The ancient Iranian or Indo-Aryan influence on Judaism through the Babylonian Talmud

The ancient Iranian or Indo-Aryan influence on Judaism through the Babylonian Talmud

The Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) has over 300 ancient Iranian loanwords and shows undeniable Zoroastrian influence

For example the resurrection of the dead in the Babylonian Talmud and Judaism is rooted in the Avestan idea of frashö-kereití, “the splendid, fresh, renewal of the creation” and the promise of an ever-youthful future physical form/body in the poetic gathas, (See Yasna 30.7, 2nd rhymed verse line.)

(The Avestan frashö-kereití is almost identical to the Old Norse Ragnarøk.)

However, the Babylonian Talmudic rabbis went to great efforts to prove that resurrection of the dead is derived from the ancient Israelite scriptures. The extensive space given in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin, fols. 90b-91b) to proving that resurrection of the dead is a biblically mandated doctrine, as well as attributing its denial to Job (Bava batra, fol. 15a), stands in gross contrast to the Yerushalmi’s glancing treatment of the issue.

Despite all the vain attempts to argue otherwise, the fact remains that Torah is a law book for here and now and the idea of the resurrection of the dead is ENTIRELY ABSENT in the Torah. It simply entered Judaism during the Persian period.

Also, the laws of purity set forth in the Leviticus and in the Mishnah, the 2nd-century CE law code of Judaism, exhibit remarkable affinities with the Zoroastrian purity laws.

(It shall be noted that impurity held a much more serious consequences for the Zoroastrians, since, theologically, impurity was a weapon of the afflicted, gloomy spirit or añgrá mainyü while, for the rabbis, impurity was a strictly technical category.)

For nine centuries Babylonian Jews lived under ancient Iranian/Aryan rulers, from the middle of the 2nd century BCE to the 7th century CE. This timeline covers the entire period of the formation of the Babylonian Talmud (220-500 CE).

The Middle East was divided into three cultural units:

(1) Hellenistic-Roman,

(2) Indo-Iranian/ancient Aryan,

and (3) the world of Semites.

It was to that third division, the Semitic, Aramaic-speaking part of it, that the rabbis of the Talmud belonged.

The ancient Indo-Iranians were an aristocracy in the conquered Mesopotamia. They made very little effort to Aryanize the lowlands of the Mesopotamia situated in the present-day Iraq.

The Talmudic rabbis seem to have known a good deal about the ancient Iranian religion and culture.

On the contrary the ancient Iranians seem to have been most oblivious toward the ancient Hebrews and their faith.

Hence, the Talmud associates the ancient Indo Iranian elites with ARROGANCE (Shabbat, fol. 94a), a charge also echoed for the ancient Persians by Procopius (History of the Wars, passim).

Talmud says concerning the ancient Iranian Magi “Those men are very tall, and their hats are a cubit high, referring to the pointed wizard cap brought by the ancient Indo Iranians from the Siberian steppes.

Talmud further elaborates concerning the Magi that they have outlandish names, like Arda and Arta (excellence, luminosity, virtue, Greek arête, Hebrew Sadoq.)

(Bavli Gittin 14a-b)

Concerning their religious freedom under the ancient Iranians, as Rabbi Huna, puts it, the Babylonian “exiles” were AT EASE under the Indo-Iranian rule, as the other Jews in the Roman world were not (Menahot, fol. 110a).

Unlike Christians, who might become a fifth column once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, the Jews posed no security threat to the Indo Iranian rulers and dynasties. They were left alone to practice their religion per the Zoroastrian religious rules for other nations.

However, Rava (mentioned some 3800 times in the Talmud,) criticizes the Indo-Iranian ruling elite with the words that “we are still the slaves of Ahasuerus” (i.e., Xerxes, the Achamenid king). He also commands the celebration of the Purim festival.

The same Rabbi in light of the ever increasing adoption of the Zoroastrian ideas, commands that it is forbidden to learn from a Magi (magus.)

Another clear Zoroastrian influence upon the Babylonian Judaism was a much more relaxed attitude toward sexual ethics.

Zoroastrian texts (in contrast to Manichaean and Christian texts), reveal a much more relaxed attitude toward sexual ethics than do Greco-Roman pagan, Christian, and classical Jewish texts.

Under direct Zoroastrian influence, Babylonian Talmud reflects a much more positive sexual stance than do Palestinian sources, (Satlow, pp. 175-83; Rubenstein, pp. 67-79, 147-54).

Rabbi Nahman (mentioned more than 1500 time in Talmud) who used Persian terms rather than rabbinic or Aramaic ones; allowed the women of his household a degree of freedom that more conservative rabbis disapproved of.

Rabbi Yehudah criticizes Rabbi Nahman for his elitist, Iranicized language, and his permitting freer social mixing of the sexes as it was in Zoroastrian Magi customs, (Qiddushin, fol. 70a-b).

While, the Talmud mocks the practice of the Zoroastrian kin-marriage; (xvēt-vad-dā; marry/wed only among self/own kind Yevamot, fol. 97a-b) two prominent rabbis contracted temporary marriages in accord with the Zoroastrian Sassanid institution.

For example, Rabbi Nahman contracted temporary marriages and also introduced the Sasanian institution of temporary or conditional “ownership” in his legal decisions (Bava batra, fol. 137b), especially in the area of ritual law (Elman, 2008, pp. 150-95).

Another Zoroastrian influence is the clear prominence and sacredness of the oral transmission of the sacred verse.

To the Zoroastrians the sacred verse/charm is a portal to eternity. The spoken word has a whole system of magical sound play and an array of interpretation possibilities. It must be transmitted orally to preserve its melodious magic. The holy Denkart thus without hesitation states that the living spoken word is much more important than the written one.”

Rava (Eruvin, fol. 21b) responds by quoting Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of the making of books there is no end,” that is, rabbinic law is too voluminous to be reduced to writing.

Another clear Zoroastrian influence in the Talmud and Zohar is the prohibition against allowing the rays of the sun to fall upon fire.

Another significant Zoroastrian Indo Aryan borrowing by the babylonian Jews is in the adoption of the sacred belt (Hebrew avnet, Aramaic hemyana, MPkustīg) by Babylonian Jewish society, to the point that wearing a belt was considered a preparation for prayer (Shabbat, fol. 9b; Zevahim, fol. 19a; Elman, 2007c, pp. 181-82).

Also, the Babylonian Talmud’s suggestion that nail-parings should be buried in the earth, accompanied with utterance of charms shows a direct Zoroastrian, ancient Indo-European influence going back to holy Vi-daæv-dátá literally the rulings against demons also known as Vendidad, (Williams, II, pp. 61-62; Gafni, 1990, p. 171; Elman, 2007a, pp. 141-44; idem, 2007c, p. 179; Vidēvdād, chap. 17).

It has long been apparent that the Talmud’s recommendation regarding the disposal of fingernail parings in Niddah, (fol. 17a) has a Zoroastrian origin.

Rabbi Nahman command to kill noxious insects as narrated in Talmud is directly influenced by Zoroastrianism. For the Zoroastrians, the killing of noxious insects is a virtuous act of great religious significance as is so reported also by Herodotus.

(Rabbi Nahman is reported to have told his daughters regarding the killing of lice: “Kill the hated ones and let me hear the sound!”Shabbat, fol. 12a).

Michael Satlow has pointed out that the rabbinic emphasis on the severity of the sin of emitting seed/sperm vainly (hotzaʾat zerʿa le-vattalah) is due to the work of the editor and redactor(s) of Niddah (fol. 13a-b). He suggests that “they adopted this concept from Zoroastrian notions, to which, they were exposed” (Satlow, 1995b, pp. 137-75).

The rabbinic concept of onaʾah, “overreaching” in sales, may be paralleled by Mādayān ī hazār dādistān (37:2-10), with the same three-day period stipulated and a similar profit-margin (Bava metzia, fols. 49b-50a, 69a).

Then there is the institution of meʾun (refusal), whereby a underage girl could be married off by her mother or brothers, but could, upon reaching her majority, leave her husband (Mishnah yevamot 13:1, 4, 7; Yevamot, fol. 107a; for the parallel, see Mādayān 89:15-17).

Reference is also made to ancient Iranian Zoroastrian festivals in the Babylonian Talmud, two of them being days on which taxes were paid.

Concerning the ancient Iranian Zoroastrian festivals the Talmud says they are Mutardi, Turyaskai, Muharnekai, Muharin. (Bavli Abodah Zarah 11b)

Mutardi refers to the winter festival Maið-yaar; Turyaski, to Tiragān (13th of the 4th month); Muharnekai, to Mehregān or the fall festival of love/amoré; Muharin, to Nauv-rooz (see Taqizadeh, pp. 632-39).

Talmudic Aramaic is influenced by Indo Iranian syntax (ō lō/as a reflex as ayāb nē, for example) and even its propensity to use the Persian verb kardan (to create, make, do, perform) in compounds as u hizzuq in place of the Semitic heheziqu (Bava metzia, fol. 55b; Elman, 2007b, p. 15).

The Babylonian Talmud says concerning the ancient Iranian that it involves a writing that can’t be forged without leaving some sort of evidence.

The evidence cited here, indicates that ancient Iranian, Zoroastrian attitudes and doctrines made inroads in many areas of Babylonian rabbinic culture, in law, in theology, and in general cultural attitudes.

This is to be expected, because of the Jewish long, peaceful sojourn under the ancient Iranians rule in the conquered Mesopotamia. Zoroastrianism was a more benign presence than Roman Christianity.

While Zoroastrianism greatly influenced Judaism in ideas such as the resurrection of the dead or the idea of future saviors; the messianic advent for the Zoroastrians was also in the future, and therefore not a subject for adversarial debate as it was with Christianity.


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8 Responses to The ancient Iranian or Indo-Aryan influence on Judaism through the Babylonian Talmud

  1. Khursheed says:

    v informative & enlightening.Thx!

  2. Thank you very much for all your marvellous and beautiful posts!
    I’m writing you to ask if you know and if you watched videos of Bill Donahue? I found his Youtube channel recently, and he posted several videos in which he teaches (with talent) about Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda and Zoroastrianism. For example this ons:
    What do you think about what he says? Do you know him?

  3. Omeed says:

    A point of correction: Iranians are NOT Indo-Aryans! The Indo-European theory of migration suggests that the first group of migrants from the region of the Black Sea travelled eastward approximately 7000 years ago. They initially settled in Southern Russian steppes, north of the Caspian Sea, from where they gradually moved south. This group of people referred to themselves as ārya, or noble, people. These Indo-Iranians, or Aryans, migrated south in several waves, some moving directly to northern India, where they formed the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-Iranian group, and some moved further west onto the Iranian plateau, hence being called the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranians. Indo-Aryans and Iranians are two separate groups who collectively make up the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European people. This distinction is fundamental to understanding the Vedic and Avestan periods. Indo-Aryans, due to their displacement of the local dravidian populations and integration of their faith with the native ones, went on to give rise to hinduism. Zarathustra, on the other hand, rejected those view and introduced the concept of moral dualism and divine monotheism in contrast to the Indo-Aryan polytheism. As such, other points of reverence were reversed, such as the negative asuras becoming ahuras, and the revered devas becoming the demonic daēvas. Based on linguistic evidence, and assuming that the Gathas were composed around 3500 years ago (give or take a few centuries), It is thought that Avestan, the presumed language of the Iranian people, split off from the parent Indo-Iranian language and the sister Indo-Aryan people with their Sanskrit language, around 4500-4800 years ago for the linguistic differences to have occurred between Avestan and Sanskrit.

  4. Diana Wilson says:

    Brilliant…it is finally time for human enlightenment through Zoroastrianism…thank you so much Bill.

  5. Asian says:

    It just seems so sad to consider what might have happened had history gone differently.

  6. Turk Hill says:

    Interesting essay. Personally, as a Jew, I believe that resurrection is mentioned in the Bible. Here is a Bible verse:

    “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some for eternity and some for shame and eternal contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

    It is also found in a prayer (taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 60b,) which says:
    “Blessed are you, L-rd, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.”

    The Mishnah gives a list of those who have no have no share in the World to Come:

    Every member of Israel has a share in the World-to-Come… But these have no share in the World-to-Come: One who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah; that there is no Torah from Heaven; and an apikores… (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1)

    If nothing else, it is more likely that the Persians adopted the notion of transmigration of souls from the Greeks when Alexander conquered them in 334 BCE. They might have gotten the idea from Pythagoras but there is no evidence that he had any contact with the Jains, so the idea might have come to him by itself.

    Yes, Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, said that people are judged and live in either Paradise or hell. But this does not mean that the Torah derived this idea from Zoroastrianism. As shown in that last quote, the Talmud only adds the list since the Resurrection of the Dead is found in the Torah and that it is possible that some were denying this principle. Thus to guard this principle the Talmud saw it necessary to inform Jews. For there is no other reason why our Sages would have mentioned it. While Zoroastrians like to claim that the idea of the resurrection of the dead (frashö-kereití) is theirs and that Jews adopted the Persian idea of resurrection from Zoroastrianism, the quotations listed above show that this may not be true. However, this does not dilute or even belittle Zoroastrianism. Is it not possible that Zoroaster, like Moses, though independent and removed by centuries [Zoroaster living long after Moses during the reign of the Achaemenid Persian], could have deduced the same idea from nature? Recognizing that there are wise people in all religions, the great rationalist Jewish sage, and philosopher, Moses Maimonides (Rambam in Hebrew) wrote that the truth is the truth no matter what its source.

    For a more in-depth analysis on the Talmud on resurrection and Zoroastraisim, please see Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin’s essay on his blog Rationasit Judaism, here:

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