210 AD to 230 AD, Psalm 58: The Sassanids.

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This generation is that of the 210s and 220s.
At the level of the Roman Empire, this generation begins with the death of Septimius Severus (211) who was able to obtain peace with the Parthians.

Caracalla02_pushkinIt is his son Caracalla (211-217) who takes his succession having taken care before to kill his younger brother Geta. He organizes an expedition against the Parthians during which he is assassinated (217). He grants the Roman city right to all subjects of the empire. Jews then become full citizens and have the same privileges as other citizens of the empire.

The assassin of Caracalla, Macrin, keeps the power for a few months while remaining unpopular and is finally murdered in turn for the benefit of the nephew of Caracalla: Bassianos. The latter then imposes a pagan cult and is assassinated in turn in 222. It is then Severus Alexander (222-235), a cousin of Bassianos, who ensures the reign.
However, next to this Roman empire, in Persia a new empire is born during this generation: in 224 begins indeed the reign of the Sassanids (the name of Sassan grandfather of Ardachir, the first Sassanid king). It was not until the Arab conquest in the seventh century to see the decline of this empire.

At the level of Palestinian Judaism [1], with the death of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi in 220 and the official end of the writing of the Mishna in 218, ends the Tannaim period and begins that of the Amoraim. The Amoraim will write for two centuries the Gemara: the comments on the Mishna. The whole will become the Talmud of Jerusalem.

Amoraim

This new period corresponds to a slow decline of Palestinian Judaism in favor of Babylonian Judaism which itself will provide a little later the Babylonian Talmud, more elaborate and more complete than its Palestinian counterpart.

Palestinian Judaism under the influence of Rome, which will soon be a Christian empire, will not be as free as the Babylonian Judaism sheltered by the Persian empire which takes off with the advent of the Sassanids precisely during this generation.
It is necessary to take an interest in this generation, marked by this advent of the Sassanids, to recall the origins of Babylonian Judaism:
  • Until [2] the destruction of the Temple, the community of Babylon had been outside the sphere of influence of the Pharisees and their form of Judaism. Following the revolt of Bar Kokheba, a number of Pharisees took refuge there. Some settled there and educated the first generation of Babylonian scholars. These masters kept close contact with the academies of Palestine. In most cities of Babylon, Jews were a well-organized minority. They were proud of the purity of their ancestry. But the teaching was somewhat superficial, the traditions diffuse and localized. The leader of the Jewish community therefore reacts with enthusiasm to the idea of a unique authoritative work – the revealed and codified oral law in the Mishnah – Rabbi Judah the Prince (Hanassi) – which would serve all the Jews of Babylonia . Eight centuries had passed since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and most of the Jews of this exile had preserved their identity. Their community was extremely well organized, they had courts of justice, schools, synagogues, charitable institutions. […] In 219, about two years after the death of Rabbi Judah the Prince, a man named Abba came from Babylon to Palestine. He had spent many years at the academy of Judah the Prince, of which he was one of the young disciples, of unusual erudition and intelligence. The representative of the exiles appointed him inspector of the markets. He began to travel throughout the country. After a while, people just called him Rav, « Master. » […] He founded a school in Sura near Ur, the ancient Sumerian city. […] He trained thousands of students. He instituted a court of law whose decisions profoundly influenced the lives of the Jews of Babylonia. He taught the law, gave sermons, established the authority of the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the Prince. He initiated his disciples into scholarly discussions and was the initiator of the next generation that would one day produce that unique, indefinable literary creation called the Talmud of Babylon.

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  • In 224, the Parthian dynasty of the Arsacids was suddenly replaced by another royal family, the Sassanids. The centuries-old alliance between Persia and the Jews of Babylonia had come to an end. The Sassanids were originally a family of priests, entirely devoted to the gods of Persia. The ancient cult of fire, Zoroastrianism, became the official religion of the new state, which set itself the goal of restoring the political and religious glory of Darius. « The link is broken », that’s how the Rav commented sadly when the Sassanids came to power.
  • Jewish life in Babylon was going to experience centuries of uncertainty and danger as various kings followed each other and established contradictory policies about the degree of autonomy that Jews should be given in their religious and civic affairs. […]
  • Christians, as well as other religious groups, were severely persecuted by the Sassanids. It is not clear how far the persecution against the Jews was.

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This new arrival of the Sassanids accompanied by the Zoroastrian cult somewhat upsets the relative tranquility of the Jews of Babylon who had until now been spared by the painful events in Palestine:
  • The following anecdote [3] expresses in precise terms the awareness that the Babylonian rabbis had that their situation was radically different from that of the Palestinians:
    • Rabbah bar bar Hannah was sick, and Rav Judah and the disciples came in to inquire about him … meanwhile one of the habarim (Persian priests) came to take their candles. [Rabbah bar bar Hannah] said, « [God] Merciful! [Allow us to live] either in your shadow or in the shadow of Esau’s son [Rome]!  » Does this mean that the Romans are preferable to the Persians? Did not Hiyya teach: « What does scripture mean: God understood its way, and He knew its place. » (Job 28,23) – God knew that Israel could not survive the decrees of the Romans and he exiled her in Babylonia. This [apparent contradiction between the two rabbis] does not pose any difficulty: [The teaching of Rav Hiyya preferring Babylonia] was prior to the coming of the habarim in Babylonia, the [Rabbah bar bar Hanna’s statement] – posterior to their come to Babylonia.
  • All the political meaning as well as the doubts and fears of the rabbinical movement appear in this anecdote. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more detailed assessment of the historical vicissitudes that occurred just as the leaders of this movement began to emerge and compete for control with their counterpart in Roman Palestine.
  • The statement of Rabbi Hiyya seems to reflect the reality of his time (the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century AD). With, on the one hand, the seductive prospects of community autonomy still possible under feudal rule and, on the other hand, the terrible memory of the consequences of the Bar Kokheba revolt and the ensuing religious persecution, a preference for Parthian babylonia was understandable. Moreover, Jews scattered all over the world could never forget that it was the Roman army that was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Although the political situation of Palestine at the end of the second century had been on the verge of a temporary improvement, with the appearance of Judah the Patriarch and easier relations between the Jews and the new dynasty of Severans, Hiyya (Babylonian by birth who emigrated to Palestine) seems to illustrate the established Zoroaster_1political wisdom that decades of tense relations with Rome had produced. However, the third decade of the third century brought to the Jews of Babylonia a new and threatening political reality of their own: the Arshardic Parthian rulers had just been defeated by the armies of a family of Mazdean priests from the Fars district in southeastern Persia. The new Sassanid dynasty that succeeded the Arsacids was characterized by a more centralized political regime; she saw herself as the heiress of the ancient Achaemenids and, more importantly, this change was accompanied by a new commitment to the ancient Zoroastrian religion. This zeal was expressed by the appearance of a revived and safe state church, and removing a flame from the rabbis’ hand in Talmudic anecdote is one of the many allusions to fire priests (habarim) who at first appeared to be a threat to the established freedoms of the local Jewish community. These same priests are quoted in the Babylonian Talmud as the reason why the rabbis granted the right to move Chanukah candles on Shabbat; keeping candles out of sight, they hoped, would prevent any hostile act from fire priests (TB Shabbat 45a).
It is in the light of these events that we must interpret the psalm of this generation:

(extract of the psalm 58 associated to this generation, verses 1 to 6 )

  • For the conductor, al tashcheth; of David a michtam.
  • Is it true that You were silent about the righteousness that You should have spoken, the equities [with which] You should have judged the children of men? 
    • After several centuries of relative tranquility, the Jews of Babylonia thought they had found a happy exile, but that is not the case, and this will be repeated throughout the history of the Jewish people. Whenever a refuge is found, it always ends up becoming hostile.
  • Even in your heart, you plot injustice; in the earth, you weigh down the violence of your hands.
  • The wicked become estranged [even] from the womb; those who speak lies go astray from birth.
  • They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like a deaf cobra that closes its ear,
  • Which will not hear the voice of charmers, the most cunning caster of spells (חוֹבֵ֖ר חֲבָרִ֣ים מְחֻכָּֽם )(חֲבָרִ֣ים =    habarim)
    • The reference to « caster of spells » (the Hebrew word used for « (caster) of spells » is « habarim » which corresponds to the denomination of Zoroastrian priests in the Talmud) is obviously a reference to the current generation with an enlargement to all the peoples who are attacking the Jewish people.
The new Sassanid dynasty wanted to erase the memory of their predecessors the Achaemenids. But just as they will not impose their faith through the ages, they will fail very quickly in this project if we rely on the legend about the birth of Shâhpuhr 1st (successor of Ardachir) reported by Tabari:
  • Sasan [4] died before the empire fell to him. But he had sworn to his son, who was to make the same commitment to his descendants, from father to son, that whoever of them would obtain the crown would execute his oath and destroy the Ascanians. […] Ardashir put to death all those (Ascanians) whom he reached, large and small; none of them remained alive, and the oath of his grandfather was fulfilled. […] One day it was presented to him the property of an Ascanian: gold, silver, men and women slaves. Among them was such a girl, who had never been seen more beautiful. Ardashir fell in love with her, and thought she was one of the slaves of the Ascanians. He used it in his service and held it close to his person. He asked her (one day) if she had ever been touched by a man. She answered no. Then Ardashir, unable to restrain herself, deprived her of her virginity, and she became pregnant with him. When he was familiar with her, he asked her where she came from and asked where she had been taken prisoner. She answered: I am not a slave, I am of the family of the Ascanians. Ardachir regretted having extended his hand upon her; he wished to make her die, so that no member of the family of the Ascanians would remain alive, and in order to fulfill the oath of her grandfather. But he could not do it because of the love he felt for her. […] He called an officer (superintendent who had full confidence), told him the story of the girl, and said: « I prefer the fulfillment of the oath of my grandfather to love for this girl. Take her away and kill her.  » When the superintendent took her to kill her, the girl said to her, « I am pregnant with the king. » He sent for midwives, who had to make sure of it. They confirmed that she was pregnant. The officer had her transported to her house and had her locked up underground. (..) He went to find Ardashir. Ardachim said to him, What have you done? He answered: I put it underground. Ardachir thought he had killed him.
To the king who several years later laments to dominate the world but not to have descendants, the officer answers him (in the continuation of the preceding quotation):
  • May the king live long! The king has at my house a perfect son, undoubtedly taken out of the king’s loins, who has grown up and is educated. […] The king gave me this Aschkanian girl to kill her; I was assured by the midwives that she was pregnant. I did not believe myself authorized to destroy the seed sown by the king. I placed her in the earth to see what she would bring into the world.
The woman will eventually give birth to the future king Shāhpuhr (which means « son of the king », name given by the officer). It will eventually be adopted as such by King Ardachir and will succeed him.
We find an illustration of these facts in the following verses of the psalm:

(extract of the psalm 58 associated to this generation, verses 7 to 9 )

  • O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; break the molars of lions, O Lord.
  • Let them be rejected; let them walk as [through] water; He will aim His arrows as though they are cut down.
  • Like a snail, which continuously melts, a mole [and a] stillbirth, which did not see the sun.

The arrogance (« break the molars of lions ») of the new Sassanid empire is undermined. The king who will succeed Ardachir is born underground, hidden from the sun (« a mole [and a] stillbirth, which did not see the sun »). What is paradoxical for a people in religion venerates fire.

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David can thus renew his faith in God who, at the end of time, will do justice to the Jewish people in the rest of the psalm, without failing to allude to Persia.

(extract of the psalm 58 associated to this generation, verses 10 to 12 )

  • Before your pots can feel the fire of thorns He will sweep them away with a whirlwind, the green and the burning alike. 
    • Again, the image of the pot and the flame (your pots can feel the fire) is a reference to the priests of fire. However, if we consider that Persia represents Iran today and that the end of the Psalm evokes the end of time, the pots could well be assimilated to nuclear power plants or even warheads and in this case the thorns symbolize the nuclear fuel: enriched uranium. David’s conclusion would then indicate that the atomic bomb war will bring nothing to Iran. Whether he succeeds in making it (the burning alike) or not (the green).  
  • The righteous man will rejoice because he saw revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
  • And man will say, « Truly, the righteous man has reward; truly there is a God Who judges on earth. »  
    • This conclusion reaffirms that the Jewish people will finally emerge victorious from its confrontation with nations that can only recognize the divine power.

 

 

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[1] According to : « Jews and Judaism / from 70 to 1492 / Volume 2 » by Marianne Picard. (French: « Juifs et Judaïsme/ de 70 à 1492/ Tome 2 » de Marianne Picard ).

[2] Chaim Potok: « A History of the Jewish People » / Book II, « Palestine, the Rabbis of Yavneh » (French: « Une histoire du peuple Juif »/Livre II, « Palestine, les rabbins de Yavneh » (p373) ).

[3] David Biale / The cultures of the Jews / Chapter 6: « Rabbinic culture in Babylon » (French: « Les cultures des Juifs »/Chapitre 6 : « Culture rabbinique à Babylone » (p234/235) ).

[4] TABARI / History of Prophets and Kings / From Solomon to the Fall of the Sassanids / History of the Rule of Shâhpuhr (French: TABARI/ Histoire des prophètes et des rois/De Salomon à la chute des Sassanides/Histoire du règne de Shâhpuhr (p. 180/181) ).