Historically, Jews settled in Iran, and other areas later considered a part of the Iranian Empire, on four significant occasions. The first occasion was after the Fall of Israel in 744 BC when the Israelites were relocated by the Assyrian Empire to Nineveh. The second occasion was when the Jews, who had already been brought in as captives to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, were freed by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. The third occasion was after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), which was followed by the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. The fourth occasion was after the Spanish expulsion during the Safavid era (1501-1736 CE), when the Sephardic Jews of Ottoman Turkey were relocated from Georgia to Farah Abad on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and later to other parts of Iran. It is worth noting that contrary to many of the later residents of Iran, including the Arabs and the Turks, who entered the land through invasions, Jews came either as captives or voluntary immigrants.
The first Israelites, who were relocated to Nineveh, became known as the Ten Lost Tribes. They lived in territories first ruled by the Assyrians, but after the defeat of the Assyrians by an alliance of the Medes and Babylonians, the territories were annexed to Iran. The annexation occurred (cir 609-605 BC) because of an agreement between the Medes and Babylonians; whereby the Medes took the northern territories, which included Nineveh, and the Babylonians took the rest of Mesopotamia and the western territories (Horn 1999, 192-193).
The second occasion coincided with the rise of the Achaemenid dynasty in Iran. Cyrus II, most commonly referred to as Cyrus the Great, conquered the Medes in 559 BC and Babylonia in 539 BC. He created a vast empire that encompassed all of the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East and Southwest Asia. The era of the Achaemenid dynasty (559–331 BC), known as the “Persian Period,” commencing with the reign of Cyrus the Great and his Edict in 538 BC, has left a lasting legacy on Jewish history as well as the Jews of Iran. During this period, the Jews were granted considerable religious autonomy resulting in opportunities for prosperity. The Jews were offered the option to live in Babylon or move back to Jerusalem. Regardless of where they resided, their religious practices were tolerated in all territories belonging to the Achaemenid dynasty. Those Jews who remained in Babylonia gradually moved eastward to Lar, Khuzestan, Shush, Pasargadae and finally Isfahan (Netzer 1996, 13).
Recognized as a liberator, Cyrus had high hopes of rebuilding the Temple for the Jews. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to fulfill this plan. Years later, this mission was finally accomplished by his son-in-law and major general of his army, Dariush I (522-486 BC). The Second Temple, built between the years of 520-516 BC, became the symbol of Iranian presence in Jerusalem (Purvis 1999, 218-219).
The third occasion of Jewish migration to Iran following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans resulted in the expansion of Jewish Academies in Babylonia and lured many Jewish scholars who for centuries had worked on the interpretation of Mishnah codified Jewish law, and made the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud in Diaspora. In the Babylonian Talmud “the most timeless of religious works was composed, perfected and presented, as a legacy to the Jewish world,” (Levy 1999, 132). Jacob Neusner, the scholar of Sasanian era states: “While the Jews of the Parthian and Sasanian empires spoke (eastern) Aramaic, not Middle Persian, Persian influence on Judaism through the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) is by no means negligible” (Neusner 2005, 347-350; Secunda and Fine 2012). Also as Habib Levy suggests, considering the facts that Babylonian Talmud was composed on Iranian soil and that the religious scholars compiling it had communication with the Sasanian court and entered into polemics with the Zoroastrian scholars, “Babylonian Talmud might be considered the Iranian Talmud” (Levy 1999, 133).
Throughout the pre-Islamic era, Iranian Jews maintained dual allegiance to their Iranian and Jewish identities. The loyalty of Iranian Jews to both their religious ethnicity and their new self-elected homeland can be seen throughout the history of the region. Such relations date back to the influence of the prophets Daniel, Haggai, and Zechariah in the Iranian courts as well as the mission of Zerubabel for the rebuilding of the Second Temple from the Iranian treasury (520-515 BC). Furthermore, the impact of the dual role of Ezra and Nehemiah as Jews and Iranian agents in the expansion and reconstruction of the City of Jerusalem speaks of the place of Jews in the royal court. In fact, it was a tradition during the Persian Period to make sacrifices for the health and prosperity of the Shah of Iran and the royal family at the altar, in the Second Temple (Tadmor 1976, 171-172; Ezra, 6:11).
However, Iranian culture did not begin to permeate into the Jewish community until the early Sasanian era. Influenced by the friendly relationships maintained by the Jewish Academies and Shapur I and II, Rabbi Yossi (d. 323 AD), the religious leader of Jews in Diaspora, recommended that Jews learn to speak the language of the land (Netzer 1996, 42). Iranian Jews, who at the time spoke Eastern Aramaic, gradually began speaking Middle Persian, and later New Persian. The existence of numerous Middle Persian (Pahlavi) terms in the Talmudic texts is evidence of such linguistic acculturation. In the same era, Iranian Jewish soldiers are reported to have fought against the Romans as a part of the Iranian army (Netzer 1996, 34-35). Rabbi Yossi’s recommendation laid the foundation for the Iranian Jewish cultural identity, which would give birth to the vast literary contributions of Judeo-Persian Literature; something unique for Iranian Jews to identify themselves with.
In order to further discuss the national identity of Iranian Jews, based on their intellectual and Judeo-Persian literary contributions, the meaning can be defined from different perspectives. ‘National identity’, as one of those perspectives, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture, and language”. Furthermore, Webster dictionary defines the term ‘nationality’ as “a body of people recognized as an entity by virtue of their historical, linguistic or ethnic links. These people may be united under a particular political organization, and usually occupying a defined territory”. As documented by history, Jews of Iran lived within the geographical borders of the land for over twenty-five hundred years; they shared with other Iranians the same history and culture and spoke the developing Persian language for over 1800 years (Lazard 1971, 429; Netzer 1999, 84-88). Considering their historical and cultural background and based on the above definitions, the Jews of Iran are to be identified as ‘Iranians’.
Development and characteristics of Judeo-Persian
Judeo-Persian literature, as an account of the heritage of Iranian Jewry, not only represents the sentiments and mentality of its authors but also reflects certain elements specific to its Iranian Jewish identity. Except in some individual cases, the literature of Iranian Jews, written in Judeo-Persian, had not received scholarly attention until the nineteenth century for various reasons. The nature of the writing, which caused a self-imposed isolation, the socio-economic conditions and religious pressures experienced by the Jews, as well as the loss of contact with the center of world Jewry after its move from Baghdad to Andalusia in Spain in the early tenth century (Levy 1999, 213) are among such reasons. In spite of all the above elements, as Jan Rypka states: “It is a curious coincidence that the earliest records in the Persian language are at the same time the earliest records of Judeo-Persian literature” (Rypka 1968, 737).
Similar to any other literary output, the cultural background, religious pressures and the socio-economical conditions of Iranian Jews should be taken into consideration in the evaluation of Judeo-Persian literature to justify the general lack of refined language and development of intellectual concepts. Yet there are exceptions to this rule, and many fine literary works are found in Judeo-Persian in terms of style, language, and content. Critics of Judeo-Persian literature should be reminded that the survival of the Iranian Jewish identity, especially after the Arab invasion, was only possible by the Jews being anchored in the balanced and continuous use of the Persian language and culture as well as in the practice of Jewish cultural traditions.
The list of Jews contributing to the development of Iranian heritage and, ultimately, ‘Iranian identity’ from antiquity to modern times is extensive. While in the Middle Ages most of the authors wrote their work in Judeo-Persian, their contributions recorded in Perso-Arabic script can be found as well.
The emancipation of Iranian Jews in the post-constitutional era and the Western education introduced by the French Alliance Israelite system, resulted in Iranian Jews attaining a higher level of recognition and acculturation in Iranian society, especially with regard to the impressive contributions to different fields, including humanities, science, and art.
In conclusion, the intellectual history and Judeo-Persian writings, mostly produced by Iranian Jews until the first two decades of the 20th century, validates the dual ‘national’ and ‘Jewish’ identity of Iranian Jewry. The Jews who are identified as Iranians, share the same distinctive traditions, culture, and language as other Iranians. Recent discoveries of Judeo-Persian writings in Afghanistan, Geniza or those found earlier outside of the contemporary borders of Iran depict the vast demographic spread of Iranian Jews within the greater Iranian community. Through their intellectual and literary contributions, Iranian Jews have also participated in the development of Iranian heritage. By writing their Judaic beliefs and traditions in Judeo-Persian, they have at the same time maintained their religious identity, which otherwise would have faded. Their life in the Diaspora for twenty-seven centuries and away from the center of Judaism for more than ten centuries had caused a lack of familiarity with the Hebrew language and acquaintance with their Judaic legacy. Except for those literate in Hebrew and biblical writings, reading about their religious heritage in Judeo-Persian, certainly played an important role in the preservation of lay people’s Jewish identity.
After the adoption of the Iranian Constitution (1909), a page was turned and the religious minorities of Iran found a new socio-cultural life. Now recognized as Iranian citizens, Jews were no longer confined to Jewish quarters and schools. Civil rights and the national system of education offered the Jews the command of Perso-Arabic script. This new freedom empowered their Iranian national identity and influenced many to put the use of Judeo-Persian aside. By the second half of the 20th century, the array of Judeo-Persian works was left untouched on the shelves of the world’s libraries, giving a chance to Iranian Jews to share their cultural contributions with the rest of Iranians in Perso-Arabic script.
Transliteration of the Judeo-Persian texts from Hebrew characters into Perso-Arabic provides wider access to the Iranian Jewish intellectual heritage of the past. This mission has been undertaken by the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts, founded in Los Angeles, California, since 2000. Such an endeavor not only increases the number of readers but also creates the opportunity to have parts of this vast treasure of texts translated into other languages for the benefit of a larger audience.
Nahid Pirnazar is a professor of Iranian Studies at UCLA