Considerations on an Aspect of Jewish Culture under the Sasanians: The Matter of Jewish Sigillography

Article excerpt

In this compact volume, Daniel M. Friedenberg has gathered a group of stamp seals to illuminate the culture of the Jews who lived under Sasanian rule (224-651 C.E.). This clearly is a work of love and will stand as a contribution to our knowledge of this minority group at a significant time in its history, when the rabbinical schools that flourished in Babylonia produced the collection of law cases and norms for the Jewish community, the Babylonian Talmud. The book also illustrates the challenge inherent in describing the culture of the Jews in this period living in a Zoroastrian-dominated society.

But the volume's title is somewhat a misnomer. We do not learn much about the "culture" of Sasanian Jewry other than a single aspect of its material culture--as indicated in the subtitle of the work--the stone intaglios that belonged to members of the community, which were used to authenticate and seal documents and objects and which also probably served some talismanic function. In fact, we have precious little in the way of material remains to illustrate the culture of the Jewish populace living in Sasanian lands. What we do have (or are able to recognize), as the author points out, are classes of objects--the so-called magic or incantation bowls and stone stamp seals--that are shared with other religious groups and which, in their style and iconographic details, are basically indistinguishable as to ethnicity.

Except for the lulav (sprouting branches or a palm frond) and ethrog (citron), unique symbols of Judaism that appear on a number of seals, glyptic imagery is shared by Jews with others. Otherwise, there is no "Jewish" iconography and no "Jewish" style, and we can only be sure that a seal is "Jewish" by the name of its owner, written in Hebrew. Seals engraved with the Sacrifice of Isaac or Daniel in the Lions' Den are not indicative of Jewish ownership, as these subjects were also popular among Christians (see further discussion below). Other motifs on seals bearing Jewish names--male portrait heads or various animals--are widespread within the Sasanian glyptic repertory and were used by members of other minority religious groups in the Sasanian Empire--Christians, Mandaeans, Mazdakites, Manichaeans--as well as, of course, by the dominant religious group, the Zoroastrians.

"Lexicon" is also somewhat of a misnomer or at least a puzzling term, as the author does not provide a rigorous discussion of the "vocabulary" of seal motifs as it pertains to the seals catalogued in the volume. By including "related seals," not only as comparanda but as part of his catalogue, he tends to blur the definition of what makes for a "Jewish" seal. In fact, as I have just noted and is acknowledged by the author, we cannot always be sure if a seal is actually "Jewish," that is, made for and used by a member of that community.

Following an introduction by the Biblical scholar Norman Golb ("Observations on the Jews of the Sasanian Empire"), Friedenberg begins with "A Brief Historical Review" (pp. 5-10) that plots the history of relations between the Jews and the Sasanian state, over a nearly five-century span in which Jews seem to have suffered persecution only intermittently. (1) In presenting this picture, Friedenberg relies on several of Jacob Neusner's well-known works as well as Geo Widengren's 1961 article, "The Status of the Jews in the Sassanian Empire," citing both it and an abridged version published in 2002. (2) This is the most recent date of any of the sources cited throughout the volume (and the only source he seems to have used that is more recent than 1998). A more nuanced view would have resulted if Friedenberg had considered the scholarship on Jewish-Iranian contacts in Talmudic times, an area that has expanded over the last twenty years, (3) as well as other works on Sasanian history, such as Josef Wiesehofer's Ancient Persia: From 550 BC to 650 AD (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996).

This historical review is followed by a brief chapter on the Jewish religious academies in Babylonia (pp. …