- Irano-Talmudica: The New Parallelomania?
Among talmudists, there has been an explosion of interest over the last fifteen or twenty years in exploring the significance of the Talmud’s Iranian background for the interpretation (on several levels) of the Bavli. This work, spearheaded by Yaakov Elman, represents an attempt to redress the imbalance between the contextual study of the Babylonian Talmud and of Palestinian rabbinic literature. Students of Palestinian rabbinic works have made extensive use for well over a century of literary and other sources of knowledge concerning the late ancient Greek-speaking world in order to illuminate numerous facets of the literature produced by Palestinian rabbis in this period; by comparison, little has been done on the Babylonian/Iranian front.1 There are of course objective reasons for this disparity—including the much more limited source material available for the study of Sasanian Iraq—but Elman and those he has inspired have been doing their best to overcome these obstacles.
Unfortunately, the Iranian source material is limited in quantity and its study is significantly hampered by linguistic, textual, and exegetical difficulties. In addition, there is the problem of anachronism; the bulk of the Iranian material is considerably later than the Talmud (even according to those who would date the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud to the late seventh century, which is much later than I would consider reasonable) and it is difficult to overcome this chronological gap by [End Page 209] arguing that Zoroastrian ideas were in place centuries before first attested, and then positing that they influenced the Talmud.2 To complicate matters further, the Talmud builds to a large extent on tannaitic literature, which was produced centuries earlier and almost exclusively in Palestine. It is much more difficult, although by no means impossible, to explain ideas that are already attested in second- or third-century Palestine as products of Iranian influence than it is to create Sasanian etiologies of ideas that are unique to the Babylonian Talmud. Of course those who work in this area attempt to deal with this fundamental difficulty, but these attempts are often problematic, except in cases where the ideas in question are deeply embedded in Zoroastrian worldviews, which go back further in time, or where there are linguistic giveaways.3 Finally, Sasanian and rabbinic legal conceptions and concerns diverge significantly.
I think there are at least two serious reasons to question from the outset how much influence we are likely to find,4 in addition to very fundamental differences in the legal realm: First, in contrast to Greco-Roman paganism, Zoroastrianism is a deterministic, dualistic religion that had no interest in co-opting members of other religions and historically did not accept converts.5 Members of other communities living under Sasanian [End Page 210] rule would perforce have been familiar with certain aspects of Zoroastrian religion and Sasanian culture, particularly those that had an impact on their own lives, but it seems fair to say that Sasanian culture was much more inner-directed and less cosmopolitan than Hellenistic culture. Second, the relatively small number of Iranian loanwords in rabbinic literature, in contrast to the much greater pervasiveness of Greek and Latin loanwords, strongly suggests a more limited degree of acculturation—the Iranian loanwords appear to be outnumbered by a factor of about ten to one,6 and the disparity is likely greater if we were to take into account not merely the number of individual lexical items but also their frequency. This is not to deny that some Jews were able to converse with some Zoroastrians, presumably in Persian, nor to claim that every cultural adaptation is accompanied by linguistic borrowing,7 but it is hard to suggest an explanation for this disparity if we assume that Iranian civilization had an impact on Babylonian Jewry comparable to that which Hellenistic civilization had on Palestinian Jewry. Elman acknowledges the disparity but downplays its significance, without, however, offering any explanation.8
Elman and others have written convincingly in general terms about the need to bear the Iranian setting in mind when approaching the Babylonian Talmud and about the numerous ways in which Babylonian Jews [End Page 211] might have encountered various...