Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spotlight on the Jews of Babylon

As the Babylon exhibition, London's latest hot ticket, opens at the British Museum, Eli Timan - writing in a special issue of the Iraqi magazine Muntada (no 96) - makes sure that the place Babylon occupies in Jewish history is not forgotten:

Babylonia, the cradle of civilisation, was also the birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham, who left Mesopotamia for the land of Canaan. Conquest of that land was followed several centuries later by 12 Hebrew tribes descended from Abraham.

After a short period of a united kingdom under King David and his son Solomon, a northern kingdom was established by 10 tribes, called Israel and a separate southern kingdom called Judah (Yehuda). Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in around 721 B.C.E* and a vast number of its population exiled to Mesopotamia.

In 701 B.C.E the Assyrian king, Sanherib (Sennacherib) attacked Lachish in southern Judah. This campaign was vividly depicted in his palace and you can see this massive depiction on two walls in a section at the British Museum. In the annals of his 3rd campaign, Sanherib states that “I drove out of them 200,150 people”. Allowing for exaggeration, a considerable number of captive Jews (inhabitants of Judah) must have been taken to Mesopotamia. In 597 B.C.E. Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, followed in 586 B.C.E by his destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. It is said that some 50,000 Jews were exiled to Babylonia.

Thus began 2,600 years of history of the Jews of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). In captivity, the new exiles from Judah soon learned to adjust to the new environment. In a fertile and prosperous land, they enjoyed a freedom similar to the rest of the population. They were considered “resident foreigners” and paid taxes accordingly. They maintained their spirit with the support of the Prophet Yeheskel whose tomb is in the village of Kifl on the Euphrates River near the town of Hilla. He is venerated by Jews and Muslims alike since he was mentioned in the Qur’an as “Dhul Kifl”. Indeed, all the prophets in the Bible are venerated by Muslims and there are around 12 Jewish shrines in Iraq looked after today by non-Jews.

Shrines include those of the famous Ezra the Scribe (Al-‘Uzair) near the town of Amara on the Tigris River, Jonah (Yunis) in Nabi-Yunis, a suburb of Mosul, Nahum in El-Qosh, and Daniel in Kirkuk.

The Jewish exiles soon prospered, engaging in agriculture, the professions, commerce and trade, helped by their brethren from earlier exiles. There is evidence that a Jewish banking firm existed already and lasted for some hundred years.

We have to appreciate that the Assyrians had by 1800 B.C.E developed quite a sophisticated system of banking for their commerce with various trading colonies in Anatolia such as Kanesh. Caravans from Ashur to Kanesh were financed by Assyrian families and partners and a sophisticated system of Limited Companies with shareholders was devised. Bills of exchange between headquarters in Ashur and Assyrian agents in Kanesh were used for payments to minimise the transportation of cash which was mainly in silver currency. It is not surprising therefore that there were Jewish banking firms in the 6th century B.C.E.

In 537 B.C.E Babylon opened its gates to Cyrus the Persian without a fight. Cyrus gave the nations in his empire autonomy and the freedom to practise their religion; hence his proclamation to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its Temple. A few returned and built a simple temple, but in 458 B.C.E a large number returned with Ezra the Scribe and later with Nehemiah who was given the governorship of Jerusalem by Artaxerses I. Ezra and Nehemiah established official rites and prayers and it is said that Ezra completed the Torah scrolls and deposited them in the Temple.

Jewish law, both written and oral, would have been coloured extensively by life in Mesopotamia. The Persian Achaemanian era of Mesopotamia ended in 331 B.C.E by Alexander the Great in a battle near Arbil in today’s Kurdistan. There followed two centuries of Greek rule (331 - 126 B.C.E) with their capital Seleucia, south of Baghdad, on the opposite bank of the Tigris from Ctesiphon, the later Parthian and Sassanian capital in Mesopotamia (today only the ruins of the palace of Taq Kusra at Salman Pak village remains). The Parthians ruled to 227 C.E.** and the Sassanians to 636 C.E., the year they were defeated by the Arabs.

Thoughout this period (720 B.C.E to 636 C.E.), the Babylonian Jews spoke Aramaic. It was the main language spoken in Mesopotamia and was the official language of the Persian Empire. Babylon was a great centre of commerce, industry, trade and finance. Babylonian trade routes took the Jews to every corner of the known world, making them men of commerce and international trade. However the most common occupation was agriculture. A few of them had large tracts of agricultural land which they parcelled out among others by lease or by rent. A considerable proportion were farmhands who worked for a daily wage and endured great hardships as they toiled to convey the waters from the canals to the irrigation ditches or strove to keep them from overflowing.

Craftsmen had a happier lot and worked as bakers and brewers, weavers, dyers, and tailors; shipbuilders and woodcutters, blacksmiths, tanners, fishermen, sailors and porters. There were princes of commerce who exported wine, wool and flax, and imported silk, iron and precious stones; these rich merchants led a life of luxury amid a retinue of slaves and menials. In urban centres, a significant class of Jews engaged in manual labour, hiring themselves out by the day or week as masons, carpenters, potters, tailors, weavers and others. In around 218 C.E., a religious academy was founded in Sura by the Euphrates.

An earlier academy had already been established at Neherdea on the Euphrates at the junction of the Royal canal which connected the Euphrates to the Tigris at Seleucia and Ctesiphon. A third academy was founded some decades later at Pumbeditha, north of Neherdea, and it was followed by that at Mahoza on the Tigris, and others. In these academies, written and codified oral laws were studied and interpreted.

Centuries of interpretations, arguments, teachings, with topics including ethics, history and legend as well as law, resulted in the production of the Babylonian Talmud. Its codification began in Sura circa 367 C.E. and was completed circa 500 C.E. No other book has played so important a role in the history of the Jewish people as The Talmud. It served the Jewish Diasporas for generations, right down to our present day. It also serves as a reliable historical source on family and business life in that period.

It was in Babylonia rather than Jerusalem that the Jewish religion was preserved and codified. Judaism was present and influenced every aspect of the life of Babylonian Jews and that made them a distinct faith group. Education was greatly emphasised by the rabbis, and the communities developed a comprehensive and efficient school system.

Another feature of Jewish life which was to flourish and fully develop was the Synagogue. The Synagogue (Greek for “assembly”) was a gathering of the people to advance their communal and spiritual interests. It could be held in any convenient place in the midst of the local community. Portions of the Torah (Mosaic Law) were read there every week. The Synagogue was the centre of worship, of teaching and instruction for its local Jewish community. With no temple worship, the model of the Synagogue was instrumental in the spread of the concept of monotheism and later the rapid spread of the two universal religions of Christianity and Islam, with worship in church and mosque respectively. Follow-up article in the next issue of the Muntada.

The article combines extracts from various sources, mainly “The Jews of Baghdad” by Nissim Rejwan, London 1985 and “The story of an exile” by Nir Shohet, Tel-Aviv 1982. The author is currently engaged in a project to preserve the spoken dialect of Iraqi Jews.

*B.C.E: Before Christian Era
**C.E.: Christian Era

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