Jews in Babylon

The original diaspora community.

Long after the ancient city of Babylon and the kingdom of Babylonia had ceased to exist, the Jews continued to use the name “Babel” to designate Mesopotamia, the “land of the two rivers.” Indeed, the Babylonian diaspora did not resemble any other. Its antiquity and the fact that it remained the only large Jewish community outside the Roman Empire made it a world apart. Since Mesopotamian Jewry was never embraced by the seductive and highly assimilative influence of the Greco-Roman civilization, it could develop its own original forms of social life and autonomous institutions.

Abraham Slept Here

The roots of the Babylonian community were very ancient, dating as far back as the end of the biblical period and the deportations from the Land of Israel, which both preceded and followed the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.). As it grew and prospered, the community tended to emphasize its antiquity.

By the time it had produced its own version of the Talmud, it manifested a kind of “local patriotism.” Was not Abraham the Father of the Nation born “beyond the river” (Euphrates)? Were not the Euphrates and the Tigris the two rivers which flowed out of Eden according to Genesis (2:14)? The Jews of Babylonia, therefore, considered themselves the aristocracy of the Jewish people. Even the land of Mesopotamia acquired an aura of sanctity in their eyes, second to the land of Israel, of course, but holier than all other countries.

Seleucid and Parthian Rule

The history of this community during the first millennium of its existence remains obscure. Following the Hellenistic conquest of the East, the Jews of Babylonia, like their brethren in Palestine, came under Seleucid rule. From the second century B.C.E. until the third century C.E., they were subjects of the Arsacid Parthians. The Parthian kingdom, a loose federation of feudal principalities, was a convenient structure for them as long as they gave their support in times of war, the rulers kept out of the internal affairs of the ethnic groups under their domination.

The little that is known of the Jews there at the time come from the quill of Josephus Flavius: they were very numerous and their brethren in Judea sought their help while preparing their revolt against Rome. This Roman historian also mentions two episodes which he most probably learned from literary fragments: the adventure of two brothers from Nechardea who had founded a kind of thieves-state near the city of Seleucia, and the famous conversion of the king of Adiabene to Judaism.

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.

Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

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