Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Babylonia and its Schools.

Ever since the Bar Cochba war, the numerical centre of gravity of the Jews had shifted to Babylonia, and soon after the compilation of the Mishna in Palestine, Babylonia became the religious centre too.

This fertile country, in which history began, lay between the Euphrates and Tigris, with the Persian Gulf at the south. The name Babylon is sometimes used in Jewish annals to include the surrounding lands, with a southwestern boundary, as far as the Arabian Desert. This second "Land of Israel" had been a home for the Jews since the first forced exile there in the year 600 B. C. E., in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. From Babylon came both Ezra and Hillel, though in the four centuries intervening between these two men, we hear nothing of Jewish life in Babylon.

Babylon's Varied Rulers.

This land had varied fortunes. The home of the Babylonians—one of the most important of the Semitic families and one of the most ancient civilizations—it was conquered by Cyrus the Persian, about 540 B. C. E. About the year 330 it was taken by Alexander in his triumphant march through Asia and became part of the Seleucidan Empire. This brought into it something of a Greek atmosphere. In the year 160 B. C. E. it was conquered by Parthia—an Asiatic nation dwelling south of the Caspian Sea. This regime continued for four centuries, though the Parthians exercised no influence whatever on the Jews. In the year 226 A. C. E. a Neo-Persian dynasty was re-established. This continued till the coming of the Arabs in the seventh century—a later story.

During all these changes in the controlling power, the Jews continued in Babylonia undisturbed. When Judea fell, in the year 70, almost an annihilating catastrophe to those at hand, their life went on without a break, except that it brought to the new home a large number of Jewish refugees. So that by the second century after the Christian era, Babylon had become the centre of greatest Jewish influence and activity. Trajan had tried to conquer the land, but failed. So Babylonian Jews remained out of the reach of the Roman grasp.

Resh Galutha.

What was their status here? Since the time of Cyrus the government had been Persian. Given almost complete political independence, the Jews simply paid taxes to the ruling power. As Persia had granted to the Jews the privilege of administering their own affairs in Judea so, naturally, the same permission was granted in Babylonia. There was this important difference. The head of the Judean community had been the High Priest; those were the days when the Temple stood. When we turn to Babylon in the century following Jerusalem's overthrow, we find the governor of the Jewish community was called Exilarch or Resh Galutha, Head of the Exile. Galuth was a word freighted with emotional meaning to our fathers.

The Resh Galutha, as distinct from the High Priest of an earlier day, was entirely a civil functionary, and the office carried more power. As Exilarch he was recognized by the government and occupied a place among the Persian nobility. At first but collectors of revenue, these officials were later treated as princes—perhaps as a mark of gratitude for the Jewish support when Parthia was fighting Rome. A good deal of pomp came to be associated with the office. These Exilarchs were all chosen from the House of David, and so represented a quasi-royalty. The line continued unbroken till the eleventh century. They exercised complete judicial authority among their own people. Unlike the Patriarch or Nasi of Judea, with whom we may also compare them, they were not necessarily learned in the Law.

The Jews of Babylonia were for the most part engaged in agriculture, commerce and handicrafts, and even in work on the canals. Fortunate indeed were they to have again secured a home beyond Rome's cruel control, where, undisturbed, they might live their own life. In the study of the Law they found inexhaustible material for intellectual and religious activity. But how was religion taught and the continuity of Judaism maintained in Babylonia?

At first they were entirely dependent on the Palestinian Academies established in Jamnia and Lydda and other places after the fall of Jerusalem, and were altogether subject to the Judean Sanhedrin. Many students traveled to Palestine to study at its schools. But after a time the community grew strong enough intellectually to establish academies of its own. The heads of the Academies corresponded to the Judean Patriarchs, only that all civil power was vested in the Resh Galutha, above mentioned.

Step by step the Babylonian students increased in learning; and, acquiring confidence, came to feel less the need of the guidance of the parent authority. Soon this settlement further east claimed independent jurisdiction. This was bitterly resented in Palestine. The removal of the Sanhedrin to Jamnia had been the first wrench. The second was the removal of the central authority from the Holy Land altogether, to distant Babylonia. But Palestine could not stem the tide. As the fortunes of the Jews declined there, its schools declined with them. Steadily waned, too, the authority of the Patriarch.

Rab and Samuel.

Babylonian schools also produced great scholars, some as renowned as those of Palestine. For reasons given on p. 227 they are all Amoraim, not Tannaim. Let us mention first Abba Areka, popularly called by his many disciples Rab (Rabbi), "the teacher," who flourished in Babylonia a few years after the Mishna had been compiled in Palestine. Apart from his duties as expounder of the Law, the Resh Galutha appointed him to the position of supervisor of weights and measures. Occasioned by this occupation to travel in outlying districts, he discovered the ignorance of the remoter congregations. This led to his establishment of the Academy of Sora about the year 220. It continued a seat of Jewish study for eight hundred years. Hundreds of pupils flocked to Rab's Academy. Some he maintained from his own purse. At the same time the study hours were arranged to give pupils the opportunity of earning their living. Some lectures were delivered to the public at large. An Academy almost as famous was established at Pumbeditha; another at Nehardea.

It was not only in the expounding of ritual and civil law to which Rab devoted his energies, but also to raising the ethical standard of the people. For the austere simplicity and purity of Jewish life had sadly degenerated in Babylonia. Wonderfully salutary and effective was the influence of Rab in his moral crusade. He made the betrothal and marriage laws more strict and more decorous. He also strengthened the authority of the Courts of Justice by resort to excommunication of refractory persons. Deservedly was this modest man called the Hillel of his day.

Usually associated with the name of Rab was the versatile Mar Samuel, his contemporary. He was essentially the rationalist of his age who discouraged with his hard common sense the dreamers who were awaiting the speedy and miraculous coming of the Messiah. In Jewish Law his ability chiefly was directed toward the interpretation of civil jurisprudence, for which he was especially fitted. As judge of the Court of Nehardea, he made a brilliant record. His most famous decision and that which most affected the Jews, was expressed in the phrase, dina d'malchuthah dina,—"The law of the land is the law for us." This means that it is our duty as Jews to obey the laws of the countries in which we live. This principle tended to reconcile our fathers to the lands of their exile, taught them their true relation to them, and was in the spirit of the message of Jeremiah to the very first exiles in Babylon—"Seek the peace of the country whither ye are exiled and pray to the Lord for its welfare." The ultimate result of Samuel's dictum was that the better the Jew, the better the patriot.

Samuel had the courage of his convictions. For when the Persian king, Shabur I (under whose rule the Babylonian Jews were living), was engaged in war against Asia Minor, many Jews fell, who were fighting in the ranks on the opposing side. Yet he would not countenance mourning for his fallen coreligionists since they had fought against his king!

Babylonia, with its broad unbroken plains that gave such wide survey of the heavens, had early become the cradle of astronomy, and Babylonian Jews were expert in this science. So versed was Samuel in the course of the stars that he once said, "The tracks of the heavens are as familiar to me as the streets of Nehardea." His astronomical knowledge enabled him to arrange a fixed calendar and made Babylon further independent of Judea in deciding the dates of the festivals. As already stated these had previously been decided by the appearance of the New Moon in Palestine. Samuel was also a renowned physician and applied rational remedies, when the world of his day clung to superstitious nostrums. But medicine and astronomy were characteristic accomplishments of the Jewish rabbis. Samuel did not scorn to learn from the Persian sages. While greatly esteemed, not all of his contemporaries realized how profound a scholar he was. For in a sense he was a man in advance of his time. We understand him better to-day.

With all his intellectual gifts, he was modest, self-denying and wonderfully tender-hearted. He had many laws passed to safeguard the interests of the poor and helpless, and, decided that the Court must take orphans under its fatherly protection.

In the patriotic incident above mentioned, it was seen that he practised what he preached. Here is another instance. He had laws passed against exorbitant prices. When grain he had purchased cheaply, rose in price, he still sold it cheaply to the poor. What a needed lesson for our times! Here are two of his maxims:—

"Deceive neither Jew nor pagan."

"Respect the man in the slave."


What was the religion of Israel's Babylonian neighbors? The Parthians were inclined toward Hellenism and exercised no religious influence on the Jews. But when the Persians again gained control of Babylonia (226 C. E.,) they brought with them their own religion—Zoroastrism. Zoroaster or Zarathustra was a great religious genius who flourished about 800 B.C.E. He reformed the old cult of the Magi, i. e., a caste of Persian priests and sages. His teachings are contained in the Parsee bible—the Avesta. The cardinal doctrine of this faith was dualism; that is, it explained the existence of evil in the world as the persistent conflict of two great spirits—Ormuzd, spirit of light and good (God), and Ahriman (devil), spirit of darkness and evil. In the process of ages Ormuzd and good will prevail. The sun is the visible representation of Ormuzd and fire the expression of his energy. So Ormuzd was worshipped under the symbol of fire. This worship spread over a large part of Asia. It did not deserve to be classed with the idolatries of the heathen world that brought so many immoralities in their train, for we see even while we must disagree with its recognition of a devil, that it expressed exalted ideas and urged its followers to live moral lives. But the rise of this Neo-Persian dynasty, awakening new religious energy, led later to a passing persecution of all non-fire-worshippers.

At the opening of the sixth century, Mazdak, a new zealot for the religion of the Magi in Babylonia, tried to impose on all under his rule certain dangerous doctrines of his own that tended to undermine the moral foundations of society. Naturally the Jews, always normally a chaste people, stoutly resisted. This meant fight. Again must they lay down the book for the sword, or rather, take up the sword for the cause of the Book. Led by the Resh Galutha Mar Zutra II, they actually succeeded in throwing off the Persian yoke altogether for some seven years; but they were, of course, ultimately brought into subjection, and consequently many martyrs were added to the Jewish roll of honor.

Babylonian Schools.

This incident carries us ahead of our narrative. To return:

The Babylonian schools—Metibta, as each was called (Yeshiba, Hebrew), continued to grow until they drew far more students than had been reached in Palestine, many of whom became great Amoraim. Babylon, in fact, was now a very large Jewish colony regulated by the laws of the Bible and Mishna as interpreted in the Academies. Even the Resh Galutha was in later times often a Jewish scholar, as for example, Mar Ukba. In addition to the Resh Metibta—head of the School—there was a Resh Kallah, President of the General Assembly—an institution not found in the Palestinian Academies. These were for the benefit of visiting students and met twice a year in the months of Adar and Elul.

Most renowned of Rab's successors was Rab Huna, who died in 297. Following the recognized precedent, not to use the Law as a spade, he earned his living by farming.

Reverence was shown to Judea now only in so far that the pious desired to be buried there. Later persecutions in Roman provinces, of which Judea was one, brought still more refugees to Babylonia.

The next generation of scholars we must pass over rapidly with just a word. In Pumbeditha we may mention Rabba, who believed in the saving sense of humor, and also set himself the more serious occupation of classifying the Halachoth accumulated since the Mishna had been compiled. He gave to his students this fine principle,—"He who does good for reasons other than the good itself, it were better he had never been born." The method of deduction as taught in the Babylonian Schools was more subtle than that of Judea. Its hair-splitting tendency in the next generation of Amoraim occasionally degenerated into casuistry. But even that was the fault of a virtue.


Patriotism and Judaism.—Mar Samuel's theory and practice best answered the query of the anti-Semite, Goldwin Smith, "Can Jews be Patriots?" The American Jews had to face this problem in the Civil War of 1861, when they fought in both the Union and the Confederate ranks.

Read Dr. Mielziner's Introduction to the Talmud, (Bloch Publ. Co.), chap. iv. This book is particularly recommended in connection with the chapters on Mishna, Talmud and the Academies.

Read Article "Babylonia," Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. ii.

Theme for discussion:—Is the Jew's first duty to his countryman or to his coreligionist?