Sunday 14 October 2018


                                                                        PART I:
Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman (1943-2018) who specialised in Talmudo-Iranica.

It is quite surprising to discover just how much literature exists on the influence that popular Babylonian culture had on the Babylonian Talmud.

Evidently, a great portion of what is usually assumed as being particularly Talmudic and dominantly Jewish thought and law, is in actual fact a reflection of the norm and culture of Babylonian (which includes Persian, Iranian, and Sasanian) society.
Many of these adaptations are not to be found in the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud, and clearly, there was some degree of cultural and even Halachic divide between the two Talmudic communities.

The Mishna remains the standard and base text for both Talmudim.
Of the two Talmudim, the first is the Jerusalem Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi which very few know or even refer to. It was begun around 180 C.E. (following after the Mishnaic Period) and was worked on in the Holy Land for approximately 240 years until it was redacted (or more accurately disbanded because of Roman persecution) in 420.

The second is the more popular Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli which most people are familiar with. It also began around the year 180 and was worked on in Babylonia for approximately 320 years (80 years longer than the Yerushalmi) until it was finally redacted around the year 500. It is the Babylonian Talmud that we are dealing with in this article.


The Talmud Bavli is considerably larger than other contemporaneous non-Jewish legal works of the time. The largest Persian compilation, known as the Dēnkard, has 169,000 words. And the greatest compilation of Roman law, Justinian’s Digest of 534 C.E., has about a million words. The Talmud has 1,836,000 words.


Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in understanding the context of the Babylonian culture which birthed much of Talmudic thought. One of the pioneers in this field - which is known as Talmudo-Iranica - was the late Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman (1943-2018).[1]

R. Elman, who also studied Assyriology, was a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and believed that the cultural context of the Bavli was not just important but the key to really understanding the Talmud Bavli.

As Shai Secunda puts it:

“...ignorance of the Bavli’s context has come at the expense of gaining a deep appreciation of the Talmud’s laws, narratives, and other forms of discourse.”


As opposed to the Jews of the Holy Land (then known as Syria Palaestina) who were oppressed and persecuted by the Romans, the Jews of Babylonia has coexisted mostly peacefully with their Persian and Iranian neighbours for more than eight hundred years. 

This peaceful coexistence was not an accident, but intentionally engineered that way the Babylonian authorities. The Jews were a significant minority, and besides living in the breadbasket of the empire, were also strategically positioned in an area most susceptible to Roman invasion. 

It was therefore in the interests of Babylonian officialdom to keep the Jews in their realm happy. The Babylonian Christians, however, were more likely to side with the Romans especially after Christianity became recognized by the Romans in 313. So it was clearly in the interest of the Babylonians not to antagonise the Jews and to rather keep them as allies.

It was during this period, that the Babylonian Talmud was formulated (180-500 C.E).


The Talmud records an interesting statement of Rav Huna (third-century) declaring that the Jews of Babylonia had their ‘minds at ease’ in Babylonia, as opposed to the Jews of other lands including Eretz Yisrael whose minds were not ‘at ease’ with their Roman authority.[2]

אמר רב הונא אלו גליות של בבל שדעתן מיושבת עליהן 

This being ‘at ease’ was more than just feeling politically safe, but showed that they were well-embedded within Babylonian society and Babylonian religious culture. This enmeshment within the milieu of Babylonia was both welcomed and feared by the rabbis of the Talmudic Period as we shall see.


Zoroastrianism is an ancient Iranian monotheistic faith system which believes in a Creator, the avoidance of idolatry, the existence of good and evil, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, angels and demons, and has a messianic vision of the revival of the dead and good triumphing over evil. They also believed in the importance of perpetuating oral transmission of sacred texts.

If we substituted Hebrew translations for these concepts one could be forgiven for thinking we were speaking about Judaism.

From the seventh century onwards, Zoroastrianism was suppressed by the Muslim conquest of Persia/Iran.

Clearly, the Jews of Babylonia were more comfortable with the culture, laws and belief system of their host land, than with the Paganism and Christianity which was prevalent in the Holy Land under the Romans. However, some conflict arose as to the value and degree of acclimatisation with this seemingly benign Babylonia culture.


According to Elman, it is possible to classify some of the most important amoraim - the talmudic sages who flourished during the third to fifth centuries C.E. – as either accommodating or resisting upper-class Persian mores.”[3]

The two main players in this cultural divide were Rav Nachman and Rav Yehudah:

Rav Nachman lived in Machoza (just outside modern-day Baghdad) which was then an important metropolitan capital and centre of Zoroastrianism.

Rav Yehuda, on the other hand, lived in Pumbedita (modern-day Fallujah) which was smaller and less exposed to cosmopolitan influences.

The Talmud depicts Rav Yehuda as being less accommodating of pervasive Babylonian ideology than Rav Nachman whom in some instances seemed to have embraced it. Rav Yehuda would ridicule Rav Nachman who he accused of using a more upper-class Iranian vocabulary and adopting Babylonian mannerisms and trying to assume greater authority over the other rabbis.

Rav Nachman, mentioned 1500 times in the Talmud,  was more liberal regarding the place of women in society and his daughter was not given a Hebrew name but was called Denag (after a Sasanian Queen).

Furthermore, Rav Nachman’s city of Machoza was home to many gerim or converts to Judaism because of the intermingling of the cultures. In a fascinating narrative, the Talmud describes how the large community of converts pelted R. Zeira with etrogim because he had the audacity to say that a convert can marry a mamzeret or an illegitimate child. [4]

Clearly, Machoza was a centre of cultural intermingling and mutual exchange of religious ideas.

In Babylonia, a general “Persian religion” developed amongst the multifaceted populace, which was a general synthesis of many forms of theology.

R. Yaakov Elman quotes Samuel N.C. Lieu:

Although the official religion of the ruling dynasty was Zoroastrianism, Judaeo-Christian sects and Semitic pagan cults jostled with each other in splendid confusion in Mesopotamia. To these was added a strong Jewish presence in Babylonia...”[5]
Thus we find that in Babylonia, a rather unique culture developed where “interreligious dialogue and polemic were the order of the day.”


To practically illustrate the Babylonian cultural influence on the development of some Talmudic law, R. Elman points to the case of ownership of the Lulav and Etrog on the Festival of Sukkot:

According to the Halacha, one must own the Lulav set before the mitzvah can be fulfilled. That’s fine for one person who acquires his own set – but what happens if only one set is available to a group of people who want to participate in the mitzvah?

The Tosefta[6] advises that in such a case, each person has to take complete ownership of the set and theoretically can perpetuate that ownership indefinitely if he so desires.

Obviously, the Tosefta’s suggestion would create problems if a recalcitrant individual refuses to relinquish his ownership of the set and the others lose out on performing the mitzvah. However, Rav Nachman offers an ingenious innovation, whereby the set is given as a ‘matanah al menat lehachzir’, or a gift given (with temporary ownership rights) on the condition that it is to be returned after the mitzvah has been fulfilled.

What is striking about Rav Nachman’s innovation is the fact that it was most likely influenced, according to R. Elman, by a Sasanian[7] law book, known as The Book of a Thousand Judgements.  This dated back to the seventh-century[8], developed system of temporary ownership which exactly parallels Rav Nachman’s solution to the ownership of the Lulav problem.


This notion of ‘temporary ownership’ was firmly established within the Babylonian culture and even extended to ‘temporary marriages’. As it happens, it was also Rav Nachman (as well as Rav) who contracted temporary marriages when away from home.[9]

Interestingly, polygamy had virtually been eliminated from Eretz Yisrael, while it continued to be practised in Babylonia. The abolishment of polygamy amongst the Palestinian Jews was due to two reasons: 

Firstly, Jews became Roman citizens in 212 C.E. and thus became subject to Roman law which outlawed bigamy.

Secondly, the third-century Palestinian Amora, R. Ami had declared that a man would have to divorce his first wife before taking his second wife.

R. Elman writes: "Conditions in Babylon, however, were different, and there is ample evidence that polygamy continued to be practised there.(Babylonian Echoes in a Late Rabbinic Legend, p. 15.)

According to Jewish tradition, Ifra Hormiz was the mother of the Sasanian king[10] who apparently wanted to keep the laws of family purity. She sent a technical question to Rava who resolved the matter.

This story captivated the hearts and souls of many Jewish scholars who were intrigued that such a powerful non-Jewish woman would even be interested in Jewish laws of ritual purity. Later, the commentator Rashi (1040-1105) felt compelled to state that “she would keep the menstrual laws and she was close to converting (to Judaism).”

However, as Secunda exclaims:

Had these commentators more fully considered the significance of menstrual impurity in Zoroastrian culture and the competition between Jews and Zoroastrian on this matter, they would have been better positioned to unravel the meaning of this Talmudic story and appreciate the intercultural dynamics that it reflects.”[11]


R. David Bar-Hayim speaks a lot about the differences between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmudim and questions why the Bavli was indeed elevated over the Yerushalmi. Fascinatingly, he suggests that it could have been as a result of collusion with the Babylonian authorities who were happier with the Babylonian Talmud for political and other reasons. 

He also notes that the Babylonian Talmud’s view toward sexuality was more repressed than that of the Yerushalmi.

Michael Saltow notes in a similar vein:

Babylonian sources reflect much more complex, and conflicted, sexual assumptions than do Palestinian sources.[12]

R. Elman reminds us of the Babylonian Talmud’s teaching that according to R. Zeira, the “daughters of Israel had undertaken to be so strict with themselves as to wait for seven [clean] days...[although biblically they are required only to separate for seven days from the onset of menstruation]”[13]

It is clear from Niddah (fol. 66a) that this stringency was a popular practice and not a rabbinic prohibition, probably in response to a ‘holier than thou’ attitude perceived by the populace as emanating from their Persian neighbors. It seems that Babylonian Jewish women had internalized their Zoroastrian neighbors’ critique of Rabbinic Judaism’s relatively “easy-going” ways in this regard...”[14]

According to this, stringencies in the Jewish laws of menstrual impurity resulted in longer periods of abstinence, and it was all based on not wishing to appear as being ‘less holy’ than their Babylonian counterparts. “This indicates just how much the values of the surrounding culture had been internalised into the Jewish value system.”[15]


It is also possible that the concept of the resurrection of the dead was somewhat influenced by Babylonian and Zoroastrian culture. Much space is given to this concept in the Talmud Bavli[16], whereas it is dealt with much more scarcely in the Talmud Yerushalmi.


R. Yosef developed a theory on the question of G-d and evil as follows:

Divine anger (evil) acts independently of G-d Himself.[17]

This is very similar to the notion of demonic anger which is found in Zoroastrianism. According to this view, G-d remains aloof from the very real issue of evil (which is hard to whitewash over by any theology). Now, it is not G-d but Forces of Evil that do evil.

This concept was further honed to allow for some measure of Fate to enter the equation:  


In Babylonian Zoroastrianism, Fate featured as an important component of their theology. Accordingly, five elements were determined by fate or chance: One’s spouse, children, property and sustenance, lifespan and amount of authority one has.

In the Talmud, Rava suggests that three of those categories, namely ‘children, lifespan and sustenance’ are determined by astrology or Fate.[18]

Rava’s great-grandfather-in-law, Rav suggests ‘spouse and property (sustenance)’[19].

 Rav’s son-in-law, adds ‘authority’ to the list.[20]

Thus all five Babylonian elements are now also included in the Talmudic notion of Fate.


Another difference between the rabbis of Babylonia and those of Eretz Yisrael, was their attitude towards death.

Babylonian rabbis like Rav Nachman and Rava had a fear of death, or dying, which was considered painful.[21] This fear was paralleled in the Zoroastrian notion of death being painful which taught that “the soul of the righteous undergoes much pain when it departs from the world.”

On the other hand, the Palestinian sages appear to adopt a more robust and defiant position with regard to the Angel of Death.[22]


The well-known dictum of Shmuel that ‘the Law of the Land in your Law”[23], has bearing on this discussion and may now even take on new meaning. The Jews of Babylonia were clearly influenced by many of the ‘Laws of the Land’ and as we have seen, some appear to have become ‘our law’ as well. Here we have Shmuel, one of the greatest of the Babylonian rabbis, who was willing to come to terms with his host state’s norms and standards.


R. Chaim Finkelstein pointed me to a fascinating comment by Rashi, who expounded on the meaning of the word ‘chaver’ as used in a particular context in Tractate Shabbat. [24]

Usually, chaver is an honorific title which refers to a rabbinical colleague – much like the term fellow is used in secular academia.

But Rashi, in this instance, explains it to refer to the Persians!

From this, we see that the Persians were elevated and respected to such an extent that they were regarded as our associates.


Furthermore, R. Finkelstein offered another Talmudic statement that when R. Zeira went to Eretz Yisrael, he fasted ‘one hundred fasts in order to forget the Torah of Babylonia.’[25] 

Perhaps he felt the need to purge himself from some of these very issues we have been dealing with?


R. Yaakov Elman’s pioneering work in the field of Babylonian culture influencing Talmudic thought, is quite compelling when one begins to understand the milieu in which the Talmud was formulated.

We do know that the ‘names of the Angels came from Bavel’ and that the Babylonians developed a complex system of Angelology. 

They also gave a prominent place to a hierarchy of Evil Spirits. These topics are therefore reflected far more in the Talmud Bavli than in the Yerushalmi.

[See The Revenge of the Talmud Yerushalmi for more on this issue.]

At the end of the day, this is one of those subjects that one either chooses to accept or reject and, generally, no amount of evidence will change the mind of the Reader either way.

The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context, by Shai Secunda.
Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages: Accommodation and Resistance in the Shaping of Rabbinic Legal Tradition, by Yaakov Elman.

[1] See: The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context, by Shai Secunda.

[2] Menachot 110a.
[3] Ibid. The Iranian Talmud, p. 3.
[4]Rabbi Zeira taught in Mechoza: It is permitted for a convert to marry a mamzeret. Everyone stoned him with their etrogim, since the many converts present were insulted by his statement, which they understood to mean that converts are not members of God’s congregation. 
Rava said: Is there a person who teaches such a matter in a place where there are commonly converts? He should have been more circumspect. 
Rava himself taught this in Mechoza to ameliorate the situation: It is permitted for a convert to marry the daughter of a priest. They carried him on silk for elevating the honor of converts. 
He later taught them: It is permitted for a convert to marry a mamzeret. They said to him: You have forfeited the honor of your first sermon. Rava said to them: I have done for you what is good for you. If a convert wishes, he may marry from here, i.e., from those of pure lineage, and if he wishes, he may marry from here, i.e., a mamzeret.”  (Kiddushin 73a)
[5] Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages: Accommodation and Resistance in the Shaping of Rabbinic Legal Tradition, by Yaakov Elman.
[6] The Tosefta - mainly written in Hebrew and following the same format of sedarim and masechtot as the Mishna - is a ‘Supplement’ to the Mishna, dating back to the latter portion of the Mishnaic Period (0-200C.E.).
[7] The Sasanian Empire was the last kingdom of the Persian (Iranian) Empire before the rise of Islam.             
[8] Although this Iranian law book was technically written after the time of the Talmudic period, it reflected a well-established system of temporary ownership that was already firmly entrenched within Babylonian society.
[9] Yoma 19b and Yevamot 37a.
[10] King Shapur II.    
[11] Ibid. Secunda p. 6.
[12] Saltow p. 75.
[13] Berachot 31a, Megilla 28b and Nidda 66a.
[14] See: Young Rabbis and all about Olives by Professor Marc B. Shapiro of The Seforim Blog, where he quotes R. Elman as sourced from Encyclopedia Iranica (RABBINIC LITERATURE and MIDDLE PERSIAN TEXTS).
[15] Ibid.
[16] Sanhedrin 90b.
[17] Bava Kama 60a, Avodah Zara 4b.
[18] Moed Katan 28a.
[19] Sota 2a.
[20] Berachot 58a.
[21] Moed Kattan 28a.
[22] Ketuvot 77b.
[23] Gittin 10b, Nedarim28a.
[24] Shabbat 11a.
[25] Bava Metzia 85a.


  1. yet r' ellman would not ( at least when I asked him) say that any of these insights should impact the halachic process today. definite food for thought
    joel rich

  2. Yes. No one is suggesting we change any psak halacha. We follow our mesora. This is purely an academic probe into understanding some possible influences that may have informed some of Bavli's position in some instances. (I would love to have met R. Elman.)

  3. Quibble regarding chaver: these were specifically Zoroastrian religious figures who enacted Zoroastrianism-influenced decrees which negatively impacted Jewish practice. More likely, chaver is a translation, or perhaps a (loose) transliteration, of their title in Persian.

    None would say that the translation of monk and nun as ach and achos meant there was fraternal feeling there.

  4. Your article is of considerable interest, particularly as it was published shorty after the parsha "Bereishit" The parsha begins with the Divine presence resting over the water. The comment given by Artscroll, is that for those who understand, then the water existing before creation is a secret to be passed down but for those who don't well essentially it's just too bad we don't deserve to know.(their explanation is not too different from that of our sages.)
    The only explanation that a mere apikoros like me has been able to find which supports this proposition appears in the Babylonian creation myth of Enuma Elish. This myth tells of how before the formation of the heavens and the earth there existed nothing but water. Jumping ahead, Marduk slices up the fierce monstrous water creature (shades of the Succot Leviathan?) using half to create the firmament of heaven and half to create the earth that covered the water.
    One wonders whether it is not just the Talmud that indebted the influence of Babylon.
    Oh, and in passing- in Lech lecha, Abram is stated as being from Ur of the Chaldees. While the Chaldeans were around in Mesopotamia (lower Babylon) the Chaldeans were not around at the time of Abram. More Baylonian influence?
    Any Babylonian apologists out there?

  5. Thanks Apikoros for your interesting observations.

    Not to minimize your questions, for the record, though, this article only suggests possible Babylonian influences on the Talmud.

    However, see Kotzk Blog 184) where Ibn Ezra raises a similar question to yours, regarding Canaanites.

    1. Your point about IBn Esra and secrets is well made, But I, too, only suggest a heretical though of a larger Babylonian influence on Judaism and its sources.

      Your Article on Ibn Esra is useful. However the issue of who or what is Canaanite is more fundamentally problematic to me. What was the promise to Abraham - that his children would inherit the land --- of Canaan?--- or the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites etc? These latter groups do not seem to have descended from Noah's son (Cannaan) or qualify as Canaanites.

      In an age of instant gratification either answers must be given quickly or else people look elsewhere for the answers, even if fleetingly. Secrets imply the lack of answers and the possibility of conspiracy or of ex post facto reasoning. Maybe the Canaanites were THEN in the land but it doesn't answer the question -which land and who are the Canaanites. Or does it really make any difference? All is vanity!

  6. You praise the Rebbe of Kotzk because he took the approach of

    "uncompromising truth and intellectual independence. This allowed him to be fearless and never to succumb to societal pressures. He knew that Judaism was so much deeper and more profound than the way it was perceived by the masses and bent by religious populism."

    If the Rebbe of Kotzk managed to be intellectually independent, and avoided succumbing to societal pressure and religious populism, I don't see why you can't extend these same qualities to the Babylonian sages of the Talmud.
    How is it that they could not maintain intellectual independence from the surrounding non-Jewish culture and routinely succumbed to societal pressures and populism while the Kotzker rebbe could?

  7. Cultural differences are independent of intellectual differences. Look at every group or sect in Judaism today. The principles basically remain standard but the articulation varies depending on the cultural surroundings. Even in Talmudic times, minhag Eretz Yisrael differed from minhag Bavel.

    1. n this very post about Babylonian influences on the Babylonian Talmud, you bring numerous examples that include both cultural influences AND intellectual influences. like Rav Nachman borrowing matana al m'nas le'hachzir from the religious Sassnian texts. And Theodicy and fate, etc.
      According to Proffesor Elman, Talmud Bavli was corrupted by non-Jewish Babylonian influences. Plain and simple.
      But somehow the Kotzker Rebbe succeeded where the Talmud Bavli failed?

  8. In this very post about Babylonian influences on the Babylonian Talmud, you bring numerous examples that include both cultural influences AND intellectual influences. like Rav Nachman borrowing matana al m'nas le'hachzir from the religious Sassnian texts. And Theodicy and fate, etc.
    According to Professor Elman, Talmud Bavli was corrupted by non-Jewish Babylonian influences. Plain and simple.
    But somehow the Kotzker Rebbe succeeded where the Talmud Bavli failed?

  9. I don't recall Professor Elman using the word "corrupted," but influences are real forces, and even Bnei Yisreal, the generation of Matan Torah, had to spend forty years in the desert to counter the influences of Mitzraim.