On pages 16b-17a of Gittin, Rav Yehuda and Rabba come to visit Rabba bar bar Hanna. While they are conversing, in waltzes a “habara” and takes away their lamp. What a nerve! Who is this guy? Rabba is disturbed and says that he prefers living under the yoke of the Romans (“Esau”) to living under the Persians. The Gemara is shocked, as are we. Since when are the Romans good guys? The answer given is that before the arrival of the “habarei” it was better to live under the Persians, afterwards the Romans were preferable. Who are these terrible habarei and when did they arrive in Babylonia?
Rashi explains that the habarei came to Babylonia when Cyrus conquered it and the Persians replaced the Babylonians as rulers. This answer seems unlikely, not least because we know that Cyrus and the Persians were (mostly) good for the Jews. Tosafot does not like this answer either. Rabbenu Tam brings proofs from other Gemaras that the Persians and the habarei are not the same people (Kiddushin 72) and that the habarei came to Babylonia in the time of Rabbi Yohanan, long after Cyrus’ time (Yevamot 63b).
Tosafot seems to be correct in this instance and most scholars connect these habarei, often translated as priests, to the time of the Sasanian empire and the resurgence of the Zoroastrian religion (although to be fair to Rashi, Zoroastrianism first became popular in Persia in Cyrus’ time). Until the third century CE, Babylonia was ruled by the Parthians. They were largely tolerant of the Jews and allowed them autonomy. In the 220s, a new dynasty begins. They were called the Sasanians and their first king was Ardashir I. Ardashir wanted to restore the ancient Persian glory and his government was much more centralized. In fact, the Sasanians became so powerful that they were even able (occasionally) to defeat their great nemesis, the mighty Roman empire.
Ardashir I coin
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
This centralization came at a price for the Jews. A strong central government may protect its people but it may also curtail their rights. It seems that the Sasanians allowed the Jews less control over their internal affairs. A powerful example of this is brought by Professor Isaiah Gafni. He cites the story of Rav Kahana who killed a man who threatened to inform to the government about Jewish business. Rav told Rav Kahana to flee to the Land of Israel since the Persians (Sasanians) are not like the Greeks (Parthians); they do not overlook murder (Bava Kama 117a). Professor Gafni explains that the Parthians did not overlook murder, they just allowed the Jews to deal with their criminals internally. Under the Sasanians, there was less of that flexibility so Rav Kahana had to run away to avoid being taken into custody by the government.
But what does this have to do with lamps and religion? Part of the Sasanian push to revive ancient Persian power was restoring the old-time religion, Zoroastrianism. A major theme of Zoroastrianism is the constant struggle of good versus evil. Zoroastrianism is a complex religion but for our purposes a few points are pertinent. The priests were a strong hierarchy that had a say in government policy. Minorities were less tolerated than they had been before. And, most significant for understanding our Gemara, part of Zoroastrian worship is keeping a sacred fire burning continually and lighting new fires with great ceremony. Fire was seen as a way to attain purity and wisdom.
Zoroastrian Eternal Flame at the Fire Temple in Yazd, Central Iran Photo
Adam Jones, Ph.D./Global Photo Archive/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In a number of places in the Gemara, the habarei take away light from the Jews. For example:
“What is the ruling with regard to moving a Hanukkah candle from before the ḥabarei, on Shabbat?” (Shabbat 45a)
The question is can you move the candles, that are muktzeh, on Shabbat because of the danger from the habarei, who forbade Jews to light candles. In another instance, we hear how the Jews were required to give the habarei coal shovels to light their temples (Sanhedrin 74a). The habarei also decreed other laws against Jews: they banned ritual slaughter, did not allow Jews in the bathhouses and exhumed dead bodies (Yevamot 63b). This last decree fits with the Zoroastrian practice of exposing the dead and allowing their bodies to be destroyed by vultures, rather than placing them in the earth and contaminating the ground. These acts were so alarming that Rabbi Yohanan, who lived far away in the Land of Israel, was shocked by them.
The Gemara records fewer dramatic stories about Zoroastrian persecution than about Roman decrees. Does that mean that life was better in Babylonia? Or that there were just some very famous stories of martyrdom in the Land of Israel, like that of Rabbi Akiva and we know fewer tales about Babylonian Jews?
The question implied by the Gemara, was it worse under the Romans or the Zoroastrians, is unfortunately a common one in Jewish history. Were the Crusades worse or the Inquisition? Did Jews live better under the Muslims of the Christians? Was it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? To a large extent these questions are subjective and the answers change with the circumstances. And unfortunately, too often the answer is bad for the Jews. And yet somehow, Jewish communities managed to find the rays of light even when the lamps were taken away.
Gaelle Marcel, UnSplash