaranteed under the Achaemenian. Such tolerance is not strange or unusual since the ancient religions including Judaism prior to Ezra and Nehemiah were not dogmatic and intolerant to other beliefs. In the ancient Near Eastern religions there is a complete absence of the concept of false faith or any form of heresy. Nor there seems to be any notion of racial hatred or any feeling of the superiority of one people over another.

Nations conquered would be treated as such, not because of their ethnic make up or religion. Even captive Jews brought into Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II, retained their faith in Yahweh and practiced their rituals and prospered economically. Zoroastrianism was also geared to tolerance, for it made a place for foreign gods as helpers of Ahura Mazda. One Aramaic inscription of the time speaks of a marriage between the Babylonian god Bel and the Iranian goddess Dayna-Mazdayasnish. In this document Bel appeals to his spouse with the words: " You are my sister; your are very wise and more beautiful than the other goddesses". At times Jews and other groups under Persians were mistreated and rebellions were put down. There is no evidence that such actions were based on race or religion. Persian kings were ruthless and firm with all rebellions including the ones by the Persian Satraps and members of the Royal household.

The biblical texts have valuable information with respect to the Jews in Achaemenian times. Persian conquest is greeted with enthusiasm and Persians are praised and mentioned in the books of Daniel, Ezra and Ezekiel. The Book of Esther tells of the fate of the Jewish Diaspora under Xerxes. Esther the niece of Mordecai, an assistant to the Persian king, takes the place of Queen Ahashwerosh, who is banned, from the palace by the King's order. The Jewish population of Susa is not liked by some, the King is persuaded to order their total eradication. Esther intervenes with several Persian noblemen who pretend to be Jews. The decree is reversed and all are saved. Though the account is not supported by historical evidence, the writer is very accurate in his description of the Persian court life and costumes. This occasion is still celebrated by all Jews in the Pourim Festival.

After the collapse of the Achaemenian Empire, the later dynasties, i.e. Selucids and Parthians followed the same policies. Persian, Aramaeans, Babylonian, Greek, Christian and Jewish temples were present in all the Major cities. The Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of the best in their history. Centers of Jewish life in the Parthian Empire were situated in Mesopotamia in Nisibis and Nehardea. Jewish chronicles state that they enjoyed a long period of peace and maintained close and positive contacts with the reigning dynasty. This is proved among other things, by the participation of the Jews in the rebellions against Trajan (the Roman Emperor) in Mesopotamia (116 AD). In addition, the Jews took an active part in organizing the silk trade, an advantage they owed to the evident support of the kings.

No later than in the second century AD, a representative of Davidic origin called 'exilarch' represented the Jewish minority at court and also carried out functions of a political-administrative nature. Religious persecution of Jewish rebels in Palestine by the Romans in 135 AD, also brought many Jewish refugees into the Parthian empire. Philo and Flavius Josephus the famed Roman historians have documented the relations between Jews and Parthians.

On the whole, religious conformity was not demanded as a mean to safeguard the reign. The ruling principle was always the advancement of reliable groups and communities and the punishment of disloyal ones. The Jewish communities proved to be loyal and reliable and as a result experienced a time of unprecedented prosperity and cultural-religious creativity.

The reign of the Sassanid dynasty from 205 AD to the conquest of Muslims in 651 AD, is full of contradictory and extreme policies with respect to the treatment of religious minorities. For the first time there is systematic oppression of different religious groups. In his inscriptions, the 'priest' Kidir (the chief Mobad) states that thanks to his efforts under King Bahram II (276-293), Zoroastrianism was promoted in the empire and other religious communities were persecuted. In one part of the inscription he declares:

"The false doctrines of Ahriman and of the idols suffered great blows and lost credibility. The Jews (Yahud), Buddhists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and Manichaeans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed, and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods".

Historical records are not very clear with respect to the Jewish persecution at this time. Though we know a lot about the Christian, Manichean and Mazdaean persecutions, we hear nothing about the persecution in the Jewish records until the fifth century. The Jewish centers in Mesopotamia at this time were not as significant to the political processes as the Christians, Manichaeans or Mazdakites.

There is a phase of uncertainty and repression under Ardeshir (the first Sassanid king). Jews having had excellent relations with the Parthians were suspected to be collaborators with the deposed dynasty and their movement was restricted. Under Shapur I, the rabbis and the Jewish representative at the court (exilarch) came to an understanding, by which the Jews were granted more freedom of movement and the Sassanid could count on their compliance with taxing and general legal prescriptions. Shapur's antagonism against the ruler of Palmyra (in Syria), who had destroyed the Jewish center of Nehardea when he invaded Babylonia, helped the situation and eased the tension between Shapur and his Jewish subjects.

In the wars between Rome and Shapur II, the Jews unlike Christians were decidedly loyal to the Persian king, with the exception of a few messianic groups. The later massive repression of the Jews under Yazdgird II, Peroz and Kavad was a result of political actions by such messianic groups, who anticipated the imminent arrival of a new Messiah on the 400th anniversary of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Iranian sources mention attacks by the Jews of Isfahan on the city's Magi. Later persecutions were also politically motivated. Khosrow's general Mahbad killed the Jewish followers of the pretender to the throne, Bahram Chobin. A further messianic revolt in Babylonia was ruthlessly put down in 640. At the beginning of the seventh century, the Jews watched the Sassanian offensive against Byzantium with great expectancy and joyfully welcomed the conquest of Jerusalem. At the same time Christians were massacred in great numbers.

Little is known about the number of the Jewish inhabitants in the Sassanian Empire, but it must have been quite considerable, especially in Babylonia. By far the majority of Jews made their living by farming, although handicraft and trade also played a part. They lived predominantly in villages, but also with many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups in larger towns and cities. There is no indication they were forced to live in closed Jewish quarters (Ghettos), as was the case in Islamic times.

They are mentioned as physicians, scholars and philosophers. They taught at famous Iranian universities amongst other Christian, Indian, Roman, Greek and Persian scholars. Jewish Physicians along with Christians ran the famous Medical school Jundishapur for decades. Several members of the famous Christian families of Bukhtyishu and Masuya were involved in this school and had many Jewish assistants. Hunain b. Ishaq is the most famous Jewish physician of the early Islamic period. His family served at Jundishapur and he is credited with the best translations of Hippocratic and Galenic corpus into Arabic at the time of caliph al-Mutazid.

Continue to Part 2.


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