"Frightful Persecutions" or "Persians Who Protect Us?": Re-examining the Jewish Experience Under Sasanian Rule
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Under the rule of the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 CE), the last of the Persian empires before the rise of Islam, Jewish scholarship flourished, resulting in the creation of the Babylonian Talmud, which remains one of the most important texts within the Jewish tradition. Scholars today often describe the experience of these Babylonian Jewish communities as one of bloodshed and persecution at the hands of the Sasanian kings. This study seeks to deconstruct this paradigm of violence, to demonstrate that the Sasanians did not habitually persecute the Jews and re-evaluate the nature of the relationship between the Babylonian Jews and the Sasanian kings of kings. Did such a relationship exist, and if so, how did the Jews fit into the heavily Zoroastrian political system of the Sasanian government? A closer look at the sources, which include the Babylonian Talmud and The Book of Tradition, the 12th-century history and defense of rabbinical Judaism reveals that many of the stories of so-called persecution are frequently taken out of context or do not provide sufficient support for this depiction of consistent, unprovoked Sasanian violence towards the Jews. The rejection of this traditional view consequently calls for a reconsideration of the portrayal of Zoroastrianism as violent and fanatical, as many high-ranking Zoroastrian priests had ties to or were a part of the Sasanian aristocracy. In fact, it appears as if Zoroastrianism generally allowed for the integration, rather than the exclusion of other religions. Considering the stories of interactions between Sasanians and Jews – both violent and non-violent – from a different perspective from that of previous scholarship reveals a far less violent and oppressive interpretations of the Babylonian Jewish experience in the Sasanian empire. Tales of persecution in particular, far from showing that the Jews had no political standing in the Sasanian empire, actually imply the opposite. A re-examination of the sources reveals that the Babylonian Jews regularly participated in Sasanian politics and successfully cultivated relationships with the Sasanian aristocracy.