Sunday 7 June 2020


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

Babylonian Influences on the Talmud Bavli. Part V.


Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman (1943-2018) of Yeshiva University was a pioneer in the research of Babylonian (i.e., Iranian/Sasanian/Persian/Zoroastrian)[1] influence on, and context to the Babylonian Talmud.

In this article (part 5 in the series) we will continue to look at some of this Babylonian context and culture which is critical for an understanding of the milieu in which the Babylonian Talmud was developed. I have drawn from the research of Rabbi Yaakov Elman’s student, Professor Shai Secunda, a graduate of Yeshiva Ner Yisrael in Baltimore and now a highly respected academic.[2]


Secunda writes about his teacher Rabbi Elman:

“[S]ince the turn of the century Yaakov Elman has been instrumental in establishing an important subfield of Jewish studies that has come to be known as Talmudo-Iranica. Elman has produced cutting-edge research that hones in on the Talmud’s Iranian context, and he has encouraged Talmudists to study Iranian languages (mainly Middle Persian) and forge contacts with Iranists so that they might read the Babylonian Talmud contextually...”

This understanding of general Babylonian culture and language is important because:

“...when it comes to research on rabbinic law and its interaction with Zoroastrian ritual...laws are studied against specific Zoroastrian parallels in order to account for their development.”


Bear in mind that Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Babylonians, is considered to be a very ancient form of monotheism with many beliefs compatible with Judaism. Babylonian Jews were more comfortable with the neighbouring religion of Zoroastrianism than with Paganism, Christianity and later Islam. 

In Sasanian Iran, however, scriptures were not the Bible or Tanach but instead the Avesta.

Around the year 200 CE, with the emergence of the Babylonian Talmud, Zoroastrian hermeneutics or scriptural interpretation had already been ongoing for some centuries by elite Babylonian scholars.

Many would not expect to find detailed parallels and similar styles in Avestan hermeneutic (i.e., interpretive[3]) literature and learning methodologies to that of the Babylonian Talmud. Yet, as we shall see, many ideas and even institutionalized methodologies of study and belief often overlapped rather overtly.

We know that Halachic concepts were first part of an oral tradition before they became crystallized in written form during (or after – see  When was the Talmud Written Down? ) Talmudic times.

Secunda explains that the Avesta also started out as an oral tradition:

“The Avesta was transmitted orally from the moment of its inception in two basic modes: the first, prior to crystallization, consisted of a series of ‘recomposed performances’ by avestan poets, and the second, following crystallization, employed a rigid technology of memorization and transmission.”

These two Avestan transmission processes took place through the medium of two different languages, Old Avestan and Young Avestan.

In Judaism the oral transmission took place through the use of Hebrew (up to and including Mishnaic times, 0-200 CE) and then transitioned to Aramaic, the language spoken in Babylonia (during Gemara or Talmudic times, 200-500 CE). Often, in the Talmud, a phrase from the older Hebrew Mishnaic version is used as a starting point for lengthy Halachic discussion and inquiry.

In Avestan hermeneutics we see a similar process where an Old Avestan text is used as a basis for interpretation, re-interpretation and elucidation in Young Avestan texts.


The Avesta had sections dealing with ritual purity called the Videvdad.  This is paralleled in the Talmud with sections also dealing with purity.

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].”[4]

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...” [5]

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.”[6]


Additionally, Young Avestan texts also introduced a form of interpretative textual expansion similar to what was known to Judaism as Midrash. In this style of hermeneutics, the basic text was often elaborated and expounded upon beyond recognition.


A Young Avestan work known as the Herbedestan deals with religious learning and discusses matters such as what type of teacher one should pursue, how far one should travel to find such a teacher, and what type of student a teacher may accept.

This work emphasises the importance of memorizing the liturgical texts and teaches that it is a sin to not study when one is able to; and so is forgetting the literature which one has studied. These ideas and values are paralleled in Talmudic literature as well.


There is a fascinating Talmudic text which compares the Tanna (a term which in this case refers to Amoraic reciters of  Mishaniac material) to Zoroastrian magi (priests and scholars):

“[Just as Magi] murmur their teachings yet do not understand them – so too the Tanna teaches (the Mishna) but does not know what he is saying.[8]

This implies that that in both literatures some teachers were so concerned with the transmission of the texts that they simply repeated them without necessarily understanding them.


The students of the Zoroastrian scholars would follow their teachers around continually and serve and observe them.

There is a parallel Talmudic text which states:

“Who is a conniving wicked person (rasha arum)?... Ulla says: Someone who read (the Torah) and learned (the Mishna) but did not serve Torah scholars.“[9]


The Avesta came with the Zand which was a commentary and explanation of the primary Avestan text. The Zand served three purposes: a) to act as a translation of the Old Avesta into the Young Avesta (or Middle Persian) language,  b) to serve as a commentary, and c) to include legal derivations from the text.

The Zand would identify difficulties in the Avesta and then as Secunda says:

“...cite debates between authorities about related matters in collections of teachings”

This is again very similar in style to the debates in the Babylonian Talmud. Hence, the Zand - also composed during Sasanian times - corresponds to the methodology of Talmudic literature of the same time period.


A Zoroastrian text speaks about students who would move their heads rhythmically back and forth while studying these texts and commentaries. This practice, as we know, is also well-entrenched within Judaism.


Sasanian Iran had some intense battles over the correct interpretation of the Avesta. This threatened the existing power structures and divided the Babylonian public into orthodox believers and heretics. Certain factions were creating new interpretations (i.e., new Zands) of the Avesta.

In some cases these new commentaries or Zands were so controversial that the magi[10] or Zoroastrian priests were requested to keep the Zands away from the public.


The interpretive battles often rose over the ‘exact’, ‘simple’ or ‘plain’ meaning of the primary source. The various sides of believers and heretics each claimed to know with definity the true meaning and intent of the original source.  Opposing camps emerged with the ‘orthodox’ Zoroastrians on the one side and ‘renegade exegetes’ on the other.

Amazingly, the Babylonian Talmud records a similar struggle and there is some considerable literature involving rabbinic sages debating with Jewish heretics or minim over Biblical interpretation and its correct pshat or exact meaning.


Secunda draws our attention to the fascinating idea that it was primarily Zoroastrian magi and Jewish rabbis who believed in the ‘omnisignificance’[11] of their primary texts.

Omnisignificance means that everything is contained and alluded to within the wording of the primary text, whether the Torah or, in the case of Zoroastrians, the Avesta. This allows for multiple authoritative interpretations of the original wording because the entire universe is said to be contained within them. The text is not just words but becomes infinitely dense with meaning and significance. Words are no longer a part of writing style and certainly aren’t used by chance.

This omnisignificance allows for legal interpretative positions to be taken based on deductions from the minutia of words and letters.

Secunda writes:

“Other interpretative communities [besides those of the rabbis and Zoroastrians] employed various hermeneutical tools when interpreting texts that they perceived as sacred and thus semiotically [defined as the interpretation of words] [12] dense. Yet most of these did not go the way of halakhic midrash and the Zand.”

Thus the rabbis and magi were unique in their use of the principle of omnisignificance when it came to their primary sacred texts.


Rabbi Yaakov Elman (the pioneer of Babylonian studies with the intent to understand the context of the Babylonian Talmud) wrote that the term ‘omnisignificance’ is essentially only a marker for an exegetical programme that remained a goal but was never actually realized.

If I understand Elman correctly, he is saying that the notion of omnisignificance remains essentially an idea that lends great importance to the meaning of words in primary texts, but is impossible to actually implement practically.  Consider, for example, sections of primary Torah text where entire paragraphs describing journeys or events are often repeated at great length – yet the commentaries are silent on the omnisignificance of these repeated sections. 

They may explain why, in principle, it was necessary for the text to repeat itself - but remain silent on the exact details of every nuance of every detail of every repetition. In other words, one word, sentence or paragraph can be exploited interpretatively but it is difficult to do so the second time to a similar extent in the verbatim replication. This can be seen by just paging through a Chumash.  Wherever there is a repetition, sometimes even pages long, the commentary section is very much reduced.

THE CAVEAT:        

This general notion of omnisignificance, however, brings with it an important historical caveat or proviso.

Secunda explains that based on a study of earlier rabbinic sources:

“[O]mnisignificant legal exegesis is very much present in Palestinian [not Babylonian!][13] rabbinic texts prior to the intense encounter between Jews and Zorosatrians that took place in Mesopotamia.”

In other words, this concept of omnisignificance already existed amongst the earlier rabbis of Eretz Yisrael before they went into exile in Babylonia. Thus one cannot say that magi or the Babylonian interpretative culture influenced rabbinic culture when it came to ascribing omnisignificance to Jewish sacred texts.

This is a fascinating point because it shows that the reality on the ground in Babylonia during Talmudic times was one of give and take. Both Jewish and Zoroastrian intellectual communities had an influence on each other and at times borrowed certain cultural authorities from each other.  Although it is possible that both cultures simply and naturally subscribed to the atypical idea of omnisignificance (and that it is nothing more than coincidence) it seems more likely that this is an example of rabbinic influence on Zoroastrianism. 

This is especially so because the belief in the omnisignificant value of the Avesta only came to Babylonian society during the late Sasanian period, which corresponds directly to the Talmudic period. The rabbis, however, were discussing omnisignificance centuries earlier.

Interestingly, Yaakov Elman points out that Rava (or Abba ben Yosef bar Chama, 280-352 CE) a key figure at the confluence of Babylonian and rabbinic cultures, was particularly concerned about ‘managing’[14] this growing trend of placing too much weight on the principle of omnisignificance.

Secunda concludes:

“What this means in the current discussion is that the fact that omnisignificant modes of reading were an important aspect of Sasanian reading strategies is significant for appreciating their resonance in the Bavli.”

In other words, Secunda (if I understand him correctly) is saying that yes, the Palestinian rabbis were the first to discuss omnisignificance and may have influenced the Babylonians in this regard. But once it became a popular Babylonian concept it became even more popular within Judaism, to the extent that Rava had to ‘manage’ the overuse of this concept.

Either way, the mutual influence and re-influence of hermeneutical enterprises between Babylonian magi and Talmudic rabbis remains a fascinating avenue for further exploration.

After all, the Bavli is called the Babylonian Talmud.


The academic and even religious culture of Babylonia played no small part in the shaping and development of the Babylonian Talmud. The two literary cultures were strongly intermeshed to the extent that sometimes we are not sure just who was influencing who. It is possible that rabbis contributed and introduced the notion of omnisignificance to the Sasanian worldview. And, in turn, the vibrant hierarchies of demonology and angelology were certainly a strong Babylonian influence on the Bavli.

The Talmud Bavli has indeed become the very symbol of religious Judaism.  We have even developed a proudly yet known to be incorrect style of reading Talmudic Aramaic, which is called ‘yeshivishe shprach’ or yeshiva language.

Yet there have always been those like Rambam who considered studying the Babylonian Talmud - which has become a staple of the Torah world - to be unnecessary in the aftermath of his Mishna Torah (the Halachic summary of the Bavli which excludes much of the cultural Babylonian content).

Other rabbis emphasised the study of the Yerushalmi, or Jerusalem Talmud over the Bavli, and this has gained traction within some factions in modern Israel today.

Some rabbis like Rav Kook even developed quite outspoken opposition positions to the central role the Babylonian Talmud played within Judaism. Some of these views can be seen in Rav Kook on: What if I Don’t Like Studying Gemara?

But - at the end of the day - the mainstream view is very much centred around and defined almost exclusively by the Babylonian Talmud.


[1] Iran (Babylonia) was under Sasanian rule around the time of the development of the Babylonian Talmud. The Sasanian Empire was the last Persian dynasty to rule before the arrival of Islam. The main religion was Zoroastrianism. Hence, the terms Babylonian /Iranian/ Persian/ Sasanian/Mesopotamian and Zoroastrian will be used interchangeably in this article.
[2] Shai Secunda, Rabbinic and Zoroastrian Hermeneutics; Background and Prospects.
[3] Hermeneutics is defined as the interpretive literature and commentary based on a primary scriptural text.
[4]  Berachot 31a, Megilla 28b and Nidda 66a.
[5] 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).
[7] Magus (Zoroastrian priest) is singular for magi.
[8] Sotah 22a.
[9] Sotah 21b and 22a.
[10] Magi (Zoroastrian priests) is the plural form of magus (one priest).
[11] A term coined by James Kugel.
[12] Parentheses mine.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] Rava debated Abaye on many Halachic issues and the law follows Rava over Abaye in all but six cases. One of the reasons why Rava’s opinion is usually adhered to is because he was more practical that Abaye, his more theoretical opponent.


  1. "There is a fascinating Talmudic text which compares some Tanaim of the Mishnaic period (many of whom were reciters of rabbinic material) to Zoroastrian magi (priests and scholars)"

    The word תנא here refers not to the rabbis of the Mishnaic period whose teachings are collected in the Mishnah, but to the people who memorized and repeated the Mishnah and baraytot, who were the source for the Mishnah and Barayta for the Amoraim, as in the phrase תני תנא קמיה דפלוני. On the Tanna as a person cf. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 88-90, 97-99

  2. Thank you for that AW. I always appreciate your very informed comments.

  3. I have amended the text accordingly.

  4. Any chance we can get your viewpoint as to how to process this hashkafically. You're posting on a very problematic subject.

  5. Zachary, your question is indeed a very important and fundamental one. I think, at the outset we need to emphasize that the mainstream does regard the Bavli as THE authoritative expression of Judaism regardless of what influences it may or may not have been subjected to.

    A second strata within that mainstream would try to distinguish between genuine Halacha and Agadah. Hence they would read the Halacha but disregard some of the the medical, historical and scientific component. This was also the practice of some of the Gaonim who warned about taking medical advice from the Talmud as people were dying while following certain earlier cures and remedies.

    I have always regarded the Talmud as kind of Jewish internet which records everything that was thought, said and done during Talmudic times. This is why most of us do not pasken by Gemara but rather from its distillations in the various Shulchan Aruchs.

    The same could be said about the Talmudic content relating to demons and forces of impurity. Many (most?) would still today take these seriously and literally - even though these concepts are perhaps not always within the scope of technical Halacha.

    Again, wherever on wishes to position oneself on this spectrum is, of course up to the individual (or his or her Rebi as is more often the case).

    My personal feeling is that the orthodox spectrum is actually wider than many would imagine, and that is why I am so intrigued by the sages like the Gaonim, Rambam and Rav Kook who hold views that are so astounding.

    But, in truth, these views are usually contested by those who claim that the mesora excluded those views from the hashkafic canon.

    A counter argument could be that people like Rabbi Yaakov Elman, in fact, explored these mesoric origins and as long as they are factful and true, they certainly should not be excluded from intellectual consideration.

    Also, remember that when the new teaching of Chasidus came on the scene in the early 1700s, many felt that that literature was also not part of the canon. Today, many (although not all) non-Chasidim, have adopted the position of 'live and let live' with regard to Chasidic teachings. Perhaps the same thing will happen, one day (once there is a critical mass) to the more rationalist views of Judaism, which were always there but after the Maimonidean Controversies in the century after his passing, were intentionally weeded out of the Judaism which was to become dominant.

    These are just some of my personal views and you should perhaps discuss this matter further with your rabbi.


    1. 1.The Geonim and rishonim give various reasons for abstaining from Talmudic medicine. They aren’t all rationalist-friendly.(Eg. from memory, Rav Hai speaks about lost knowledge) (I have the text of this somewhere I just need to find it)
      2.The mainstream has a certain reverence for Chazal especially that is undermined by historical research. (Eg. Ohr Yisrael siman 28: “ הֲלֹא יָדוּעַ כִּי כָּל בַּעֲלֵי חֲכָמֵינוּ זַ"ל. אַף דּוֹרוֹת הָאַחֲרוֹנִים. וּמַה גַּם דּוֹרוֹת הָרִאשׁוֹנִים הָיוּ דּוֹמִים לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מַמָּשׁ. וְקִיְּמוּ כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ וְכָל הַמִּדּוֹת טוֹבוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם”) It winds up making Chazal into mere human beings.
      3.I personally think some of these parallels (eg. with shimush talmidei chachamim) are extremely generic.
      4.You write “as long as they are factual and true, they certainly should not be excluded from intellectual consideration.” It does not mean you need publicize these potentially spiritually harmful ideas.
      5.If for example, various parts of hilchos niddah are the result of a cultural environment why should we
      still adhere to them?
      6. This post is very well written as are your other posts. Though I’d like more of your thoughts esp. when addressing this kind of material.

    2. To be clear, I am not telling you to cease publication of these kinds of articles rather that you should discuss their hashkafic implications more often than you do.