The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context

The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context

The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context

The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context

Synopsis

Although the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli, has been a text central and vital to the Jewish canon since the Middle Ages, the context in which it was produced has been poorly understood. Delving deep into Sasanian material culture and literary remains, Shai Secunda pieces together the dynamic world of late antique Iran, providing an unprecedented and accessible overview of the world that shaped the Bavli.

Secunda unites the fields of Talmudic scholarship with Old Iranian studies to enable a fresh look at the heterogeneous religious and ethnic communities of pre-Islamic Iran. He analyzes the intercultural dynamics between the Jews and their Persian Zoroastrian neighbors, exploring the complex processes and modes of discourse through which these groups came into contact and considering the ways in which rabbis and Zoroastrian priests perceived one another. Placing the Bavli and examples of Middle Persian literature side by side, the Zoroastrian traces in the former and the discursive and Talmudic qualities of the latter become evident. The Iranian Talmud introduces a substantial and essential shift in the field, setting the stage for further Irano-Talmudic research.

Excerpt

Of all the graces of God on the multifarious earth
only you alone knew my youth,
you were my garden on a hot June day
and at my head a pillow for the nights of winter
and I learned to hide in your scrolls the returns of my soul
and braid among your columns my dreams of holiness.
Do you remember still?—I have not forgotten
In an alcove, in the empty house of prayer
I was the last among the last to leave.

—H. N. BIALIK, “Before the Book Closet”

From the introspection afforded by older age and religious reorientation, the great Modern Hebrew poet Hayim Naḥman Bialik expressed these words of love and longing to, of all things, a dusty shelf of old Jewish books. The poet recalls earlier days spent indoors studying the Talmud and its vast commentarial tradition. This is not the only occasion on which Bialik returns to the simultaneously romantic and critical image of a yeshiva student hunched over a talmudic tome, illuminated by a flickering candle yet “facing the wall.” Bialik was trying to make a point. For many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Eastern European Jews, the Talmud comprised their total existence. This was its blessing and this was its curse.

Since the Middle Ages, the Babylonian Talmud, or the Bavli, as it is conventionally known, has sat at the nerve center of the Jewish canon. As a result, it has been the recipient of and inspiration for an enormous amount of intellectual energy. More than merely constituting a storehouse of raw materials, however, the Talmud was—and for many it remains—a self-enclosed universe in which a life can be lived. Structurally, it is organized as a commentary on the early rabbinic legal compilation known as the Mishna. However, sober commentarial work is often cast aside and discussions veer off to consider anything from magical incantations and medical cures to rabbinic . . .

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