Ben Rothke

Book review: The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context

In November, the Taiwanese embassy in Japan detailed a number of tips for Thais visiting Japan. These include minor items like not putting chopsticks in the serving bowl, and more significant ones like stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. Japanese society is a distinctive society with strict rules that are not always obvious to visitors. Knowing these rules can make a significant difference.

Similarly, for those who study the Talmud, there are myriad events detailed, whose context may not be always obvious to the reader. Understanding those details and nuances can make a significant difference in understanding the reading of a specific Talmudic passage.

In The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context, Dr. Shai Secunda of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written a fascinating monograph that attempts to connect some features of the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli, to aspects of Sasanian culture.

Secunda builds on the notable work of Professor Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University, who produced a series of studies that considered the impact of Persian culture on the Bavli. Elman created the scholarly field known as Talmudo-Iranica, which seeks to understand the Babylonian Talmud in its Middle-Persian context.

Secunda’s book details the relationship between Zoroastrian texts and the Bavli, and the interaction between the Zoroastrians and Jews in the Sasanian Empire. It’s unclear exactly just how much interaction there was between the Zoroastrian priests and Babylonian rabbis; but the book provides a number of arguments to show that it was not an insignificant amount.

As to the Sasanian dynasty which the book is about, it existed from about 225 CE to 650 CE in Persian speaking Mesopotamia, where the main religion was Zoroastrianism. Secunda writes that by understanding the Bavli in an Iranian context, the Talmudist is better able to understand the Bavli. He writes that there are a few hundred Iranian– usually Middle Persian-loanwords (a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language without translation) in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic. This is a small amount compared to the amount of Greek and Latin terms. But by knowing when these Iranian words occur, the serious reader of the Talmud is better able to have a more accurate understanding of those topics in the Bavli.

In addition, he quotes a number of Talmudic passages, and provides an added Sasanian context, which can change the dynamic of the debate or story at hand.

Besides the language, another focal point of the book is the Zoroastrian religion, which was the main denomination in the area at the time. By understanding the Zoroastrian culture and the interaction between the Jews and Zoroastrians in various matters, the reader is better able to understand the deeper meaning of certain Talmudic passages.

Secunda quotes a Talmudic passage that stumped scholars Jacob Neusner and Albert de Jong. He then writes that had they better understood the Zoroastrian culture, they would have been better positioned to unravel the meaning of the Talmudic story and appreciate the intercultural dynamics that it reflected.

Secunda goes so far to write that not only did Neusner and de Jong not understand the full context, but boldly, and somewhat incredibly, that had Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, better understood the context of the Talmudic passage, he may have provided an answer that did not seem to have been forced.

Secunda readily admits that the material and textual remains that are available for reconstructing Jewish and Zoroastrian life in Sasanian Iran are; quantitatively speaking – rather meager. That creates a challenge when looking to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the interactions between the cultures.

It should be noted that for those that don’t have a background or interest in Talmudo-Iranica, it is not as if their study of the Talmud will be significantly obstructed. Rather, knowing; -or having an appreciation for the Talmudo-Iranica nuances will augment their Talmudic studies.

The book is a brief 150 page text, with 60 pages of footnotes and references. Secunda does a superb job of building on Elman’s Talmudo-Iranica. Anyone who studies the Bavli and wants to understand the bigger picture of the text and context will certainly find The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context an interesting and invaluable reference.

Thank you to Ezra Brand for proofreading this review.



About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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