י״ח בטבת ה׳תשע״ו (December 30, 2015)

Gittin 17a-b: The Romans are Preferable to the Persians?

Our Gemara describes a time when Rav Yehuda and Rabbah came to visit Rabba bar bar Ḥana while he was ill. After a discussion of halakhot related to messengers who brought a geṭ from the Diaspora to Israel, a Habara walked into the house and took away the light that they had in the room. Rabba bar bar Ḥana reacted to this by saying that he would prefer to be ruled by God – or even by the Romans – rather than by the Persians who made life so difficult for the Jews. The Gemara explains that even though there are statements made that God exiled the Jews to Bavel in order to save them from the difficult rule of the Romans, that was before the Habara came to Babylonia. After they came, the situation became much more difficult for the Jews there.

The term Habara is what the Gemara calls Zoroastrians – the Persian priests – who are also referred to as amgushim and magim. They were an independent tribe who, over time, developed into the priestly caste of the Persian empire. They were involved in, among other things, the spread of magic. While the Parthians ruled in Iran and Persia, this group had no special status in society, but with the rise of the Sassanid Dynasty – at the beginning of the period of the amora’im – they became the religious leaders. During one of their holidays the only lights that were permitted were those in their temple, and they had agents whose job it was to extinguish all other forbidden lights.

We find quite a few references in the Talmud to the comparative benefits of Roman rule in Israel vs. Persian rule in Bavel. Although there were periods of relative quiet in Israel, the Roman rulers were seen as difficult and oppressive. This was both because the Romans were well organized and involved in every aspect of rule in the lands that they controlled, and because the Jews rebelled against them on several occasions. When the Roman Empire began to weaken there was also an increase in taxes; the rise of Christianity also made life more difficult for the Jews. In Babylonia, on the other hand, Persian rule allowed a much greater degree of autonomy for the Jewish community, at least until the rise of the Sassanid Empire in 224 CE, which mandated Zoroastrianism.

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