Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zoroastrians and Zoorabbis in Zimbabwe

This morning, in Zimbabwe, I met an old friend called Jake, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. Last time I saw him, I got his autograph, which I framed, and which some of you have seen on display. Jake had put on quite a bit of weight since then, it looked like about several hundred pounds! But that kind of weight-gain looks good on a bull elephant.

I got into a conversation with a stranger from Florida who was sharing my ride (on Jake). Initially I was dismayed that the shortage of available elephants meant that I had to share my ride with someone. But my co-passenger was very pleasant, and turned out to be exceedingly interesting. Much to my surprise, he was a Zoroastrian!

As Jake lumbered across the savanna and forded streams, my co-passenger and I had the most fascinating discussion; Judaism and Zoroastrianism have quite a lot in common. Zoroastrianism is also a very ancient religion, and it can be roughly classified as monotheistic. Zoroastrians, too, have suffered intensely from persecution; my new friend spoke repeatedly about genocides that had been committed against his people, and there are only about 160,000 Zoroastrians left in the world (of which about 20,000 live in the US). There are also numerous components to Zoroastrianism that are similar to those in Judaism, including the belief that the universe was created by a benevolent Creator, that life is about choosing good over evil, and that there is divine reward and punishment for one’s conduct. (Of course, there are also differences; in Judaism, for example, there is no tradition of ritualistically leaving the dead outside to be eaten by vultures. However, I suspect that American Zoroastrians don’t do that either.)

Almost completely forgetting that we were riding on an enormous elephant, with some African buffalo and waterbuck watching us pass, my new friend and I became immersed in a discussion about how Judaism and Zoroastrianism are not only similar; they are actually connected. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persian Empire, which included Babylon during the Talmudic period. And as my friend Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman has written about at great length, there is an enormous amount of material in the Babylonian Talmud that is related to Zoroastrianism.

As someone who learned in charedi yeshivos for many years, it is a source of fascination to me that there are sections of the Gemara that can only be properly understood if you know about Zoroastrianism. When I was in the charedi yeshivah world, it was a given that the greatest experts on the Gemara were people such as Rav Elyashiv, or perhaps Rav Moshe Shapiro if you were part of his following. Yet there are topics in the Gemara that, while Rav Moshe Shapiro would undoubtedly have been able to devise an ingenious and creative explanation of them, can only be authentically understood with their original intent if you know about Zoroastrianism.

As an example, the Gemara in Megillah has some seemingly extremely strange comments about Persians and bears. However, as Rabbi Dr. Elman explained to me, and as I confirmed with my co-passenger on the pachyderm, once you realize that dov is Hebrew for “bear,” and dêv is the Zoroastrian name for a certain demon, then the passage makes sense. (For further discussion, see the section “Angels and Demons” in the chapter on the bear in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.)

My investigations into Zoroastrianism today perhaps also sheds light on a puzzle that I had been wondering about for several years. The Mishnah gives a list of people who have no share in the World to Come:
Every member of Israel has a share in the World-to-Come… But these have no share in the World-to-Come: One who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah; that there is no Torah from Heaven; and an apikores (which is defined in the Talmud as someone who shows disrespect to Torah scholars)… (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1)
The first of these categories – one who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah – seems a little strange. Why is it so important as to be mentioned in this very brief list of crucial expressions of belief – and it even comes before Torah from Heaven! And why does it speak about someone who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah, as opposed to speaking about someone who simply denies the Resurrection of the Dead altogether?

I think that perhaps the answer is similar to the explanation of why Rambam listed belief in the pre-eminence of Moshe Rabbeinu as a prophet as one of the 13 principles of faith. One might wonder if it really matters if a person believes that Yirmiyah was a greater prophet than Moshe. But it’s not Yirmiyah that Rambam was concerned about; it was Mohammed. As Prof. Chayyim Soloveichik writes, “That Moses’ prophecy was of a different order than that of other prophets is an explicit verse in the Torah (Numbers 12:7); [but] it was a specific historic context, its denial by Islam, that turned this verse from a religious dictum into an ikkar. A belief is an ikkar when its content is what differentiates Judaism from the surrounding credal system” (“Two Notes on the Commentary on the Torah of R. Yehudah he-Hasid,” p. 244).

The same may be the case here. Zoroastrians sometimes claim that they originated belief in the resurrection of the dead, which they call frashö-kereití. They argue that this belief is not in the Torah, and that the Jews took it from them. It would thus be understandable, then, that the Sages would strongly condemn someone who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah.

My discussions with my Zoroastrian friend were interrupted by the elephant mahout, who informed us that it was time to disembark. I told the mahout that this was probably the only time he would ever be transporting a Zoroastrian and a rabbi. He laughed politely, but I suspect that he had no idea what either of those words meant!

32 comments:

  1. "Roughly classified as monotheistic"...

    Zoroastrianism shifted focus from worshiping Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord), Creator of all, to worshiping the demiurges of good and of evil -- Spenta Mainyu and Ahriman (a/k/a Angra Mainyu). Spenta Mainyu, the constructive principle, is worshipped with fire as truth is associated with light. And Angra Mainyu, the destructive principle, with darkness.

    This shift happened during the reign of Cyrus. Which explains a line in Yeshaiah that we paraphrase daily. Yeshaiah 45:1 tells us that this nevu'ah is for Cyrus, "כֹּֽה־אָמַ֣ר ה֮ לִמְשִׁיחוֹ֮ לְכ֣וֹרֶשׁ..." And v. 7 adjures him to refocus on the Creator, and not a dualistic pair of intermediaries:
    יוֹצֵ֥ר אוֹר֙ וּבוֹרֵ֣א חֹ֔שֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂ֥ה שָׁל֖וֹם וּב֣וֹרֵא רָ֑ע אֲנִ֥יה עֹשֶׂ֥ה כׇל־אֵֽלֶּה׃

    Ahriman (Spetna Mainyu, the destructive principle) appears in the gemara BB 73a, when Rabba tells of encountering Hurmin ben Lilis, who was running around the top of the wall around the city of Mechoza -- which in Rabba's day meant Ctesiphon, the capital of the empire.

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    1. I was surprised to learn some months ago that Islam -- at least some major streams of Islam -- considered the Zoroastrians monotheists.

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  2. silly question - wasn't it just the bavli that was written in a zoroastrian milieu? as opposed to the mishna?

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    1. I know nothing about nothing here, but I think that not all versions of the Mishnah have those words "from the Torah". Which doesn't prove or provide evidence for the theory stated in the post, but perhaps answers that one objection against the theory.

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    2. They would have known about it.

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    3. but would they have had reason to polemicize against it?

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    4. They would have had at least some reason. Zoroastrianism wasn't the largest religion there (Roman and Greek paganism was), but it was present. And maybe the Greco-Roman stuff was so beyond the pale they didn't even worry about it, and Christianity was too new. So they concentrated on Zoroastrianism.

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  3. You say a bear in Aramaic is diva. Are you sure about that? A wolf in Aramaic is diva. Some say its because of the hated character of a wolf, and hate איבה is translated as דבבא. It may also relate to the common exchange of ד and ז in Hebrew and Aramaic, as in the word דבורה and זיבורתא. See Beraishis Rabbah 99:3 and Rashi to Daniel 7:3. (The latter is on a verse mentioning Dov, and says Diva is the targum for a wolf.) Happy to be educated if I'm missing something.

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    1. Whoops, that was a mistake on my part, now corrected. That's what happens when you write blog posts in airplanes! (I have it correctly in my book, where I discuss it in the chapter on wolves.)

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  4. is this the gemarah you mean ?
    http://dafyomi.co.il/megilah/points/mg-ps-011.htm

    "A hungry bear" is Achashverosh, about whom it says "And another animal, a second, like a bear";

    i.(Rav Yosef - Beraisa): This refers to Persians, who eat and drink like a bear, and are clothed with flesh like a bear, and grow hair like a bear, and have no rest like a bear.

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  5. It was not always sweetness and light: there were episodes of Zoroastrian persecution. The recitation of the first chapter of the Shma before Korbonot originated in one such episode. And while the original form of the religion was dualist, with a good power and an equal bad power, even though the Zoroastrians see themselves as enrolled on the side of the good fighting the bad. A later, more monotheistic version did develop, in response to encountering not only Judaism but Christianity and Greek philosophy.

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    1. Granted it wasn't always good, but the bit about Shema (or the one in kedusha, or the haftarah story) is not attested to historically.

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  6. The first line should read "...whom I hadn't seen..."

    (No reason to post this comment. I'm just trying to be helpful.)

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  7. FriendlySpelllingGuyMay 5, 2017 at 9:57 AM

    Just a little grammar correction: "My investigations into Zoroastrianism today perhaps also sheds light..." - Should say "shed."

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  8. There was persecution to the extent that the Talmud has a ma'aseh where (Rav Ilai?) says: Either under your (Hashem's) shadow or under Rome's shadow. The gemara then asks how this can be possible since Galut Bavel was meant to be a chesed that Hashem prepared after the churban. The answer is - lo kashya - that was true before the rise of the Zoroastrians and Rav Ilai's comment was made thereafter (the Zoroastrians rose to power and took the Caesar into captivity during the time of Rav and Shmuel).

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  9. > Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman has written about at great length, there is an enormous amount of material in the Babylonian Talmud that is related to Zoroastrianism.

    Could you recommend any books or articles?

    > As someone who learned in charedi yeshivos for many years, it is a source of fascination to me that there are sections of the Gemara that can only be properly understood if you know about Zoroastrianism.

    As there are parts of the Torah that can only be properly understood if you know about ANE mythology

    > Zoroastrians sometimes claim that they originated belief in the resurrection of the dead, which they call frashö-kereití. They argue that this belief is not in the Torah, and that the Jews took it from them.

    Is that true? The Chumash never says anything explicitly about olam habo or techiyas hameisim.

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    1. Have not read this (it's pricey). Buy it, read it and send me the remains :).

      https://www.amazon.com/Iranian-Talmud-Sasanian-Divinations-Rereading/dp/0812245709

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    2. See here for an essay from Prof. Elman: http://www.jewishhistory.com/PRINTINGTHETALMUD/essays.html

      He's also written books on the subject.

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  10. Other groups have their dead scattered to the vultures as well.
    I once saw a documentary, may have been a Nat Geo about what they called a "Sky Burial" in the Himalayas where the dead are chopped up and scattered for the vultures to eat and scatter the remains.

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  11. Zoroastrianism is probably why the Talmud Bavli spends so much more space discussing sheidim, maziqin, and qmei'os (demons and amulets) than the one or two asides maziqin get in the Yerushalmi.

    In Bavel, such things were "science"; givens about how the world works.

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  12. Some stray observations:
    1) In Gemara Sanhedrin 39a, there is a discussion between a Magi (a Zoroastrian, I assume) and Ameimar. The Magi says, "The upper half of your body is ruled by Hormiz, and the lower half is ruled by Ahormiz". Ameimar answered: "Then how does Ahormiz let Hormiz pass water through his domain?"--clearly mocking the belief that there are two ruling entities.
    2) Prof. David Weiss HaLivni Sh'lita once said in a lecture that the berachah that we say in the morning before Shema: יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא את הכל was a deliberate change from the language of the possuk in Isaiah 45:7: עושה שלום ובורא רע, in order to negate any possible Zoroastrian connotation of the Biblical verse (contrasting light-darkness, peace-evil as two separate entities).

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    1. It seems to me that Isaiah himself is negating the Zoroastrian view while the tefillah is avoiding it. That of course plays into the question of when that part of Isaiah was written...

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  13. Also, see Sanhedrin 39a for some fascinating Gemara's about Zoroastrians. Rashi's pshat about Hurmiz and Ahurmiz is only half correct; Tosafos is historically correct. Also see Hullin 105b for some very strange Gemara's about "demonic" reasons for seemingly normal practices.
    Be that as it may. This post is correct in saying that the Talmud Bavli must be understood in its Persian context, but the text in question is a Mishnah, and was not written in the context of Zoroastrians. The reason the resurrection of the dead has such a prominent place in the Mishnah is because of the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection at all. As Rabbi Oshie pointed out, not all versions of the Mishnah say "from the Torah". This would make sense, as the point it to go against the Sadducees.

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  14. Elephants are often abused during the training process, teaching them how to give rides to tourists. Can you reassure us that your elephant wasn't?

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  15. Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the ancient Persian empire, is sufficiently akin to Judaism to warrant the designation of the 1st emperor, Koresh (Cyrus) as GOD's anointed in Isaiah 45. That chapter, however, has a verse which disputes a main tenet of that Persian religion. in contrast to the diametrically opposed universal forces in the Zoroastrian concept: light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood, order and chaos; the prophet speaks of GOD who created both light, darkness, evil, and their reconciliation. The kinship of Zoroastrianism is also seen in Malachi's statement in the 1st chapter that GOD's Name is great among the nations, i.e., in the vast Persian empire. The extent of burrowing religious concepts from that religion is debatable. However, the independent existence of Satan, who is akin to the Zoroastrian force of darkness, evil, falsehood, and chaoe - Ahariman, is first found in Scripture stemming from or subsequent to the Persian period. Thus, Satan, as a non-physical, powerful, oppositional entity is first found in Zechariah 3 and in Iyov (Job) 1,2.

    Y. Aharon

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  16. Thanks for the post. Sounds like a fascinating ride. I have a few
    hasagot. (I seem to recall that these points are made by Schiffman on an article on this mishnah, I can find it if you would like):
    1) In MS Kaufmann the mishnah reads "one who says there is no resurrection of the dead". The words "from the Torah" do not appear. Unless you have a very strong argument for why the text of MS Kaufman should be rejected, I think it would be wrong to base your reading of a different text or to make a diyyuk in this language.
    2) Regarding your insertion after the word Apikoros: "which is defined in the Talmud as someone who shows disrespect to Torah scholars". The term in the mishnah is certainly related in some sense to the Greek philosopher Epikouros. Are the defections in the Talmud Bavli relevant for understanding how the Mishnah is using the term? Just as someone without knowledge of Zoroastrian Bavel will have trouble understanding many things in the Bavli, the Amoraim may not have fully understood the Tanaitic use of the term.
    3) The connections between Judaism and Zoroastrianism occurred in Bavel. Why should we assume that the Mishnah is engaging such ideas. Does Elman (or Shai Secunda for that matter) point to examples from the Tannaitic corpus in his studies?
    4) Does it not make more sense to read this mishnah as response to the Sadducees who (according to Josephus) rejected the ideas of immortality of the soul and reward/punishment after death.
    5)If so, it makes sense that the mishnah would say someone who rejected resurrection of the dead would himself not take part in the world-to-come. It appears that the 'world-to-come' here is the world after the resurrection. In other words it is simply midah keneged midah. You don't believe in the resurrection, so you won't see it.

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    1. I don't really know the history all that well, but was Zoroastrianism not the prevalent religion of Bavel at the start of the Second Temple era? A lot of Tannaim, as well as Jews, came from Bavel, and there was regular contact between the two populations. Why would we not assume that Zoroastrianism would also be countered in the Mishnah?

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  17. P.S.
    1) The fullest treatment of the Sussanian context of the Bavli is probably Shai Secunda's book The Iranian Talmud.
    2) Prof. Soloveitchik spells his name: Haym.

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  18. In MS Kaufmann the mishnah reads "one who says there is no resurrection of the dead". The words "from the Torah" do not appear. Unless you have a very strong argument for why the text of MS Kaufman should be rejected, I think it would be wrong to base your reading of a different text or to make a diyyuk in this language.

    This actually supports the point. Regardless of the language of the Mishnah, the gemara on 90b is concerned with establishing the basis of this belief in the Torah. So if you correct, then the line in the Mishnah that we have was likely "backported" from the Gemara on 90b and the source of the question could have been from the Bavli.

    The connections between Judaism and Zoroastrianism occurred in Bavel. Why should we assume that the Mishnah is engaging such ideas. Does Elman (or Shai Secunda for that matter) point to examples from the Tannaitic corpus in his studies?

    Your first question may answer your third.

    That said, everything I wrote here has lots of ignorance mixed in.

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  19. Judaism copied some of its religious beliefs from Zoroastrianism.it's said though that one can not join unless one was born into it. However things seem to be changing.

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    1. See the top comment. It is more likley they got it from us. After all, both the Babylonians and Tanakh agree that the royak court was heavily staffed with our prophets. When it came to wisdom, we were seen as the "haves", and they, the "have-nots". Cultural flow went from Judeans to the empire. (Even as rank-and-file Judeans did their best to assimilat.)

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