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!