This blog first appeared on the website of the Invisible East Programme.
Historical documents, as opposed to narrative and religious primary source material, are an invaluable resource for the historical study of daily life and ordinary people. Micro-historical research, thus moves away from panoptic imperial historiography and often focuses on the history of smaller states, economies and even private lives. In general, and if enough documentary material exists, the micro-histories offer a more singular but perhaps more precise view. Documentary materials abound in some cultures and languages allowing in-depth examinations of various kinds, whereas in some other regions they can be a rarity. Ginzburg (2013), for instance, drew in his classic micro-historical study of the miller Menocchio’s cosmogony on the protocols of the inquisition trials in the sixteenth century Italy1. Ginzburg’s study provides rare insights into the beliefs and the intellectual life of ordinary people. Rose (2021), in another widely recognised examination of ordinary life, queries a vast array of documentary material to understand and approach the intellectual life of the British working classes of the early twentieth century2. Despite the differences in academic discipline—one is a historical study while the other is sociological— both authors draw on material other than narrative, religious or royal sources3. Unfortunately, not every discipline can rely on documentary material that sheds light on to daily life.
Herman, Geoffrey. 2014. Religious transformation between East and West: Hanukkah in the Babylonian Talmud and Zoroastrianism. In Wick, Peter & Volker Rabens (eds.), Religions and trade: Religious formation, transformation and cross-cultural exchange between East and West, 261–281. Leiden: Brill.
When religious traditions travel they tend to adapt to their new surroundings. Like new products seeking to penetrate a foreign market, they often undergo a process of modification and re-packaging that makes them comprehensible and inviting to their potential clientele. This can often be a subconscious process whereby the elements in the imported tradition that evoke more familiar local practices rise to prominence and develop further whereas others sink into the background. This article seeks to account for the development of the ritual observance of the festival of Hanukah, a festival that was brought from Judaea to Babylonia. It pinpoints the holiday’s evolution upon its reception in Babylonia. Observing similarities in ritual between the receiving community – Babylonian Jewry, and the prevalent practices found among the Zoroastrians of the region it suggests a connection between the two. This connection intimates that the ritual celebration of Hanukkah was radically and fundamentally transformed in its new religious environment as a result of its encounter with local religious custom.
Find the article here.
Pourshariati’s new article appears in Sarshar (2014). I have already posted the bibliographic note for the volume, but want to highlight this article separately, as it relates to late antiquity:
Pourshariati, Parvaneh. 2014. New vistas on the history of Iranian Jewry in late antiquity, Part I: Patterns of Jewish settlement in Iran. In Houman Sarshar (ed.), The Jews of Iran, 1–32. London: I.B. Tauris.
Read the article here.
Brody, Robert . 2014. Review of Shai Secunda: The Iranian Talmud. University of Pennsylvania Press. Zion 79(3). 435–437.
See also here for another review of Shai’s book.
Mokhtarian, Jason. 2014. Review of Shai Secunda & Steven Fine (eds.): Shoshannat Yaakov, Jewish and Iranian studies in honor of Yaakov Elman. Zion 79(3). 438–442.
Strauch Schick, Shana. 2014. Women in the Hērbedestān: A re-examination of the Bavli’s Beruriah narratives in light of Middle Persian literature. Zion 79(3). 407–424.
The Babylonian Talmud contains a number of dicta which unambiguously exclude women from the study of Torah. Yet the narratives concerning Beruriah, supposedly the daughter of R. Hanina b. Teradyon and wife of R. Meir, suggest otherwise. She is depicted as having received formal instruction at the same level as rabbinic sages. Yet, these traditions appear only in the Babylonian Talmud, a few centuries after she would have lived, and contain a number of common literary motifs. This and other factors indicate the constructed nature of these stories, as David Goodblatt and Tal Ilan have noted. While it is possible to explain the local function of these narratives on literary and didactic grounds, given the Babylonian Talmud’s general stance regarding women and Torah study, the figure of a woman well-versed in Torah learning is indeed surprising.
This paper proposes that the appearance of the character of Beruriah is best understood within the Middle Persian milieu when the late Talmudic narratives arose. It is clear from Zoroastrian texts that religious study was a possibility open to men and women and that both were equally viable candidates to leave their home in order to engage in religious training at the Hērbedestān. A passage from Mādayān ī Hazār Dādestān, for example, depicts women who are well versed in jurisprudence and shares other significant parallels with the Beruriah narratives. By turning to relevant Middle Persian sources it thus becomes clear that the idea of the scholarly woman was not simply a literary motif called into existence, but was in fact a real possibility that Jews of Babylonia had to confront—a novel phenomenon unknown (or perhaps suppressed) in earlier Palestinian sources. Within a larger culture in which women participated in religious scholarly pursuits, the exclusion of women from Torah study and the community of scholars was addressed by the creation of Beruriah. Although the existence of a woman of Beruriah’s erudition within an elite rabbinic family could now be presented as a plausible historical persona, her existence served as a cautionary tale to justify the importance of keeping Torah study exclusively male.
Herman, Geoffrey . 2014. Insurrection in the academy: The Babylonian Talmud and the Paikuli inscription. Zion 79(3). 377–407.
In the Sasanian Empire Persian court culture cast its shadow well beyond the palace walls in Ctesiphon. Palatial or imperial custom was ubiquitous and smaller courts, as indeed the Divine Kingdom in heaven, acquired for themselves many of the characteristics of the royal court. Court culture impacted greatly on diverse realms of life including not just political thought, but also Sasanian art, literature, and religion.
The Jews of Babylonia lived within this imperial context and it shaped their outlook. They looked upon royal palace culture in admiration as an ideal worthy of imitation. The Babylonian rabbinic academy and the literature woven around it may therefore be conceptualized and interpreted in light of this imperial context.
The rabbinic academy is, indeed, portrayed as a ‘kingdom’, a microcosm of the royal palace. Here, its leaders presided over assembles sitting in a dignified and luxurious manner. They ‘reigned’ as doormen guarded the entrance, and certain court ‘rituals’ were observed.
This article traces ways in which Babylonian rabbis employed Sasanian imperial themes when portraying the contemporary rabbinic academy, and when developing tales of court intrigue and usurpation narratives set in the rabbinic academy.
Focusing on the Babylonian Talmud’s revision of the Yerushalmi’s account of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel from the patriarchate (BT. Berakhot 27b-28a), the article suggests that specific images within the story evoke Sasanian imperial culture and literature. Indeed, its revision mirrors in many ways the themes and structure of a contemporary source – the monumental Paikuli inscription, a late third century CE royal inscription that describes a struggle over the Persian throne. This inscription, while describing a historical event, is itself inspired by, and partially caste in accordance with mythical and epic Iranian models and literary patterns. It can therefore serve to exemplify the genre of usurpation accounts to which the Talmudic authors were also exposed. More generally, these parallels highlight the impact of the Sasanian literary heritage on the Babylonian Talmud.
Notwithstanding the fictional nature of many of the sources explored in this paper, they are nevertheless illustrative of the way in which the Babylonian academy was imagined. They are, in fact, suggestive of the actual dimensions of this institution of higher education when these sources were being created.
Houman Sarshar (ed.). 2014. The Jews of Iran: The history, religion and culture of a community in the Islamic world. London: I.B.Tauris
Living continuously in Iran for over 2700 years, Jews have played an integral role in the history of the country. Frequently understood as a passive minority group, and often marginalized by the Zoroastrian and succeeding Muslim hegemony, the Jews of Iran are instead portrayed in this book as having had an active role in the development of Iranian history, society, and culture. Examining ancient texts, objects, and art from a wide range of times and places throughout Iranian history, as well as the medieval trade routes along which these would have travelled, The Jews of Iran offers in-depth analysis of the material and visual culture of this community.
To find out more, see here.
Kiperwasser, Reuven. 2014. To convert a Persian and to teach him the holy scriptures: A Zoroastrian proselyte in Rabbinic and Syriac Christian narratives. In Geoffrey Herman (ed.), Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians: Religious dynamics in a Sasanian context, 91–127. Gorgias Press.
Read the article here.
Hezser, Catherine. 2014. Review of Shai Secunda: The Iranian Talmud. Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian context. Theologische Literaturzeitung 139(7/8). 867–869.
Catherine Hezser, SOAS, has reviewed Shai Secunda’s excellent The Iranian Talmud. The last paragraph of the review says it all:
This relatively short (the body of text has 146 pages only) but excellent and methodologically careful discussion sums up previous approaches to studying the Bavli contextually and constitutes the basis of all future comparative studies. The book will interest not only Talmudists and historians of ancient Judaism but also scholars of Iranian history and Zoroastrian religion and scholars and students of early Christianity.
Read the review here.
Herman, Geoffrey (ed.). 2014. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians: Religious dynamics in a Sasanian context (Judaism in Context 17). Gorgias Press.
For the table of contents and more info, see here.