Bava Batra 8

Ifra Hormizd.

The Talmud today continues its discussion of what kinds of taxes and financial obligations can be levied on different groups of people. This discussion leads the rabbis to explore what kinds of expenses can be funded through public collections. And in this context, we get the following story:

Ifra Hormizd, the mother of King Shapur, sent a purse of dinars to Rav Yosef. She said to him: Use it for a great mitzvah. 

Rav Yosef sat and considered: What is a great mitzvah? Abaye said to him: From what Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda taught, one does not impose a charity obligation on orphans even for redeeming captives, learn from this that redeeming captives is a great mitzvah.

A major donation from the king’s mother leads the rabbis to discuss what kind of “great mitzvah” to spend it on. Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda had taught that the community could not levy taxes on orphans (who are presumably minors), even for redeeming captives. That phrasing leads Abaye to conclude that Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda thought that redeeming captives was the greatest mitzvah of them all — one that you might think we could force orphans to contribute to. 

But who is Ifra Hormizd, and why would she have given the rabbis a major donation at all? The Talmud tells us that she is the mother of King Shapur. Shapur II was the longest reigning king of the Sasanian empire. According to one story, after the death of his father Hormizd and his brother Adur-Narseh, the Zoroastrian leaders literally crowned his pregnant mother’s belly with him in utero, making him the first (and only) fetus king of the Sasanian Empire. His mother may have served, with a committee, as regent until he was old enough to take the throne. Not only a named woman in the Talmud, Ifra Hormizd held political and social power across the empire, and as this story demonstrates, also had substantial financial resources. 

We learn in Niddah 20b that Ifra Hormizd asked Rava a question about niddah, menstrual impurity. And we have already read a story, back on Taanit 24, in which she gave her son valuable advice:

Do not interfere with the Jews, as whatever they request from God, their master, He gives them.

Excitingly, we have evidence of Ifra Hormizd from other sources too. A late antique Syriac Christian text called The History of Shemon tells the story of the life and martyrdom of Shemon bar Sabbae, who served as bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Sasanian administrative capital, until his arrest for failing to double taxes on the Christian community. According to this account, Shapur’s mother was actually the daughter of a Jewish man and eventually, under the influence of Bishop Shemon, she converted to Christianity.

Ultimately, there isn’t enough evidence to confirm many details of Ifra Hormizd’s life (the History of Shemon doesn’t even use her name!). But in all of these accounts, she appears to be a religiously curious and respectful dialogue partner, a seeker of truth and religious inspiration. And whatever ends up happening to her, the rabbis remember her as a supporter of Jewish political autonomy and observance of the mitzvot — and especially the great mitzvah of redeeming those who have been taken captive.

Read all of Bava Batra 8 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 3, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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