“The Holy One, Blessed be He, knows the Jewish people, who are unable to withstand the harsh decrees of the Romans. Therefore, He exiled them to Babylonia.” (Pesachim 87)
Once again, the (Babylonian) Talmud is telling us about the virtues and the difficulties of Babylonia. On the one hand, the Parthian government there was more lenient to the Jews and they havd more freedom, as opposed to under the Romans They also had a language like the language of the Gemara, Aramaic, as opposed to Greek. On the other hand, food may have been cheap but it was of bad quality, causing stomach problems. Let’s take a look at the Babylonian diaspora, the longest lived exile community in the Jewish world.
Jews first appeared in Babylonia at the end of the First Temple period. The Babylonians exiled the elite of the community, along with the king, Jehoiachin and the prophet Ezekiel, eleven years before they conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. They set up a community by the banks of what the book of Ezekiel calls the river Kvar. This was probably a canal system called Naru-Kabari near the city of Nippur. Canals were an important part of the landscape in ancient Babylonia, and we hear about them in the iconic poem in Psalms 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion.”
The Judean exiles settled in to life in Babylonia, following Jeremiah’s advice of building homes and praying for the peace of the government, as they would not be returning back to Judea quickly. However, in a fascinating twist, they retained their national identity even as they adjusted to life in a very foreign land. We know this from Tanakh – seventy years later some of the exiles choose to return to Judea when given the opportunity to restart their national homeland. But we also see it in Babylonian Jewry’s later history, for example in the Gemara. While they may have been entrenched in Babylonia, they had a highly sophisticated Jewish identity as well as autonomy.
A recent discovery has proved this again. In the 1970s dozens of cuneiform clay tablets appeared on the antiquities market. Their provenance was unknown. They were written in Akkadian, with some Aramaic and some Hebrew and they were written in a Babylonian city called al-Yahudu, the city of the Judeans. Most of the tablets are about business – contracts, rental agreements, wills, taxes. They date from 572 BCE to 477 BCE, i.e., the first century of Judean exile in Babylonia. The texts show that the Judeans, who were considered wards of the state and not slaves, retained their identity. All the texts are dated and none are written on Shabbat. The names are largely Hebrew names! The Judeans distinguished themselves from their first days on Babylonian soil.
Al Yahudu tablets, Wikipedia
By the time of the Gemara, there are great yeshivot in Babylonia. At first they were at Sura and Nehardea, then another one was opened in Pumbedita. While the names of the great amoraim of Babylonia are familiar to us from the Gemara – Rav and Shmuel, Abbaye and Rava, etc – we hear only peripherally about another significant figure. The exilarch, or the Resh Galuta, was the Jews’ representative to the government. He was from the family of David, the royal family, making him the closest thing to monarchy that Jews had in post Second Temple times. The Exilarch was very wealthy and lived an opulent lifestyle, supported by taxes on the community. As we hear in many stories of Amoraim visiting in the Exilarch’s household, this lifestyle was not always to the liking of the rabbis. But the Exilarch’s power and wealth were a source of pride to the Jewish community.
Map of major communities, Wikipedia
By the 9th century CE, the yeshivot had moved to Baghdad and the rabbis were called Geonim, from the name of the yeshiva, Geon Yaakov, the pride of Jacob. The most famous of the Geonim and one of the most famous Babylonians was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942). He is justly known as being the first in most everything. He was the first to translate the Tanakh to Arabic, the first to write a systematic grammar of Hebrew, to compile a prayer book in Arabic and to try to reconcile Torah and Arabic philosophy. Rav Saadia also engaged in a polemic battle with the Karaites, who were very powerful at the time, and fought with the head of the Eretz Yisrael community over whether Babylonia or Israel should have primacy in deciding the calendar. He also engaged in fierce battles with the Exilarch.
After the days of the Geonim, the center of Torah learning left Babylonia to move to other communities: France and Germany, Spain, Egypt and others. While the Jewish community continued to flourish, it was largely (with some exceptions) not known for its Torah scholarship.
By the twentieth century, Babylonian (or Iraqi) Jewry was a large, well established community. Many Jews worked in government positions and were highly educated. They felt very much a part of their society and most had little interest in Zionism. This changed with the Farhud, the terrible pogroms in 1941 where almost two hundred Jews were killed. While a tiny number compared to what was happening in Europe at the time, it was a terrifying wake up call for Iraqi Jews. Jews started to leave, but only very gradually as the British in Palestine were barely letting immigrants in. Shlomo Hillel, one of the agents of Aliyah Bet (“illegal” immigration) was involved with smuggling Jews into Palestine.
Shlomo Hillel (Wikipedia)
After the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state on November 29, 1947, anti-Semitism increased. Jews who worked for the government lost their jobs and some were arrested on trumped up charges. In October 1948 a Jewish businessman named Shafiq Ades was publicly hanged. Hillel, along with Mordechai Ben Porat, began traveling undercover to Baghdad, trying to arrange for a way to get the Jews out. In 1951 Iraqi law changed. Jews were allowed to leave but first they had to sell their properties and businesses. They were allowed to take sixty-six pounds of luggage and $140. No jewelry was permitted. Despite these restrictions, which basically impoverished a wealthy community, Jews lined up to leave. Operation Ezra and Nehemia brought 120,000 Jews to Israel between May 1951 and early 1952. Only six thousand were left behind. Most of those left in the ensuing decades and today there are four Jews known to be left in Iraq. The great Babylonian exile, begun twenty-five hundred years earlier, had come to an end.
Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel 1951 (Wikipedia)
As temporary havens go, Babylonia was good for a long time. But as our Gemara reminds us, there’s no place like home:
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The day of the ingathering of exiles is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created. (Pesachim 88)