Jews in Babylon

The original diaspora community.

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The Jewish Community Blossoms under Sassian Rule

It is only after the fall of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.) that one can truly follow the history of Babylonian Jewry, which becomes even clearer after the fall of the Parthian regime and the accession of the Sassian dynasty (224 C.E.). Sources relating to the first two centuries of the Christian era make no mention in any form of organized Torah studies in Babylonia and note hardly any Babylonian scholars. We do know that Rabbi Akiva, in his many travels, arrived in Nechardea where he announced the leap year.

After Bar Kokhba's revolt, we hear for the first time about groups of sages who "went down" to Babylonia, undoubtedly following the religious persecution which followed the crushing of the revolt. In Babylon, the nephew of Rabbi Joshua, Hanania, attempted to proclaim the order of the Hebrew calendar, a prerogative which until then had been indisputably reserved for the leadership in Palestine. Although Hanania was forced to make a retraction, it was nevertheless the first manifestation of Babylonian independence from the Palestinian center.

“The Prince of Exile”

During the late second or early third century, we hear about [a title for] this community's political [leader] for the first time: Rosh ha-golah (the exilarch, "prince of exile"). Although nothing is known about the origins of this institution, it is certain that Babylonian Jews in the talmudic period regarded the exilarch as a scion of the House of David. Many talmudic texts compare his attributes to that of the nasi [prince] in the Land of Israel--another manifestation of the singular status of this Jewry.

The new Sassian regime, unlike the Parthian, was far more centralized and strictly Zoroastrian. Certain Jewish sages were afraid that the kind and the clergy would interfere in community affairs. Others, on the other hand, hoped to find a modus vivendi with the Sassians. The sage Samuel summarized this attitude in his famous saying Dina de-malkhuta Dina, the law of the land is law. On the whole, the Jews of Babylon adopted this view, which brought them an extensive period of prosperity and cultural blossoming.

Babylonian Academies

It was during this period that Babylonia emerged as the great center of religious studies which rivaled Palestine. Between the third and the fifth centuries, Babylonian academies--the future yeshivot--established a method of commentary on the Bible which became the basis for the Babylonian Talmud. This tradition, later disseminated by the geonim (heads of the Babylonian academies), was to be accepted by the entire Jewish world. Paradoxically perhaps, the sons of a community of which nothing is known prior to the third century, determined the norms and behavior of Jews throughout the world for fifteen centuries.

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.