Ezekiel in Iran
A synagogue in today's Jerusalem bears the name Hajji Yehezkel.
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.
A synagogue in today's Jerusalem bears the name "Hajji Yehezkel." Yehezkel is Ezekiel, and Hajji is the Persian term for one who has fulfilled the Islamic precept of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Who was this Ezekiel, and how did he earn his improbable honorific? In its own way, his story encapsulates 2,700 turbulent years of Jewish life in Iran, the country once known as Persia.
An exhibit at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot--formerly called the Museum of the Diaspora, now the Museum of the Jewish People--examines the alternating realities that have characterized the long and tangled history of Iran and its Jews. That history goes back to biblical times, as attested in the Purim story of royal intrigue and a narrow escape from attempted genocide at the hands of the evil Haman. But even in those days, Persian history revealed a schizophrenic character; earlier on, it was the humane and tolerant King Cyrus who, after the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., had invited the exiled Jews to return to their homeland, itself now under Persian rule, and to rebuild their temple.
Under the rule of two Persian dynasties (247 B.C.E.–651 C.E.), both the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, the twin ancient rabbinic collections of law and lore, were composed. At the opening of the Tel Aviv show, the Israeli scholar Shaul Shaked detailed some of the legal and ritual terminology in the Talmud that reflects its Persian context, and Houman Sarshar, an Iranian-born chronicler of Iranian-Jewish life, declared that the work should rightly be called not the Babylonian but the Persian Talmud. Even after the Arab-Muslim conquest in the mid-7th century C.E., Persia became the first kingdom in all the "lands of Islam" not to adopt Arabic, instead jealously maintaining its attachment to its own language--in whose preservation the Jews played a crucial role. The earliest surviving writings in Persian are texts written in Hebrew characters.
In the 16th century, a radical transformation occurred with the establishment of the Shi'ite Safavid kingdom. Shi'ism is far more intolerant of other faiths than is Sunni Islam, teaching, for instance, that all non-Shi'ites are ritually impure. For the next four centuries, thanks in part to such laws as the ban forbidding them to leave their homes on rainy days lest the rainwater convey their ritual "impurity" to Muslims, Iranian Jews suffered more debilities than any other Jewish community in the Middle East.