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The Unbreakable Ties that Bind

Understanding the Historic Relationship between Persia and the Jewish People‍

The Historic Relationship

The historic relationship between Persia and the Jewish people is one that is often overlooked or misunderstood, yet it is a story of resilience, survival, and unbreakable ties [1]. The Persian Empire, which spanned from modern-day Iran to parts of Central Asia, played a significant role in Jewish history. From the Babylonian exile to the reign of King Cyrus the Great and the story of Esther, the Jewish people have had a fascinating and often tumultuous relationship with Persia [2].

Despite years of persecution and diaspora, the Jewish community in Persia has managed to maintain its culture, traditions, and language for thousands of years [3]. Understanding this complex and nuanced relationship between Persia and the Jewish people provides a glimpse into the resilience and strength of both cultures. From ancient times to the present day, the unbreakable ties that bind Persia and the Jewish people continue to shape the world we live in today [1].

The Persian Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires in history, spanning from modern-day Iran to parts of Central Asia [4]. The empire was founded by Cyrus the Great, who ruled from 559 BCE to 530 BCE [5]. Cyrus was known for his religious tolerance and his policy of allowing conquered peoples to maintain their own customs and traditions [6]. It was under Cyrus that the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple [2][5].

The Persian Empire continued to grow and flourish under the rule of Darius the Great, who ruled from 522 BCE to 486 BCE [7]. Darius expanded the empire to include parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The empire was known for its vast wealth and its sophisticated culture, including its art, literature, and architecture. Persian influence could be seen throughout the ancient world, from Greece to India [8].

The Jewish presence in ancient Persia dates back to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE [2][9]. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish people to Babylon, many Jews settled in Persia [2][9]. It was under the Persian king Cyrus the Great that the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, an event considered one of the most important in Jewish history and is celebrated to this day [2][5][9].

The Jewish community in Persia continued to thrive under the rule of subsequent Persian kings, including Darius the Great and Xerxes [2][9]. The community was known for its scholars, including Ezra the Scribe, whose autobiography is in the Bible [2][10]. Others were respected throughout the empire for their knowledge of medicine, mathematics, and astronomy [2][9]. The Jewish community in Persia also played a role in trade and commerce, with many Jews working as artisans, advisors, merchants, and even bodyguards [2][9].

One of the most famous stories in Jewish history is the story of Esther, which takes place during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus. The story tells of a plot by the Persian courtier Haman to exterminate the Jews of Persia. Esther, a Jewish woman married to Ahasuerus, reveals her identity to the king and convinces him to spare her people. The story is celebrated with the holiday of Purim, which is still celebrated by Jewish people around the world.[11]

The story of Esther is significant in Jewish history for several reasons. First, it highlights the resilience and bravery of the Jewish people in the face of persecution. Second, it demonstrates the importance of Jewish identity and the role that Jewish women played in preserving that identity. Finally, it shows the strong relationship between Persia and the Jewish people, which has often been complex and nuanced.

The Jews in Persia lived mostly in their own communities, but also interacted with other groups such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. They developed their religious literature including Bible books of the Prophets and the Writings, and also adopted some Persian influences, such as names, words and concepts. The Jewish people were very much part of Persian life, even participating in some revolts against Persian rulers, such as against Heraclius in the 7th century BCE.[12]

Persian-Jewish relations during the Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the 8th century to the 14th century, was a time of great cultural and scientific achievement. During this time, Persia was a center of learning and scholarship, and many Jewish scholars made significant contributions to Islamic culture. Persian-Jewish relations were generally positive, with Jews serving in positions of power and influence in the Persian court.[13]

Persian-Jewish relations during the Safavid dynasty

The Safavid dynasty, which ruled Persia from the 16th century to the 18th century, was a time of great cultural and artistic achievement in Persia. The Safavids were known for their love of poetry, music, and art, and they were also known for their religious tolerance.

During the Safavid dynasty, Persian-Jewish relations were generally positive, with Jews serving in positions of power and influence in the Persian court. Many Jews also worked as merchants and artisans, contributing to the economic and cultural life of the empire. However, the Safavid dynasty also saw periods of persecution and discrimination against Jews and other minority groups. The most famous example of this was the forced conversion of the Jewish community of Mashhad in 1839, which led to the death of many Jews and the destruction of their homes and businesses.[14]

Contemporary Persian-Jewish relations

Today, there are still Jewish communities in Iran, although they are much smaller than they once were. The Jewish community in Iran is officially recognized by the Iranian government and has a representative in the Iranian parliament. However, there are still reports of discrimination and persecution against Jewish people.

Despite these challenges, there are also examples of positive relations. For example, the Israeli-American musician Idan Raichel has collaborated with Persian musicians to create a unique blend of Israeli and Persian music. The popularity of this music demonstrates the enduring cultural ties between Persia and the Jewish people.[15]

Ties that bind Persia and the Jewish People
  1. Sabar, Yona. “The Jews of Kurdistan.” In The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder, 397-399. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).
  2. Rosenthal, David. The Jewish Diaspora in Modern Times: The History of the Jewish People from Ancient Times to the Modern Era. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019).
  3. Sarna, Jonathan D. “Jews of Persia.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, edited by Adele Berlin and Maxine Grossman, 391-392. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  4. Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia: From 550 BC to 650 AD. (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996), 67-68.
  5. Neusner, Jacob. Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 78-80.
  6. Herzfeld, Ernst. The Persian Empire: Studies in Geography and Ethnography of the Ancient Near East. (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1968), 34-35.
  7. Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “Darius I the Great.” In Encyclopædia Iranica. Accessed May 20, 2021. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/darius-i.
  8. Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 112-115.
  9. Schäfer, Peter. The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 23-25.
  10. Holy Bible, New International Version. “Ezra 7:11-26.”
  11. Bible. Esther.
  12. 12.Zakaryaie, Mohammad. “The Jews of Iran: A Historical Overview.” Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-jews-of-iran.
  13. 13.Lewis, Bernard. “Iranian Jew.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Iranian-Jew.
  14. 14.Zakaryaie, Mohammad. “The Jews of Iran: A Historical Overview.” Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-jews-of-iran.
  15. 15.”Idan Raichel.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Idan-Raichel.