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OF IRAN, one of the oldest Jewish populations in the Diaspora.

This article is available in print.

Volume XV, Fascicle 1, pp. 89-112

This entry will be divided into the following sub-entries:


Jewish communities have been living upon the Persian plateau since ca. 721 BCE, when King Sargon II (r. 721-705 BCE) relocated large communities of conquered Israelites “in the cities of the Medes” (western and northern regions of present-day Persia; 2 Kings 17:6; 18:10-11). The most significant mass immigration of Jews to Persia, however, occurred when Cyrus II the Great (b. ca. 600 BCE, d. 530 BCE; see CYRUS iii.) conquered Babylon on 29 October 539 BCE, freed all Jewish slaves and granted them permission to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and freely worship their god (Cyrus Cylinder [see CYRUS iv], lines 30-36; Ezra 1:1-4; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). While some returned to Jerusalem, others remained in Babylon, and a sizeable portion migrated east, eventually to settle throughout the Persian empire. Though scarce, all available evidence suggests that Jews lived freely and prosperously under Achaemenid rule, with some like the Ezra and Nehemiah even attaining highly influential positions in government (see ii. below).

Persian Jews continued to maintain generally cordial relationships with the successive dynasties between Achaemenid rule and the Arab conquest. The most notable exceptions to this occurred during those periods when the ruling government’s particular religious zealousness led to the harassment of all non-Zoroastrian minorities. For the most part, however, the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian rulers were tolerant of Jews, at times even allowing for state-sanctioned Jewish autonomous government (see iii. below).

With the arrival of Islam in Persia in 636 CE and the consequent implementation of the Pact of ʿOmar, all non-Muslims acquired dhimmi (ḏemmi) status: a second-class citizenship that granted certain basic legal protections and limited rights to property in exchange for an arbitrarily determined poll tax (jazia) and an indisputable recognition of Muslim dominion and supremacy (Tsadik, 2007, pp. 25-26). Despite this insurmountable inequality, from the Arab conquest until the rise of the Safavid dynasty in 1501, the Jews of Persia lived in relative symbiosis with their Muslim compatriots, as some became important court physicians and others powerful bankers and financiers who at various times virtually funded the entire ʿAbbasid court and government (Mez, pp. 478-79; Fischel, pp. 13-33; Lewis, pp. 67-106). A number of Jewish sectarian movements also took place in the earlier part of this period, though none with lasting influence (see iv. below). It is also in this period that the main body of Judeo-Persian literature was produced (see ix. JUDEO-PERSIAN LITERATURE). The various social changes brought on by the Safavid court would also prove pivotal in many aspects of the Jewish community’s daily life, namely the Jewish community’s role in the preservation, development, and proliferation of classical and popular Persian music (see xi. below).

Starting with the reign of Nāser al-Din Shah Qājār (r. 1848-96), British and French Jewry began exerting increasing pressure on the crown to provide equal rights and legal protection to Persian Jews. In conjunction with more general Western reforms throughout Persia, these pressures would eventually help improve circumstances for the Jewish community, even if measurable only in the slightest degree (see v. below). The arrival of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) French schools in Persia marks one of the most significant factors of European influence on the situation of Persian Jews during this period. The first AIU school opened in Tehran in 1898 after nearly twenty-five years of negotiations, thus finally granting Persian Jews the opportunity to receive a formal education for the first time in centuries (Nikbakht, p. 199). With the Constitutional Revolution the life of the Jewish community also began to improve. Jews were subsequently allowed to have one representative in the Majles, although the first was a Shiʿite clergyman named Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Behbahāni (d. 15 July 1910) (Levi, 1960, III, pp. 847-49; Āfāri, pp. 44-52). This period also witnessed the start of various Jewish movements and institutions, such as the publication of a Judeo-Persian weekly called Shalom starting in 1915; the establishment of Hevrat ha-mehazzepet sfat ʿever (a society for strengthening the Hebrew language) in 1917; and the organization of the Anjoman-e sÂiyunit-e Irān (The Zionist association of Iran) in 1919 (Davidi, pp. 240-45).

With the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-41), the condition of Persian Jews continued to improve (see vi. below). More socially assimilated into the general community than they had been for the past five centuries, they were now subject to all the same social changes and political reforms as their Muslim compatriots, such as Reza Shah’s mandatory dress reform for men in 1928 and the official unveiling of women in 1936 (Sahim, p. 189). Under Reza Shah’s rule, all laws discriminating against Jews were eventually abolished, most significantly the Shiʿite inheritance laws that granted full and exclusive inheritance to any Shiʿite convert from a Jewish family, regardless of proximity of kinship to the deceased, were abolished (Levi, 1997, pp. 512-13). With the rise to power of the Third Reich, Reza Shah was quick to align himself with Hitler, in part because of the ardent nationalistic ideologies they both shared (Pirnaẓar, 1996, pp. 95-97; Stein-Evers, pp. 4-6). This political sympathy quickly led to uncensored anti-Semitic propaganda throughout Persia, with entities such as Radio Berlin and the Pan-Iranian Party inciting the public’s anti-Semitic sentiments (Levi, 1960, III, pp. 969-71; Menashri, p. 386; Pirnaẓar, 1996, pp. 99-104). For a brief period, Muslims in cities such as Isfahan, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, and Tehran laid claims of ownership on Jewish homes and Jewish women, in the anticipated arrival of the German army and the expected exportation of the homeowners and the women’s husbands, fathers, and/or brothers (N. Sarshar; Kermanshachi; Ḵalili, pp. 184-86; Rafailzadeh). This did not prove the case in Kashan, however, where Dāvud Jāvid, the then head of the Anjoman-e kalimiān-e kāšān (Kashan Jewish Society), went so far as to secure official protection and have the city’s Jewish quarter guarded by uniformed police officers (Haghani).

With the rise of Moḥammad Reżā Shah Pahlavi (r. 1941-79), an entire generation of French-educated AIU graduates were ready to join the country’s full-throttle westernization and industrialization campaign, and Persian Jews found their way into virtually every sector of the country’s new or burgeoning intellectual, artistic, financial, and commercial arenas. Hamadan AIU graduate Rabiʿ Mošfeq Hamadāni (b. 1912) became the founding editor-in-chief of Keyhān newspaper in 1941 (Hamadāni, pp. 215-18). Soleymān Ḥaim (1886-1970; q.v.) compiled what remains to date the most popular bilingual Persian-French and Persian-English dictionaries. By the fall of the shah in 1979, Persia’s estimated 85,000 Jews had witnessed an unprecedented rise in social status and economic prosperity, with examples like Ḥāj Ḥabib Elqānāyān’s (ca. 1914-79) Plasco as the country’s leading plastics and aluminum producer; Ayub Yusefzāda’s (1930-95) Rayco Technique Industrial Group, Iran Margo Trading Company, and Agrifarm Machinery as the largest distributors of agricultural machines and oil and industrial pumps in the Middle East; and Loṭf-Allāh Ḥay’s (b. 4 December 1917) Kashmiran Corporation as one of the only three producers of cashmere wool worldwide (Levin, 1999, pp. 23-24; Yousefzadeh; Hay; Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 392-93).

On 9 May 1979, Ḥāj Ḥabib Elqānāyān became the first private citizen to be executed by the revolutionary court of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Elghanyan; Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 423; Levin, 1999, pp. 25-27). This event quickly became a factor in further precipitating the emigration of Persia’s Jewish community, some estimated 60,000 members of which would eventually leave the country. Of these, by and large the largest percentage settled in southern California, while another sizeable portion moved to New York, predominantly to live in Great Neck, Long Island. The next largest segment moved to Israel, while the remaining numbers scattered elsewhere in the United States, England, United Kingdom, and Australia.

Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is home to an estimated 25,000 Jews, who continue to have one representative in the parliament (see vii. below). The overwhelming majority of them live in Tehran, while the numbers in some of the oldest communities such as Isfahan and Hamadan have dwindled to a mere few hundred. Jewish schools, synagogues, and other social non-political organizations continue to function in the country, making Persian Jews the single largest community of Jews anywhere in the Middle East outside the State of Israel to have lived on the same land consistently over the past twenty-five centuries.


ʿAbd-al-Moḥammad Āyati, Taḥrir-e tāriḵ-e WasÂsÂāf, Tehran, 1967.

Žānet Āfāri, “Enqelāb-e mašruta: noḵostin gām barā-ye mobāreza bā yahudi-setizi dar Irān-e qarn-e bistom,” in Sarshar and Sarshar, eds., II, 1997, pp. 35-53.

J. Afary, “From Outcastes to Citizens: Jews in Qajar Iran,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 139-74.

Elias J. Bickerman, “The Babylonian Captivity,” in Cambridge History of Judaism I, Cambridge, 1984, pp. 342-57.

Avi Davidi, “Zionist Activities in Twentieth-Century Iran,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 239-58.

Hooshang Ebrami, “The Impure Jew,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 97-103.

Karmel Elghanayan (Ḥāj Ḥabib Elqānāyān’s son), correspondence with the author, New York City, 21 August 2008.

Menasheh Ezrapour (Jewish Iranian Holocaust Survivor), Video Interview. DVD #114, Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, Los Angeles. Walter Fischel, Jews in the Political and Economic Life of Medieval Islam, New York, 1969.

Mayer I. Gruber, “The Achɶmenid Period,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 3-12.

Nejāt-Allāh Haqqāni, interview with the author, 28 August 2008. Mošfeq Hamadāni, Ḵāṭerāt-e nim qarn ruz-nāma negāri, Los Angeles, 1991.

Lotfallah Hay, interviewed by the author, New York City, 25 August 2008.

Eliya Ḵalili, Yādi az gozaštahā: zendagi wa sargozašt-e yahudiān-e kord-e Irān, Los Angeles, 2004.

Heshmatollah Kermanshachi, interview with the author, 25 August 2008.

Ḥabib Levi, Tāriḵ-e yahud dar Irān, 3 vols., Tehran, 1960.

Idem, Tāriḵ-e jāmaʿa-ye yahudiān-e Irān, Los Angeles, 1997.

Aryeh Levin, “Habib Elghanyayan: A Reflection of the Iranian Jewish Community,” in Sarshar and Sarshar, eds., 1999, pp. 15-27 of the English section.

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Princeton, 1984.

David Menashri, “The Pahlavi Monarchy and the Islamic Revolution,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 381-401.

Adam Mez, The Renaissance of Islam, tr. S. Khudda Bakhsh and D. S. Margoliouth, Patna, 1937.

Vera Moreen, “Risala-yi Sawa’iq al-Yahud (The Treatise Lightning Bolts Against the Jews) by Muhammad Baqir b. Muhammad Taqi al-Majlisi (d. 1699),” Die Welt des Islams: International Journal for the Study of Modern Islam 32/2, 1992, pp. 177-95.

Amnon Netzer, “Sayri dar tāriḵ-e yahud-e Irān: nahżathā wa ravešhā-ye dini, fekri, wa nejāt yābi,” in Pādyāvand, II, ed. A. Netzer, Los Angeles, 1997, pp. 1-63.

Idem, “The Fate of the Jewish Community of Tabriz,” in Studies in Islamic History and Civilization in Honor of Professor David Ayalon, ed. M. Sharon, Leiden, 1986, pp. 127-56.

Idem, “A Judeo-Persian Footnote: Shāhin and ‘Emrāni,” Israel Oriental Studies 4, 1974, pp. 258-64.

Jacob Neusner, “Jews in Iran,” in Cambridge History of Iran III (2). The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods, ed. Ehsan Yarshater, New York, 1983, pp. 909-23.

Faryar Nikbakht, “As With Moses in Egypt: Alliance Israélite Universelle Schools in Iran,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 199-212.

Nimtaj Nowbandegani Rafailzadeh, interview with the author, 26 August 2008. Jaleh Pirnazar, “The Anusim of Mashhad,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 117-36.

Ž. Pirnaẓar, “Jang-e bayn al-melali-e dovvom wa jāmaʿa-ye yahud-e Irān,” in Homa Sarshar and Debbie Adhami, I, pp. 93-105.

J. Rypka, “Poets and Prose Writers of the Late Saljuq and Mongol Periods,” in Cambridge History of Iran V. The Saljuq and Mongol Periods, ed. J. A. Boyle, Cambridge, 1968, pp. 550-625.

Haideh Sahim, “Clothing and Makeup,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 177-89.

Homa Sarshar and Debbie Adhami, eds., Teruʿā: The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews I, Los Angeles, 1996.

Homa Sarshar and Houman Sarshar, Tāriḵ-e moʿāsÂer-e yahudiān-e Irān, 3 vols., Los Angeles, 1997-99.

Houman Sarshar, ed., Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, Los Angeles, 2002.

Nedjatollah Sarshar, interview, 10 February 2008.

Sorour Soroudi, “Jews in Islamic Iran,” in Jerusalem Quarterly 21, Fall 1981, pp. 99-111.

Michelle Stein-Evers, “Their Loving Kindness Endures Forever: The Tehran Jewish Community and the Yaldai Tehran,” in Homa Sarshar and Debbie Adhami, eds., I, pp. 3-11.

Daniel Tsadik, Between Foreigners and Shi’is: Nineteenth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority, Stanford, 2007.

Idem, “The Legal Status of Religious Minorities: Imami Shi’i Law and Iran’s Constitutional Revolution,” in ILS 10, 2003, pp. 377-408.

Edwin Yamauchi, “The Reconstruction of Jewish Communities During the Persian Empire,” in Journal of The Historical Society (Boston) 4/1, Winter, 2004, pp. 1-27.

Neguine Yavari, “Jewish-Muslim Interaction in Medieval Iran,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 51-59.

David Yeroushalmi, “Judeo-Persian Literature,” in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 77-93.

Caroline Yona (Menaša Ḥaim Ezrāpur’s daughter), communication with author, 22 August 2008.

Farhad Yousefzadeh (Ayoub Yousefzadeh’s son), communication with author, 23 August 2008.


Early history. The most significant chapter in the story of Jews and Judaism in Persia began 15 March 597 BCE, when King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia conquered Jerusalem and carried away as captives 10,000 Jews from Jerusalem and Judah, including King Jehoiachin of Judah. The archives of the British Museum in London store contemporaneous Babylonian chronicles written on clay tablets that describe the events, with which the Hebrew Bible concurs (Wiseman, pp. 32-33; 72-73). 2 Kings 24:14-16 states that the 10,000 Jews who were carried away included 7,000 warriors and 1,000 skilled workers. Esther 2:5-6 explains that Mordecai, who eventually became prime minister to the Persian King Ahasuerus (probably Xerxes I) at Susa was the great-grandson of Kish, who was one of those 10,000 captives. These prisoners were put into royal service, which included the development of new towns in places not previously inhabited, and military service. The Babylonian monarch appointed King Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, King of Judah. When Zedekiah himself asserted his independence, Nebuchadnezzar again laid siege to Jerusalem and carried away more men, women, and children, and he destroyed the Temple. In due course, many of these people and their descendants would find their way to Persia, just as did the grandparents of Mordechai and Esther (see ESTHER AND MORDECHAI). Consequently, Haman was able to report that there were Jews in all the provinces of Persia (Esth. 3:8).

On 29 October 539 BCE, Cyrus II the Great (b. ca. 600 BCE, d. 530 BCE; q.v.) invaded Babylon, where he was welcomed as a liberator by the devotees of the chief deity of Babylon, Marduk. Likewise, many of the leaders of the Jews in Babylonia looked upon Cyrus as the person designated by God to fulfill Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 29:14) that the Jews would be liberated and allowed to return to Judah. This attitude is reflected in the words of an unnamed prophet of the time, whose speeches are found in Isa. 40-66: “Thus said the LORD to Cyrus, His anointed one / Whose right hand He has grasped, / Treading down nations before him, / Ungirding the loins of kings, / Opening doors before him / And letting no gate stay shut: / I will march before you / And level the hills that loom up; / I will shatter doors of bronze / And cut down iron bars. / I will give you treasures concealed in the dark / And secret hoards / So that you may know that it is I the LORD, / The God of Israel, who call you by name. / For the sake of My servant Jacob, / Israel My chosen one, / I call you by name, / I hail you by title, though you have not known Me. / I am the LORD and there is none else; / Beside Me there is no god. / I engird you, though you have not known Me, / So that they may know, from east to west, / That there is none but Me. / I am the LORD and there is none else” (Isa. 45:1-6 [This and all translations of biblical texts in this entry are taken from Tanakh, 1985]).

Rebuilding the Temple. Just as our unnamed prophet conceived of Cyrus as having been chosen by the One God, of whom he admits Cyrus had never heard, so did the Akkadian cuneiform inscription called the Cyrus cylinder (see Figure 1; see also CYRUS iii) picture Cyrus as chosen by Marduk: “He [Marduk] scanned and looked (through) all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler willing to lead him (i.e., Marduk) (in the annual procession). (Then) he pronounced the name of Cyrus, king of Anshan, declared him to be(come) the ruler of all the world. Without any battle he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity. He delivered into his (i.e., Cyrus’s) hands Nabonidus, the king who did not worship him (i.e., Marduk). All the inhabitants of Babylon as well as of the entire country of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors (included) bowed to him (Cyrus) and kissed his feet, jubilant that he (had received) the kingship, and with shining faces. Happily they greeted him as a master through whose help they had come (again) to life from death (and) had been spared damage and disaster, and they worshiped his (very) name” (Pritchard, 1969, pp. 315-16).

The unnamed Jewish prophet was not alone in his belief that Cyrus would restore the Jews to Jerusalem and enable them to rebuild Solomon’s Temple. Contemporary devotees of the Babylonian pantheon also believed that Cyrus was sent by their respective deities to rebuild the various temples that Cyrus’s predecessor in Babylon, King Nabonidus, a devotee of the moon god Sin, had desecrated (Pritchard, 1969, p. 314). In the light of Cyrus’s and his Achaemenid successors’ playing the role of the king of Babylonia in Babylon, the king of Elam in Susa, and that of Pharaoh in Egypt, it is possible to appreciate Cyrus’s portrayal as having been chosen by the God of Israel in the Edict of Cyrus recorded in a Hebrew version in Ezra 1:2-4 (see also 2 Ch. 36:23; see ʿEZRĀ, BOOK OF) and in an Aramaic version in Ezra 6:3-5. The Hebrew version reads as follows: “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all His people—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the LORD God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem; and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill-offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2-4). With respect to the expression “God of Heaven,” E. Bickerman points out that the Achaemenid rulers used it to refer to all supreme divinities of the Semites (Bickerman, 1946, p. 257). Moreover, he notes that in speaking to Persians, the Jews at Elephantine called their deity ‘the God of Heaven’ (Bickerman, 1946, p. 257). Bickerman here alludes to the fact that among themselves they referred to their deity as YHW, a short form of the divine name YHWH (Porten, 1968, pp. 106-50). Bickerman suggests that Darius employed the appellation ‘God of Heaven’ because the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem officially designated their deity as “the God of Heaven and Earth” (Ezra 5:11), which they, in turn, derived from Deut. 4:39. It is quite plausible to go one step further and suggest that as early as the reign of Cyrus, the Jews from Egypt eastward designated their deity “the God of Heaven” and that consequently Cyrus adopted this epithet in his edict. The expression ‘the God of Heaven’ occurs seven times in Aramaic documents of the Achaemenid period quoted in the Hebrew Bible (Ezra 5:11, 12; 6:9, 10; 7:12, 21, 23) and twice in the Aramaic portions of the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2:18, 19). The Hebrew equivalent occurs four times in the memoirs of Nehemiah (Neh. 1:4, 5; 2:4, 20) and once in each of the two Hebrew versions of the Edict of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2; 2 Ch. 36:23).

The purpose of the edict is to encourage the Jewish exiles and their descendants to leave Babylonia and to undertake the journey to Jerusalem and to participate in the building of the Temple. Cyrus suggests that those who are happy remaining in Babylonia might participate vicariously in this venture by contributing money and goods. In fact, Ezra 1:6 states that this is exactly what happened upon publication of the Edict of Cyrus. Therefore, H. L. Ginsberg argues most convincingly that the expression “and all who stay behind” (Heb. wkl hnshʾr) in the standard Hebrew text of Ezra 1:4 derives from a misguided attempt in antiquity to correct an obscure original wkl hnsʾ a hyper-literal rendition of an original Aramaic wkl dy ytl meaning “whoever will pick [him/herself] up” (Ginsberg, 1960, p. 169).

According to Ezra 2:64, 42,360 persons responded to the call to ascend to Jerusalem, not counting their male and female servants. “All their neighbors [who may have preferred the comforts of Achaemenid Persia and Babylonia to the return journey] supported them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with livestock, and with precious objects, besides what had been given as a freewill offering” (Ezra 1:6; see the end of the edict quoted above).

Moreover, Ezra 1:7-11 reports that King Cyrus returned the Temple vessels, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had carried away from Jerusalem in 586 BCE (see 2 Kgs. 25:13-17). The vessels were brought back to Jerusalem by Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. In fact, our unnamed prophet addressed the persons carrying the sacred vessels with the following words: “Turn, turn away, touch naught unclean / As you depart from there; / Keep pure, as you go forth from there, / You who bear the vessels of the LORD!” (Isa. 52:11). We saw that Cyrus sent a group of Jews under the leadership of Sheshbazzar to Jerusalem to build the Temple (Ezra 1:8, 11). According to a letter from Tattenai (Ezra 5:16), the governor of Trans-Euphrates, to Darius I the Great (r. 29 September 522-October 486 BCE; q.v.), the Jews claimed that Sheshbazzar had indeed laid the foundations of the Temple (Rainey, 1961, pp. 52-53). However, according to Ezra 3, it was Zerubbabel who laid those foundations in the second year after the arrival of the first group of Jews from Babylonia in Jerusalem.

In the second year of Darius I, the Prophet Haggai (Hag. 1:1-11) asserted that the Jews failed to build the Temple during the previous eighteen years because they were concerned only with their individual material success. Happily, according to Hag. 1:14, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, responded to Haggai’s diatribe by setting to work immediately on the building of the Temple, which was dedicated in 515 BCE. The Book of Ezra-Nehemiah blames the failure to build the Temple during the eighteen years that followed the Edict of Cyrus on outside interference. However, the evidence presented by the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah (Ezra 4) for outside interference having been responsible for the failure to build the Temple during the reigns of Cyrus and Cambyses is totally unconvincing: the documents presented are dated to the reign of Artaxerxes, presumably Artaxerxes I (r. 465-24 BCE; q.v.), whose reign commenced half a century after the Temple had been rebuilt during the reign of Darius I. The full story remains to be reconstructed by historians when archeological research uncovers additional data.

Jews in law, government, and the military. Exactly as in other periods of Jewish history there were three parallel developments. Some Jews took advantage of the opportunity to return to their ancestral land; most chose not to do so; and many non-Jews adopted Judaism. Like the parents or grandparents of Mordechai and Esther who found their way to Susa, the children of many of the Jews who had been taken captive by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar found their way to the far reaches of the Persian empire. At the time of Cyrus’s successor Cambyses II (r. 530-22; q.v.), that empire embraced territories from the Indus river in the east to Egypt and Ethiopia in the west (see ACHAEMENID DYNASTY; see also ACHAEMENID SATRAPIES). Many of these Jews found careers in the Persian imperial army, as did several generations of Jews at Elephantine in Egypt in the fifth century BCE. Others, like the biblical Mordecai, Esther, and Nehemiah, found careers in government service. Given the extent of the Persian empire with its Persian language and Persian law, for the Achaemenid period Jewish history, virtually the world over, and the history of Iranian Jewry are synonymous. The Book of Esther (see ESTHER, BOOK OF) takes for granted the idea that the fortunes of all Jews almost everywhere was determined by the decisions of the Persian kings in their several seats of government at Susa, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan; q.v.), Persepolis, and Pasargadae.

Historians long assumed that during the seventy years from the dedication of the Temple (515 BCE) until the arrival of Nehemiah (445 BCE) Judah was attached to the province of Samaria. This assumption would account for the antagonism of Sanballat, the Persian governor of Samaria, from whose territory, as it were, Judah was detached and given to Nehemiah. That very same assumption would also account for the absence of biblical testimony to any Achaemenid-period governors of Judah other than Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah. Archeological discoveries of the last half century have altered this false impression. Relevant archeological data include the seal of Elnathan, the governor of Judah (sixth century BCE), a clay seal impression with his name as well as the personal seal of Shelomith, who designated herself as Elnathan’s ʾamah, a Hebrew term that may mean “royal official” (Avigad, 1976, pp. 31-32; Avigad, 1997, p. 31; Meyers, 1985, pp. 33-38). From seal impressions on clay jars dated to the early fifth century BCE recovered from Ramat Rahel, we know of two more governors of Judah, Jehoezer and Ahzai, whose terms of office should be dated midway between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah (Avigad, 1976, pp. 6, 35).

According to Ezra 7:12-14, King Artaxerxes, presumably Artaxerxes I, appointed Ezra the priest and expert in the law of the God of Heaven “to regulate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God, which is in your care” (Ezra 7:14). Ezra’s role in promulgation of the Torah (understood to be law: Aramaic dat derived from Old Persian dāta) by royal decree was consistent with Achaemenid policy. Just as Artaxerxes authorized the promulgation by Ezra of the law(s) of the God of Heaven, i.e., the Torah, among the devotees of God throughout Trans-Euphrates, so did Darius I in 518 BCE command Aryandes (q.v.), the satrap of Egypt, to assemble experts to codify the Egyptian laws. The Egyptian code, inscribed in both Aramaic and Demotic on a papyrus roll, was published in 495 BCE (Porten, 1968, p. 22). Likewise, the expression “the law of the king” alongside that of “the law of your God” in Ezra 7:26 (and see also Ezra 8:36; Esth. 3:8) refers to the fact that Darius drafted a new Persian legal code for the empire alongside the codified laws of the numerous peoples over whom he ruled (Frye, 1962, p. 119).

Nehemiah had been cupbearer to King Artaxerxes (presumably Artaxerxes I) when he was appointed governor of Judah (Neh. 2:1). As cupbearer, Nehemiah would have been the royal official closest to the king. He would have been able to determine who got to speak to the king. The king’s very life thus depended on Nehemiah, given that almost half of the Achaemenid kings were assassinated. Nehemiah would have been well trained in court etiquette, and he was likely of handsome appearance. It was he who chose the wines to be placed before the king. Day after day Nehemiah would risk his own life by skimming off wine from the king’s cup and swallowing it to make certain that it contained no deadly poison (Yamauchi, 1990, pp. 258-60). Nehemiah’s term as governor began in 445 BCE, and ended ca. 433 BCE (see Neh. 2:1 and 13:6; Weinberg, 1992, pp. 127-38). Like pre-exilic Israelite and Judean prophets, Nehemiah contended with socio-economic inequities (Neh. 5) and violation of the Sabbath (Neh. 10:32). Nehemiah persuaded the affluent to renounce for the sake of the common good claims against the impoverished to significant material assets (Neh. 5:13). Nehemiah’s additional title tirshatha (Ezra 2:63; Neh. 7:65, 69; 8:9; 10:2) is probably derived from Old Persian tarsa, and it probably means “the one to be feared.”

After Nehemiah, the next governor of Judah known to us bore the characteristically Persian name Bagohi. The precise derivation of this name is uncertain. Pliny suggests that it is not a proper name but a title meaning eunuch (Pliny, Natural History 13.41 cited by White, p. 567) It was Governor Bagohi to whom Jedoniah, the high priest, and his colleagues from Elephantine appealed in their papyrus letter in Aramaic dated 20 Marheshvan in the seventeenth year of Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE; q.v.)—i.e., 408 BCE—for help in rebuilding their sacrificial Temple of YHW (Pritchard, 1969, p. 492; Cowley, 1923, no. 31; Porten, 1968, pp. 284-95 and passim). The Jews of Elephantine explained that on 14 Tammuz 410 BCE, while the satrap Arsames was away from his palace in Memphis on a mission to King Darius, the priests of the Egyptian god Khnum bribed the Persian commander of the Elephantine garrison, Vidranga, to let them destroy the Jewish temple (Cowley, 1923, no. 30). Troops commanded by Vidranga’s son Nefayan demolished the temple. The letter of 20 Marheshvan indicates that a previous letter to Johanan the Jewish high priest at Jerusalem had gone unanswered. In addition, Jedoniah informs Bagohi that he is issuing the same request to Delaiah and Shelemiah the sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. Among the Elephantine papyri is a memorandum that shows that Bagohi and Delaiah jointly replied, calling upon Arsames “to rebuild it [the temple] on its site as it was before, and the meal offering and the incense to be made on that altar as it should be” (Cowley, 1923, no. 32; Pritchard, 1969, p. 492). This joint reply supports the contention of many modern historians that the schism which separates Samaritans from Jews had not yet developed in the fifth century BCE. Moreover, their joint support for the rebuilding of the Jewish sacrificial temple at Elephantine suggests that these two leaders at least did not hold that the divine law (Deut. 12) actually prohibited the worship of God by sacrifice in temples other than the one the Jews had built at Jerusalem and the one the Samaritans would build on Mount Gerizim. To this day it is commonplace in both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism for accepted practices to run counter to what is prescribed and/or proscribed in sacred canonical texts. When religious leaders and devoted laypersons are questioned as to how that is possible, they usually respond, “We do not go by that particular text.” Presumably that is what the Elephantine Jews would have said if someone had called into question their having a Temple outside of Jerusalem in apparent violation of Deuteronomy 12.

Beginnings of a Persian Judaism in antiquity. Throughout the Achaemenid empire, individuals and groups of devotees of YHW(H) can be recognized as such because of their overwhelming tendency to give their children names that contain the name of their deity. Typical are the names of Sanballat I’s sons, Delaiah and Shelemiah. Nevertheless, some devotees of YHW(H) bore names of Assyro-Babylonian origin such as Mordecai, which is derived from the Assyro-Babylonian god Marduk; Esther, which is derived from the name of the Assyro-Babylonian goddess of love, war, and the planet Venus, namely, Ishtar; and Sanballat, which is a shortened form of Assyro-Babylonian Sin-uballit, which means “The moon god gave(him) life.” Many persons whose activities indicate that they were adherents of YHW(H) bore Iranian names. One of the most common of these Iranian names is Bagohi (see, in addition to the governor of Judah mentioned in the Elephantine papyri, Ezra 2:2, 14; 8:14; Neh. 7:7, 19; 10:17).

The era of tolerance for all ethnic and religious groups inaugurated by Cyrus may have been a catalyst for the universalism preached by the very same anonymous prophet who heralded Cyrus’s liberation of Babylon as the harbinger of the redemption of Jews from exile: “As for the foreigners / Who attach themselves to the LORD, / To minister to Him / And to love the name of the LORD, / To be His servants / All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, / And who hold fast to My covenant / I will bring them to My sacred mount / And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. / Their burnt offerings and sacrifices / Shall be welcome on My altar; / For My House shall be called / A house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:6-7). This prophet’s summoning Gentiles to become “attached to the Jewish people” by observing the Sabbath and holding fast to God’s covenant accounts for several developments reflected both in biblical writings from the Achaemenid era and in data recovered by archeology. The Book of Esther, which is the most characteristically Iranian book of the Bible in both its setting and its language, takes it for granted that wherever there are Jewish communities there will also be “those who attach themselves to them” (Esth. 9:27). In later times this term for “Jews by choice” will be replaced by the term gerim (proselytes).

Achaemenid period Aramaic papyri from Egypt, the Murashu and Sons Banking House archives on clay tablets in Babylonian cuneiform from Nippur in southern Iraq, and an Aramaic inscription on a sarcophagus found at Aswan in Egypt all testify to many people bearing the name Shabbetai, which reflects the importance of the Jewish Sabbath (cf. Isa. 56:6 quoted above; Coogan, 1976, pp. 123-24; Porten, 1968, pp. 124-27). Porten shows that not all persons named Shabbetai were Jews (Porten, 1968, p. 127). It is seldom realized that both the Sabbath and the seven-day week were Israelite innovations of great antiquity (Gruber, 1969, pp. 19-20). It stands to reason that Gentiles were attracted to the Jewish Sabbath because this social institution made leisure, which previously had been the rare privilege of royalty and nobility, a matter of routine even for slaves. In modern times in Israel on the seventh day Sabbath and on Sunday (often referred to as the Sabbath by many Protestants) in countries with a large Protestant population it is common to see a virtual cessation of industrial production and commerce. This cessation of production and commerce enables masses of working people to enjoy leisure. In many countries in the Far East, where the influence of the Hebrew Bible is negligible, one can observe that construction of buildings and virtually all industrial and commercial activities continue on Sunday as on any other day of the week. There is no indigenous tradition of having a day off once a week. That is how life was everywhere before the Jews, carried away to what became the Persian empire, brought the Sabbath and its promise of social and economic equality to a world beyond the two banks of the Jordan river.

Universalism: a characteristic of Achaemenid-period Jewish literature. Just as the anonymous prophet, the so-called Second Isaiah, whose writings are appended to the Book of Isaiah speaks of the Temple to be built on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem as “a house of prayer for all peoples,” so does Zechariah, who spoke in the name of the God of Israel at the beginning of the reign of Darius I tell us of the role of the Jews in bringing the knowledge of God to the world at large: “Thus said the LORD of Hosts: Peoples and the inhabitants of many cities shall yet come—the inhabitants of the one shall go to the other and say, ‘Let us go and entreat the favor of the LORD, let us seek the LORD of Hosts; I will go too.’ The many peoples and multitude of nations shall come to seek the LORD of Hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus said the LORD of Hosts: In those days, ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech. 8:22-23).

The call to universalistic love and compassion is found also in the following passage in a later chapter of the same prophetic Book of Zechariah: “In that day I will all but annihilate all the nations that came up against Jerusalem. But I will fill the House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem with a spirit of pity and compassion, and they shall lament to Me about those who are slain, wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born” (Zech. 12:9-10). The universal vision of the Book of Zechariah is epitomized with the following prediction, with which for the last several centuries virtually every Jewish worship service concludes: “And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name” (Zech. 14:9).

So successful apparently were the anonymous prophet of Isa. 40-66 in the reign of Cyrus and Zechariah in the reign of Darius I in spreading knowledge of the One God that the biblical Prophet Malachi, traditionally regarded as the last of the Old Testament Prophets, tells us that in his time God could declare: “For from place where the sun rises to the place where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name; for My name is honored among the nations—said the LORD of Hosts” (Mal. 1:11). Biblical commentators, historians, and archeologists have yet to identify the non-Jewish devotees of God throughout the length and breadth of the Achaemenid state, to whom this prophet refers.

The universalism that we saw reflected in the Achaemenid-period writings found in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah and in the biblical books of Zechariah and Malachi is reflected also in the Book of Ezra, which relates that, when the Jews who returned to the Land of Israel in accord with the Edict of Cyrus celebrated the festival of Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month (later called Nisan, which corresponds more or less to Eastertide in western Christendom), they were joined in their festival celebration by “all who joined them in separating themselves from the uncleanness of the nations of the lands to worship the LORD God of Israel” (Ezra 6:21). Here, as in the passages in Isaiah and in Esther cited above, mention is made of born Jews’ accepting into their fold Jews by choice, which is to say, persons who were not born Jewish but who adopted the Jewish religion. In the same vein, Ezra 2:59 and Nehemiah 7:61 refer rather casually to the people from Tel-melah, Tel-harshah, Cherub, Addon, and Immer who could not testify to their Israelite ancestry, but who were nevertheless accepted as part and parcel of the Jewish people who came from Babylonia to Judah under the sponsorship of King Cyrus.

The very same universalism is reflected in one of the shortest books of the Bible, the Book of Jonah, commonly dated to the Achaemenid period because of its language and its referring to the LORD as “the God of Heaven,” just as he is referred to in the Edict of Cyrus. In the Book of Jonah, the prophet is sent to call the people of Nineveh to repent of their erstwhile, unspecified sins lest their city be destroyed. Even the animals put on sackcloth and fast, and the entire population repents. God rescinds his conditional decree of destruction. Jonah is thus the most successful prophet in the annals of biblical literature. This prophet, who has long been diagnosed as suffering from chronic depression, has one of his bouts of depression just at the height of his prophetic career. His pathological condition is born out by his excessive grief over the death of a plant, which had previously made Jonah happy. God, in the book’s conclusion, uses Jonah’s pathological grief over the plant as an occasion to bring home the lesson of God’s concern for the people and the livestock of Nineveh, whom God had been able to save from destruction because they heeded the call of the prophet. The meta-message is that God’s concern extends to all living creatures, perhaps not to the plant that had shielded Jonah from the sun, and is not limited to the Jews.

In the context of Achaemenid-period Judaism’s overwhelming universalism represented by Isa. 40-66; Zech.; Mal.; Jonah; and, according to most modern authorities, Joel, Job, Ruth, and parts of the Book of Proverbs as well, the account of Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s respective diatribes against marriage of Jewish men to women from among “the peoples of the land(s)” are totally anomalous. Ezra’s diatribe is found in Ezra 9-10, while Nehemiah’s two diatribes are found in Neh. 13. It is widely repeated in modern biblical scholarship that these diatribes reflect a dominant xenophobic tendency in Second Temple Judaism, which was the antithesis of the universalism preached by the Apostle Paul. Yehezkel Kaufmann (Kaufmann 1964, pp. 296-97) argued that the diatribes of Ezra and Nehemiah derived from their not having had at their disposal the option of religious conversion. Ginsberg (Ginsberg 1982, pp. 7-18), on the other hand, argued that the compiler of the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah was motivated by his commitment to uphold the texts in Deuteronomy 7 and 23 that specifically prohibited Jews from intermarrying with the peoples of the seven aboriginal nations of the land of Canaan and with Moabites and Ammonites. Yonina Dor (Dor, 2006) presents an elaborate and highly complicated theory, which attempts to reconcile the account of the expulsion of the foreign women with the various statements in Ezra-Nehemiah that refer to the acceptance of persons of non-Israelite origin as part of the Jewish body politic. A careful reading of the book of Nehemiah reveals that, in fact, persons—including Nehemiah—who signed an agreement not to give their daughters in marriage to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for their sons (Neh. 10:31) were the same Jewish people we met at the Passover celebration in Ezra 6:21, namely, “the rest of the people, the priests, the Le-vites … and all who separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to [follow] the Teaching of God, their wives, sons and daughters” (Neh. 10:29). So it turns out that the agreement that Nehemiah got everyone to adhere to and which obligated persons not to marry persons who worshipped deities other than the LORD also took for granted, as did Isaiah 56 and Esth. 9:27, that the Jewish people included persons who separated themselves from the idolatrous populations and joined themselves to Israel as Jews by choice. Consequently, it turns out that the dichotomy between the universalism of Isa. 56 and the alleged xenophobia of Ezra and Nehemiah is not reflected in the biblical text, which places Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s pronouncements in the context of the aforementioned signed agreement to which Nehemiah is himself a signatory. It follows that the universalism preached in Isaiah 40-66 and in Zechariah is upheld also by the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah, when the latter composition is not read selectively in order to prove that the Jews invented xenophobia.

The Elephantine papyri and women’s rights. The numerous Aramaic documents from Elephantine (q.v.) on leather, papyrus, and ostraca (potsherds) are the most important sources of information concerning Judaism in the Achaemenid empire. The earliest of these documents is dated 495 BCE, while the latest bears the date of 399 BCE. A very small number of these documents refer to the Jewish Temple and to the observance of Passover. However, most of these documents are contracts pertaining to marriage, divorce, and inheritance. An especially famous feature of the Elephantine papyri is the provision in marriage contracts guaranteeing both spouses the right to initiate a divorce. This provision has been of special interest in modern forms of Judaism, which have sought means of getting around the requirement in halakhah (specifically Mishnah Yebamot 14:1), according to which only the husband can initiate a divorce proceeding. There is a growing scholarly consensus that the Elephantine Jewish wife’s right to initiate a divorce has its roots in ancient Western Asia and even in Hebrew Scripture (Gruber, 1999, pp. 161-64). Those who make this claim are motivated, at least in part, by the desire to show that a non-patriarchal conception of marriage, whether in modern or ancient times, is a return to the pristine glory of Judaism rather than a symptom of assimilation to Gentile ways. It should be noted in this context that what Jews refer to as assimilation is the functional equivalent of colonialism in the larger world of Asia and Africa. Contrary to modern Western presuppositions, no time or place seems to have a monopoly on either sexism or equality of the sexes. A very important part of the legacy of Achaemenid period Jewry, which has been rediscovered by modern experts in the dynamics of Jewish law, is the provision for women to be able to initiate a divorce.

Probably the last governor of Judah during the Achaemenid era was Hezekiah, known only from fourth century BCE silver coins bearing the typical, for that time, picture of an owl and the inscription “Hezekiah the governor” (Rahmani, 1971, pp. 158-60). According to Avigad the date would be ca. 330 BCE (Avigad, 1976, p. 35). This date makes Hezekiah a contemporary of Sanballat III. The latter was the Samarian governor in the reigns of Darius III (r. 336-31 BCE; q.v.) and Alexander the Great (356-23 BCE; q.v.).

Five of the most important figures in late biblical books—Ezra, Nehemiah, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel—belong to the almost unknown history of Persian Jewry in the Achaemenid period. (On Daniel, and on his reputed tomb in Susa, see Figure 2; see also DĀNIĀL-E NABI.) But with the exception of a few seals and seal impressions from Judah and the biblical narratives of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, almost all we know of Jews and Judaism in this obscure period, when Jewish history and the history of Persian Jewry were one, is what we have learned from the Elephantine papyri, which tell us about a community of Jewish soldiers loyally serving the Persian king from their homes on an island in the Nile River. Undoubtedly, new archeological discoveries will shed additional light on the early history of Achaemenid Persia and its Jews who, having been liberated from the Babylonian yoke by Cyrus, chose, like Queen Esther herself, in a manner so characteristic of Jews everywhere, to remain in Persia and to build their lives there rather than join in the rebuilding of Jerusalem (on the reputed tomb and coffer of Esther in Hamadān, see Figure 3 and Figure 4).



Nahman Avigad, Bullae and Seals from a Post-Exilic Judean Archive, Qedem: Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jersualem, 4, Jerusalem, 1976.

Idem, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals, rev. and comp. Benjamin Sass, Jerusalem, 1997.

Elias Bickerman, “The Edict of Cyrus in Ezra 1,” Journal of Biblical Literature 65, 1946, pp. 249-75.

Michael David Coogan, West Semitic Personal Names in the Murashu Documents, Harvard Semitic Monographs 7, 1976.

A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1923.

Yonina Dor, Have the “Foreign Women” Really Been Expelled? Separation and Exclusion in the Restoration Period, 2006 (in Hebrew). R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia, London, 1962.

Harold Louis Ginsberg, “Critical Notes: Ezra 1:4,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79, 1960, pp. 167-69.

Idem, The Israelian Heritage of Judaism, New York, 1982.

Mayer I. Gruber, “The Source of the Biblical Sabbath,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 1/2, 1969, pp. 14-20; repr. Mayer I. Gruber, The Motherhood of God and Other Studies, Atlanta, 1992.

Idem, “The Status of Women in Ancient Judaism,” in Judaism in Late Antiquity. Part Three: Where We Stand: Issues and Debates in Ancient Judaism II, Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck, eds., Leiden, 1999, pp. 155-76.

Yehezekel Kaufmann, History of the Israelite Religion VIII, 1964 (in Hebrew). Eric M. Meyers, “The Shelomith Seal and the Judean Restoration, Some Additional Considerations,” Eretz Israel 18, 1985, pp. 33-38.

Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony, Berkeley, 1968.

James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed., Princeton, 1969.

L. Y. Rahmani, “Silver Coins of the Fourth Century B.C. from Tel Gamma,” Israel Exploration Journal 21, 1971, pp. 158-60.

Anson F. Rainey, “The Satrapy ‘Beyond the River,” Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology 1, 1961, pp. 51-78.

Houman Sarshar, ed., Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, Los Angeles, 2002.

Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scripture, Philadelphia, 1985.

Joel Weinberg, The Citizen-Temple Community, tr. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, Sheffield, UK, 1992.

Sidnie Ann White, “Bagoas,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, New Haven, 1992.

D. J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldean Kings (626-556 B.C.) in the British Museum, London, 1961.

Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, Grand Rapids, 1990.


After the fall of the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BCE, large numbers of Jews were deported to Babylon, in keeping with common ancient Near Eastern custom (cf. DEPORTATION i). When the Achaemenid king Cyrus II (see CYRUS iii) conquered Babylon in 539, he employed a new policy and reversed this practice, as recorded in the inscription of the Cyrus cylinder (see CYRUS iv): he sent back to their own lands both the gods and their peoples who had been held in Babylonia. This included the Jews, many of whom returned to re-establish their religion in Achaemenid Yahud (i.e., the Land of Israel) in the satrapy of Syria (see ʿEZRĀ, BOOK OF).

Many others chose to remain in Babylonia, but little is known about Babylonian Jewry during the remainder of the Achaemenid period. For the period of Seleucid rule (312-63 BCE), few references survive relating to the Jews in the trans-Euphrates territories generally. Even less is known about Jews in Iran proper in this early time (cf. the conflicting traditions about the founding of the town Yahudiya; see ISFAHAN iii). More information begins to become available by the first century BCE, under the rule of the Parthian Arsacids (q.v.).


By the time the Parthians reached Babylonia, Jews had lived there, under Babylonian, Achaemenid, and Seleucid rule for more than four and a half centuries. Every territory in the plain of the Tigris and Euphrates, from Armenia to the Persian gulf, as well as northeastward to the Caspian Sea, and eastward to Media, contained Jewish populations, and in some of these places, particularly Babylonia and Adiabene, these settlements were populous and strong. This is a point repeatedly made by Josephus and Philo in their dealings with Rome, partly of course for political reasons. The fact that neither Pliny nor Strabo mention the existence of Jewish communities in the Tigris-Euphrates valley indicates that from the perspective of the ethnography of the region as a whole, the Jews were not a dominant group. They were certainly not a majority in any one place, including Babylonia itself, although doubtless some towns and villages, such as Nehardea, Huzal, and Nehar Pekod, were mainly Jewish. The Jews were probably fewer in numbers than Iranians, most certainly fewer than Greeks and Babylonians and possibly also than the smaller Semitic ethnic groups (“Syrians”) viewed as a whole. But they were settled over a far greater geographical area than any other group.

While the Greeks were mainly living in a few major cities, the Babylonians around Babylon itself, and the Parthians were a small governing class in many places, being a majority population in only a few cities outside of Iran proper, the Jews must have formed minority communities in almost every city of the Euphrates valley and throughout the western satrapies of Parthia. (Some were in the east as well, in Afghanistan, and in India, but we do not know when they reached there.) Further, the Jews occupied large tracts of farmland outside of the major cities in Babylonia. Thus while they were nowhere the majority of a region, they were everywhere a significant group. Their numbers were constantly augmented by migration from Palestine (particularly in the second century CE), conversion, and natural increase. They doubtless grew in relative demographic importance and, even more so, in economic and political power. But it must be emphasized that when the Parthians reached Babylonia, the Jews were one—and not the most powerful—group among several in the area that had to be conciliated.

The Parthians did not bring great changes to Babylonia. They were, to begin with, a military aristocracy, intent upon building an empire, not upon effecting a religious-cultural program like the Macedonians earlier, or the Sasanians afterward. Their fortunes, like those of the Maccabees, at first were tied up with the fate of the Seleucid empire. As the Seleucids’ power waned, theirs waxed, and within a century of their first appearance upon the scene, they had reached the Tigris. A century later, they stood on the shores of the Mediterranean. A great, varied, and culturally heterogeneous region had fallen into their hands. Their task was, first of all, to establish effective government, and second, to secure the frontiers. These fundamental necessities preoccupied them throughout the four and one half centuries of their dynasty, and they had neither time nor taste to do much else. So they quite naturally preserved whatever stable communities or groups they found. They acquired Seleucia by treaty, and until the Seleucians broke the treaty in the first century CE, they scrupulously observed its provisions.

We know of no equivalent treaty with Babylonian Jewry, which hardly constituted a similar political entity. But if we may infer from the stable and friendly relationships that characterized the entire period, we may suppose that a hypothetical treaty would have contained the following provisions: the Parthian government will protect as best it can—and this proved to be not too well at any time—the civil peace; it will assure the Jews of the right to live by their own laws in all details; it will in no way interfere with the free exercise of their religion, nor will it seek to impose requirements upon the Jews which they find religiously repugnant. In exchange, the Jews will loyally uphold the Arsacid throne (whoever might be in possession of it at any given time) and will serve the best interests of the new regime, both at home and abroad. They will use their international influence in ways beneficial to the Parthian government, and seek to cultivate Jewish friendship in other lands for the home regime. Such a treaty would have served the vital requirements of both parties. The Jews had no intention of fighting for the Seleucids or against the Parthians. Like everyone else in the Middle East, they were prepared to accept the more powerful of two contending forces, once it became clear which one that might be. As the Greeks of Seleucia simply could not afford to oppose whoever controlled the trade routes to the east across the Iranian plateau, so the Jews of the region were in no position to rebel, and had no reason to.

The Parthians, for their part, had no interest whatsoever in stirring up unrest in the newly acquired territories, but rather wished to pacify them as easily and bloodlessly as possible. They accepted the cultural datum, whatever it was, and since it was mostly Greek, they called themselves friends of the Greeks; but where it was Jewish, they proved equally amiable. So, whether or not a Jewish regime existed with which such a treaty might be concluded, in fact the two parties accommodated comfortably to one another’s presence. At no time in the succeeding centuries did either side fail to live up to the requirements of a stable and friendly relationship.

Babylonia remained mostly peaceful, in the sense that no international armies ravaged its soil during the first two centuries of Parthian rule. The more difficult trials were posed by the open frontiers, which were crossed easily and regularly by raiding tribes from the desert and the Gulf. Whenever the central government was distracted, it was likely that such incursions would be made. The minority of the Sasanian king Shapur II (Šāpur II), from ca. 309 to 325, provides a paradigm for the difficult situation before and afterward. After sixteen years of a distracted and divided regency, Shapur took power, and his first task was simply to put down the Arab tribes that had made life miserable for the settled peoples of Babylonia. In consequence, he undertook several long and sharp campaigns, and so ferociously pacified the Euphrates frontier and the Persian Gulf that long afterward his “cruelty” was a byword among the local tribes. The longlasting Parthian regime, unlike the Sasanians, never imposed close and strict government throughout its frontiers or developed the bureaucracy that might have done so; and it was frequently preoccupied with dynastic wars, on the one hand, and eastern or western razzias on the other. The chief problem for ordinary people during that age must have been the normal insecurity of everyday life.

The dominant culture in Babylonia during this period was Hellenistic. Greek merchants controlled most trade; Greek cities provided the markets for the Semitic hinterland; Greek lawyers served the normal business needs of most of the population. While cuneiform records testify to some economic and astronomical facts, we have no reason to suppose that the ancient cuneiform culture exhibited very much vitality. Iranian influences are difficult to assess, though in time these became significant.


Under Ardashir (Ardašir) and Shapur I, the new regime, first of all, annulled Jewish legal autonomy and made it clear that the government would supervise the activities of the autonomous, local Jewish courts as the Parthians never had. Formerly, these courts had exercised complete authority over the Jews, so far as we can tell from the slender evidence available to us, perhaps including the right to inflict capital punishment. The change under the Sasanians was immediate and far-reaching, according to the following:

A certain man who desired to reveal another’s straw [for taxation?] appeared before Rab, who said, Do not show it! Do not show it! He replied, I certainly will show it! Rab Kahana, who was then sitting before Rab, tore his windpipe out of him [lit.; Jastrow: forced him to give up the threatened information against his neighbor]. Rab thereupon cited the Scripture, ‘Thy sons have fainted, they lie at the heads of all the streets as a wild bull in a net’ (Is. 51.20). Just as a wild bull falls into a net and none has mercy upon it, so when the property of an Israelite falls into the hands of pagan oppressors, no mercy is shown towards it. Rab thereupon said to him, Kahana, until now, the Greeks who did not punish bloodshed were [here] but now the Persians, who punish bloodshed are [here] and (they will certainly cry, Rebellion, rebellion!). Arise, therefore, and go up to the land of Israel. (Bavli Baba Qamma 117a)The change in the political status of the Jewish community in the early decades of Sasanian rule was accompanied by a similarly disastrous modification of the position of Judaism. The Arsacids certainly never persecuted the Jewish religion, even though in the unrest of the first century CE, Jewish political figures, such as Zamaris, Anileus, and Asineus (see ASINAEUS AND ANILAEUS), suffered a fall from favor. Whatever the religious attitudes of the Parthian government, Jews never found difficulty in exercising their religion in the four centuries of Arsacid rule. Under Ardashir, by contrast, they complained very bitterly against the government’s decrees concerning their religion, decrees which were, as we have seen, part of a broader policy of repression of competing cults in favor of the Mazdean state-church. One must therefore keep in mind the profound contrast between the former and the new regime, in order to appreciate how grave a crisis confronted Jewry.

What the Mazdean Mobads did was simply to forbid those Jewish religious practices which offended their sensibilities:

They decreed thrice on account of three things. They decreed concerning meat because of the priestly gifts. They decreed concerning the baths on account of ritual immersion. They exhumed the dead, because they [the Jews] rejoiced on their festivals, as it is said (I Sam. 12.15): ‘Then shall the hand of the Lord be against you and against your fathers [RSV: king].’ For Rabbah b. Samuel said, That [against the fathers] referred to exhumation of the dead, for the master said, ‘For the sins of the living are the dead exhumed.’ (Bavli Yebamot 63b)The context of the prophet Samuel’s speech, exhorting the Jews not to follow the ways of the gentiles, suggests that we are dealing with a sermon, rather than a strictly historical report. In each instance the sin of the Jews was contrasted with the appropriate decree of the Mazdeans, an attitude expressed by Samuel, for instance, when he taught that the pagan government can enact an oppressive measure effectively only when Israel disregards the words of the Torah (Lamentations Rabbah Proem II). One cannot, nonetheless, deny that the Persians in fact prohibited ritual preparation of meat, use of ritual baths, and burial of the dead, for the homily depends upon the existence of such prohibitions, taking them for granted and building upon the peoples’ reaction to them.

There can be no doubt, moreover, that the Persians made decrees to protect the sanctity of fire: “Rab was asked, Is it permitted to move the Hanukah lamp on account of the Magi (HBRYM) on the Sabbath, and he answered, It is well” (Bavli Shabbat 45a, compare Git. 17a). The Jewish practice, to kindle the Hanukah lamp near the street, would now have to change. Significantly, the Talmudic tradition regarded Rab’s ruling as one for a time of troubles only, which may reflect the liberalization of Sasanian religious and cultural policies under Shapur and afterward. (The Geonim had a tradition that “the Persians” forbade the reading of a prophetic lesson on the afternoon of the Sabbath, but this was certainly not in the early period, for Rab discussed the practice without indicating that it was threatened or prohibited, and there is no clear evidence to indicate when such a decree was issued.)

The Persians nonetheless made life miserable for the Jews, for not only did they impose petty inconveniences, such as those noted above, but in fact destroyed synagogues, probably in the first flush of conquest:

Rab said, Persia will fall into the hands of Rome. Thereupon R. Kahana and R. Assi asked Rab, Shall builders [of the Second Temple] fall into the hands of the destroyers [thereof]? He said to them, Yes, it is the decree of the king. Others say, he replied to them, They too are guilty, for they destroyed synagogues. It has also been taught by a Tanna: Persia will fall into the hands of the Romans, first, because they destroyed synagogues, second, because it is the king’s decree that the builders shall fall into the hands of the destroyers. Rab further said, The son of David will not come until the wicked kingdom of Rome will have spread over the whole world for nine months, as it is said (Micah 5.2), ‘Therefore will he give them up until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth, then the residue of his brethren shall return with the children of Israel. (Bavli Yoma’ 10a; cf. Sanhedrin 98b)Rab, who likewise described the horrible fate of R. Akiba as the king’s decree, which must not be challenged, here clearly stated that the Persians destroyed synagogues. Further, there may have been specific public persecutions directed against individual Jews, for Rab warned (b. Sanh. 74b) that if it is a royal decree to transgress the faith, one must not even change his shoelace. The Magi, likewise, were described by Levi b. Sisi to R. Judah the Prince, probably before their political establishment by the Sasanians, as “destroying angels” (b. Qiddushin 72a). Further, Rab stated: “Raba b. Mehasia in the name of R. Hama b. Goria in the name of Rab said: Under an Ishmaelite but not under a Roman [Edomite], under a Roman but not under a Magus, under a Magus but not under a scholar, under a scholar but not under a widow or an orphan… . If all the seas were ink, all the reeds were pens, all the heavens parchment, and all men were scribes, they would not suffice to write down the intricacies of the government” (Bavli Shabbat 11a). The preference for the rule of Rome rather than that of the Magi reflects the fact that in this period, the Jews in the Roman Orient lived at peace, as we have noted, by contrast with the unhappy condition of their Babylonian brethren.

Of greatest importance, Samuel and the exilarch (q.v.) both decreed that the law of the government is law. This saying, which has a long history in the development of Jewish law, and has been subjected to many varying interpretations throughout that history, meant originally that Persian law must be observed among the Jews, a meaning emergent in the several contexts in which the saying is cited. In consequence Persian law could not be ignored or evaded, as R. Shila had tried to do; Persian taxes must be paid; Persian rules on land tenure and transfer must be observed; all bills and conveyances drawn up by Persian courts had to be accepted by the Jews, even though they could not read Pahlavi (although they understood Middle Persian when it was spoken). One can hardly overestimate the importance of this dictum, both for Samuel’s lifetime and in the following generations. It was, first of all, a politically significant statement. Under the Parthians, the Jews were, so far as we can ascertain, governed by their own courts and under their own laws. In saying that the ‘law of the land is law,’ Samuel instructed the Jewish courts to conform to the new circumstances, and to accept the overlordship of the Iranian officials. Second, it represented the recognition that the Iranians did possess just courts and just laws, and should not be regarded as barbarians. It regularized, moreover, the status of such laws in Jewish communal affairs, and prevented Jews from claiming that by rights they should attempt to evade taxes and obedience to the government, contrary to the Palestinian view. By this dictum, subsequent Jewries accepted the legal authority of their respective governments, and thus quite directly conformed to the policy of Samuel enunciated when the Babylonian Jews confronted for the first time a government that was both hostile and insistent upon supervising their internal affairs.


In the four decades, from Shapur I to Shapur II, Babylonian Jewry found itself in the midst of a lingering crisis. The Iranian government had by no means fallen into capable hands. Under the Bahrams (q.v.), Shapur’s stable and benign settlement, by which minorities, including the Jews, were permitted to live in peace and conduct their own affairs without extensive government interference, was upset. Indeed, in the case of the Manicheans, it was overthrown. Mani (q.v.) was martyred and his followers banished from Babylonia. The Christians continued to gain in numbers, and some Jews now went over to the new faith, in part out of resentment for rabbinical rule, or because of disappointment in the way history was working itself out.

Unsettled conditions at home found a counterpart in unsatisfactory circumstances on the frontiers. Recovering from the disasters of the middle of the third century, the Romans proved a formidable foe. The formerly weakened frontier lines were reestablished, and in place of a distracted enemy, the Sasanian regime faced a powerful and determined one, under effective leadership. The old boundary settlement, so favorable to Iran, was set aside, and in one invasion after another, the Romans proved themselves superior to the Persian forces. The capital fell time and again, as central Babylonia witnessed the incursion of enemy armies, not once but several times. Even Narseh (see SASANIAN DYNASTY), in whom so many, remembering the glorious reign of his father, placed their hopes, proved a disappointment, most of all to himself. He had, at least, restored the normal rights of the minorities, but his failures upon the frontiers and in battle proved his undoing. Nonetheless, it became quite clear that the Sasanians would retain the throne, and would find the resources to sustain the empire’s integrity. The disasters of these decades did not result in the fall of the dynasty, nor did the Romans succeed in establishing a permanent foothold in Babylonia. Such negative results cannot be viewed as insignificant, given the military and political situation. But the death of Hormizd II (see HORMOZD II) found the Romans in an impregnable position in Armenia, most of which they now controlled, and in command of the Adiabenian highlands, the most direct and convenient invasion route into central Babylonia. One would have to look backward to the time of Trajan (q.v.) and Hadrian to find a situation so perilous for Iran.

For the Jews, domestic politics proved no more favorable. They suffered, though not so gravely as others, in the reaction against Shapur’s liberalism which set in after his death. Kartir’s “opposition” must have represented a deep disappointment to those who thought that the Sasanians would in the end behave as graciously as had the Arsacids. The Magi impinged upon the religious life of Jewry, preventing Jews from lighting lamps on Mazdean festivals, and perhaps also restricting the public observance of Judaism in other ways. They may have ignored the conversion of Jews to Christianity, thinking that passage from one to another Jewish sect mattered very little, but they prohibited conversion of Mazdeans to other faiths, and severely punished recalcitrant sinners. Jews were no longer appointed to the bureaucracy. Jewish ritual objects may have been desecrated. A later reference would suggest that some Jews were martyred at this time, though no contemporary evidence supports it. Whether or not the persecutions of Kartir amounted to very much, they did represent a substantial change from formerly acceptable circumstances, and it was that change, more than any specific complaint, which must have proved most bothersome to the Jewish community. In consequence, some of the rabbis continued speculation on when the Messiah might come; and yet, in all, ‘exiles in Babylonia’ were as “serene as sons,” and seen to be “far away” from the hope of returning to Zion. Taxes, and resulting enslavement, more than political and religious repression, proved in the long run the most grievous complaint. The rabbis regarded those who were enslaved on account of the poll tax as the property of the government, and treated them without compassion. But that taxation and slavery were serious problems testifies to the normality of Jewish life, for these were the bane of everyone’s existence, and not directed specifically against the Jews.

What were the chief concerns of the Jewish community’s leaders? First of all, to maintain peace and order; it was no easy task, but, on the whole, it was achieved. Second, the Jews were living in the midst of advanced and civilized peoples, under a government of considerable culture and sophistication. It was natural that they would admire, even emulate, their neighbors, and as we have seen, at least some left Judaism for competing religions. The difficulty of maintaining separate group existence in such a situation led the rabbis to erect, as best they could, very high walls to separate Jews from intercourse with their gentile neighbors. To prevent intermarriage, they sought to forbid commensality, and prohibited the use of pagan magic, though they themselves, or some of them, mastered the arts of incantation and sorcery.

The rabbis of Babylonia believed that the “Ten Tribes” had in time become pagans, and they did not want the same fate to overtake those for whom they held themselves responsible. Hence they used their mastery of the common culture of the region in the service of the separate existence of the Jewish people and tradition. They knew whatever gentiles did, so they wanted people to believe, but they knew far more about God and his revelation to Israel. Difficult though the task of the Palestinian rabbis was, that in Babylonia proved more complicated still, because of the Jews’ different attitude toward the land and toward themselves in it. In Palestine gentiles were seen as interlopers who would in time be expelled. In Babylonia, Jews did not regard themselves as permanent residents, but after nine centuries still called themselves exiles, and looked for the Messiah to carry them back “home.” In Palestine Jewish culture was conceived to be normative, and in many areas was dominant. In Babylonia, except for some towns and smaller districts, the Jews were a distinct minority. In Palestine the Jews saw the superior culture as their own, which had been rooted in the land for centuries. In Babylonia the dominant culture was shaped by others. Palestine itself had been a battleground, for which Jews had shed their blood. No Jew would fight a holy war for Babylonia. And, in this period, Palestinian Jews lived in peace, and Babylonian Jews did not.

THE AGE OF SHAPUR II, 309-372 CEJewry both profited and suffered from the contest for the Middle East which occupied most of the age of Shapur II. On the one hand, both sides were eager to avoid creating new enemies. On the other, they sought to subvert the enemy’s population. So in preparation for his Persian campaign, the emperor Julian (r. 361-63; q.v.) very likely made an effort to win over the Jewish communities of Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, first, by freeing them from the onerous and apparently unwanted burden of supporting the Palestinian patriarchate as well as by refraining from demanding discriminatory taxes levied upon Jews alone, and second, by promising to rebuild the Temple. It is possible, however, that the earlier “anti-Semitic” decrees of Constantine and Constantius, when separated from the nasty language the emperors used when speaking of the Jews, must have been of less consequence than has heretofore been supposed. The prohibitions against conversions, against circumcising slaves and even holding non-Jewish ones, and the like were of no substantial consequence in the life of ordinary Jews. Slaveholding and converting gentiles were of importance mainly to two groups, the former to rich people, the latter to religious virtuosi. It would stand to reason that the normal life of the Jewish community was not greatly disrupted, and moreover, that the factors which motivated Julian could not have been irrelevant to the Christian emperors. However pious and faithful to the new religion, they had still to consider the effects of their decrees upon the international position of the Roman empire in the east and the strategic position of the Jews, straddling a contested frontier.

In the Sasanian empire, Jewry enjoyed a no less favorable position. Among the inhabitants of Babylonia, they must have supported Shapur’s first efforts to pacify the region and reestablish a strong frontier against the desert tribes. Like others, they found the burden of an efficient collection of taxes to be onerous, but not unbearable, particularly since they sought means of evading them when possible. If, as is alleged in the Seder Olam Zuta (repr. New York, 1952), there was a persecution of the Jews in 313, then it must have been some local, perhaps private, matter involving a small group, for in the unrest and disorder of the years from 309 to 325, no central administration was sufficiently effective to undertake a large-scale persecution of any minority community. The rabbis in Babylonia enjoyed a reputation as exceptionally sage and powerful wonder-workers. They could make rain, Ifra Hormizd believed, and she allegedly warned her son, the emperor, “Whatever they ask of their Master, he gives them.” These stories preserve a quite accurate picture of the rabbis—among other holy men—as theurgies to be cultivated. If so, the Jews would have been seen as a community not to be trifled with, for among them were men who could enlist the favor of heaven. That consideration did not, of course, prevent the government from overseeing the Jewish courts as before or from collecting taxes despite the evasive behavior of the rabbis; but it would have provided a safeguard against gratuitous persecution. Traditions relating to Shapur II do not contain a hint of “anti-Semitism” or of any hostile action whatsoever. He supposedly respected the religious practices of some rabbis and made inquiries about the biblical foundations of burial, a rite abhorrent to Zoroastrian sensibilities. We have no evidence that a decree against burial of the dead, such as was mentioned in earlier times, was now under consideration, despite the emperor’s interest in building a strong state-church. It is true that some generalized references to “harsh decrees” and “persecutions” can be located in the stratum of traditions relating to this period. Nothing comparable to the stories pertaining to Ardashir’s time or to the boast of Kartir appeared in traditions on the age of Shapur II.

On the other hand, the Jews preserved hostile attitudes toward the Persians, by contrast, first, to Parthian times, and second to the stories about Shapur I and Samuel. One may suppose that by R. Joseph’s time—he died about 330—the long years of unstable government eroded whatever good will had developed within Jewry in the years of Shapur I. R. Papa’s comment reveals that the local gendarmes continued to be bitterly resented by the Jews, no more so, however, than “the proud” among their own group. By contrast, both Abbaye and Raba remarked about the lawfulness of the government and admitted that the Persian courts did not take bribes once a decree had been issued, a sure sign of a relatively uncorrupted court-system. On balance, one can surmise that Shapur II did establish a system of fair and even-handed administration, but that the Jews, like other communities in Babylonia, nonetheless objected to the high taxes and the petty indignities inflicted by both the wars of the day and the normal, everyday activities of alien local authorities.

Jewry shared not only the cost of the wars but, in 363, the enormous damage to life and property that followed as their consequence. The invasion of that year devastated precisely the lands in which Babylonian Jews were settled. Towns were destroyed by Romans or Persians; the fields ravaged; and as the armies moved across central Babylonia, scorching the crops and flooding the fields, one Jewish village after another must have met the fate of the unnamed town whose burning was described by Ammianus Marcellinus. On the other hand, there is no evidence that large numbers of people died in the invasion, and as soon as it had passed, most people must have been able to return to their villages and fields and undertake the task of reconstruction. We do not have any evidence concerning what the Jews actually did in the invasion. We know that villagers fled out of the line of war. But we do not know whether Jews or others in Babylonia joined in the armies of Shapur or supported those of Julian. Some have supposed that the Jews remained loyal to Shapur, and that in consequence he recognized their loyalty and rewarded it. I think it unlikely that they actually did anything at all. The wars were wars of pagan powers (Gog and Magog, so far as anyone knew) and not the affair of Israel. It is a perfect anachronism to speak of the “loyalty” of the “Persian” Jews to “their” government. The Jews were not Persians, but Jews. They neither rebelled against the Sasanian government nor went over to the enemy, because they had no reason to do either. But they supported Shapur no more than did the many towns and fortresses along the Euphrates that silently watched the Roman army and armada pass by unopposed and unaided. If Rome triumphed, they promised their support. For the meanwhile they remained quite neutral. Whether Shapur had given orders to that effect or not we do not know. A very few Persians joined the Roman army, as a few Romans had earlier gone over to Shapur, generally for private reasons. As a group, the Jews did neither; it was only Julian’s memories of Trajan’s invasion that aroused in his mind a contrary expectation. Shapur’s later deportations of Jews from Armenia to Isfahan and Susiana, moreover, are not to be interpreted as hostile to the Jews. Population represented wealth, and just as Shapur I resettled Roman captives in his empire to enhance its economic life, so his namesake later on both prevented emigration and forced immigration when he could. The Jewish population of the Sasanian empire grew not because of either hatred or love for Jews. Rather, the Jews were a useful group who did nothing of a subversive nature in Shapur’s reign, and new groups of Jews therefore could be safely moved to developing regions of the empire.

Jewry may have maintained neutrality in international politics but not in religion. The Christians remained in the eyes of Judaism apostates, as indeed some must have been. All other forms of religion were called “worship of stars.” Distinctions were not made among them. Jews had, the rabbis thought, to be kept quite separate from “pagans.” Strict laws about the preservation of wine from contact with gentiles continued to be widely enforced. Whether the increase in the number of instances of law enforcement reflected a vast improvement in the rabbis’ power to enforce the laws pertaining to wine, one cannot say. It may be that the cases, most of which arose in Raba’s court, have come down because of some peculiarity of literary history. It is possible that the numerous civil law cases of R. Nahman reached us because his court records were preserved, and those of other courts were not, and that the reason for their preservation was his high position in the exilarchate and the consequent probative value of his precedents. So we cannot be certain that the laws about wine were kept to a greater degree in the fourth century than in the third; but we may be fairly sure that they were widely enforced where rabbinical courts and market-supervisors were located. The taboo concerning gentile contact with wine would constantly have reminded ordinary Jews of the importance of keeping their distance from other people. The revelation at Sinai had implanted an undying hatred between Israel and the pagan world, so the rabbis believed, and it was the rabbis’ task to ensure, that social separation would preserve the purity of the faith.

That did not mean that ordinary people avoided workaday contact with gentiles, or that they could have had they wanted to. On the contrary, the evidence suggests both close economic and intimate social contacts. Decrees against attending pagans’ wedding celebrations, even against coming to their homes within thirty days, or a whole year, of such celebrations, had to be made probably because common people did what they forbade. Stories were told of most distinguished rabbis who believed that exceptional gentiles “do not worship idols” and might therefore be trusted and honored. One might suppose that gifts might even be given to such trustworthy gentiles. But this is not so. Even the best of gentiles are lewd and have evil intent, so the story said. It would suggest that people even in rabbinical circles thought the contrary was the case. The viewpoint of Deuteronomy shaped that of the rabbis of this period, as of earlier times, but it did not necessarily conform to the realities of daily life. Indeed, had the Jews widely observed the strict letter of the law as interpreted by the rabbis and behaved toward “pagans” as the rabbis said they ought, stable community life could not have been sustained for very long. If there is little, if any, evidence of government persecution of the Jews, there is none at all of popular feeling against them in Babylonia (unlike Edessa and other Christian centers). One reason for the absence of widespread popular hatred of the Jews is that the Jews probably did little, if anything, to keep the rabbis’ laws about how one must behave toward “paganism” and toward “pagans.” On the contrary, the Christian hagiographic literature repeatedly preserves stories about how Jews and Magi worked hand in hand in persecuting the Christians, in particular. Whether these stories are true or not, they suggest that the Christians discerned little if any enmity between Jewry and the Iranian political or religious leaders.

For the seven decades of Shapur II’s rule, the Middle East thus was in turmoil. First came a period of ineffective government, lasting from ca, 309 to ca, 325, when the conditions of daily life must have proved difficult. Arab tribes seized land and took people captive for ransom; trade must have been disrupted. The government, in the hands of regents, scarcely controlled the powerful local magnates. The empire seemed to be disintegrating, and for the common people of Babylonia, life became dangerous. When Shapur took power, he organized an effective army controlled by the central government. The new army, and the campaigns it fought, first in the south to recover the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates and to reestablish command of the Persian Gulf, and finally in the west and north, required enormous sums of money. Along with the army, a more effective bureaucracy and a unified state-church were established, and these ensured more efficient control of the population and collection of taxes. In place of the ransom paid to marauders by unfortunate people came levies which everyone had to pay. From 337 to 363, moreover, annual campaigns brought the emperor and his army into the field. After the great triumph of 363, Shapur turned to Armenia and made a number of political and military ventures in the north and northwest. Throughout these years, therefore, the farmers and artisans of Babylonia must have found life a succession of trials, some imposed by foreigners, others by the imperial government. One group, the Christians, suffered disaster when the government imposed special taxes which they could not pay, then demanded that Christians worship the sun and the stars and give up monotheism.

Against this background, one must interpret the limited information deriving from Jewish sources concerning the condition of the Jewish community. The data presents a mostly negative picture. That is to say, the rabbis did not preserve traditions about persecution. They certainly had to pay no abnormally high taxes on account of their religion. They were not singled out for punishment by the chiliarchs (q.v.) and gendarmes whom they hated. Life was difficult for them, to be sure, but it was far more difficult for the Christians, and it was no easier for others in the Sasanian empire. It was a time of troubles, but better the troubles coming on account of the campaigns of a strong and eventually victorious empire than those caused by the weak and distracted reigns that separated Shapur I from Shapur II. Many generations would enjoy peace and security on account of the temporary difficulties of the age of Shapur II. His victory settled for centuries the fate of Mesopotamia and ensured for as long the stable and placid life of Babylonia.

[This article is excerpted by the author from his works listed below.]


Isaiah M. Gafni, The Jews in Babylonia in the Talmudic Era. A Social and Cultural History, Jerusalem, 1990.

Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia I-V, Leiden, 1965-70; repr., Atlanta, 1999: I. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. The Parthian Period. 1965; 2nd printing, rev., 1969; 3rd printing. Chico, 1984. II. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. The Early Sasanian Period, 1966. III. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. From Shapur I to Shapur II, 1968. IV. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. The Age of Shapur II, 1969. V. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. Later Sasanian Times, 1970.

French tr.: Histoire des Juifs de Babylonie. Tome I. L’epoque parthe. Paris, 1997.

Histoire des Juifs de Babylonie II-V, Paris, 2006.

Idem, Aphrahat and Judaism. The Christian Jewish Argument in Fourth Century Iran, Leiden, 1971; repr., Atlanta, 1999.


Over a millennium-long social and cultural history of Iranian Jewry in the Middle Ages (ca. 636-1736), accounting for about a third of this community’s ancient sojourn in Iran, cannot be fully recounted as the scarcity of evidence leaves many gaps in such a narrative. Nevertheless, significant parts of this history are known in considerable detail. The Arab conquest of Iran (636 CE) and the end of the 18th century are convenient, if artificial, dates to demarcate the “Middle Ages” in a diachronic approach to the history of the Jews in Iran. During the first three centuries of Islam, the Jews of “Babylonia” and Iran formed the largest body of the entire Jewish Diaspora. As the earlier stages of “medieval” Jewish life in Iran cannot be easily disconnected from Jewish life in the Omayyad (661-750 CE) and ʿAbbasid (750-1258 CE) caliphates, the more ample materials from Jewish life in “Babylonia” (Syria-Iraq) also reflect, directly and indirectly, on life in Iran. While specific information about Iranian Jewry in these early centuries is generally spotty and sparse, data from documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza (Ar. janāza “burial,” derived from Pers., ganj “treasure, storehouse”) dating from the 9th-14th centuries, has contributed significantly to a growing body of scholarship.

From ancient times Iranian Jews formed communities in most of the major towns, villages, and regions of the Persianate world. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Iraq and Iran, then among the richest areas in the world, contained very large and prosperous Jewish populations (Goitein, II, p. 201). Travelers and early Geniza documents mention numerous areas and regions that had Jewish inhabitants, such as Āmol, Ahvāz, Arrajān, Balḵ, Bukhara, Barzanj, Dāmḡān, Isfahan, Firuzkuh, Ḡazna, Ḡur, Gorganj, Hamadān, Hormšir, Ḥolwān, Eṣṭaḵr, Jorjān, Kābol, Kāzerun, Khorasan, Kermān, Korkān, Māzanda-rān, Marāḡa, Marv, Nehāvand, Nišāpur, Qarmāsin (Ker-mānšāh) Qazvin, Rudbār, Samarqand, Šiniz, Shiraz, Šuš, Senān, Sirāf, Sirjān, Tawwaz, Ṭus, Tostar, Urmia, and Zarubān, (Gil, pp. 520-32; Goitein, I, p. 400, n. 2). By the 17th century, Bandar-e Gombrun, Faraḥābād, Golpāya-gān, Kāšān, Ḵᵛānsār, Ḵorramābād, Lār, Naṭanz, Qom, Šuštar, and Yazd are also mentioned in various sources (Moreen, 1987, pp. 56-117). The size of many of these communities appears to have been substantial. Tenth-century Arab geographers list them third after Zoroastrians and Christians in the population of Fars (Eṣṭaḵri, p. 139) and as particularly numerous in Hamadān, Ḥolwān, Nehāvand and Qarmāsin (Gil, p. 57, n. 46). The twelfth-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions that there were 15,000 Jews in Isfahan and 10,000 in Shiraz, and another contemporary traveler, Petahiah of Regensburg, estimated 600,000 Jews in Babylonia, and the same numbers in Kus (?) and Persia (Gil, p. 491). None of these figures can be verified.

The period between the 8th and the 10th centuries, when the major Jewish spiritual centers were located in the heart of the caliphate, Iraq and Iran were the most prosperous regions in the world. Their large Jewish populations flourished and most aspects of Jewish life in western Iran resembled that of their coreligionists elsewhere in the caliphate. Whether or not Iranian Jews actually welcomed the Arab conquerors (Abu Noʿaym Eṣfahāni [d. 1038], I, pp. 22-23) because of earlier Zoroastrian bouts of persecutions (Widengren, pp. 117-62), they were nevertheless affected by the discriminatory legislation instituted against the ahl al-ḏemma by the second caliph, ʿOmar b. al-Ḵaṭṭāb (d. 644), including the payment of poll-tax (jezya, q.v.), for “protection,” which enshrined second-class citizenship. Beginning in 807, ahl al-ḏemma were required to wear a patch of yellow cloth known as ʿasali (honey-colored), yahudāna, or ḡiār, over the shoulder. However, the strict enforcement of discriminatory legislation in centers distant from Baghdad is open to question. Thus in 739, during the reign of Hešām b. ʿAbd-al-Malek (r. 724-43), the protector (māneḥ) of the Jewish community of Marv in Khorasan, by the name of ʿAqiba, is mentioned as having exempted the Jews from paying the jezya (Ṭabari, II, p. 1688; Gil, pp. 276, 288). The high degree of religious autonomy enjoyed by Iranian Jews in pre-Islamic Iran continued under Muslim domination as well. The “Babylonian” exilarch, or raʿs-al-jālut (head of the Jews), was the nominal leader of the eastern Jewish communities, while the prestigious sages of the academies (Heb., yeshivot) of Sura, Pumbeditha, and, increasingly after the 10th century, Baghdad dominated their spiritual lives throughout the gaonic era (ca. 7th-11th cent.).

Iranian Jews set themselves apart from the majority of Rabbanite Jews through the fomenting of sectarian movements which, rather than “borrow” from or be “influenced” by Muslim (proto-Shiʿite) movements, were due to a “shared inheritance” of religious messianic discourse that may have had its roots in late-antique Judaism (Wasserstrom, pp. 47, 89). The first such, essentially syncretistic, movement, known as the ʿIsāwiya, was initiated by Abu ʿIsā Eṣfahāni (q.v.), some time in the 8th century. Confusing and contradictory details notwithstanding, Mo-ḥammad Šahrestāni (p. 168, Pers. tr., pp. 168-69, Ger. tr., I, pp. 254-55) relates that Abu ʿIsā proclaimed himself a prophet and forerunner (rasul) of the expected Messiah, using a variety of heterodox and Shiʿite vocabulary and advocating a rigorous, pietistic lifestyle (Gil, pp. 241-46; Wasserstrom, pp. 71-89). The revolt he may have instigated against the caliph al-Manṣur (r. 754-75) resulted in his death, or “disappearance,” after which the movement was led by Yudḡān (Yuḏʿān, or Yuḏaʿān? see Šahrestāni, p. 169 and Ger. tr. p. 254?), his disciple, who made similar claims (Gil, pp. 246-48). The contemporaneous Karaite movement, the main challenge to Rabbanite Judaism, originated in Iraq, but it spread quickly to Iran, especially to Tostar, Jebāl (former Media), and Khorasan (Gil, p. 268), as well as to Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Byzantium, and even Christian Spain (Goitein, I, p. 65). One of its most articulate proponents was the Iranian Benyāmin b. Mose Nehāvandi in the middle of the ninth century, whose views are expounded by the important Karaite writer Abu Yusof Yaʿqub Qarqisāni (fl. 10th cent.; Gil, pp. 264-65). Another important opponent of Rabbanite Judaism was Ḥiwi Balḵi (fl. 9th cent.), hailing from Balkh, Khorasan. His two hundred questions about certain biblical passages and injunctions repeat many anti-Jewish polemical arguments and are known primarily from the answers to them of the great Rabbanite sage Saʿdiā Gāʿon (Saadia Gaon, d. 942) and from the statements of a number of Karaite biblical commentators (Gil, pp. 318-22). Ḥiwi Balḵi’s early “scriptural criticism” forced Jews, Muslim, and Zoroastrians into an early form of “interreligious discourse” (Wasserstrom, p. 148). Two 12th-century Jewish travelers to the east, Obadiah the Proselyte and Benjamin of Tudela, mention that some Iranian Jews fought alongside the Ismaʿilis (see ISMAʿILISM), and that another Jewish messianic movement arose in ʿOmariya, near Mawṣel (Mosul), in the mountains of Kurdistan in northern Mesopotamia, during the 12th century, led by David Rōʾi (Gil, pp. 424-25).

The advent of the Shiʿite Buyid dynasty (945-1055) heralded the disintegration of the caliphate and brought great social, religious, and economic upheaval in its wake that affected the Jews also. On the whole, Iranian Jews appear to have sided with the Shiʿites during this period and, as always during turbulent times, messianic expectations appeared around 1024 (Gil, pp. 412-13). The 9th and 10th centuries witnessed Jewish emigration westward to other Muslim countries, especially to North Africa, and eastward to India via Upper Egypt and the Red Sea (Goitein, IV, p. 2). The paucity of letters in the Geniza during the Saljuq era (1038-1157) may indicate both continued turbulence and, more likely, that the Jewish communities of Iraq and Iran preserved their documents (if they did so at all), in their own genizot (archives; Goitein, I, p. 22). From the 10th century until the arrival of the Mongols in the 13th, both the spiritual and economic life of the Jews shifted westward due to continuous warfare and misgovernment (Goitein, II, p. 204).

There is no detailed information regarding the fate of specific Jewish communities during the Mongol onslaught, although Ebn Kaṯir (d. 1373) claims that Jews and Christians were spared during the conquest of Baghdad in 1258 (Gil, p. 433). It is known, however, that two Jews of Iranian extraction rose to high office during Mongol rule. Saʿda-al-Dawla b. Ṣafi, originating from Abhar in northern Iran, an agent (dallāl; Abu’l-Fedā, IV, pp. 17-18), but more likely a physician, became an important courtier of the Il-khanid ruler Arḡun b. Abaqa b. Hülegü Khan (r. 1284-91, q.v.). Working first in Baghdad, he provoked the jealousy of some courtiers and in 1288 was moved to the Mongol capital of Tabriz. He was responsible for major administrative and fiscal reforms, promoting his own men, often Jews, to high positions and patronizing scholars and poets. Rising to the office of grand vizier, resentment against him as both a Jew and a powerful man brought about his murder and that of many of his associates in 1291 shortly before Arḡun’s death (Gil, pp. 483-84). Saʿd-al-Dawla’s more famous contemporary was Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allah b. ʿEmād-al-Dawla Abi’l Ḵayr b. Ḡāli, who converted to Islam at the age of thirty. Hailing from Hamadān (q.v.) and also a physician, Rašid-al-Din was vizier to the Il-khan Abaqa (r. 1265-82) and later to his grandson Ḡāzān Khan (r. 1295-1304, q.v.). Rašid-al-Din was accused of bringing about the death of Öljeytü (Uljāytu; r. 1304-16), Ḡāzān’s brother and heir, religious heresy, and financial embezzlement. Like Saʿd-al-Dawla, Rašid-al-Din was also murdered in a barbarous fashion after Öljeytü’s death in 1316 or, according to Maqrizi (d. 1442), in 1318 (Maqrizi, II/1, pp. 189 ff.), after the execution of one of his sons in his presence. He was buried in a mausoleum in the Rabʿ-e Rašidi quarter of Tabriz, but his remains were disinterred a hundred years later and buried in the Jewish cemetery of the city.

Rašid-al-Din’s fame rests mainly on his Jāmeʿ al-tawāriḵ (q.v.), a universal history of the Mongols and the peoples with whom the Mongols came into contact, which caused John Boyle to call him “the first world historian.” He also wrote a partial Qurʾānic commentary, and an important treatise on botanical, zoological, and agricultural subjects, called Āṯār wa aḥyāʾ. He was deeply interested in architecture. He funded and oversaw major construction projects of Sufi ḵānaqāhs and madrasas and was keen on preserving his legacy by having his Arabic works translated into Persian (and vice versa), as well as preserving much of his correspondences dealing with financial and administrative matters (Gil, 2004 pp. 485-86).

Despite the spectacular rise and fall of Rašid-al-Din, the rule of the Il-khanid dynasty seems to have been relatively benign and especially encouraging of the arts. The name of Sultan Abu Saʿid Bahādor Khan (r. 1316-36, q.v.) is important for the history of Iranian Jewry not on account of specific acts on his part, but because Mawlānā Šāhin, the most important poet of Judeo-Persian literature (see below), flourished during his reign and even wrote panegyrics in his honor.

The Timurid and Qarā Qoyunlu-Āq Qoyunlu (1370-502) periods have not yielded information about Iranian Jews thus far. With the establishment of the Safavid dynasty more information becomes increasingly available. Shah Esmāʿil I (r. 1501-24, q.v.), the founder of the dynasty who compelled Iran to become Shiʿite, certainly had other priorities than the Jews. Defeating the Āq Qoyunlu and the Uzbeks, and being threatened by the Ottomans, his attention was focused primarily on Sunni foes. That he had little love for Jews is mentioned by two travelers. Tomé Pires, the Portuguese ambassador to China visited Iran in 1511-12 and wrote: “He [Shah Esmāʿil] reforms our churches, destroys the houses of all Moors [Sunnis?], and never spares the life of any Jew (Pires, I, p. 27). Raphaël du Mans, a later traveler, wrote in the 1660s: “Syach Ysmail hayt si tresparfondement les Juifz que partout où il en trouve, il leur faict crever les yeulx et puis les laisee aller …” (du Mans, Appendix p. 274). These statements remain uncorroborated, however. It is only with the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I (1581-1629, q.v.), at the summit of Safavid rule, that Iran Jewish historiography begins with Bābāʾi ben Loṭf’s Ketāb-e anusi. This chronicle deals with the periodic persecution of Iranian Jews between 1617 and 1662 and describes some events also in the reigns of Shah Ṣafi I (1629-42) and Shah ʿAbbās II (1642-66). Bābāʾi ben Loṭf, a Jewish native of Kāšān, can be considered a reliable recorder of events, many of which he appears to have witnessed. A number of events described by him are corroborated by other chroniclers such as Eskandar Beg Torkamān and Waḥid Qazvini (see BĀBĀʾI BEN LOṬF). He recounts a number of anti-Jewish incidents that took place during the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I, chief among these the shah’s violent reaction to accusations of magic against his person made by two bickering factions of the Jewish community of Isfahan. The episode, corroborated by the traveler Pietro della Valle (q.v.), relates that the shah punished the community by the option to convert to Islam or be devoured by ferocious hounds. A few Jews preferred martyrdom, but most Jews converted temporarily (Moreen, 1987, pp. 57-58; Appendix A; Della Valle, p. II, p. 72; Chronicle of the Carmelites, I, pp. 158-59; for a portion of the wall of a synagogue in the Safavid period, see Figure 1). Shah ʿAbbās I also sided with a Jewish apostate who tried to enforce a humiliating headdress on his coreligionists throughout the kingdom (Moreen, 1987, pp. 80-86). The Jews were by no means the only group that suffered from this monarch’s efforts to consolidate the kingdom and concentrate all power in his hands. There is no information on how many Iranian Jews may have converted to Islam during his reign, and Bābāʾi ben Loṭf states clearly that the Jews regained full religious freedom during the reign of Shah Ṣafi I (Moreen, 1987, pp. 93-94). However, the sporadic persecutions that began during the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I intensified considerably during the reign of Shah ʿAbbās II, whose grand vizier, Moḥammad Beg, made a concerted effort during the years 1656-62 to convert all the Jews of the kingdom. It would appear that he was motivated more by religious zeal than by covetousness. Although he first rewarded the new converts, he later demanded that the reward money be returned and that the jezya be paid in full—even retroactively—by anyone wishing to return to Judaism. Some Muslim communities (Faraḥābād, Golpāyagān, Ḵorramābād, Ḵᵛānsār, and Yazd) and a few ranking Muslim officials and divines (notably Mollā Moḥsen Fayż Kāšāni, d. 1680, q.v.), in defiance of the central authority, resisted the implementation of the drastic order to force the Jews to convert. However, most of the major Jewish communities appear to have converted under duress, and their Jews became anusim (Heb. “forced converts”) for about seven years, outwardly complying with Shiʿite Islam while practicing Judaism in secret, a practice not unlike that of taqiya (dissimulation) practiced by the Shiʿites for many centuries. Similar pressures were brought to bear at the time also on the Armenians, in order to confiscate their wealth, and on the Zoroastrians out of religious intolerance (Arakʿel of Tabriz, tr. Brosset, pp. 289-91, 489-93; Waḥid Qazvini, pp. 218-19; A Chronicle of the Carmelites, I, pp. 364-67; Moreen, 1987, pp. 62-79, Appendixes C, D).

Although Shah ʿAbbās II reversed many of the policies of Moḥammad Beg, whose machinations brought about his own downfall, the persecutions during his reign set a dangerous precedent that scarred Iranian Jewish communities deeply, both spiritually and materially. During the reigns of Shah Solaymān (1666-94) and Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn (1694-1722), the power of the Shiʿite hierocracy continued to increase. Sufis as well as religious minorities, such as Christian Armenians and Zoroastrians, were increasingly the targets of religious intolerance. Also during the reign of Shah Solaymān, the false messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi (d. ca. 1676) spread to Iran. According to the French traveler Jean Chardin, the Jews of Hyrcania (Gorgān) were so certain of the pending appearance of the Messiah that they refused payment of the jezya (Chardin, VI, p. 135). It is, however, difficult to gauge the spread of this movement among Iranian Jews, as no documents have surfaced by contemporary Jewish or Muslim sources.

There is little or no information available for the period from 1662 to 1722, that is the time between the end of Ketāb-a anusi of Bābāʾi ben Loṭf and the beginning of the second Judeo-Persian chronicle, Bābāʾi ben Farhād’s Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān (see below). The Chronicle of the Carmelites recounts a disturbing incident that occurred in 1678. A severe draught caused a steep rise in the price of cereals and men of all faiths prayed for rain. Apparently some unidentified theologians, fearing the potency of non-Shiʿite prayers, complained to Shah Solaymān that Jews and Armenian Christians had conspired to annul the Muslims’ prayers. As a result, the shah ordered the execution of the rabbi and two important notables of Isfahan and delayed their burial until it could be “purchased.” Many Jews fled Isfahan and the remaining community was heavily fined, while the Armenians, probably due to their greater economic importance and the protection of western powers, were less so (A Chronicle, I, p. 408).

Both foreign and internal pressures greatly weakened the late Safavid kingdom. In 1709 the Ḡelzāy Afghans captured Kandahar (Qandahār), which had been in Safavid hands since 1648, and the weak Safavid response emboldened them to penetrate Iran. Maḥmud, their chief, defeated the Safavids decisively at Golnābād and laid siege to Isfahan, which caused a disastrous famine in the city. The siege ended on 25 October 1722 (14 Moḥarram 1135), when the Afghan chief accepted the Iranian crown from the hands of Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn, and entered Isfahan. The brief reign of the two Afghan rulers, Maḥmud (1722-25) and Ašraf (1725-30), marks a nadir in the history of Iran, which was simultaneously beset by Ottoman and Russian invasions and efforts from various pretenders reclaiming the Safavid throne. Clearly, no social or religious group could have prospered in such trying times, and it is not surprising to learn that Iranian Jews were, once again, deeply affected. Their trials are recounted in Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān, the second Judeo-Persian chronicle, written by Bābāʾi ben Farhād (q.v.), the grandson of Bābāʾi ben Loṭf. Bābāʾi ben Farhād lived through the downfall of the Safavid dynasty and the invasion of the Afghans, Ottomans, and Russians, and he briefly refers to them chiefly from the perspective of Jewish communities and the individuals they affected. The greater part of Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān deals with the rise to power of Ṭahmāspqoli Khan, the future Nāder Shah (r. 1736-47), at first the chief promoter of the Safavid prince and, briefly, Shah Ṭahmāsp II (r. 1722-31).

Bābāʾi ben Farhād concentrates mainly on events in his native Kāšān for a period of seven months between 1729 and 1730, and the circumstances that led to the short-lived apostasy of its Jewish community. In pursuit of Ašraf, Ṭahmāspqoli Khan passed through Kāšān demanding taxes and tolls. Several communal leaders converted to Islam after having made payments in order to save their own lives and lessen the financial burden on the community. One of them then demanded that the entire community convert as well. Despite the opposition of many, including, notably, the Jewish women of Kāšān, all the Jews of the city were forced to convert. They briefly lived as anusim (see above) until the same communal leader went to Isfahan and, through the intercession of an official and the payment of further sums, was able to persuade Ṭahmāspqoli Khan to relent and allow the Jews to return to their faith (Bābāʾi ben Farhād, pp. 33-56).

The precedent for purchasing freedom of worship having been set in the 17th century, the Jews of Iran began to live under the threat of the annulment of this freedom. It is not surprising, therefore, to find some Jews sympathizing with the Afghan conquerors in the hope that Sunni rule might alleviate their hardships. Bābāʾi ben Farhād recounts how Ašraf killed Maḥmud as well as many Shi-ʿites but was generous to the Jews of Kāšān (Bābāʾi ben Farhād, pp. 31-33). Benyāmin b. Mišʾāel (d. after 1732), known by the nom de plume Aminā, a Jewish poet from Kāšān (see below), even wrote a panegyric in honor of Ašraf (Moreen, 2000, pp. 292-93).

The sources of the Afšār (1736-95) and Zand (1750-96) periods do not provide reliable historical information about Iranian, Jews although Judeo-Persian literary texts can be traced to this period. The historical trail picks up again at the dawn of the modern era, during the rule of the Qajar dynasty (1779-1924).

Economy. Without information preserved in the Cairo Geniza, little would be known about the economic life of Iranian Jewry in the early centuries of Islam. As it is well known, the Radhanites, at least some of whom were of Iranian origin, dominated commerce between the Muslim and Christian worlds between 600 and 1000 CE, and may had done so already in pre-Islamic times (Gil, pp. 615-37). Early Muslim geographers, as well as letters preserved in the Genizah refer to Tostar, a town in southwestern Iran, as an important center of the textile, especially silk, industry, in which Jews were fully involved (Eṣṭaḵri, p. 92; Ebn al-Ḥawqal, p. 256, tr., II, p. 253; Moqaddasi, pp. 409, 416). The far-flung manufacturing and commercial activities of the large eleventh-century Karaite Tostari family (originally from Tostar, later from Ahvāz) are particularly well documented (Gil, pp. 663-75; Fischel, pp. 68 ff.; Goitein, III, index). The Kujiks (Pers., Kučik) and the family of Joseph ha-Kohen b. Yazdād, were two other prominent Karaite families whose activities appear in the Cairo Geniza documents beginning in the 11th century (Goitein, III, p. 11; Gil, p. 677). Information about the dealings of some successful bankers of Iranian origin, such as Sahlawayh b. Ḥayyim and Ebn Šaʿyā (Goitein, III, pp. 56,136, 290) can also be found there. Such families, who emigrated to Egypt from Iran and Iraq, are recorded as having brought with them, selling, buying, and bequeathing in dowries, precious fabrics from Ṭabarestān, very fine royal silk called Ḵosravāni, curtains, carpets, garments named “Jorjān,” perfumes, sugar cane, a fine fabric called susanjerd, lily-embroidered tapestries (Goitein, IV, pp. 109, 121, 123, 192, 225, 247, 306-7), flax, and jewelry (Gil, pp. 670-71). It is more difficult to determine the degree to which Iranian Jews were involved in the manufacture rather than the trade of these commodities. By the 17th century, sources mention Jews who were weavers, farmers, dyers, minstrels, and butchers. Jean Chardin sums up their state as, “ils sont pauvres et misérables partout … ,” (Chardin, VI, pp. 133-34) artisans, small-scale usurers, purveyors of medical and magical services, with Jewish women having access to the palaces of rulers. Although some bankers are mentioned in the Geniza (Goitein, III, p. 290), Iranian Jews in late medieval Iran were apparently never great financiers; by the 17th century they were entirely eclipsed by Hindu merchants and middlemen (Bāniāns). Neither were they large-scale merchants, an activity in which they were far surpassed by the Armenians (Chardin, VI, pp. 133-34; Moreen, 1987, pp. 149-52). Both Judeo-Persian chroniclers testify to the hardships caused by the demands of the jezya, thus compounding the impression that the economic status of Jews declined continuously in pre-modern Iran.

Cultural accomplishments. The almost three millennia-long sojourn of Jews in Iran produced profound acculturation. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the spheres of literature (see ix. below) and the applied arts. Iranian Jews strove to emulate the arts of the Iranian tradition of illuminated manuscripts. Only thirteen Judeo-Persian illuminated manuscripts have so far been identified, none of which dates earlier than the 17th century. They tend to illustrate Hebrew transliterations of Persian romance maṯnawis, such as Jāmi’s Yusof o Zolayḵā, and album leaves containing miscellaneous short verses. The best examples are the illuminated manuscripts of the epics of Šāhin and ʿEmrāni, imitating the pictorial tradition of the Šāh-nāma. However fine and remarkable these manuscripts may be (like SPK [Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin] or. Qu 1680, of Šāhin’s Ardašir-nāma, and IM [Israel Museum] 180/54, of his Musā-nāma), they are not comparable to the products of the royal workshops that produced the great masterpieces of Persian miniature paintings, but rather to their less accomplished provincial imitators. Without exception, they are the products of one hand in a given manuscript rather than the collective effort of a workshop. There exists no proof that these manuscripts were produced by Jews, as they are all unsigned, but we know of no reasons or prohibitions, on the Jewish side, that would have prevented them from acquiring these skills. However, Muslim guild laws may well have thwarted such efforts. It would appear that some painters may have been Muslims as ms. IM 180/54, which repeatedly depicts Moses’s face covered by a veil on which “His Excellency Moses” (janāb-e ḥażrat-e Musā) is written in Persian script, would suggest. It cannot, however, be discounted entirely that a Jewish painter, wishing to show his work to Muslims, would have complied with pictorial clichés that respected Muslim sensibilities. Based on some discrepancies between a number of miniatures and the texts they illustrate, it would seem that some of the painters, whether Jews or Muslims, probably unable to read the Judeo-Persian text themselves, had to be informed about the contents of their pictures. If the painters were Muslims, these manuscripts represent attractive examples of Jewish-Muslim cooperation. Jewish calligraphers, when they were not owners preparing texts for their own personal use, are generally anonymous, although at least two manuscripts (IM 180/54 and SPK or. oct. 285) were copied in the excellent hand of Nehemiah ben Amsal of Tabriz. Many Judeo-Persian manuscripts have lovely tooled leather bindings; very few have 19th century lacquered bindings. While nothing is known about the patrons of these manuscripts, it is reasonable to assume that they were made for prominent members of larger Jewish communities, such as those of Isfahan and Kāšān (Moreen, 1985)

Iranian Jews also contributed greatly to the musical life of Iran (see x, below), especially to its instrumental dimension. Although the names of individual Jewish instrumentalists from the medieval period have not been preserved, families with long traditions of musical performance have survived into the present time (Loeb).


A Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia and the Papal Mission of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries, 2 vols., London, 1939.

ʿEmād-al-Din Aḥmad Abu’l-Fedā, al-Moḵtaṣar fi aḵbār al-bašar, eds. Mo-ḥammad Zaynahom ʿAzab, Yaḥyā Sayyed Ḥosayn and Moḥammad Faḵri Waṣif, Cairo, 1998.

Abu Noʿaym Ahmad b. ʿAbd-Allāh Eṣfahāni, Ḏekr aḵbār Eṣfahān, ed. Sven Deddering as Geschichte Iṣbahāns nach der Leidener Handschrift, 2 vols., Leiden 1931-34, I, pp. 22-23; tr. Nur-Allāh Kasāʾi as Ḏekr-e aḵbār-e Eṣfahān, Tehran, 1998.

Arakʿel of Tabriz, Patmutʿiwn Aṛakʿel Vardapeti Dawrižetsʿwoy, ed. and tr. M. I. Brosset in idem, Collection d’histoire Arméniens, 2 vols., St. Petersburg, 1874-76.

George Bournoutian as The History of Vardapat Arakel of Tabriz, Costa Mesa, 2005.

Bābāʾi ben Farhād, Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān dar bāb-e ʿebri wa goyimi-e ṯāni, ed. and tr. with commentary Vera Bash Moreen as Iranian Jewry During the Afghan Invasion, Stuttgart, 1990.

John Boyle, “Rashīd al-Dīn: The First World Historian,” Iran 9, 1971b, pp. 19-26.

Jean Chardin, Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, ed. Louis Langlès, 10 vols., Paris, 1811.

Pietro Della Valle, Viaggi di Pierto Della Valle, il Pellegrino, ed. G. Gancia, 2 vols., Brighton, UK, 1843; tr. G. Havers as The Travels of Sig. Pietro Della Valle, A Noble Roman, into East India and Arabia Deserta, London, 1665; tr.

Šoʿāʿ-al-Din Šafā as Safar-nāma-ye Petro Delā Vāla, Tehran, 1969.

Raphaël Du Mans, Estat de la Perse en 1660, ed. Charles Schefer, Paris, 1890.

Ebn al-Ḥawqal, Ketāb ṣurat al-arż, ed. Johannes Hendrik Kramers, Leiden, 1967; tr. Johannes Hendrik Kramers and Gaston Wiet as Configuration de la terre, 2 vols., Beirut, 1964-65.

Abu Esḥāq Ebrāhim b. Moḥammad Eṣṭaḵri, Ketāb masālek al-mamālek, ed. Michaël J. de Goeje, Leiden, 1870.

Walter J. Fischel, Jews in the Economic and Political Life of Mediaeval Islam, London, Royal Asiatic Society Monographs 22, 1937.

Moshe Gil, Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages, tr. David Strassler, Leiden and Boston, 2004, pp. 241-48, 520-32.

Shelomo D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols. Berkeley, Cal., 1967-93, repr. 1999.

Gilbert Lazard, “Judeo-Persian ii. Language,” in EI ² IV, p. 313.

Laurence D. Loeb, “The Jewish Musician and the Music of Fars,” Asian Music 4, 1972, pp. 3-14.

Šams-al-Din Moḥammad Moqaddasi (Maqdesi) Baššāri, Aḥsan al-taqāsim fi maʿrefat al-aqālim, ed. Michaël J. De Goeje, Leiden, 1907, repr. 1967.

Vera Basch Moreen, Miniature Paintings in Judeo-Persian Manuscripts, Cincinnati, 1985.

Idem, Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism: A Study of Bābāi Ibn Luṭf’s Chronicle (1617-1662), New York, 1987.

Idem, “The Kitab-i Anusi of Babai ibn Lutf (Seventeenth Century) and the Kitab-i Sar Guzasht of Babai ibn Farhad (Eighteenth Century): A Comparison of Two Judaeo-Persian Chronicles,” in Michel M. Mazzaoui and Vera B. Moreen, eds., Intellectual Studies on Islam: Essays Written in Honor of Martin B. Dickson, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1990.

Idem, In Queen Esther’s Garden: An Anthology of Judeo-Persian Literature, New Haven, 2000.

Idem, Catalogue of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, forthcoming.

Amnon Netzer, Montaḵab-e ašʿār-e fārsi az āṯār-e yahudiān-e Irān. Tehran, 1973.

Idem, “Redifot u-shemadot be-toldoth yehude Iran ba-me’ah ha-17,” Peʾamim 6, 1980, pp. 33-56.

Idem, Oṣar kitve ha-yad shel yehude Paras be-Makhon Ben Ṣevi, Jerusalem, 1985.

Andrew J. Newman, Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire, London, 2006.

Tomé Pires, The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires: An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan, Written in Malacca and India 1512-1515 and the Book of Francisco Rodrigues… . , tr. Armando Cortes, 2 vols., London, 1944.

Roger Savory, Iran under the Safavids, Cambridge, 1980. Moḥammad b. ʿAbd-al-Karim Šahrestāni, Ketāb al-melal wa’l neḥal, ed. William Cuerton, London, 1846, p. 148; tr. Afżal-al-Din Ṣadr Torka Eṣfahāni as al-Mellal wa’l-neḥal, ed. Sayyed Moḥammad-Reẓā Jalāli Nāʾini, Tehran, 1956; tr. Theodore Haarbrücker as Religionspartheien und Philosophen-Schulen, 2 vols., 2nd ed., Hildesheim, 1969.

Moḥammad b. Jarir Ṭabari, Taʾriḵ al-rosol wa’l-moluk, ed. Michaël J. de Goeje et al., 3 vols. in 15, Leiden, 1964.

Mirzā Moḥammad-Ṭāher Waḥid Qazvini, ʿAbbās-nāma, ed. Ebrāhim Dehgān, Tehran, 1950.

Steven M. Wasserstrom, Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis in Early Islam, Princeton, 1995.

Geo Widengren, “The Status of the Jews in the Sassanian Empire,” Iranica Antiqua 1, 1961, pp. 117-62.

Ehsan Yarshater, “The Hybrid Language of the Jewish Communities of Persia,” JAOS 97, 1977, pp. 1-7.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Elʿazar, Ḥobot Yehudah, ed. and tr. Amnon Netzer, Jerusalem, 1995.


This entry will be divided into two separate sections:

(1) Communities. (2) Conversion.


The socio-economic and legal status of the Jews of Iran in early Qajar times was, to an extent, a continuation of the legacy of Safavid times. With the passage of time, however, and largely due to the increasing intervention of the great powers and foreign Jews, certain changes started to be seen. The following topics will be addressed in this entry: the size and dispersion of the Jewish population, its changing occupational basis and legal status, as well as religious disputations between Shiʿites and Jews, the Jews’ real life situation, and finally, early Zionist activity during this period.

Population size and dispersion. Although various sources provide population estimates it is difficult to rely upon them since they were not systematically retrieved by the various observers, and they are sometimes contradictory. Numbers provided by the Jews themselves are problematic: “the Jews in Persia, being taxed according to their number, have an interest in concealing it” (Samuel, p. 31); the Jews “underrate their population, lest, by appearing numerous and powerful, they should increase the oppressions under which they groan” (Southgate, II, pp. 102-3); they would offer inexact numbers also because tallying people was believed to inflict untimely death on those counted (e.g., I Chronicles 21). In addition, numbers are lacking with regard to various localities. Consequently, verifiable assessments are missing. Still, a rough estimate of the Jews’ number at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries can be reached. Some archival material, mainly that of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which by 1904 had already established schools in Tehran, Isfahan, Hamadān, Shiraz, Sanandaj (Seneh), and Kermānšāh (Bāḵtarān), (Alliance Israélite Universelle, Bulletin Annuel, 66, 1904, pp. 168-69), leads to the conclusion that there were at least 40,000 Jews out of a population of about 10 million, representing the Jews as at least 0.4 percent of larger society (Tsadik, 2005b, pp. 275-76). Though numerically a negligible minority on the national level, their percentage in some of the major cities was sometimes higher than in Iran as a whole and they were a visible component of the large cities. The census in 1882 Isfahan found either 5,306 Jews out of 73,785 souls (7.1 percent) or 6,462 out of 73,526 (8.7 percent; Houtum-Schindler, p. 120; Tsadik, 2007, p. 8).

The biggest Jewish communities in 1903/4, according to the aforementioned account of Alliance Israélite Universelle, were those of Shiraz and its surroundings (7,080 souls), Isfahan (6,000), Hamadan and its surroundings (5,900), Tehran (5,100), Kermanshah and its surroundings (3,800), Yazd (2,500), Urmia (2,200), Kerman (2,000), Kashan (1,800), and Sanandaj (1,800). Although they lived throughout Iran, by the late 19th century Jews seem to have been concentrated in the Central and Western regions of the country. The majority of the Jewish communities appear to have been urban-based, even if many Jews frequently traveled to or resided in rural areas. Jewish emigration, due to social, economic, or religious reasons, was to Palestine (Klein), Russia, Ottoman Iraq, or within Iran to Tehran (Adler, pp. 187-88, 193; Esḥāq-iān, p. 41).

Jewish quarters (maḥallas). In some Iranian locales Jews lived among the Muslim population, while in other places—similar to some Jews in other Muslim countries—the Jews of Iran resided in their own separated streets, neighborhoods, or quarters (e.g., Benjamin II, p. 211, article 3; Tsadik, 2007, p. 219). The Jewish area was sometimes called mahalla (quarter) or mahalla-ye Yahud (the Jewish quarter). References point at the existence of a Jewish area in Isfahan (Tsadik, 2007, pp. 13, 146, 251, 253; a Jewish neighborhood existed in the Jubara quarter [see ISFAHAN xviii]), Shiraz (Tsadik, 2007, pp. 37, 130, 218) Barforush (Tsadik, 2007, pp. 62-65, 67-69, 71-72), Urmia (Tsadik, 2007, p. 236), and even in Mashad for its crypto-Jewish community (Newmark, p. 89). The one in Tehran (Tsadik, 2007, pp. 36, 80, 121) was known as Sar-e čāl (on the top of the pit), due to the garbage pit located in its midst (see Figure 1). The Tehran quarter was depicted in 1904 as “a city of mud. Forming a tangled maze, the sometimes covered, sometimes open streets are so narrow that you instinctively expect each one to come to a dead end when walking through them. These twisting corridors border homes made of stones and brick or of clay baked in the sun; they have never seen plaster. These homes appear to have become resigned to having the rain wash away their walls little by little and to letting them fall in clumps on the heads of the passerby. The negligence of the property owners finally destroys the rest. … The rooms are built around a narrow courtyard, which is hardly as wide as a handkerchief, and they are stacked one upon the other, without openings, dark and bare.” (Rodrigue, 177; for another description, see: Levi, III, 1960, 676 ff.).

Reasons for the existence of a Jewish area varied. The Jews themselves preferred to reside in their own demarcated zones as these would include central Jewish institutions such as synagogues as well as public and or ritual baths; living with other Jews at the same place could guarantee the cohesiveness and identity of the Jewish community; and in times of anti-Jewish persecution it would be easier to close and protect such an area. As for greater society, existence of Jews in one locale would allow for a more efficient government rule over a specific group, thereby, for instance, expediting the collection of taxes; Muslim society sought to distinguish itself from non-Muslims so as to secure its own identity and difference; and in Shiʿi Iran, the alleged “impurity” of the Jews was another impetus for their segregation to one area.

Occupational status. The Jewish community was part and parcel of Iran’s economy and society. Given their low status, Jews were afforded socially despised and immoral vocations, which the Muslims shunned. “When anything very filthy is to be done a Jew is sent for” (Wills, p. 74). Examples include dyeing materials that involved strong odors, scavenger work, and cleaning excrement pits. Some Jews were also singers, musicians, and dancers—all activities regarded as those of dissolute persons. Performing these necessary, yet socially detested jobs, the Jews constituted, for the Muslim greater society, a vital economic element (Loeb, pp. 93-97). Evidently, some of these professions helped the Jews interact with the Muslim majority.

Many Jews were peddlers and merchants (Figure 2). Jewish trade and peddling appear to have been small in size and marginal in the national economy, but in certain areas, such as the Persian Gulf in general, and Bushehr in particular, the commercial activity of the Jews made up a significant portion of the general trade. In other places, Jewish merchants virtually controlled the passage of goods (e.g., Issawi, p. 62). Jewish female peddlers brought their merchandise—jewelry, fabrics, and medicine—to the houses of wealthy Muslim women.

Jews became peddlers and merchants for various reasons. These vocations did not require large sums of money or property. Often, but not always, Muslims prohibited the Jews from opening shops in the bazaars, which pushed them into becoming peddlers and traders. This prohibition was occasionally explained by noting the Jews’ “impurity,” but at the root of this religious precept there was possibly also the Muslims’ apprehension of having to compete with the Jews in the urban markets.

Shiʿite purity concerns were partly responsible for directing some of the Jews toward peddling and trade. Islamic culture and customs encouraged some Jews to opt for other professions as well. Non-Muslims thus occasionally worked as goldsmiths, silversmiths, and in related professions as the recompense for such works was viewed as usury, which is forbidden in Islam. Also, Islam prohibits Muslims from preparing and consuming wine and other alcoholic beverages; wine production was consequently left for Jews and other non-Muslims.

Some Jews owned small businesses or were dealers in old clothing. Others served as tailors, moneychangers, polishers of glass, producers of salt and ammoniac, builders, writers of talismans, fortune-tellers. or exorcists. There were also Jews who owned fields. Jewish women would sometimes work in sorting of tobacco, or as embroiderers, dressmakers, or midwives (Cohen, 1992, pp. 12-13). A socially respected profession held by some Jews was medicine. Often local rabbis, Jewish doctors provided treatment to Jews and Muslims. Some Jews were court physicians, including Nehorāy Nur Maḥamud, Ḥaqq Na-ẓar and his brother Musā, Ḥakim Yehezqel, and Ḥakim Eliyahu (Levi, 2002, pp. 12, 203; Figure 3).

Some Jews reportedly reached the highest positions. Nāṣer-al-Din Shah viewed Ḥāji Ebrāhim Kalāntar, the first prime minister of the Qajar dynasty, as a Jew. However, it is not clear whether Ebrāhim was indeed of Jewish origins (Amana, p. 67). Yequtiel, a Jewish dancer who attracted Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah’s attention, was summoned to the court; as of 1846 he had “great influence” (Jewish Intelligence, and Monthly Account of the Proceedings of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, August 1846, p. 298). Such cases, nevertheless, appear to have been rare.

In addition to the above, some Jews in the 19th century embarked upon vocations that were increasingly needed due to the growing contact with Europe. Jews, like other Iranians, were part of Iran’s silk mania; they were involved in weaving, spinning, and twisting of silk. Other Jews were engaged in the opium industry and trade. Iran’s contact with Europe influenced and altered the economic basis of many Iranians, including some Jews (Tsadik, 2005b, pp. 276-79).

The Jews’ socio-economic status was also transformed due to the exposure of some of them to modern education. Founded in 1860 in Paris, the Alliance Israélite Universelle not only furnished Jews with financial aid, but also intervened on behalf of the Jews in political, social, and economic issues. Furthermore, the Alliance started establishing schools from 1898 on (Figure 4), providing the Jews with modern education, which ultimately helped to change some of the Jews’ professions in the early 20th century: a minority among the Jews worked for foreign companies, or became part of the banking system, the administration, the customs department, and the gendarmerie (e.g., ‘Ezri, 2000, vol. 1, pp. 17-18; ‘Ezri, 2005, pp. 28-43); others used the Allliance’s education to engage in international trade. Schools for girls were established, which opened new economic horizons for them. Most graduates of the Allilance—those whose lives continued along traditional lines—also enjoyed the fruits of the Alliance knowledge: reading and writing in Persian as well as knowledge of basic mathematics were a significant asset in daily life. Some Jews gained modern education in missionary (e.g., Jewish Missionary Intelligence, 1902, p. 23) or other foreign schools. Solaymān Ḥaim (q.v.), who became an eminent lexicographer of bilingual English-Persian and Persian-English dictionaries, studied at the American College from 1906 onward and became an English teacher there in 1915. A fraction of the Jews continued their studies abroad, for instance in Paris (Levi, 2002, pp. 11, 26, 32).

The Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 allowed the Jews to participate in the political and economic life of the country, and their role in trade gradually developed. Still, growing financial problems loomed large, which were exacerbated by the ill effects of WWI on the economy: the country was a battle field for various fighting groups; agricultural lands were spoiled and irrigation systems were ruined, and at the end of the war inflation was soaring and foodstuff was lacking. A major famine in 1918-19 killed many. The central government found it hard to impose its rule, and various dissident groups emerged, mainly in Gilān and Azerbaijan. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful whether the Jews profited economically from the fruits of the limited improvements they gained during the Constitutional period. Most probably, they, like many other Iranians, attempted to merely survive in those economically difficult times.

Legal status of the Jews in Imami Shiʿite eyes. The legal status of the Jews often reflected and influenced the attitude of the Muslim majority toward them. The legal status of the Jews in Imami Shiʿite eyes was primarily that of ḏemmis, i.e., the people of the Book—Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews—who live under Islam. As ḏemmis they were granted protection of their life and property so long they recognized the superiority of Muslim authority and performed certain duties. These obligations included: (1) To pay the jezya (q.v.) tax on an annual basis. (2) Not to contradict the protection articles. (3) Not to harm Muslims. (4) Not to display objects objectionable to Muslims. (5) Not to build houses of worship, not to play bells, and not to establish tall buildings or buildings taller than that of Muslims. (6) To accept the regulations imposed on them by the Muslims (Tsadik, 2003, pp. 396-403).

Among other Imami Shiʿite legal concepts pertaining to the Jews and other people of the Book were the following: (1) Impurity: Their touch defiles the Shiʿite. (2) Food: Only dry lentils, grains, herbs, wheat and similar commodities of the people of the Book are permissible for Shiʿites to consume. (3) Marriage: Shiʿite men can marry women from the people of the Book through a temporary marriage (motʿa), which is viewed as an inferior form of marriage. (4) Inheritance: An infidel cannot inherit from a Muslim, whereas a Muslim can inherit from an infidel. When Muslims and infidels are heirs of a person, the Muslims inherit the entire inheritance. (5) Punishment: When a ḏemmi intentionally kills a Muslim he and his property will be given to the kinsmen of the killed Muslim; these relatives may either enslave or kill the ḏemmi. On the other hand, a Muslim who kills a ḏemmi will not be killed if the Muslim is not a habitual killer of infidels; the Muslim will be punished according to the judge’s discretion and will pay blood money.

Even though diverse and sometimes contradictory attitudes regarding the Jews are found in the Imami Shiʿite legal material, it is clear that the laws of the ḏemma and the other legal concepts pertaining to the Jews usually mirror inequality between Shiʿite and Jew, and, in general, between the Shiʿite majority and the religious minorities (Tsadik, 2003, pp. 381-96).

Legal status of the Jews in the Constitutional Revolution. Even if some Qajars—notably NāsÂer-al-Din Shah in his 1873 European tour—occasionally viewed non-Muslims and Muslims as equal, these declarations were, many times, made under foreign pressure, reflecting, at most, the Shah’s personal views and that of some members of his administration. In the Constitutional period, however, some equality-oriented enactments were suggested by local groups—even if probably under foreign inspiration. For instance, the parliament was to represent the “whole of the people” of Iran (Article 2; Browne, p. 363), securing representation for Armenians, Nestorians, Zoroastrians, and Jews. In issues of taxation, there was to be “no distinction or difference” among the people of Iran (Article 97; Browne, p. 383), thereby effectively abandoning the practice of jezya. Finally, “the people” of Iran were to enjoy “equal rights before the Law” (Article 8; Browne, p. 374). On the other hand, other articles from the Constitutional era represent those groups who called for preservation of the Muslim ḏemma approach towards religious minorities. For instance, “no one can attain the rank of Minister unless he be a Musulman by religion” (Article 58; Browne, p. 379). Indeed, the legal status of some religious minorities—Jews included—in the Constitutional period improved compared to their legal status under Shiʿite law, but it is difficult to view their status in the Constitutional times as equal (Tsadik, 2003, pp. 405-8).

Polemics between Shiʿites and Jews. Polemics between Shiʿite scholars and Jews were one channel through which contact and conversation—of a certain kind and at a certain level—existed between the communities (on Shiʿite collaboration with Jews in order to refute Christianity, see Tsadik, 2004, pp. 5-15). Still, the polemics signaled and contributed to the heavy social and cultural pressures imposed upon the Jews by segments of Muslim society.

Among the most prevailing anti-Jewish contentions were the following: (1) The Jewish oral law is nothing but innovations— additions to or omissions from the Torah—which caused the Jews to stray from God’s way. (2) The Torah predicts Muslim—including Shiʿite—history and beliefs (Qazvini Yazdi, pp. 23-24: the twelve sons of Ishmael [Genesis 17:20; 25:12-16] are viewed as the twelve Shiʿite Imams), and foretells Islam’s superiority. (3) At a certain time the Torah was repealed (nasḵ) by later revelations; the Torah is thus not eternal. One nuance of this concept is that the Torah cannot be implemented outside the land of Israel after the destruction of the Temple. (4) The Torah revered by the Jews is not the one originally revealed. Some parts were added to or omitted from the original Torah in different times, including during the days of ʿOzayr. The Torah had been altered (taḡyir) as shown from discrepancies found in it as well as irrational themes (e.g., anthropomorphic depictions of God) and stories (e.g., stories ascribing sins to prophets) in the Torah. Taḡyir happened also through the wrong teachings and commentaries of the rabbis (Reżāʾi, p. 24). (5) Even if the Jews had been God’s Chosen People this status ended long ago. (6) The Jews hold erroneous practices and tenets (Tsadik, 2005c, pp. 95-134).

Written in a Muslim environment, Jewish anti-Muslim arguments were only rarely explicit. Rabbi Siman-Tov Melammed (d. 1800?) contends for the superiority of Moses above all prophets, possibly alludes at Moḥammad’s deficiency, and, while using the Qur’an (7:144) emphasizes that the contemporary Torah is the Torah that was given from heaven; it cannot and will not be changed for the sake of another one; it is eternal (Melammed, 81b-82b, 117b-126b; Netzer, 1999, pp. 83-84, 87-88). Shiʿites of the time responded to Melammed’s arguments in a literal form (Qazvini Yazdi, pp. 142-43, 188) and possibly also in live disputations (Patai, pp. 168-70; Fischel, 1971, p. 1275).

The Tehran Rabbi Hayim Moreh discuses, in 1921, the prophet that is promised in the Torah to come after Moses; probably looking to refute the Muslim belief that this prophet is Moḥammad, Moreh emphasizes that the prophet is to be from the offspring of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15-17) and is Joshua b. Nun. He explicitly maintains that some persons hold that Deuteronomy 33:2 speaks of different divine “manifestations” (maẓāher; prophets) who were manifested for people in different periods, alluding to a common Muslim reading of the verse, and contends that the verse actually deals with revelations to the Israelites while in different locations in the desert. He rejects the possibility that the Torah went through falsification (taḡyir; taḥrif; Moreh, TaR’aT, pp. 67-70, 194-98, 200). Implicitly alluding to Qur’an 9:30, he asserts that “we do not view ʿEzrā as the son of God,” and declares again that the Torah was not falsified (Moreh, TaRPaD [1924], pp. 354, 359, 430). Dealing mainly with Christian criticism, Moreh still addresses the question common in Muslim polemics of how could the Biblical Jacob marry two sisters (Moreh, TaRPaZ [1927], p. 278).

Real life situation of the Jews. During 1786-1848. Various accounts attest to Jewish ordeals. These consisted of occasional persecutions and regular abuse at the hand of the Jews’ neighbors, in addition to blood libel accusations as well as forced conversions to Islam—the most famous of which occurred in 1839 Mashhad. The reasons for the anti-Jewish assaults were socio-economic and religious, as well as political: campaigns against the Jews were sometimes regarded as attacks against the government. Occasionally, Muslims would hurt Jews since some Jews—apparently a minority of them—represented or were regarded as connected with foreign interests (Tsadik, 2007, pp. 33-38).

During 1848-96. During Naṣer-al-Din Shah’s reign (1848-1896), foreign Jewish and non-Jewish intervention on behalf of the Jews was witnessed more clearly than in the previous period. The foreign intervening Jews, Ottoman and primarily European, included figures such as Moses Montefiore and Baron Maurice de Hirsch, families—such as the Rothschilds and the Sassoons, and organizations such as the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the Anglo-Jewish Association, and the Conjoint Foreign Committee. The foreign interfering non-Jews were mostly powers, such as France and mostly Britain that intervened when pressured by their indigenous Jews and organizations, or at the powers’ own initiative. Foreign intervention attempted to address recurring themes, e.g. cases when the Shiʿite inheritance law was applied or when major anti-Jewish outbreaks erupted—calling on the Iranian government to extend protection to the harmed Jews. Major Jewish European appeal on behalf of Iran’s Jews occurred during Naṣer-al-Din Shah’s first tour to Europe in 1873. The Anglo-Jewish Association then pointed at eight Jewish disadvantages and hoped that the Shah would uplift the Jews from their “crushed and degraded state” and place them “socially, morally, and politically on a level with all other denominations.” Responding, the Shah declared that he desired that all his subjects would equally enjoy “religious freedom and civil rights” (Tsadik, 2007, p. 91). These and similar pronouncements were important, as from this time onwards, Iranian Jews were officially on an equal footing at the political level with the rest of the Shah’s subjects—a major break with the Muslim ḏemma worldview. However, foreign intervention on behalf of the Jews sometimes only induced anti-alien local Muslim elements to persecute the Jews further.

In following years the Shah and some of his officials took measures to ameliorate the condition of the Jews, including attempts at abolishing the Shiʿite inheritance law. But, problems, including the following ones, did not vanish: fearing social agitation, the authorities sometimes refrained from full exercise of the Shah’s avowed intentions regarding the Jews; for various social, economic, religious, and political reasons, some sectors of society, including some government officials, some Shiʿite ulama, some luṭis, and some other indigenous groups, generally continued to ill-treat and occasionally heavily persecute the Jews (Tsadik, 2007, Chapters 4-5). The Shah’s declarations viewing the Jews as equal to the rest of his subjects appear to have been more pronouncements of noble sentiments than actual policy commitments. Even if some change was seen, it was erratic and indecisive. On the political level the status of the Jews improved to some extent, but their social and religious position usually remained the same.

The condition of the Jews was determined by their official political status, the Shiʿite approach, society’s attitude, and foreign pressure, but also by other factors: epidemics, famine, political instability in certain places, and occasional misgovernment. Jews were only one of the various groups that endured these factors.

During 1896-1925. Under Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah (r. 1896-1906) there were Jews who had good relations with their Muslim neighbors. For instance, the Jewish community of Zarqān (Alliance Israélite Universelle, Bulletin Mensuel 31, 1903, p. 102) or that of Nehāvand (Alliance Israélite Universelle, Bulletin Mensuel 34, 1906, pp. 162-63), and there were certain ulama who would assist the Jews. Such cases, however, seem to have been the exception rather than the rule. Jews usually suffered from regular mistreatment and occasional persecution. In Tehran in 1896-97 a certain Sayyed Reyḥān-Allāh attempted to force the Jews to wear a distinctive patch and to cut their hair in a certain manner. Answering to foreign pressure to ameliorate the plight of the Jews, the Shah then ordered the cessation of the “persecutions of the Jews” (Confino, 1999, pp. 93-96; Jewish Missionary Intelligence, 1897, pp. 158, 192; Levi, III, 1960, pp. 773-76; Sahim, pp. 302-3). In Isfahan, Āqā Najafi (q.v.) harmed some Jews in 1897, using among other tools, economic boycott (Schwarzfuchs; Walcher, pp. 397-407), whereas when visiting Tehran in 1903 he reproached the Jews for not wearing a patch (Sepehr, p. 41). Among the other Jewish communities that suffered during this time were those of Kazarun (Alliance Israélite Universelle: Iran, I.B.4, Cazran, 12 of Tishrey, TaRNaH [=October 8, 1897], Kazarun community to Baghdad.), Kashan (Alliance Israélite Universelle: Iran. I.C.3 bis, Kachan, Adar I, TaRSaB [=February or March 1902], Kashan community to Alliance Israélite Universelle), Urmia (AIU: Iran.I.B.7, Erivan, 1905/1906, Erivan community to Alliance Israélite Universelle; Alliance Israélite Universelle: Iran. I.B.18, Ourmiah, month of Av, TaRSaH, received on September 19, 1905, Urmiya to Alliance Israélite Universelle), and Gulpaygan (Alliance Israélite Universelle: Iran.I.C.3, Ispahan, June 25, 1905, Lahana to Alliance Israélite Universelle). Shaikh Hādi of Kirmanshah was reported in 1904 to instigate attacks on the Jews of the city (Alliance Israélite Universelle: Iran, II.C.4, Kermanchah, July 18, 1904, Masidy to Alliance Israélite Universelle; Kermanshachi, pp. 334, 336, 338, 340). In 1905 Shiraz, attacks on the Jews were at least to some extent only “nominally directed against the Jews” (FO 60/700, no. 254, December 3, 1905, Grant Duff to FO) and were merely “pseudo-anti-Jewish” (ibid, enclosure: November 18, 1905, Shiraz News), while really aiming the government (Tsadik, “Shiraz Incident,” forthcoming).

In the years leading up to the Constitutional Revolution the position of Iranian Jews was determined by diverse factors, including the Islamic worldview, viewing the Jews as a ḏemma community, the Jews’ administrative position placing them under the jurisdiction of the Iranian foreign office, the government’s treatment (for some officials’ attempts to protect Jews, see Jewish Missionary Intelligence, 1903, p. 155; idem, 1904, pp. 36, 38), and the Jews’ economic basis, which often relegated them to detested vocations. Additionally, Jewish foreign organizations and foreign powers intervened on behalf of the Jews, introducing foreign perceptions of protection that had a growing influence on the lives of the Jews.

During the Constitutional era (1906-11), along with the traditional Muslim view of the Jews and other religious minorities, an egalitarian approach toward non-Muslims can be discerned. The bylaws of the Secret Society (Anjoman-e Maḵfi) “insisted that members of all four religions” “should be admitted into the association” (Afary, p. 160). Furthermore, the constitutionalist camp virtually forced the Shah into declaring in August 1906 that a National—rather than Islamic—Consultative Majles would be established, thereby paving the way for the inclusion of non-Muslims into the new political body of the Majles. However, resentment of some led to ʿAziz-Allāh Simāni’s resignation as the Jewish representative in the Majles following its opening on October 7, 1906, and, consequently, Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Behbehāni, the leading constitutionalist cleric, was placed in his stead (Levi, III, 1960, pp. 847-48). The Revolution brought about the formation of local councils (anjomans), some putting restrictions on the Jews (e.g., in Isfahan), others in the north welcoming Jews as well as some other religious minorities. In 1906-1907 fierce disputes erupted in the Majles over the issue of civil freedoms, including the question of equal rights for all (male) Iranians—with some supporting it, and others attacking it mainly as being un-Islamic. Ultimately, the Supplementary Fundamental Law of October 1907 declared that the people of Iran “are to enjoy equal rights before the Law” (Article 8; Browne, p. 374,) but also granted a committee of ulama the powers to reject laws suggested by the Majles, and which were “at variance with the Sacred Laws of Islam” (Article 2, Browne, p. 373).

In fighting against the royalist takeover of June 1908, the constitutional camp enjoyed the assistance of Jews in Tabriz and Tehran. This, nonetheless, did not necessarily entail the invariable constitutionalists’ protection, as the Baḵtiāris who rushed to Tehran to restore the constitutional regime looted the Jews of Isfahan. Following the restoration of the constitution in the summer of 1909, Jewish youngsters founded again their Jewish anjoman with the succor of the Democrat party. The party line “called for a new concept of nationalism, one that superseded religious affiliations” (Afary, p. 173), and its organ, Irān-e now, criticized cases of anti-Semitism.

Even if the Constitutional Revolution, to an extent, changed the legal status of the Jews, and some cases of fair treatment toward them are known (e.g., Netzer, 1997b, pp. 265-66), still, due to socio-economic, religious, and political reasons anti-Jewish attacks did not cease (Levi, 1960, III, pp. 830-31, 850). One observer from 1909 maintains that “the Jews of Persia are a miserably poor, degraded class of people. Their lot is a very hard one; despised and oppressed by the Moslems, hated and cursed by all, their life is not enviable” (Hume-Griffith, 1909, 29). And indeed, in the same year in Kermansah the Jewish community was looted and some of its members killed and wounded (Cohen, 1992, pp. 8-21). A major onslaught was directed at the Jews of Shiraz in 1910 (‘Aqeli, 77; Netzer, 1997b, pp. 259-80; Farivar, p. 102). Traditional perceptions, such as the impurity concept, were still common (e.g., in 1918 Kashan, see Shofet, 75).

Early Zionist Activity. The arriving news of the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, constituted a major impetus for the establishment in 1918 of Anjoman-e farhangi-e javānān-e yahud-e Tehran (A cultural association for young Jews of Tehran), which focused at first on teaching Hebrew. This association elected persons to one of its organs, Anjoman-e taqwiyat-e zabān-e ʿebri (Association for strengthening the Hebrew language), headed by Shlomoh Kohen Sedeq, who in 1918 edited a Hebrew grammar book, Sefer Hizuqey Sfat ʿEver (A book for strengthening the Hebrew Language). Early Zionist activists were usually young and educated, including the above Kohen Sedeq, Solaymān Haim, Dr. Ḥabib Levi, and ʿAziz-Allāh Naʿim (see Figure 5). In 1919 the name of the Association for strengthening the Hebrew language was changed to Anjoman-e Markazi-e Taškilāt-e Siunit-e Iran (The central association of the Zionist organization of Iran). This association’s main mission was to connect the Jews of Iran with the world Zionist organization, to function as a central body for all provincial Jewish communities, to address the persecution of Jews, to assist Jews who envisioned immigration to Palestine, and to improve education in Jewish schools. Four committees were consequently founded to address the following spheres: education, publication, immigration, and finance. Apparently for the first time ever, a central body for the Jews of Iran was thus established; Iranian Jews could now appeal this body, seeking its assistance. The message of the Tehran based central association of the Zionist organization of Iran was introduced to Jews throughout Iran via Ha-Ge’ulah (q.v.; The Redemption) newspaper. The San Remo international conference of April 1920 paved the way for a British mandate over Palestine, the tidings of which precipitated Zionist activity; money was thus raised by Iranian Jews for the Redemption Fund (Qeren ha-Ge’ulah). In 1921 the annual World Zionist Congress convened with one seat reserved for an Iranian Jewish representative, who, nevertheless, was unable to arrive due to transportation problems; the Jews of Iran were consequently represented by a different figure. Subsequent to the approval of the Iranian authorities, Zionist branches were opened in different locales; by September 1922 there were 27 such branches throughout Iran.

Nevertheless, Zionist activity in Iran seems to have started to slow down already in the 1920’s. Precisely when incidents of anti-Jewish persecution, economic problems, political instability in some places (including Azerbaijan and Kurdistan), Zionist ideology, and the tidings of the Balfour Declaration and of the forthcoming British mandate over Palestine caused some Jews to desire to immigrate, the growing tensions and bloody events in Palestine between Jews and Arabs in 1921 pushed the Iranian government in 1922 to ban immigration to Palestine. Following the 1921 occurrences in Palestine, the government in Palestine stopped issuing immigration certificates for sometime, later to allow it only with certain restrictive prerequisites. But, immigration did not completely cease. Among other reasons for the Iranian government’s rejection of immigration was the argument viewing Iran as a large country that already suffered from having scanty population, as well as the authorities’ attempt to prevent Jews from evading army service by immigrating. From another corner, Iranian Jewish application for immigration certificates to Palestine were occasionally declined by the London based Zionist organization on grounds of unemployment in Palestine. Additionally, the resigning of the heads of the central association of the Zionist organization of Iran, Kohen Sedeq and Na’im, in 1923 proved a setback to Zionist activity. Furthermore, the conflict between the supporters of Dr. Nehorāy Loqmān (the Jewish representative in the Majles between November 1909 and July 1923) and those of Shmuel Haim (the Jewish representative in the Majles between July 1923 and June 1926) complicated matters. Haim who was elected in 1924 to head the central association of the Zionist organization of Iran changed its name to Taškilāt-e Siyunist-e Iran (Zionist association of Iran), signifying his detachment from the previous association, which Haim used to heavily criticize. The end result of these tensions could not do good to Zionist activity. Finally, the rise of the ever-nationalist Reza Khan in 1921, and mostly his assumption of the throne in 1925, sealed the fate of Zionism in Iran for years. (See “Bibliography,” works by A. Netzer and M. Sasson).

Around the time of Reżā Khan’s rise in 1921 the situation of the Jews was still usually gloomy. This is seen in the Jewish Persian newspapers, Ha-Geulah and Ha-Hayim of the early 1920’s (Netzer 2005, p. 145; Nezter 2002, pp. 366-67) or other Iranian Jewish writings of the time (e.g., Pozaylov, pp. 141-44). The prevailing cases were those of mistreatment of the Jews: for instance, in 1922 Tehran Jews and the school of the Alliance were attacked (Netzer, 1997a, pp. 125-32). Ensuing years, under Reżā Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-41), witnessed the slow improvement of some of the Jews’ social and economic status (see vi, below).


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C. Issawi, The Economic History of Iran, 1800-1914, Chicago, 1971.

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D. Klein, “‘Aliyot Yehudey Paras le-Eres Israel beyn ha-Shanim 1884 ve-’ad Haseharat Balfour be-1917,” an unpublished M. A. thesis, Haifa University, 1997.

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Idem, “Les Juifs en Perse avant les Pahlevi,” Les Temps Modernes 395, 1979, pp. 1910-35.

L. Loeb, “Ḏemmi Status and Jewish Roles in Iranian Society,” Ethnic Groups 1, 1976, pp. 89-105.

Idem, Outcaste: Jewish Life in Southern Iran, New York, 1977.

S. Melammed, Hayat al-Ruh, Jerusalem, TaRNaH (1898).

H. Moreh, Derekh ha-Hayim, Tehran, TaR’aT (1919).

Idem, Gedulat Mordechai, Tehran, TaRPaD (1924).

Idem, Yedey Eliyahu, Tehran, TaRPaZ (1927).

H. Nateq, “Tāriḵҳa-ye Āliāns-e Esrāili dar Irān,” in Yahudiān-e Irāni dar tāriḵ-e moʿāsÂer, II, ed. H. Sarshar, Beverly Hills, Cal. (Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History), 1997, pp. 55-130.

A. Netzer, “Godlah shel ha-Ukhlusiyah ha-Yehudit be-Paras ba-Meah ha-19,” in Divrey ha-Congress ha-’Olami ha-Shishi le-Mad’ey ha-Yahadut, ed. A. Shinan, Jerusalem, 1975, pp. 127-33.

Idem, “Ha-Pe’ilut ha-Sionit be-Iran me-Haseharat Balfour ‘ad Hozeh San Remo,” Pe’amim, 1, 1979, PP. 23-31.

Idem, “Tqufot u-Shlavim be-Masav ha-Yehudim u-va-Pe’ilut ha-Sionit be-Iran,” Yahadut Zmanenu, 1, 1984, PP.139-162.

Idem, “Ha-Pe’ilut ha-Sionit be-Paras ba-Shanim 1920-1926,” Mi-Qedem u-Mi-Yam 2, 1986, PP. 237-50.

Idem, “Anti-Jewish Disturbances in Teheran, 1922,” In Padyavand, II, ed. A. Netzer, Costa Mesa, Cal., 1997a, pp. 125-32.

Idem, “Yahudiān-e Širāz dar Sāl-e 1910,” in Padyavand II, ed. A. Netzer, Los Angeles: Mazda Publishers, 1997b, pp. 259-80.

Idem, “Siman-Tov Melammed,” Pe’amim 79, 1999, pp. 56-95.

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H. Qazvini Yazdi, Mahżar al-šohud fi radd al-Yahud, Najaf, n.d. M. Reżāʾ et al. Eqāmat al-šohud fi radd al-Yahud fi manqul al-Reżāʾ, n.p., 1292.

A. Rodrigue, Images of Sepharadi and Eastern Jewries in Transition, Seattle and London, 1993.

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(2) Conversion of Jews

In the latter part of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries there occurred a relatively widespread mass movement of Persian Jews to the Bahai community; the latter predominantly consisted of Shiʿite converts. Estimates by outside observers of the number of Iran’s converts to the new religion are sketchy, ranging from an astonishing two million in the 1880s, including “many Jews” (Neumark, p. 80), to the more plausible estimate in the mid-1930s of “thousands and perhaps ten thousand of [converted] Jews” including “around a quarter of the Jews of Hamadan” (est. 8,000) and 700 Jews in Tehran (Brower, 1937-38, pp. 22, 24, 31). These estimates are fairly consistent with those of Lord Curzon in the 1880s (prior to the early 20th-century wave of Jewish conversions) of 50, 100, and 150 converted households in Kashan, Hamadan, and Tehran respectively (Curzon, p. 496). His account of Golpāyagān, where as many as 75 percent of the Jewish population had “formally joined the Bahai movement and their numbers have since increased considerably,” along with similar reports of group conversions in Khorasan’s Torbat, indicate conversions of large segments of certain Jewish communities starting as early as the Babi period, though some, including most of the Golpāyagān converts, evidently reverted to Judaism (Brower, 1944-46; Fischel, 1934, p. 54).

Such estimates should be seen in light of the fluidity of Jewish-Bahai identity in this period, ranging from sympathizers to propagators. Such significant numbers are particularly noteworthy for Persian Jewry, who, despite their close historical ties with other sectarian movements, had never converted in large numbers to religions other than Islam. Conversion of a disadvantaged minority to the even more persecuted Bahai faith, rather than to the dominant religion of the majority, presents an important anomaly. The exact circumstances of many early conversions to the Bahai faith cannot be determined with certainty. Even though most conversions of Jews to Bahaism took place during the ministry of ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ (1892-1922), their earliest encounter with the faith goes back to the early years of the Babi movement.

The earliest known Jewish Babi convert in Tehran, according to Bahai sources, was a physician whose name Ḥakim Masiḥ (= Christ; Arabic form of the common Jewish name Mashiaḥ = Messiah) and whose interest in Islamic concerns may suggest an earlier conversion to Christianity or Islam. As a Babi sympathizer in 1848, he attended debates that the notable woman Babi leader, Ṭāhereh Qorrat-al-ʿAyn, conducted with Shiʿite scholars in Baghdad. In 1861 he openly confessed his Babi beliefs after he came into contact with the Babi and later Bahai leader Mollā Ṣādeq Moqaddas while attending to sick Babi prisoners in Tehran. His conversion demonstrates an early universalistic view, at least on the part of some Babi leaders, of the Babi mission going beyond Islamic confines (Balyuzi, p. 18; Rafʿati, pp. 395-98).

In 1847 Ṭāhereh stayed briefly at the house of the Jewish physician Elezar (Lālehzār; d. 1881) in Hamadan, before her stay was ended by concerns of possible trouble, including anti-Jewish riots over the danger of a rebellious Muslim woman associating with a Jewish family (Ḥāfeẓi, p. 36; Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, 2004, pp. 28-30; Amanat, 1989, p. 315). Although Elezar never openly confessed his belief, his Babi sympathy or secret belief later found expression in at least one of his associates, the prominent physician Ḥakim Āqājān (d. 1881?; Ḥāfeẓi, p. 21). Āqājān was reportedly first attracted to Babis and Bahais in 1877 when he was invited to treat a patient in the prominent Babi scholar and merchant Narāqi household. He was impressed by the family’s expression of respect toward himself, their disregard for laws of impurity, their willingness to share food with him, and their lenient attitude even after he reportedly gave the patient erroneous medication. Āqājān’s further inquiry into the family’s beliefs eventually led to his acceptance of the Babi/Bahai message. The new message soon spread through Āqājān’s family networks to reach the influential physician and later Bahai community leader Ḥakim Raḥamim, later known as Raḥim Khan Ḥāfeẓ-al-Ṣeḥḥa (1844-1942). Within two years (1877-79), with the help of itinerate Bahai propagators (sing. moballeḡ), some 50 Jews joined the nascent community of Hamadan, now a center of early Jewish Bahai conversion (Ḥāfeẓi).

Yet much of the initial success of Bahaism in Hamadan seems to have been based on the earlier work of the Christian mission; many of the new converts were attracted to the Bahai community while maintaining their Christian ties. Becoming a Bahai allowed them to come to terms with an Islamic identity without having to repudiate their family and community ties.

The message. The early Bahai message focused on challenging the bases of rabbinic tradition and the necessity of the coming of the Messiah, by arguing that fundamental laws of the Torah such as the rite of sacrifice could not be observed in the absence of the Jerusalem temple (Rayhan Rayhani memoirs in Amanat, 2006, pp. 184-86). The urgency of the coming of a savior instilled a new sense of optimism and hope for an end to age-old miseries and persecution. It found fertile ground in an environment of messianic expectation, a primordial trend among Iranian Jews further stimulated by the activities of Christian missionaries, especially among younger Jews. Later in the 1880s the Bahai message was further articulated with the help of prominent Bahai scholars well versed in Biblical and Islamic texts, such as Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyegāni.

The Bahai message accepted the validity of all past prophets as “manifestations” (ẓohur) of the “Divine Truth”; its emphasis on “Progressive Revelation” gave believers much latitude to accept the validity of Islam and Christianity without having to deny their belief in Judaism; its deep indigenous roots tapped into cultural reservoirs shared by Iranian Jews; and it was in harmony with an Iranian identity. Its universalistic and modern outlook, which stressed the need for the renewal of religion, the unity of humanity, social and political equality, ethnic and gender harmony, and the acceptance of religious minorities, proved attractive to an emerging cosmopolitan class in search of alternatives to traditional identities.

Fluid identities. Unlike Muslims, the Bahais tolerated fluid or flexible religious identities, at least initially. Early Jewish conversions often involved a two-stage process; Jewish Bahai propagators mainly argued the validity of Christ and left the next stage of conversion to other Bahai teachers more familiar with Islamic arguments. Many Jewish converts held multiple identities, attended Sunday church ceremonies, and observed Jewish rituals. A number of Jewish converts to Islam also became Bahais, possibly to end a stigmatized quasi-Islamic identity as a neo-convert (jadid al-Eslām), an option made possible only after the Constitutional Revolution impeded enforcement of capital punishment prescribed by the Shariʿa for the apostate (mortadd). Cases of individual or mass reversion to Judaism or Christianity were not unusual. As many as 60 households of Mashad’s “neo-converts” to Islam also became Bahais by 1930. Many converts who were reportedly disappointed by experiencing persecution rather than empowerment against their Muslim aggressors reverted to their “new-Muslim” identity (Foʾādi-Bošruʾi, p. 181).

Social and economic factors. A number of social and economic factors contributed to the spread of the Bahai faith among Jews. Hamadan and Arak, the two important conversion centers, both experienced rapid economic expansion in the latter part of the 19th century—the former with the opening of Basra trade in 1865 and the latter as a carpet distribution center in the 1870s. They attracted many young Jewish immigrants, many from communities like Kashan with declining economies. New occupations and work environments and the loss of family support often led to new challenges to conventional beliefs. Fewer restrictions in their choice of neighborhood meant less communal control and a breakdown of traditional bonds that had been preserved within the constraints of the ancient Jewish neighborhood (maḥalleh). A community of affluent and Westernized Iraqi Jews further reinforced Hamadan’s cosmopolitan nature (Sahim). The establishment of a number of European-style schools, including some by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, helped open horizons and introduce doubts about traditional norms and values. However, conversions were less widespread in other Jewish communities affected by the forces of change, such as Kermanshah and Yazd, and rare in Isfahan and Shiraz, where Jews experienced little social mobility.


Beginning in the 1880s the Bahai message spread to other Jewish communities including Kashan, where it attracted a number of mostly disenfranchised young Jews. Among the enthusiasts was the young Rayḥān Rayḥāni, a self-educated orphan whose autobiography is a remarkable testament to the pains and anguish of his multistage conversion, the miseries of life as a Jewish Bahai peddler, and his cultural assimilation as a recognized member of Kashan’s established Bahai community (Amanat, 2006).

In Tehran, the conversion of the influential physician Mirzā Ḵalil (ʿAqiba) reflects the complexities of multiple identities complicated by inheritance feuds within a privileged family. He served in one of Tehran’s first Bahai Assemblies (1879), and in 1906 he unsuccessfully campaigned for the position of Jewish representative to Iran’s first Constitutional Assembly (Majles; Amanat, 2008, p. 16).

The enigmatic and eccentric Ḥājji Elyāhu Kāšāni was described as Kashan’s “most skillful and accomplished professional thief” before his conversion. He became a successful Bahai propagator and suffered much hardship after Tehran’s Jewish leaders declared him “ritually impure” (neseḵ) and he was targeted in a gang attack “with the intention of killing him (Amanat, 2006, pp. 140, 201-202; ʿAzizi, pp. 27-29).

He influenced the young Esḥāq, later named ʿAziz-Allāh (1873-1950), who dreaded his family’s poverty and low social status, the miserable and unsanitary conditions of the Jewish ghetto, and the humiliation Jews suffered as the “ritually impure.” His experiment with a new religious identity as a “semi-Bahai” who frequented Tehran’s Sufi circles, known for their tolerance of non-Muslims, finally led to his full acceptance of the optimistic Bahai message that prophesized a future of advancement and progress for the Jews. His final break with the Jewish community came, not over religious disagreements but through a more potent symbolic gesture in his behavior, that is, his refusal to conform to the customary practice of shaving his head and growing facial hair, a statement of commitment to modernity sanctioned by Bahāʾ-Allāh but objectionable to traditionalist Jews (ʿAzizi, pp. 38, 19-24, 49-54).


The success of the Bahai message led to tension within the Jewish community. In Hamadan, a center of early Jewish conversions, some of these tensions can be traced to old professional rivalries among physicians; many younger ones eventually became Christians and later Bahais (Ḥāfeẓi, p. 15). Tensions are reported as early as 1877, involving a mob attack and hostile charges and ending with the governor’s interference (Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, 2004, pp. 44-46; Ḥāfeẓi, pp. 26-28).

Repeated complaints to the authorities, mostly over the Bahais’ consumption of non-Kosher food in Kashan and Hamadan around the turn of the century, typically led to arrests and payments of fines to greedy or cash-strapped local governors. Enforcement of Jewish dietary laws by a Muslim governor was even more awkward, as it implied that the food produced and consumed by Muslims was somehow “impure” (Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, 2004, p. 140). Nevertheless, the enforcement of Jewish laws by local governors could lead to severe consequences. In more conservative Kashan, where Jewish leaders were under pressure by the Shiʿite ulema either to fully enforce Jewish law or accept conversion to Islam (Amanat, 2006, p. 251), charges of opening shop on the Sabbath by a certain Mollā Musa led to Jewish elders’ demand for a death sentence. He was beaten, imprisoned, and banished and was later murdered, the first of several Jewish converts who paid with their lives for openly advocating their beliefs (Fāżel-Māzandarāni, 1976, pp. 713-15; Amanat, 1989, p. 70). In fact, the converts were rejecting the rabbis’ persistence in what many saw as a narrow definition of religion based on strict observance of Jewish ritualistic practices, and they were willing to endure stigmatization and persecution in return for a new identity.

By the turn of the century, the traditionalist rabbis at times found a new, more modern ally in their opposition to Bahai conversions. Concerned with Bahai success in Hamadan, an agent of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an organization dedicated to promoting the status and education of less privileged Jews, tried to discourage Jews from attending Bahai meetings and tried to disband the gatherings altogether by putting pressure on the local authorities. He even demanded that his superiors in Tehran pressure the governor of Hamadan to administer corporal punishment (the bastinado) to the new converts. He also tried without much success to stop the rabbis from presiding over marriages involving new converts. Some Bahai gatherings held in Seneh in Kurdistan on Saturday afternoons, for example, attracted Jewish enthusiasts and thus became a cause of concern for the agents of the Alliance (Amanat, 2006, pp. 153-54).

Yet despite traditionalists’ opposition, many Jews continued to convert, become recognized Bahais, and were elected to Bahai assemblies (maḥfel-e rowḥāni). As propagators they helped introduce the Bahai faith to others, including even some members of the ulema. A notable example was a member of a leading ulema family of Hamadan and later a leading Bahai scholar and teacher, Ḥajji Sayyed Aḥmad Ṣadr-al-ʿOlamāʾ, entitled by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ as Ṣadr-al-ṣodur (1868-1907), who learned about the Bahai faith around 1898 through his Jewish-Bahai physician (Rastegār, pp. 21-28; Fāżel-Māzandarāni, 1975, pp. 480-81). As converts, their contribution to scholarship was limited to a few treatises on prophecies and polemical discourse. However, as later generations became more assimilated, their contribution to scholarship became more significant (see Arjomand, 1982 for an example of a Jewish-Bahai debate written by a convert).

The rabbis who saw their role as protectors of Jewish traditions could not tolerate such a break and often tried to define the Bahais as outsiders, as a separate community, leading them to establish their own distinct institutions such as cemeteries, bathhouses, and boys and girls schools around the turn of the century (see BAHAISM x. BAHAI SCHOOLS; Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, 2004, pp. 105, 116-25, 128, 137-40).

Some earlier Western observers in the 1930s attributed the Bahai appeal to its “cosmopolitan outlook on life” and its belief in “peaceful relations between the different faiths” (Fischel, 1934, pp. 47-55). More recent views rely on themes common among 19th-century Western observers, such as the Jews’ “humiliation and persecution, suffering and torture,” and their “simplemindedness” and “ignorance in matters of religion” (Cohen, 1973, pp. 54, 162-63) to explain Jewish conversions to Islam and the Bahai faith. The picture of isolated and persecuted Jewish life does not take into account indigenous Jewish Iranian traditions, at variance with traditional European Rabbinic Judaism. Other, more sympathetic observers have generally depreciated the role of social and economic factors in conversion (see Maneck).

Throughout their age-old presence in Iran, Persian Jews made wide-ranging contributions to Iranian society and culture (Fischel, 1937; Moreen; Spector). Yet mass conversions never became widespread among Persian Jews, even with the increasing pressures for conversion during the Safavid period, when many mass conversions to Islam were nominal and transient (Matthee, pp. 20, 42; Amanat, 2006, pp. 60-62). A more fundamental change in the condition of the Jews was the prevalence of the doctrine of ritual “impurity” (nejāsat), present in Sunni Islam but more emphatically so in Shiʿism and more strictly applied to Jews. This doctrine had consequences well beyond restricting social interaction and, by the Qajar period, created major economic obstacles for the Jews, who were banned from having shops in the Bazaar in many urban centers, and contributed to a gradual decline in the Jews’ socioeconomic status. Trends toward cultural participation became more restrained and limited to occasional participation in Sufi orders, where Jews were more tolerated (see Soroudi, pp. 164-65; Williams).

Increased contact between Iran and the West brought improved communications, notably print and telegraph, and a dramatic rise in the volume of foreign trade, but also military defeat, diplomatic humiliation, monetary crises, and financial dependency (see Okazaki on famines; Issawi, pp. 70-151, 258-309, on the economy; Cole, 1998, “Introduction”; and Amanat, 2004 on sociopolitical conditions). At a time when Iran was deeply affected by war, famine, epidemics, political uncertainties, and weakening central authority, faith was one of the few anchors of personal stability and community support. Yet the economic changes in 19th-century Iran also included more constructive processes. Expansion of domestic markets leading to the emergence of a national economy by the 20th century was fueled partly by the commercialization of agriculture, new trade routes, and increased European demand for Iran’s products such as carpets. Some members of the Jewish community, even those with little capital, benefited from these conditions by forming partnerships for domestic trade.

One important aspect of religious ambiguity can be observed in the acceleration of a primordial trend in the history of Persian Jewry, namely a sense of expectation for the coming of a savior or Messiah (Mashiyah). Although Western missionary activities attracted few converts, they revitalized messianic fervor and introduced new options in terms of religious convictions (Momen). According to the Christian missionary Henry Stern, who visited Iran in the 1850s, the prominent Jewish physician Ḥakim Hārun confessed that “Christian salvation was in perfect harmony with the Scripture, and far superior to the fanciful system of Rabbinism.” Stern further claims that Hārun assured him that many of the Jews of Kashan “will as intensely love Christ and his Gospel, as they formerly rejected the one and despised the other” (Stern, pp. 254-60). Even if one discounts the enthusiasm of the reporter, these statements may point to the strengthening of a deep-rooted sense of messianic expectation among Jews.

A more visual representation of the presence of messianic memory in Kashan during this period was the customary Jewish practice of praying on their rooftops on the Sabbath for the capacity to recognize the Messiah at the time of His Return (Fāżel-Māzandarāni, 1976, p. 713). Prior to the forced conversions in Mashad in 1839, some Jews there had voluntarily yet secretly converted to Islam (Jazzāb, pp. 2-4; Solaymāni, pp. 451-52). In one instance, a rabbi in Tehran even encouraged his followers to convert to Islam if the Messiah did not appear by the impending date of 1884 (Rayḥāni’s memoirs in Amanat, 2006, p. 134). It is not unlikely that the coming of the year 5600 (1840) in the Jewish calendar awakened a sense of millennial anticipation in many Jews. As in other instances in Jewish (and Islamic) history, the clerical establishment stood against any expectation of messianic advent. Nevertheless, the activities of Christian missionaries and the rise of the Babi movement gave rise to a new discourse in messianic expectation.

This environment of messianic expectation and religious ambiguity, together with pressing questions and changes related to the advent of modernity, provided fertile grounds for the spread of a new religious identity among Jews. For those attracted to the Bahai faith, the coming of the savior instilled a new sense of optimism and hope for an end to age-old miseries and persecution. To become a Bahai was to become a respected member of a community that promoted equality; it was a way out of the ghetto mindset and the limits of an impoverished and marginalized community. Conversion, one might argue, was a way for people to abandon retrograde and parochial divisions and embrace a common culture.

As such, conversion can be seen as a reconciliation of the new faith with the fundamentals of deeply held Jewish convictions. The Jewish belief system was now seen in a new light, by rejecting what was believed to be extraneous traditions and “superstitions” that had developed over the centuries under the dominance of clerical authority. This purist view, which depreciated the rabbinic tradition and instead held up the Torah as the primordial source of religious inspiration, had deep roots among Iranian Jews, perhaps through the influence of the medieval, anti-rabbinic Karaite movement, which rejected the authority of Talmudic law as unchanging and relied instead on a Shiʿite-style interpretation of the Torah by living experts (Netzer, 1997; Amanat, 1998, p. 334).

However, the break with rabbinic tradition was more extensively developed in Bahai texts that reintroduced the old Perso-Shiʿite notion of the renewal of the age and the coming of the “New Era” with the advent of the new “manifestation.” The non-literal and hermeneutical Bahai reading of the text, a familiar theme in the Persian mystical tradition, appealed to the emerging rationalist trends influenced by modernity. Deeply rooted in Iran’s mystical and literary tradition, Bahai writings were an important avenue of assimilation through Persian high culture (see Lewis on the influence of Persian literature on Bahai writings).

Cultural assimilation. The Bahai community reflected principles of cultural assimilation in a variety of ways. Bahai schools, which emphasized Persian literature and Arabic language, served as an important conduit of this cultural transformation for second-generation converts (see BAHAISM x; Ṯābet, 1997; Ringer). In addition to their religious content, Bahai meetings (maḥfel) conveyed what can be characterized as a Bahai cultural language. Their program included group musical recitations of prayers and poems as well as reading of Bahai texts in Persian and Arabic. Discussion of polemical arguments, grounded in the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, missionary experiences, and conversion accounts, equipped the participants in Bahai debates (Solaymāni, p. 485). Bahai gatherings, which also attracted sizable numbers of Jewish migrants, offered not only hospitality but a universal message of tolerance and equality with Bahais of Muslim descent who would otherwise have considered the Jews “impure” and avoided close interaction with them.

The new Bahai image, especially at the turn of the 20th century, was manifested in modern attire, a standardized Persian vernacular free of provincial and communal vocabulary and intonations, and an emphasis on personal health and hygiene. These were consistent with the emerging modern Iranian identity that stressed national homogeneity and an aversion to signs of a parochial past. In the early 1920s, when Iranians had to embrace a new identity by choosing a family name, many Bahais replaced their Jewish given names and made choices that specifically denoted their religious conviction.


Unlike earlier incidents of collective forced conversion to Islam, conversions to the Bahai faith were grounded in individual convictions and private experiences. As such, the Bahai conversions present a seemingly paradoxical question of why, notwithstanding intellectual, cultural, and socio-economic grounds, an already persecuted minority would choose to join a new religion that was subject to even harsher persecution, rather than seek the relative security of conversion to Islam. In an environment particularly hostile to Bahais, where the murder of an infidel could be justified as religiously sanctioned or permissible, becoming a Bahai could only increase the potential for humiliation and add the risk of anti-Bahai persecution to an already precarious existence.

The answer can be sought in Iran’s deep-rooted religious and cultural characteristics. Becoming a Muslim required cutting all connections to the Jewish community. The stigma and loss associated with conversion in exchange for a tenuous quasi-Muslim recognition as a “new convert” (jadid al-Eslām), with all of its derogatory connotations, could not have been much of a bargain. Such humiliating practices toward converts may explain why many younger Jews chose to accept the risk of persecution in return for becoming an equal member of a movement that saw itself as the fulfillment of the prophecies of all religions and the leading edge of modernity. They may also explain a common pattern in Bahai conversions among Jews who had become Muslims prior to becoming Bahais. This pattern can be seen as an expression of a trend among those who were seeking new alternatives but were ill at ease with the second-class designation of jadid al-Eslām (Eqrāri, p. 22). Even devout Muslims whose ancestors converted generations ago cannot, to this day, completely rid themselves of their Jewish past.

In contrast, the Bahais in theory and to a reasonable extent in practice accepted Jewish converts as equal members. Bahai writings called for the elimination of religious and racial prejudice and the rejection of the idea of “ritual purity” (nejāsat). Nevertheless, it was not an easy task to put into practice the Bahai ideas of racial unity, as age-old anti-Jewish prejudices at times proved resilient. Signs of such views can be traced in ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ’s repeated warnings against racial prejudice among Bahais (for one such letter, see Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, III, 1960, p. 96).

The adoption of a Bahai identity did not necessitate abandoning deep-rooted social ties involving many kinship, marriage, and business relationships. Most Jewish converts continued to attend Sabbath services and observe the rituals of Yom Kippur. According to one account, a number of converts, especially those in clerical positions, together with their numerous “followers,” reclaimed their Jewish identities (see Rayhani’s memoirs in Amanat, 2006, pp. 214-15). Intermarriage between Bahai families of divergent backgrounds did not occur in Kashan until around 1929, although it gradually became common. For a short while, in order to raise funds for the newly established Bahai school in Kashan, Jewish Bahais even ran a kosher butchery in competition with the one run by the rabbis (see Amanat, 1998, pp. 36-38).

In Tehran, Jewish Bahais had separate Bahai Spiritual Assemblies for some years before ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ put an end to the practice. As late as 1903, the Spiritual Assembly of Israelites of Tehran expressed solidarity with American believers by quoting biblical passages as proof of their new religious conviction in a letter addressed to the “Christian Bahais of Chicago,” published in Najm-e Bakhtar (Bāḵtar; “Star of the West”). Bahai tolerance of dual identities allowed for a wide range of believers and sympathizers, ranging from ardent propagandists and active community leaders to those who, in line with the Shiʿite practice of dissimulation of faith (taqiya) and esoteric (bāṭeni) identity, remained discreet about their faith and maintained only distant ties to the community of believers.

Conversion patterns among women varied in various communities. In contrast to the Jewish women of Kashan, who remained in their hometowns, stayed at home, and were not exposed to education, the new economy, or the evolving structure of the workforce, many Jewish women of Hamadan became dedicated Bahais. According to a Christian woman observer in Hamadan around 1890, “Some of the Jewish women, who have become Babis, ask to have the New Testament read to them in the hope of hearing something which they may use in the propagation of their new faith” (Bird, p. 163).


External opposition notwithstanding, the daunting changes in the internal dynamics of the Bahai community played a critical role in defining the boundaries of Bahai identity. Beginning in the 1930s under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahai Faith (1922-57), an increasingly well-defined and institutionalized form of religious identity challenged multiple identities and loose associations, which had been key elements in the growth of the movement. This process of consolidation, which was influenced by prevailing Western trends, made it more difficult to sustain multiple religious identities and produced a more tightly knit Bahai community, in which membership in other religious communities and attendance at mosque and synagogue services were no longer considered normal (see Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, III, 1960, p. 14). This crucial transition in the development of Iran’s Bahai community was accompanied by an equally significant process of institutionalization, which placed elected administrative bodies much more firmly in control of religious and daily life. Through these institutions, new rules for formal “enrollment” (tasjil) were established, and Bahai laws such as those relating to marriage, the prohibition against working on Bahai holidays, and even occasional temporary travel restrictions were more vigorously enforced. This trend towards institutionalization coincided with and may in part explain the decline in the rate of growth of the Iranian Bahai community by the 1950s (Smith).

Bahai conversions were also affected by developments within the Jewish community. Iran’s first Zionist committee was formed in Hamadan in 1912, probably in reaction to the Bahais’ overwhelming success in converting Jews there (Netzer, 1980, p. 225). Zionism and later the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 instilled a new sense of self-confidence in Iran’s Jewish community and provided them with a vital psychological boost. Many Persian Jews now saw the successes of their coreligionists in the Promised Land as a fulfillment of their messianic aspirations and an end to their misery as an impoverished and disadvantaged minority. Iran’s Jewish community gradually adopted a more Westernized version of Judaism, less preoccupied with issues of messianic expectation and more engaged with Zionism.

Yet many who chose to confirm their belief in the Bahai faith made important contributions to the Bahai community. Among Mashad converts, one notable Bahai was ʿAziz-Allāh Jazzāb, a poet and scholar who corresponded with Edward Brown and was appointed by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ to visit Count Leo Tolstoy (Jazzāb, p. 3; Solaymāni, pp. 451-52; Balyuzi, pp. 175-90). Beginning in the 1920s, many Jewish converts experienced substantial social mobility and economic enhancement, often using community networking in what amounted to a form of “ethnic economy.” Some even sought and received guidance from ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ in starting their business. Others were philanthropists and became known as major donors to the Bahai community, for example, ʿAbd-al-Miṯāq Miṯāqiyeh (1893-1981), a grandson of the aforementioned Ḥakim Hārun (see autobiography, 1977).

A number of mostly second-generation Bahais benefited from the higher level of education they received in modern (including Bahai) schools and joined the growing educated middle class of the Pahlavi period. Many advanced in business and as professionals. One leading Bahai, Manučehr Ḥakim (1910-81), a highly respected professor of medicine (and a descendant of the aforementioned Ḥakim Masiḥ), was murdered in his Tehran office, allegedly for his Bahai activities (see Ḥakim-Samandari). Many more used their education to become successful professional entrepreneurs (see Eqrāri). A few became leading innovators and industrialists, important agents of modernity and major contributors to Iran’s economy and industry. One notable example is Ḵalil Arjomand (d. 1944), an engineering professor who founded Arj Industries in 1937 and was responsible for introducing the manufacture of a number of vital industrial products to Iran (Arjomand, 2002, pp. 62-66, 38-48). Ḥabib Ṯābet was a well-known industrialist and mega-entrepreneur, whose ventures included the establishment of Iran’s first television stations in 1959 (see Ṯābet’s autobiography, 1993). Both Ṯābet and Arjomand were descendants of the aforementioned ambitious physician Mirzā Ḵalil (ʿAqiba).

The conversion of a substantial number of Jews to a persecuted minority faith was a unique phenomenon in Islamic Iran, if not in the entire Muslim world. The converts added color to an already diverse community of followers that included the educated elite, radical revolutionaries, and eccentrics, but mostly the disadvantaged. Within a relatively short period of time, as their faith evolved from a popular, messianic, anti-establishment movement to a highly institutionalized faith, their experience in the Bahai community contained elements of change and continuity. Those from within the isolated and deprived Jewish community who joined the Bahai faith maintained patterns of economic activity in line with their Jewish relatives. As they became more assimilated and adopted a more Iranian identity, they also tended to be more educated and their social mobility was geared toward professional patterns (Bozorgmehr, 1993, p. 73).

Today, decades after the wave of emigration of many non-Muslims following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s cultural ecosystem, a vital aspect of its survival, is once again under threat of religious conformity. The Islamic Republic’s efforts to showcase the religious freedoms of “recognized” minorities are contradicted by its treatment of the Bahais, who have become a silenced “other” belonging to a forbidden memory. A vital question for Iran’s future might be whether she is able to rejuvenate within herself the sense of cultural diversity that historically has been essential to her survival.



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Under Reza Shah (1925-41)

Reza Shah’s (r. 1925-41) rise to power ushered in a new era for the Iranian people. The shah was not motivated by a positive attitude towards religious minorities (except Zoroastrians), but all minorities indirectly benefited from his reforms. He favored a modern Iran, free of foreign influence, united, and strong militarily. He opposed a nation of tribal groups and wanted one people, a people with a well-developed historical and national consciousness founded on a culture whose sources lay mainly in pre-Islamic Iran. He tolerated no political activity or ideology with any associations with a foreign country or groups outside of Iran. As a result, communist and Zionist activities were outlawed in Iran under his rule, albeit for different reasons (Netzer, 1980, pp. 16-17; idem, 2005, p. 17).

During this period, the government obstructed Jewish emigration to then Palestine. Zionist institutions in London and the Iranian Foreign Ministry engaged in heated arguments over the total ban on emigration to Palestine and on the use of Iranian soil by Russian Jews as a transit station on their way to Palestine. However, despite these difficulties, Iranian Jewish immigration never ceased (Netzer, 1980, p. 17).

In September 1926, Reza Shah ordered the arrest of Šemuʾel Ḥaim, the head of the Iranian Zionist organization, who strongly motivated Iranian Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Along with several officers in the Iranian army, he was accused of being a British spy and of involvement in a failed coup d’état. He was tried, spent about seven years in prison, and was executed by firing squad on 15 December 1931 (Netzer, 1980, p. 17; Sanasarian, p. 46, no. 61; Adhami, pp. 149-341, esp. pp. 300-303; Levy, III, pp. 947, 951, tr., p. 538; Ṭoluʿi, pp. 256-58).

Under Reza Shah, the equal rights that were granted to members of the religious minorities by the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-9 were enforced. The ensuing social changes enabled Jews to rise in status and become more assimilated within the broader society. Despite the statutory change, the Muslim majority (except for a minority of westernized Iranians) continued to have a negative view of Iranian Jewry. The Reza Shah era witnessed the repeal of all of the discriminatory laws applying to Jews. Jews were accorded the right to serve in the military and to enroll in state schools (in the late 1920s, Reza Shah subjected the Jewish schools to the general education system, to have governmental license and an Iranian name (Cohen, p. 118; for photographs of Jewish schools and their students, see Figures 1-4, below; see also ALLIANCE ISRAÉLITE UNIVERSELLE). Jews started to leave the Jewish quarter (maḥalla) and reside wherever they wished. They had the right to hold government jobs and keep shops in the bazaars. They took advantage of the opportunity and opened shops in commercial areas outside of the Jewish quarters. Previously, a small number of Jews had opened their shops outside of their quarter in Tehran and in several provincial towns. Under Reza Shah, the trend gained greater momentum, leading to an improvement in the economic situation of Jews. Yet, despite the changes, when Reza Shah’s reign ended, the majority of Iranian Jews were still poor (Mizraḥi, pp. 74-75; Netzer, 2005, pp. 18-19).

Figure 1. Students, teachers, and school directors, Hamadan, 1927.

Figure 2. Boys' school Gym class, Jewish students with school uniform and Pahlavi cap, Yazd, 1931.

Figure 3. Girls' school celebration, Isfahan, 1936.

Figure 4. Reza Shah visiting the students and teachers of Hamadan schools, 1936.

The new national identity had a profound impact on Jewish identity. While retaining their Jewish religious affiliation and identity, the Jews of Iran wished to be perceived as Iranians and found it easier to assimilate in society, which emphasized secular-nationalist pursuits, values, and symbols, namely Persian music, poetry, and literature, Iranian national holidays, Iranian names, and glorification of Iran’s pre-Islamic past (Netzer, 1980, p. 17; idem, 2005, p. 18).

Iranian Jewry sought to become part of the Iranian national stream, the inspiration for which lay in pre-Islamic Iran. Many Iranian Jews see themselves as denizens of Iranian territory for the 2,700 years since the Assyrian exile (722 BCE). Numerous Jewish-Iranian public figures often repeat that Judaism constitutes the oldest religious minority in Iran, and one that settled there a millennium before the rise of Islam. It must also be noted that among the religious minorities currently residing in Iran, the Jews are the only minority of non-Iranian origin. Nevertheless, this fact does not dull the common historical memory shared by Iranian Jews and other Iranians. Many Iranian Jews emphasized Iran’s majestic, distant past as an integral part of Jewish history. The link was achieved, to a large extent, during the Pahlavi period. Both Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah, tried to revive secular, Iranian nationalism by pointing to its ancient glory that began with the rise of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, thereby constituting a source of national pride and inspiration. They both worked to project continuity between the pre-Islamic period and their own reigns with regards to conceptions of the monarchy, symbols, and cultural values (Netzer, 1980, p. 17; idem, 2005, p. 18). Moreover, unlike other peoples and conquerors, Iran’s two ancient empires (Persian and Median) are viewed positively in the Bible and the Talmud. Jewish secular-nationalist Iranians labored to establish continuity between the pre-Islamic period and that of their own from the perspective of the monarchy, symbols, and cultural values (Netzer, 2005, p. 9).

Jews identified with the nationalist aspirations and values of an invigorated Iran, and integrated them into their Iranian, Jewish identity. One of the more important links is found in the story of Cyrus, often represented as the Messiah, the savior of the Jewish people, and even a Jew in the Judeo-Persian literary tradition. In the Ardašir-nāma (comp. 773/1333), a Judeo-Persian epic in the maṯnawi form by the Jewish poet Šāhin Širāzi, Cyrus the Great is represented as a Jewish king born of Queen Esther (for a drawing from an illuminated Ardašir-nāma MS depicting Queen Esther giving birth to Cyrus, see Sarshar, 2002, p. 91).

The new national identity was a two-edged sword, given that the government’s nationalistic policies generated xenophobic, and at times even anti-Semitic sentiments. Following the vicissitudes in Iranian politics and opinion that punctuated the twentieth century, some of Iran’s modern, secular intellectuals were active in reconstructing a national Iranian identity based on the history of the Aryan race of ancient Iran. They introduced secular components that originated in the “Aryan hypothesis” and in the universalistic philological research that began at the end of the eighteenth century, as an offshoot of European eugenics (Ram, pp. 159-61). For this reason, some intellectuals denigrated the Semitic race, attacking both Arabs and Iranian Jews. Jews, who comprised Iran’s oldest religious minority, were not considered ethnic Iranians (Soroudi, 1998, pp. 149-70). This brand of national consciousness created problems and tension between the Jews and the racially conscious community in which they lived. Clearly, Iran’s relations with Germany, which reached their peak during the Nazi period, helped cultivate a new attitude towards Jews, based on racial perceptions. Politics, specifically Iran’s relations with the Soviet Union and Great Britain, led Reza Shah to strengthen his ties with Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Commercial and cultural intercourse between the two countries grew. There was a large influx of German engineers and technicians into Iran. Nazi radio and newspaper propaganda emphasized the “common Aryan origin” of the two peoples, while classifying the Jews as “an inferior race and parasites on humanity.” Many pan-Iranianists cooperated with the Nazis, creating even greater tension between Jews and non-Jews (Pirnaẓar, 1996, pp. 93-105; Netzer, 1986, pp. 5-31; Greenberger, pp. 44-45, 74, 78-82).

The German invasion of Russia and the German army’s advance along the southern Russian front pleased the Iranian fascists, who wished to rid Iran of Jews while availing themselves of Jewish property (Netzer, 1986, pp. 13-14; Saʿidi, p. 34). ʿAbbāsqoli Golšāʾiān, who was Reza Shah’s finance minister during this period, writes that the lightening advance of the German army across Russia and the Soviet defeat were taken as a “good omen” (fāl-e nik) and cause for celebration in Iran (Golšāʾiān, I, p. 416, cf. I, p. 456). Anti-Jewish articles were published in the Iranian media. Anti-Jewish sentiments went beyond religious prejudice and took on racist characteristics (Sanasarian, pp. 46-47; Netzer, 1986, pp. 5-31; Pirnaẓar, 1996, pp. 93-105; Levy, III, pp. 969-71).


During 1941-48. Upon the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941 and the military occupation of Iran by the Allies, his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, was crowned (r. 1941-79). During the occupation (1941-46), Iran experienced an especially dynamic political period. Over twenty political parties were founded, representing a broad spectrum of opinions and ideologies, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right and including the various religious groups. In Tehran and in the provinces, dozens of newspapers and weeklies appeared in which political opinions were freely expressed. This freedom of the press enabled Jews to renew their Zionist activities. They founded clubs for cultural and pioneering activity, organized training and preparation for immigration to Palestine, and established newspapers and weeklies of their own, such as ʿĀlam-e yahud (1945-55), edited by Yunes Bustāni et al.; Esrāʾil (Israel, 1945-55), edited by Raḥim Kohan; Nisān (1948-53), edited by Šemuʾel Anwar; Sinā (1949-50), edited by Āqā Khan Ṭub; Bani ādam (1951-52), edited by Loqmān Ṣāleḥ; Dāniāl (1952), edited by Yaʿqub Oriān; and Donyā-ye yahud (1951-52) edited by Majid Nehurāy, which continues to appear in Los Angeles under Bāruḵ Beruḵim’s editorship (Netzer, 2005, pp. 139-56; Pirnaẓar, 2000, pp. 13-46; Barzin, pp. 74, 91, 189, 289-90, 349, 420).

Iranian Jews were also active in the Zionist organization that was established in Iran in the beginning of the 1940s. The movement accepted Jewish youth who wanted to immigrate to Palestine and join the kibbutzim. Following the conference, Ha-Khalutz opened branches outside of Tehran. In 1947, there were fifteen branches of the movement, three of them in Tehran. Some two thousand youths were members of the movement. The movement laid the foundation for the emigration of thousands of Jews from Iran in the 1950s. Ha-Khalutz prevented many Jewish youths and other Jews from converting to the Bahai faith and from joining the communist movement (Saʿidi, pp. 48-162; Sasson, 2005, pp. 157-72; Davidi, pp. 238-58; Ḥanāsāb, pp. 3-12).

The Jewish Agency opened a branch in Tehran to aid Jewish refugees from Poland (Yishai, pp. 7-22). Iranian Jews came into contact with Jewish Agency staff and Jewish soldiers serving in the Allied forces, which bolstered Iranian Jews’ community activity and self-confidence. Many Iranian Jews extended aid to the “Tehran Children” (Farzandān-e Tehrān) and to Jewish refugees from Russian and Poland on their way to Palestine (Netzer, 1996-97, pp. II, 139-78).

Despite the political ferment that characterized Iran during this period, Jews generally refrained from joining political parties. An exception was the ideologically freewheeling communist Tudeh party (see COMMUNISM ii), which attracted several hundred Jewish intellectuals from across the country. These intellectuals published a number of Jewish, communist-oriented periodicals, such as the two weekly papers Nisān, which was replaced by other papers after it was banned, and Bani ādam (Barzin, pp. 91, 420). Some participated in underground meetings and public demonstrations, clashing at times with the police. A number of Jewish demonstrators participating in a violent protest on 19 July 1952 were arrested and given prison sentences of various lengths. These leftist Jews were also involved in Zionist activities; they saw no contradiction between the Jewish people’s national aspirations and party ideology, which, in those days, supported the establishment of the State of Israel (Daghighian, pp. 259-73; Netzer, 2005, pp. 18-19).

During 1948-1978. Israel’s independence in 1948 created a delicate situation for Iranian Jewry. The Iranian government opposed the partition plan, as did Iranian Muslims who were influenced by the clerics, headed by Ayatollah Sayyed Abu’l-Qāsem Kāšāni (1882-1962; Sasson, 2005, p. 168; Sadok, p. 62; Netzer, 1979, pp. 76-77). Ayatollah Kāšāni tried to recruit volunteers from among the Iranian population to join the Arab armies who waged war against Israel, but the government refused to be directly involved in any war efforts. Posters in the Tehran bazaar called on Iranians not to buy from Jewish merchants (Sanasarian, p. 47; Yazdāni, pp. 100, 251). Iran’s state-run radio broadcast anti-Israeli reports and referred to the State of Israel as dawlat-e pušāli-e yahud (flimsy Jewish state; Eṭṭelāʿāt-e haftagi, 7 Ḵordād 1327/1 June 1948; Ezri, p. 355). The Iranian press, except for the communist papers, was for the most part anti-Israeli and at times anti-Semitic (Netzer, 1979, p. 77).

In 1948, the Iranian Jewish community numbered about 90,000 to 100,000 persons, with some 30 percent living in Tehran. The founding of the State of Israel led to an increase in the emigration of Jews from Iran. Between 1948 and 1953, almost 31,000, approximately one-third of the total Jewish population in the country, left Iran (Statistical Abstract of Israel, p. 49). It should be noted, however, that there was also the reverse immigration among Iranian Jews who had migrated to Israel before 1953. It is estimated that from 1953 to 1975 five thousands Jews returned to Iran (Netzer, 1981, p. 11; Sadok, pp. 250-51, 255).

Iran was also a transit station for many Iraqi Jews (Sasson, 2005, p. 168). The Iranian government, acting with the approval of the shah, assisted Iraqi Jews in fleeing Iraq for Iran (Netzer, 1994, p. 661; Bialer, pp. 292-315). Most of the immigrant Jews who left Iran to settle in Israel in this wave were members of the lower classes and came from the provinces (Sasson, 1999, pp. 112-28; Yeroushalmi, 2001, pp. 27-52).

With the signing of the cease-fire between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries in 1949, there were signs of a change for the better in the attitudes of the government and media toward Israel. The changes resulted from internal, regional, and global factors. In March 1950, the Iranian government, headed by Moḥammad Sāʿed Marāḡaʾi (1883-1973), unanimously decided to grant the State of Israel de facto recognition (Parsi, pp. 19-28; Bialer, pp. 292-315). Iran’s diplomatic recognition of Israel had a major impact on Iranian Jews both in terms of their own self-image and in terms of the attitude of other Iranians toward them (Netzer, 1980, p. 18; Menashri, 1991, p. 357)

Nevertheless, the premiership of Moḥammad Moṣaddeq in the early 1950s brought another rise of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. During the oil crisis of 1950-53, the government was more attuned with the sentiments of the majority of the population who considered Israel as a creation of Western imperialism and, therefore, illegitimate (Soroudi, 1981, p. 109; Sadok, pp. 76-77). After the Coup d’état of 1332 Š./1953 there was the rumor that the Jewish delegate in the Majles, Morād Arieh (1900-80), had funds delivered to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi during his brief exile in Rome. These funds allowed the royal family to remain in Italy until they could safely return to Iran (Sarshar, 2002, p. 382).

The shah trusted the loyalty of Iranian Jews, and “the covenant” between the shah and his Jewish subjects was reinforced. The new political atmosphere created a potential boon for Jewish prosperity and freedom, but it also posed risks, given the community’s dependence on a single individual. To aggravate matters, after the shah returned to power, he ruled with an iron fist and suppressed the opposition. The formation of a highly centralized government enabled government control of the periphery and prevented local incitement against Jews (Menashri, 1991, p. 357). It must also be pointed out that the increasing co-operation between the secret services of the two countries (MOSSAD and SAVAK), both in training and in their close co-operation against Egypt, particularly after the Suez Crisis of 1956, had a lastingly detrimental impact on the perception of many Iranians, both secular and religious, regarding Israel, and, to some extent, some members of the Jewish community with close attachments to the State of Israel (Zāreʿ, pp. 55-88; Parsi, 2007, passim).

Iranian-Israeli relations were strong by the mid-1950s, and Pahlavi ties with the West gave the Iranian Jewish community a sense of security and freedom (see ISRAEL i. RELATIONS WITH IRAN). These ties enabled a closer connection between Iranian Jewry and Jewish organizations, such as the American Joint Distribution Committee, Otzar Hatorah (an American-based Jewish Orthodox institution), ORT (which began operations in Iran in 1950), and Israeli organizations, among them The Jewish Agency for Israel. These organizations offered economic and cultural support. For example, the American Joint Distribution provided education, medical services, sanitation, and meals programs for Iranian Jewish children (Spicehandler, pp. 24-25; Joint, pp. 17-18; Mizraḥi, pp. 72-73). Alliance Israèlite Universelle (AIU) remained active in the country. Otzar Hatorah founded schools in cities that lacked Alliance schools and in new neighborhoods of cities in which Alliance operated in the early 1940s (Cohen, pp. 114-22).

The years of the Pahlavi dynasty, in particular the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, are often considered as a golden age for the Iranian Jewry. The Israel-shah-Jewish triangle reached its pinnacle of goodwill in January 1963, when the shah declared his so-called White Revolution (Enqelāb-e safid) reform plan (1963-79) and began to introduce far-reaching reforms aimed at changing Iranian society (see Amuzgar, pp. 217-29). The White Revolution’s rapid modernization framework offered exceptional opportunities for Iran’s Jewish community.

The reforms impinged on pious endowments (waqf), which antagonized the religious establishment. The granting of civil rights to women also enraged the clerics. The reforms aroused the strong criticism of the Muslim clerics, headed by Ayatollah Ruḥ-Allāh Musawi Ḵomeyni (Ruhollah Khomeini, 1902-89), against the regime itself. In every anti-regime demonstration, the name of Israel was repeatedly raised, blaming it for aiding “the shah’s dictatorial and oppressive regime.” Anti-Jewish proclamations often accompanied the demonstrations. Jewish institutions in Tehran and in the provinces were attacked (Soroudi, 1981, p. 109; The Israeli State Archive, file no. 442/20; Netzer, 1979, p. 78; idem, 2005, p. 21; Menashri, 2002, p. 391; “Yehude Iran haim…”).

The Six-Day War (1967) strained relations even further between Muslims and Jews in Iran. The tense atmosphere during the Iran-Israel soccer game in the Asian Nations Cup in Tehran in May 1968 and afterwards left an impact on the Muslim-Jewish relations in the country (Chehabi, 2000, pp. 16-24; Rahimiyan, 2007, pp. 22-28; Israeli State Archive, file no. 4174/4).

Another crisis that aroused anti-Jewish hostility and tension, which usually remained beneath the surface during the shah’s regime, erupted following Arab military achievements during the Yom Kippur War (1973). Soroudi claims that some of the religiously oriented bazaars linked, in part due to economic rivalry, Jewish destiny in Iran with the fall of Israel. Liberal Muslims, it has been noted, offered shelter for their Jewish friends in times of crisis (Soroudi, 1981, p. 110). Mikhael Zand argues that Westernization and secularization, on the one hand, and imitation of members of the establishment and intellectuals class, on the other hand, led the new urban middle class in the main cities of the country, especially in Tehran, to question the concept of impurity of infidels, if not to deny it altogether. The Jew was no longer viewed as an infidel, either by the ruling elite or the intellectuals, or, to a great extent, by the middle class (Zand, 1986, p. 110).

Under Pahlavi rule, especially that of Mohammad Reza Shah, the economic status of Iranian Jews improved greatly. Iran’s economy was booming in the mid-twentieth century, especially after the 1973 oil crisis. In one generation, Iranian Jewry made impressive strides, in large part due to its dynamic urban nature, which enabled it to participate fully in Iran’s economic growth. Many Jews took advantage of this window of opportunity, abandoned their traditional crafts, and integrated in new branches of the economy.

On the eve of the Revolution of 1978-79, the Jews were a force in the Iranian economy far greater than their numbers would dictate. Some became involved in international trade, introducing new products to the Iranian public: electric appliances, pharmaceuticals, and other staple commodities. The concentration of Jews in urban areas and in certain occupations, compared to Muslims, led to a Jewish dominance in those occupations. Jews worked principally in trade, industry, and crafts, but engaged also in real estate. Numerous members of the Jewish community made quick fortunes as economic activity accelerated. Many became leading figures in “banking, insurance, textile, plastics, paper, pharmaceuticals, aluminum production, liquor distillery and distribution, shipping, imports, industrial machinery, and tile manufacturing ” (Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. xix; see also: Taheri; Tsadik, pp. 50-54; The Israeli State Archive, file no. 3435/6, 6.5.1962). Many Jewish businesses were monopolies owned by one family, or, usually, one man. Examples of successful businesspeople are the Elqāniān brothers, who brought the plastics industry to Iran and built the first Iranian skyscraper (Kadisha, p. 423); and the Nahāʾi brothers, who founded the first privately owned insurance company in Iran in 1946 and Alborz Insurance Company in 1965, which became one of Iran’s largest privately owned insurance carriers (Kadisha, p. 425).

Furthermore, after 1948, Israel absorbed large numbers of Iranian Jews from the lower economic classes, relieving the Iranian Jewish community of the burden of caring for them (Netzer 1980, 19; Menashri, 1991, p. 357; Sadok, p. 42). In addition, since the end of World War II, the Iranian Jewish community has enjoyed the generous support of international Jewish organizations, which have been active primarily in general education, occupational training, and health matters (Netzer, 1980, p. 19; Spicehandler, 1970, pp. 24-25; Sadok, pp. 38, 40).

On a per capita basis, by 1968, the Iranian Jewish community had become the wealthiest Jewish community in Asia and Africa (Haddad, p. 50) and, some contended, the richest Jewish community in the world (Menashri, 1991, p. 358). The Jewish community prospered under Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime not only in economic terms. The community’s educational and cultural life flourished. It had schools, ran social and cultural organizations, synagogues, and communal associations at the local and national levels, and offered Hebrew courses and lectures. According to Amir Taheri, “there were over 150 synagogues in Iran, mainly in Tehran and Shiraz” since August 1969.

The Jewish Council (Anjoman-e kalimiān), which represented the Iranian Jewish community, was recognized by the government. Anjoman-e Kalimiān operated by means of committees and in concert with other Jewish organizations. Among these committees and organizations were the neighborhood committee, the Koreš School committee, the community hospital committee, the Women’s Social Aid Organization, the Joint Distribution Committee, ORT, the Jewish National Fund, and the World Zionist Organization. Community institutions, such as the rabbinical court, synagogues, cemeteries, the hospital in Tehran and its two branches, the home for the elderly, the neighborhood kindergarten, women’s committees, and cultural clubs, were all affiliated with it. Sāzmān-e danešjuyān-e yahud-e Irān (The Iranian Jewish Student’s Association) was the only legal student organization that could act freely. The women’s organizations, mainly Sāzmān-e bānovān-e yahud-e Irān (The Organization of Jewish Iranian Women) was active in the community. The Jewish Agency engaged in communal, social, and cultural activities and supported the community’s youth clubs, such as the Kuroš-e kabir club (Rahimiyan, 2005, pp. 88-95; Menashri, 1991, p. 358).

The improvement in Jewish life prompted many Jews to leave the Jewish sections and move to integrated neighborhoods (the rich Jews moved to Tehran’s northern suburbs). The assimilation of the members of the Iranian Jewish community, together with increasing secularization, weakened Jewish values (Netzer, 1979, pp. 69-83; Taheri). Some researchers contended that Jewish identity was strengthened among the young generation, as a result of ties between Iran’s Jewish community and Jewish communities in Europe and the United States. Intermarriages with Muslims increased in the 1970s, but still remained a rarity (Spicehandler, 1970, p. 41; Taheri).

Iran’s Jewish population in early 1976 stood at about 62,000, of whom 42,000 lived in Tehran on the eve of Revolution (Statistical Center of Iran, 1980, p. 78), making it the largest Jewish community in Asia and Africa, except for South Africa. These 62,000 Jews constituted less then 0.25 percent of Iran’s total population of 35 million, but the Jews’ presence in the economic sphere, in the professional domain, and in Iran’s cultural life was disproportionately large. About ten percent of the Jews were extremely wealthy; a similar percentage lived in poverty. The remaining eighty percent enjoyed a high standard of living (Netzer, 1981, p. 12; idem, 2005, p. 21).

According to the unofficial estimate of Anjoman-e kalimiān, about eighty Jewish professors and lecturers—that is, two percent of the country’s 4,000 professors and lecturers—taught in Iranian universities and other institutions of higher learning. There were approximately 600 Jewish physicians, constituting six percent of Iran’s 10,000 physicians. Of the 150,000 students in institutions of higher learning, 4,000 were Jewish, many of whom studied in the most prestigious institutions and faculties, and many Iranian Jews attended boarding schools and colleges in Europe and the United States (Netzer, 1979, pp. 69-83; idem, 2005, p. 21; Sitton, 1985, p. 184). Based on a representative sample taken in 1978, the literacy rate among Iranian Jewish males aged 6-50 was over 90 percent. The rate among females was 70 percent. These figures were much higher than the overall Iranian literacy rate (Netzer, 1979, p. 79; idem, 1981, p. 12; Sāl-nāma-ye āmāri-e kešvari, as cited in Netzer, 1979, p. 79, n. 59).

Some prominent examples of Jews with notable attainments are Šelemu (Samuel) Rahbar (b. Hamadān, 1929), who discovered in the 1967 HbA1C, a form of hemoglobin used primarily to identify plasma glucose concentration over time. It is still the most important means to measure the blood-sugar level in diabetic patients. Iraj Lālazāri (b. 1930) was the dean of the College of Pharmacy, Tehran University. He earned the Queen Farah Science Prize (1972) and the Crown Decoration for Scientific Research (1965). Homā Saršār (b. 1946) was a staff writer for Zan-e ruz weekly magazine and the Kayhān daily newspaper, eventually becoming one of Iran’s leading journalists and television talk-show hosts (see figs. in Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 392-93; EIr. XI, p. 622). Few Jews rose to important position in the government, such as the attorney Yusof Kohan (1927-81), who had been a member in Tehran’s City Council (Anjoman-e Šahr-e Tehrān) since 1972 and later became the Jewish representative in the Twenty-Fifth Majles.

Iranian Jews contributed the Iranian cultural life as well. Solaymān Ḥaim (1886-1970), a lexicographer, compiled a series of bilingual dictionaries that are still considered authoritative. He also wrote theatre plays based on biblical stories. A number of Jewish musicians, such as the master tār player and composer Mortażā Neydāwud (1900-90) and the vocalist Yona Dardašti (1907-90), made significant contributions to the preservation and development of Persian music (Netzer, 1984, p. 163-81; Loeb, 2000, pp. 25-38). Some Jews were employed in the Iranian cinema industry and were film producers (e.g., Zvoluni brothers, Raḥimzāda brothers). There were also a few Jewish athletes who performed at the highest national level, like Hušang Raḥimiān, a boxing champion at the end of the 1940s, and Žānet Kohanṣedq (1945-72), the illustrious national track and field champion (Sarshar, 2002, p. 377, 424; Chehabi, 2002, pp. 373-78; Netzer, 2005, pp. 19-20).


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Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, New Haven, 2007.

Žāla Pirnaẓar, “Čehra-ye yahud dar āṯār-e seh nevisanda-ye motajadded-e irāni,” Iran Nāma/Iran Nameh 13/4, fall 1995, pp. 483-502.

Idem, “Jang-e bayn al-melal-e dovvom wa jāmeʿa-ye yahud dar Irān,” in Homa Sarshar, Houman Sarshar, and Debbie Adhami, eds., I, Los Angeles, 1996, pp. 93-105.

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Parviz Rahbar, Tārikh-e yahud, Tehran, 1946.

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S. Zvoluni, Interviewed by author on 8 December 2007.


See Supplement.


Judeo-Persian language, a term (abbrev.: JP) referring to a group of very similar, usually mutually comprehensible, dialects of Persian, spoken or written by Jews in greater Iran over a period of more than a millennium.


Jewish languages and dialects emerged with the exposure of Jews to other cultures. They tended to adopt the foreign language for everyday life, but continued to use Hebrew, mostly as a sacred tongue. Naturally, they incorporated some Hebrew and Aramaic words and calques in their vernacular language. The majority of Jewish languages uses the Hebrew alphabet for writing. In many cases, the Jewish language, segregated from the language of the majority, remains somewhat archaic.

These three generalizations, however, are neither essential nor sufficient for classifying a language as Jewish. The presence and extent of the Hebrew component varies greatly even within dialects of the same Jewish language. In some cases, Hebrew words entered into the language of the majority population, either through social contact or through study of the holy scriptures. Hebrew words often appear in descriptions of Judaism made by non-Jews (in Iran, see Fischel, 1974 pp. 301-4). Some Jewish languages, including certain Iranian ones, use a local script. The preservation of archaisms is shared by most minority and peripheral dialects around the world, regardless of religion.

The only criterion common to all Jewish languages is social: they are used exclusively by Jews.


The Jewish community in Iran, one of the oldest in the world, dates back to the eigth century BCE (see above). While adhering to their religious tenets even under severe persecutions, Iranian Jews have readily adopted Iranian culture and literature, and still regard them as their own.

Iranian Jews speak local dialects invaluable to linguistic research, e.g., Eṣfahāni or Yazdi (see, for example, Yarshater, 1974; Netzer, 1987; Gindin, 2002a and 2005), as well as unique varieties of Persian with dialectical and Hebrew/Aramaic influences. The Hebrew scroll of Esther, as well as the Aramaic “proto-Esther scroll” found in Qumran (see Shaked, 1995), suggest that, already in the Achaemenid period, the language of Iranian Jews included a substantial Persian component. There is some evidence for the existence of Jewish Bible translations in the Sasanian period (see Shapira, 2001; see also s.v. BIBLE). The earliest written documentation of Jewish Persian, however, dates back only to the 8th century CE. Practically all Judeo-Persian documents known to date are varieties of New Persian (see however a Geniza fragment in an unknown Judeo-Iranian dialect, Shaked, 1988)

Speakers of most JP dialects use the Hebrew alphabet, although some 19th- and 20th-century dialects employ an Arabic, Roman, or Cyrillic alphabet. They contain fewer Hebrew words than most Jewish languages, and in some cases none at all. Their degree of archaism varies: some classical JP works reflect a more recent stage of Persian than the writings of contemporary Muslims do. The speakers refer to their language as Fārsi (Early Judeo-Persian perhaps *Pārsi). Non-Jews refer to it as zidi, judi, or jidi, “Jewish” in a derogatory sense.


For centuries, the Hebrew characters used for writing JP prevented the acknowledgement outside the Jewish Persian community of its vast literature (see below). The first JP text to attract the attention of Western scholars was Yaaqub ben Yusof Ṭāvus’s translation of the Pentateuch, which was the first JP (and NP) work to be printed. It appeared in the polyglot Pentateuch printed by the Soncino press at Constantinopole in 1546, but only became known in the West in 1657, when Thomas Hyde transliterated it into Arabic script for Bishop Bryan Walton’s polyglot Bible. It would take the Western world almost two centuries to realize that this translation continues a long tradition of JP Bible versions. The discovery of other genres of JP literature occurred only in the late 19th century.

Another important discovery took place in the early 17th century: that of the Chinese-Jewish colony of Kaifeng. This community originated in Iran, as attested by the JP colophons on some of their books, the JP translation of the Passover Haggadah, the JP rubrics in their prayer books, and more (see Leslie)

The 17th century also marks the beginning of JP manuscript collections in Europe; the Florentine traveler and scholar Giambattista Vechietti collected in Iran JP manuscripts dating from the early 14th century on. These manuscripts, kept in the Vatican Library, contain translations of biblical books and Apocrypha. For some reason, his transcriptions of these texts into Arabic characters did not win recognition. During the 19th century more JP manuscripts found their way to Europe. According to contemporaneous catalogues, European libraries held about 55 JP manuscripts (Fischel, 1949, p. 1182)

In 1896 and 1897, the London traveler and scholar Elkan Nathan Adler bought JP manuscripts in Tehran, Bukhara, and Samarkand. He bought over 100 manuscripts from Genizas (cabinets of discarded sacred Jewish texts) and from private people. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York purchased Adler’s collection in 1923. Wilhelm Bacher (1850-1913) exhaustively studied these manuscripts as well as other collections of JP literature. He also introduced to the West the great classsical JP poets Šāhin and ʿEmrāni. The first of his articles about the historical narratives of Bābāʾi ben Loṭf and Bābāʾi ben Farhād was published one year after M. Seligsohn first introduced them. His comprehensive work, which attracted wide attention to JP language and literature and which is still of great interest, includes numerous catalogues, text editions, descriptions, and studies of JP literature.

The documents recovered from the Cairo Geniza and other sources by Solomon Schechter and other collectors, notably Abraham Firkowicz, towards the end of the 19th century, changed the scholarly perception of the quality and the quantity of the JP literature. They provide an invaluable source of Early Judeo-Persian (EJP), which now counts about 600 pages of texts from various genres: Bible commentary and translation, grammar and lexicography, Jewish law, legal documents, medicine and magic, poetry and liturgy, as well as personal letters, mostly still unpublished (publication is in preparation by Shaul Shaked).

The tradition of manuscript collection by travelers to Iran continued in the 20th century up to the Islamic revolution, with scholars such as Amnon Netzer for the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem (the most recent publication of one of those texts is of fragments of an EJP Psalm translation, Netzer, 2002) and Ezra Spicehandler for the Klau library at the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio. (See Netzer, 1985, p. 5; Lazard, 1978, p. 310 for information about other collections of JP manuscript material.)

Around the turn of the 20th century, a group of recent immigrants to Jerusalem started publication of religious and secular JP works. The hard core of the group, headed by Shimʿon Ḥākhām (1843-1910), a renowned author, translator, and editor and the publisher, came from Bukhara. Others were immigrants from Iran, Afghanistan, and Samarkand. Their work also includes translations of non-Jewish literature, such as the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, into their Jewish-Persian vernacular.

An article by K. D. Hassler in 1829 marked the beginning of research into JP literature. In 1870, E. W. West introduced the first non-biblical JP text—a trilingual inscription on a copper plate found in Travancore, South India, and dated to the 9th century. It contains, besides Pahlavi and Arabic, four JP signatures by Jewish witnesses, with the formula hmgwn mn pdyš gwhwm, “ I, , also testify to it.” In 1884, Paul de Lagarde presented a JP manuscript of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a portion of Ezekiel, and supplied the first linguistic description of Judeo-Persian, stating that “From now on, no one may claim to know the vocabulary of New Persian, unless they have worked through these [Judeo-Persian] translations from beginning to end” (p. 70) His linguistic description was complemented by Th. Nöldeke (1884) and P. Horn (1893).

In 1899, D. S. Margoliouth introduced a longer, non-biblical JP document, the Ahwaz Law Report from 1020/1 CE. This text was also studied by W. B. Henning (1958, pp. 80-81), J. P. Asmussen (1965), D. N. MacKenzie (1966), and Shaked (1971; 1972, p. 51). This discovery, together with that of other early Judeo-Persian texts, underlines the importance of the study of the early JP material for the history of Persian.

Carl Salemann introduced the largest known Early Judeo-Persian text in 1900. This 226-page translation and the commentary (tafsir) on the book of Ezekiel (TE) from the Firkowicz collection probably dates to the 11th century. Salemann described some general peculiarities of the text, especially its use of the synthetic passive forms typical of MP. A complete edition of the text, on which he worked at the time, never materialized. It was undertaken again by Shaked in the 1980s. He has given materials over to T. E. Gindin, who is preparing an edition, translation, and grammatical study of the text. Partial studies of the TE have been conducted by Shaked (1986, about an unusual verb form), MacKenzie (2003), Ludwig Paul (2003) and Gindin (2000, 2003). This particular importance of the TE to linguistic research lies in its large scope and in its use of two different contemporaneous dialect.

In January 1901, an archeological expedition headed by Sir M. Aurel Stein found a business letter written in Persian in Hebrew characters among the ruins of Rawaq, near the Buddhist Temple of Dandan Öïliq, in the region of Khotan in Chinese Turkestan (Margoliouth, 1903, pp. 737-38), The paper used for the letter helps in establishing its date, the second half of the 8th century CE (ibid., p. 743). This letter, the oldest known JP document, was studied by Margoliouth (1903), Salemann (1904-5), Henning (1958, pp. 79-80), Utas (1968), Shaked (1971, p. 82), and Lazard (1988).

In 1952 R. N. Frye and R. Ghirshman traveled to the Tang-e Azāo valley in Afghanistan in order to investigate some newly discovered rock inscriptions, which they described as illegible Parthian. Henning (1957) identified these inscriptions as Judeo-Persian, bearing the date 752/3 CE, which makes them contemporary with the Dandān Öïliq letter or slightly earlier. E. Rapp (1967) suggested, unconvincingly, a much later date. The Tang-e Azāo inscriptions and the Dandān Öïliq letter constitute the first specimens of New Persian (see Lazard, 1963, p. 31).

In 1962, French and Italian missions unearthed JP tombstones in a cemetery near Jam in Afghanistan. The inscriptions, dating from the 12th-14th centuries, with only short phrases in JP, are more interesting for the study of Jewish community structure than for that of JP. They were published by G. Gnoli (1964) and Rapp (1965). (See also Shaked, 1981 and 1999.)

Other EJP documents published to-date include a Karaite legal document from 951 CE (Shaked, 1972), a fragment of a Karaite theological treatise in EJP, possibly of the 11th or 12th century (MacKenzie, 1968), “The Story of Daniel” (Zotenberg, 1869; Darmesteter, 1886; Saleman, 1884-85; Shapira, 1999), three nonconsecutive fragments of a Small Tafsir of Ezekiel (Gindin, 2002), and many more.

Walter Fischel published numerous articles about JP, mostly from the point of view of literary history. In the second half of the history, H. H. Paper, J. P. Asmussen, and E. Mainz published several post-Mongol Judeo-Persian manuscripts of Bible translations and commentaries. Gilbert Lazard’s works may be considered as cornerstones in the study of JP language. In recent decades Israel has become a center of JP study, with contributions by Shaul Shaked on early Judeo-Persian, including texts, overviews. and lists; Amnon Netzer, who takes an interest in the history of Jews in Iran and in classical JP literature and poetry; Michael Zand, who has studied Bukharan Jewry, and more recently David Yeroushalmi, Dan Shapira, and T. E. Gindin. The most recent study of EJP grammar is Ludwig Paul’s comprehensive habilitation thesis (2002).


Having most of the characteristics of New Persian while preserving some features of Middle Persian, early Judeo-Persian (EJP) has long been regarded as crucial for understanding the evolution of New Persian. Most published EJP documents probably originate in the southwestern provinces of Fārs and Khuzestan (Lazard, 1968, p. 63); the language of others resembles Tajik and is here designated as Early Judeo-Tajik. The language and the style of the EJP documents reflect some old forms of New Persian (NP), and display a transitional stage between Middle Persian (MP) and NP.

The following examples illustrate the archaism and dialectal diversity of EJP in the grammar and lexicon.

The orthography exhibits great variety. The sound k and are represented by the letters qof (q) and kaf (k) respectively in the Dandān Öïliq letter (Tang-e Azāo has only q) and by kaf for both in later EJP (sometimes with diacritic modification to distinguish between the plosive and the affricate sounds). Great diversity occurs in the rendering of the č and j sounds: in some texts both appear as , in others as g (with or without diacritic marks); some consistently distinguish between the two sounds, and yet others differentiate j only in Arabic words.

Slips and inconsistencies, or their absence, reveal that the cluster ḵv- had the same sound in Early Judeo-Tajik as in NP, that is, simple -, but retained its bi-consonant pronunciation in the early Khuzestan documents and southwestern tafsirs.

The preposition pʾ (multipurpose preposition meaning “to,” “by,” in,” etc.), which is present in all EJP documents, reflects a transitional stage between MP pad and NP be. MP d reappears before a third person suffix – to create pdyš (contrast NP beheš), but before the deictic pronouns in “this” and ān “that,” this sandhi does not take place: pʾyn/pʾʾyn and pʾn/pʾʾn (contrast NP bedin, bedān). This phenomenon comes as a useful reminder to the effect that EJP comprises a group of old dialects, rather than a direct ancestor of JP.

EJP belongs to an early or transitional stage in the rendering of the passive voice. Some texts use, almost exclusively, the MP synthetic passive, that is, create a passive present stem by adding –(y)h- to the present stem of the verb (e.g., gwyhyd “is said”) with a secondary past stem –(y)h(y)st- (e.g., gwyhyst “was said”). In others the passive is usually rendered by compounding the past passive participle with an auxiliary āmadan “to come” or būdan “to be” (cf. NP šodan), e.g., gwptʾ hst/gwptʾ (h)my ʾyyd “is said,” gwpth ʾmd “was said.” (All examples are from the Tafsirs of Ezekiel.)

The rendering and uses of the eżāfa exemplify great variation between and within the different EJP texts. It may appear as a separate word (ʾy) as in MP, as a single letter, yod (y), at the end of the first word or at the beginning of the following word, or it may remain completely unmarked. Most writers render the eżāfa in more than one way. The uses of the eżāfa generally follow those of MP: in addition to being placed between a noun and a modifier (adjective or genitive) and after denominative prepositions, as in NP, it also serves for introducing relative clauses. EJP documents, however, show a gradual transition from the eżāfa to kw/ky as the introductory particle of a relative clause.

EJP displays a great variety also in the field of lexicography. Hebrew-Aramaic, Arabic, and Iranian make up the main components of the language. Their respective ratios vary from one genre to another and from one writer to another.

The Tang-e Azāo inscriptions supply very little information, due to their brevity and formulaic wording. They do, however, exhibit archaisms such as the word nywy for “inscription” (MP nibig, used in classical NP only in the sense of holy scriptures) and the preposition .

The Dandān Öïliq letter contains only two Hebrew words, rby “Rabbi” and (h)mwr “donkey.” Even the word “God” is rendered by the Persian yzyd or yzyd ḵwdh. Only one word (rqybyn “stirrups”) represents the Arabic element, which is frequent in all later EJP documents. The Arabic element rarely exceeds fifteen percent of the words in an EJP text. It does, however, show a high degree of integration into the language. Arabic words often take Persian suffixes to create new words: e.g., mwṣybtgyn ”afflicted” (Arabic muṣībat with the Persian suffix -gyn). Persian words sometimes take Arabic suffixes: e.g., dwryt “distance” (Persian dur + Arabic -iyat). This phenomenon is unattested with Hebrew words.

Intriguingly, in some personal letters from the Cairo Geniza, written in EJP, the Persian text is written in Hebrew characters, while for some Arabic phrases the Arabic alphabet is used. The writers seem to have regarded Persian as a Jewish language, while treating Arabic as a non-Jewish tongue.

The Hebrew component occurs in formulaic expressions accompanying personal names: zkrw lbrkh “blessed be his memory,” usually abbreviated to zl” (” indicates a stroke over the letter), and nwḥw ʿdn “may he rest in paradise” follow the names of the deceased; bn “son (of)” or bt “daughter (of)” introduce a patronym. Ytš”, short for yitbārāḵ šemō “blessed be his name,” frequently follows the name of the Lord, which is usually rendered by y” or y or yyy. In some unpublished personal letters, the writer uses Hebrew blessings such as yḥyym ʾl wyšmrm “may God keep them alive and guard them” and ʾlhy yšrʾl ḥn wḥsd ʾbzʾyʾdšʾn (Persian) bʿyny ʾlhym wʾdm “may the God of Israel increase their grace and favor in the eyes of God and man” (both from L5 in Shaked’s list, 1998).

Other Hebrew words and expressions relate to religious matters or, in tafsirs, take up words from the Biblical verse. Most of these words take the Hebrew plural, e.g., mṣwh ~ mṣwt “commandment(s),” ṣdyq ~ ṣdyqym “righteous (noun and adjective)”; but ršʿ “wicked (noun and adjective)” has three different plurals: ršʿym, as in Hebrew (most frequently), ršʿʾn, with a Persian plural (rare), and ršʿymʾn, combining the Hebrew and the Persian plural morphemes. The word gwym, Hebrew plural “gentiles,” means in JP of all periods “gentile (singular noun and adjective),” pluralized with the Persian morpheme gwymʾn.

The Iranian component, basically NP, also includes many words and forms known from MP which were lost or changed in NP, some that reflect a stage of transition from MP to NP (e.g., , discussed above), and dialectical elements. Among the forms known from MP and lost in NP, one may count the present copula with the stem h-: hwm, hy, hyst, hym, hyd, h(y)nd (note the 1st sing. suffix typical of MP); phryxtn-, phryz- “to warn, to be careful” (NP parhixtan); ʾbʾz “again, back” (NP bāz); ʾzyr “under” (NP zir), and many more. The imperative of the verb “to hear” in the southwestern tafsirs, ʾkšyn, corresponds to the Manichean MP (MMP) present stem. However, the usual present stem (ʾksn-) contracts, and the past stem (ʾksnyd-) derives secondarily (cf. MMP ʾkšyd-). The MMP present stem nēš- (nyš-) “to see” serves in suppletion to the regular past stem dīd-.

Some words appear in one text in more than one way: the word “king” appears on one and the same page of the Tajik part of the TE both in the later form pʾdšʾh and in the more archaic form pʾdḵšʾh; ʾnyz “also” occasionally occurs as nyz, and the verbal prefix hmy as my. These inconsistencies suggest an incomplete transition, with the more archaic form still retained as “correct,” while the later NP form serves in everyday speech and creeps into the written language.

Some dialectal or previously unattested elements are found: the perfect verbal sufix (-gy) (unmarked for person); ʾlmwdn, ʾlmʾn- “to show” alongside NP nmwdn, nmʾy-; nygwl “deep” (NP negun); ʾbrʾz “over, above” and ʾbrʾzyn “upper” (probably linked to MP abrāz “acclivity”); ʾbšnwdn “to pity,” etc. The southwestern tafsirs contribute the present stem dwn- “to kindle” (Sanskrit dhūnóti), ʾnwn (MMP ʾhnwn) and ʾwkwn “now,” ʾbznydn “to hit,” and more.

JP Bible translations of all times, like those in other Jewish languages, adhere to the Hebrew text word by word, abandoning Persian syntax. They tend to avoid Hebrew words that would otherwise serve in the intended meaning. This makes it difficult to study the “real” language, but gives precious information about words that otherwise would have disappeared without a trace. For example, Early Judeo-Tajik ʾwstʾh/wstʾhy and southwestern bsth/bsthwʾry translate “safe, confident” and “safety” respectively. ʾwstʾhy also appears once in tafsir; these words are evidently related to MP vistāḵv-, NP gostāḵ.


EJP came to an abrupt end by the time of the Mongol conquests in the early 13th century, after which its literary translation fell into oblivion until it was rediscovered in the late 19th century. The Mongol invasion brought about far-reaching cultural and linguistic changes in Iran. JP of the 14th century onwards, which may be termed Classical JP, differs from the general language, Classical Persian and later contemporary Persian, mostly by the presence of Hebrew/Aramaic and occasionally dialectal elements, a smaller Arabic component, and looser orthography. In some cases even these minor differences hardly exist.

Classical JP survives mainly in poems, epics based on the stories of the Bible, and historical stories. Jews also transcribed work of classical Muslim poets in Hebrew character. The main linguistic importance of classical JP poetry lies in its orthography, which reveals pronunciations very similar to today’s colloquial Persian. The poets take great freedom in spelling: e.g., on the one and the same page of Bābāʾi ben Farhād’s chronicle (18th century), one may find ʾwn as well as ʾn “that” (NP ān or un, spelled ʾn), prmwn alongside frmʾn “command” (NP fermān, fermun, spelled frmʾn), and byrʾn (a hypercorrection) besides byrwn “out” (NP birun). Qrbn “sacrifice,” rhymes with mlʾwn “cursed.” The loss of v from the ḵv- cluster reflects in JP spelling: e.g., ḵʾhd “he/she wants” (NP ḵāhad, spelled ḵvʾhd), ḵʾb “dream” (NP ḵāb, spelled ḵvʾb). In NP, the Arabic phonemes z (zai), ż (żā), z (ẓāẓ) and (ḏāl), all pronounced z, still keep their original spellings. EJP usually distinguishes between them, but classical JP uses four renditions—d, z, ṣ and (mostly z)—for each of these letters, e.g., rʾzy “satisfied” (NP rʾẓy) and lḥzh “moment” (NP lḥżh). Other phonemes the copyists tend to confuse are ʾ, h, ḥ, and ʿ, all probably pronounced as ʾ (NP: ʾ and ʿ pronounced as ʾ, h and as h).

The Hebrew component of those poetic works includes mainly religious terms such as tfylh “prayer” (but also nmʾz), msyh “Messiah,” mlʾḵym “angels.” The writer’s word choice varies according to needs of rhyme and meter, so one may find Arabic ʾnbyyʾ besides Hebrew nβyʾym “prophets,” the names mwsʾ and hʾrwn beside mšh and ʾhrwn, Moses and Aaron. The name of Abraham appears as ʾbrʾym, ʾbrʾhym, ʾbrm, or ʾbrhm. Even clearly Muslim terms, such as ʾlʾh as a name of the Lord and bsml krdn “to say a blessing” (lit. to say bismi’llah), occur in these Jewish texts when the verse calls for it.

JP Bible translations abide by much stricter rules of orthography than poems, thus revealing very little about the true pronunciation of words. Their contribution to the lexicographical study includes words such as ʾbʾz “with” (MP abāg, EJP ʾ, NP ), bʾstʾk “security” (cf. above, EJP bsth), ʾšpwxtn “to kill.”

While Persian Jews suffered at times from persecutions, Bukharan Jews enjoyed greater religious and literary freedom (see below). Their dialect, which they call Fārsi, is actually a Jewish form of Tajik. Judeo-Tajik, as reflected by Shimʿon Ḥākhām’s language, includes many peculiarities such as the preservation of ē, ō, ĭ, and ŭ vowels, the use of the Tajik suffix for perfect verbs, traceable to EJP, and the comparative suffix bārīn/vārīn.

In the 19th century, some Jewish refugees escaping persecution, especially from Mashad, re-established the Jewish community in Afghanistan, which had been lost without a trace after the Mongol conquest. Their language is the same as JP in Iran.

The 20th century marks a turn in the social status of Jews inside Iran. Wealthy members of the community began to settle outside of the mahale, the Jewish ghetto, and to speak Persian instead of the local dialects. At first their intonation and accent, as well as the use of vocabulary and expressions unique to local Jews gave them away, e.g., Isfahani Θ and δ for s and z respectively, melī for “cat” and berāxā (Hebrew “blessing”) as a numerative for Jews. However, young men of the second generation already speak standard Persian. Persian spoken by Jews who received general Iranian education, rather than a strictly Jewish one, is hardly distinguishable from the common tongue. Even the language of the synagogue sermons became less “Jewish” as more young orators arose who had attended non-Jewish schools and universities, Iranian Jews have adopted Persian to such an extent that even some traditional blessings are now said in Persian instead of Hebrew (Mizrahi, 1980).

The relative relief from persecutions as well as the emergence of Zionism brought about the publication of JP journals, some of them in Arabic characters.

The Hebrew content of contemporary JP is much smaller than that of other Jewish tongues and pertains mostly to the religious life, e.g., Tūrā (Tōrāh, the Book of Law), tefīlīm (tfīlīn, phylacteries), sīsīt (tsītsīt, ritual fringes), gūyīm (gōyīm, “gentiles,” serves in JP as a singular). Sermons in JP contain more Hebrew and Aramaic words and expressions, mostly in citations.

The above examples demonstrate the Persian pronunciation rules that JP applies to Hebrew words: unaccented o becoming ū, breaking of initial clusters, and pronouncing ṣadi (letter , pronounced in Modern Hebrew as ts) as s. Some words change meaning, e.g., berāxā (quoted above) and hēxāl, Hebrew “nave, place, temple,” for the synagogue ark.

JP also applies Persian syntax to Hebrew elements. The adjectives (both as modifiers and as predicates) usually appear in JP in their masculine singular form, regardless of gender and number. For example, yisrāelān ba’al tešūvā šodand “the Israelites repented (lit. become repentant),” which in Hebrew would read ba’alēy tšūvā. Compound verbs are also formed from Hebrew elements, for example, āvūn kardan “to sin,” tebīlā kardan “to immerse.”

Some of the 20th-century works by Jews and for Jews are written in Arabic script with hardly any Hebrew elements. Bukharan Jews wrote their language in Latin characters between 1928 and 1940. The mountain Jews in Daghestan and Northern Azerbaijan used the Hebrew alphabet for their variety of Judeo-Iranian, called Judeo-Tat, until 1928, when they switched to Latin script, and subsequently, in 1938, to Cyrillic. Judeo-Tat is a non-Persian Iranian dialect (Lazard, 1978), although some scholars consider it a dialect of Persian (Fischel, 1938, Shapira, 2002).

Young Israelis of Iranian descent speak a variety of Persian best described as “Israeli Persian.” It comprises mainly Hebrew vocabulary, with Persian syntax and particles, and occasionally auxiliary verbs.


E. N. Adler, “The Persian Jews: their Books and their Ritual,” Jewish Quarterly Review 10, 1986, pp. 584-625.

Idem, “Jewish Literature and Diaspora,” in About Hebrew Manuscripts, ed. E. N. Adler, London, 1905; repr., New York, 1970, pp. 79-99.

J. P. Asmussen, “Judaeo-Persica I: Shahin-i Shirazi’s Aradshir Nama,” Acta Orientalia 28/3-4, 1965, pp. 245-61.

Idem, “Judaeo-Persica II: The Jewish Law-Report from Ahwaz, A.D. 1020,” Acta Orientalia 29/1-2, 1965, pp. 49-60.

Idem, “Judaeo-Persica IV: Einige Bemerkungen zu Baba Ben Nuriels Psalmenüberseztung” Acta Orientalia 30/1-2, 1966, pp. 15-24.

Idem, Jewish Persian Texts: Introduction, Selected and Glossary, Wiesbaden, 1968.

Idem, “Classical New Persian Literature in Jewish Persian Versions,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 44-53.

Idem, “Jüdisch-persische guyān [gwy’n] ‘Zelt’,” Temenos 5, 1969, pp. 17-21.

Idem, “A Select List of Words from the Vatican Judaeo-Persian Pentateuch (Genesis),” in K. R. Cama Oriental Institute Golden Jubilee Volume, Bombay, 1969, pp. 93-102.

Idem, Studies in Judaeo Persian Literature, Studia Post-Biblica, Leiden, 1973.

Idem, “Judisch-persische Hoseastucke” in Monumentum H.S. Nyberg I, Acta Iranica 4, Tehran and Liège, 1975, pp. 15-18.

Idem, “Eine Judisch-persische Version des Propheten Obadja,” Acta Antiqua 25, 1977, pp. 255-63.

Idem, “Some Textual Problems in the Hebrew Bible and their Treatment in Judaeo-Persian Versions,” in Papers in honour of Professor Mary Boyce I, Acta Iranica 28, 1985, pp. 1-7.

Idem, “Bemerkungen zu einer ‘neuen’ judisch-persischen qohalat-Ubersetzung der Hebraischen Bibel,” in Etudes Irano-Aryennes Offertes a Gilbert Lazard, Cahiers de Studica Iranica 7, Paris, 1989, pp. 1-4.

Idem, “Remarks on Some Judaeo-Persian Translations of the Pirqe Abboth” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, N.S. 4 (In Honour of R. N. Frye) 1990, pp. 183-85.

Idem, “Ornithologisches aus den judisch-persishcen Ubersetzungen der hebraischen Bibel,” in Corolla Iranica. Papers in Honour of D.N. MacKenzie, ed. R. E. Emmerick and D. Weber, Frankfurt a. M. et al., 1991, pp. 1-2.

Idem, “Some Bird Names in the Judaeo-Persian Translations of the Hebrew Bible,” in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots. Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honour of Jonas C. Greenfield, ed. Z. Zevit et al., Winona Lake, Ind., 1995, pp. 3-5.

Idem and H. H. Paper, “The Song of Songs in Judaeo-Persian” in Det Kongelie Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Historiskfilosofiske Skrifter, Copenhagen, 1977, pp. 2-9.

W. Bacher, “Ein Hebraisch-persisches Worterbuch aus dem 15 Jahrhundert,” Zeitschrift fur die Alltestamentlische Wissenschaft 16, 1896, pp. 201-47.

Idem, “Ein persischer Kommentar zum Buche Samuel,” ZDMG 51, 1897, pp. 392-425.

Idem, “Das judisch-bucharische Gedicht Chudaaidaad,” ZDMG 52, 1898, pp. 197-212.

Idem, “Der Dichter Jusuf Jehudi and sein Lob Moses,” ZDMG 53, 1899, pp. 389-427.

Idem, [bibliography of JP books], Zeitschrift fur Hebraische Bibliographie 5, 1901, pp. 31, 147-54; 6, 1902, pp. 112-18; 16, 1913, pp. 28-32.

Idem “Ein Hebraisch-persisches Worterbuch aus dem vierzehnten Jahrhundert Budapest 1900,” Zeitschrift fur Hebraische Bibliographie 5, 1901, pp. 39-40.

Idem, “Ein Ritual Compendium in persischer Sprache,” Zeitschrift fur Hebraische Bibliograophie 5, 1901, pp. 147-54.

Idem, “Hebraisch-persisches Liederbuch,” Jewish Quartely Review 14, 1902, pp. 116-26.

Idem, “Un episode de l’historie des Juifs de Perse,” Revue des etudes juives 47, 1903, pp. 262-82.

Idem, “Zur Judisch-Persischen Literatur,” in About Hebrew Manuscripts, ed. E. N. Adler, London, 1905; repr., New York, 1970, pp. 135-68.

Idem, Zwei judische-persische Dichter, Schahin und Imrani, 2 vols., Strassbourg, 1907-8.

Idem, “Zur Judisch-persischen Litteratur,” Zeitschrift fur Hebraische Bibliographie 14, 1910, pp. 12-20, 45-51.

E. Benveniste, “Sur un fragmet d’un psautier syro-persan,” JA, 1938, pp. 458-62.

J. Darmesteter, “L’apocaclypse persane de Daniel,” in Melanges Renier, Paris, 1886, pp. 405-20.

W. J. Fischel, “Israel in Iran: A Survey of Judaeo-Persian Literature,” in The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion, ed. L. Finkelstein, New York 1949; 3rd ed., Philadelphia, 1960, II, pp. 1149-90.

Idem, “The Contribution of the Persian Jews to Iranian Culture and Literature,” in Acta Iranica III, Tehran and Liège,1974, pp. 299-315.

W. Geiger, “Bemerkungen uber das Judenpersisch,” in Grundriss der iranischen Philologie, ed. W. Geiger and E. Kuhn, Strassburg, 1895-1901; repr., Berlin and New York, 1974, pp. 408-12.

T. E. Gindin, “The Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel in Early Judaeo-Persian,” Pe‘amim 84, 2000, pp. 40-54 (Hebrew).

Idem, “Judeo-Iranian (non-Persian),” Jewish Language Research website at http://www.jewish-languages.org/judeo-iranian.html, 2002a.

Idem, “Three Fragments of an Early Judeo-Persian Tafsir of Ezekiel,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 27 (Studies in Honour of Shaul Shaked II), 2002b, pp. 396-418.

Idem, “The Tafsir of Ezekiel: For Copyists or four Authors?” in Persian Beginnings, ed. L. Paul, Wiesbaden, 2003, pp. 15-30.

Idem, “(Iran) Language,” in Jewish Communities in the East in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. Haim Saadoun, Jerusalem, 2005a, pp. 97-108.

Idem, “Middle Persian Survivals and Other Lexicographical Puzzles in early Judaeo-Persian,” in Middle Iranian Lexicography, ed. C. Cereti and M. Maggi, Rome, 2005b.

G. Gnoli, Le iscrizioni giudeo-persani del Ġūr (Afghanistan), Rome, 1964.

I. Guidi, Di una versione persiana del Pentateuco, Rome, 1885.

K. D. Hassler, “Nachricht von einer bisher noch unbekannten persischen Übersetzung der Salomonischen Schriften,” in Theologische Studien und Kritiken, Hamburg, II, 3. Heft, 1829, pp. 469-80.

W. B. Henning, “The Inscriptions of Tang-i Azao,” BSOAS 20, 1957, pp. 335-42.

Idem, “Mitteliranisch,” in Handbuch der Orientalistik I, IV, 1, Leiden, 1958, pp. 20-129.

Idem, “Persian Poetical Manuscripts from the time of Rudaki,” in A Locust’s Leg. Studies in Honour of S. H. Taqizadeh, London, 1962, pp. 89-104.

P. Horn, “Zu den judisch-persischen Bibelübersetzungen,” Indogermanische Forschungen 2, 1893, pp. 132-43.

A. Kohut, Kritische Beleuchtung des Persischen Pentateuch-übersetzung des Jacobs be Joseph Tawus, Leipzig and Heidelberg, 1871.

P. de Lagarde, Persische Studien, Abhandlungen der königlichen gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen XXXI, Göttingen, 1884.

G. Lazard, La langue des plus ancients monuments de la prose persane, Paris, 1963.

Idem, “La Dialectologie du Judeo-Persan,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 77-98.

Idem, “Judeo-Persian,” in EI2 IV, 1978, pp. 308-13.

Idem, “Remarques sur le fragment judeo-persan de Danda-Uiliq,” in Barg-e Sabz. A Green Leaf. Papers in Honour of Professor Jes. P. Asmussen, Acta Iranica 28, Leiden, 1998, pp. 205-9.

D. D. Leslie, “The Judaeo-Persian Colophons to the Pentateuch of the K’aifeng Jews,” Abr Nahrain 8, 1968-69, pp. 1-35.

A. Levi, “Jewish languages in the East and in the West” Peamim 1, 1979, pp. 58-66 (Hebrew).

D. N. MacKenzie, “Ad Judaeo-Persica II Hafniensia,” JRAS, 1966, 1-2, p. 69.

Idem, “An Early Jewish–Persian Argument,” BSOAS 31, 1968. pp. 249-69.

Idem, “The Missing Link,” in Persian Beginnings, ed. L. Paul, Wiesbaden, 2003.

D. E. Mainz, “Esther en judeo-persan,” JA 257, 1970, pp. 95-106.

Idem, “Les Lamentations en judeo-persan,” Studia Iranica 2, 1973, pp. 193-202.

Idem, “L’Ecclesiaste en judeo-persan,” Studia Iranica 3, 1974, pp. 211-28.

Idem, “Ruth et le Cantique en judeo-persan,” JA 264, 1976, pp. 9-34.

Idem, “Vocabulaire judeo-persan,” Studia Iranica 6, 1977, pp. 75-95.

Idem, “Le livre des Proverbes en judeo-persan,” JA 268, 1980, pp. 71-106.

Idem, “Le livre de Daniel en judeo-persan,” in Irano-Judaica, ed. S. Shaked, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 148-79.

D. S. Margoliouth, “A Jewish-Persian Law Report,” Jewish Quarterly Review 11, 1899, pp. 671-75.

Idem, “An Early Judaeo-Persian Document From Khotan in the Stein Collection, with Other Early Persian documents,” JRAS, 1903, pp. 737-60.

E. Z. Melamed, “From the Treasure of the Holy Tongue in Judaeo-Persian Language,” Leshonenu 43/4, 1979, pp. 271-94 (Hebrew).

V. Minorsky, “Some Early Documents in Persian,” JRAS, 1942, 3-4, pp. 181-94.

H. Mizrahi, Persian Jews, Tel Aviv, 1969 (in Hebrew). Idem, “Jewish Persian Traditions,” in A Collection of Tradition, ed. A. Wassertil, 2nd ed., Jerusalem, 1980, pp. 273-88.

F. W. K. Müller, “Ein Syrisch-neupersisches Psalmenbruchstück aus Chinesisch Turkistan” in Festschrift Edward Schau, Berlin, 1915, pp. 215-22.

S. Munk, “Notice sur Rabbi Saadia Gaonet sa version arabe d’Isaïe et sur une version persane manuscrite de la Bibliothéque Royale” in La Bible, ed. S. Cahen, IX, Paris, 1838, p. 135.

A. Netzer, Montaḵeb-e ašʿār-e fārsi az āṯār-e Yahudiān-e Irān, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973.

Idem, comp., Judaeo-Persian Literature, Jerusalem, 1978 (JP).

Idem, “Problems of Cultural, Social and Political Integration of Iranian Jews,” Gesher 25/1-2, 1979, pp. 69-83 (Hebrew).

Idem, Manuscripts of the Jews of Persia in the Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, 1985 (Hebrew).

Idem, “Studies in the Spoken Language of the Jews of Iran” in Culture and History, ed. Joseph Dan, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 19-44 (Hebrew).

Idem, “An Early Judaeo-Persian Fragment from Zefreh. Psalms 44:24-27, 45:1-9 and 55:1-16,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 27 (Studies in Honour of Shaul Shaked II), 2002, pp. 419-38.

T. Nöldeke, [review of Lagarde, 1884], Literarisches Centralblatt 21, 16 June 1884, cols. 888-91.

Idem, “Judenpersisch,” ZDMG 51, 1897, pp. 669-76.

H. H. Paper, “The Vatican Judaeo-Persian Pentateuch,” Acta Iranica 28, 1965, pp. 263-340; 29, 1965, pp. 75-181; 29, 1966, pp. 253-310; 31, 1968, pp. 55-113.

Idem, “Judeo-Persian Deverbatives in -šn and -št,” Indo-Iranian Journal 10, 1967, pp. 56-71.

Idem, “Judeo-Persian Bible Translations: Some Sample Texts,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 99-113.

Idem, A Judeo-Persian Pentateuch. The Text of the Oldest Judaeo-Persian Pentateuch Translation, British Museum Ms. Or. 5446, Jerusalem and Leiden, 1972.

Idem, “Another Judeo-Persian Pentateuch Translation, MS HUC 1923,” Hebrew Union College Annual 43, 1972, pp. 207-51.

Idem, “Ecclesiastes in Judeo-Persian,” Orientalia 42, 1973, pp. 328-37.

Idem, “Isaiah in Judeo-Persian (Chapter 1 and 2),” in Acta Iranica V, Tehran and Liège, 1975, pp. 145-61.

Idem, “Notes to a Judeo-Persian Bible Manuscript: Ben Zvi Institute Jerusalem Ms. 1028,” Indo Iranian Journal 17, 1975, pp. 218-43.

Idem, “A Judeo-Persian Book of Job,” The Israel Academy of Science and Humanities. Proceedings 5/12, 1976, pp. 313-65.

Idem, “Proverbs in Judeo-Persian,” in Irano Judaica, ed. S. Shaked. Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 122-47.

Idem, “Joel in Judeo-Persian,” in The Islamic World: From Classical to Modern Times. Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis, Princeton, 1989, pp. 259-67.

L. Paul, “Grammatical and Philological Studies on the Early Judaeo-Persian Texts from the Cairo Geniza,” unpublished habilitation thesis, Göttingen, 2002.

Idem, “Early Judaeo-Persian in Historical Perspective: The Case of the Prepositions bē, o, pa(d), and the Suffix -rā,” in Persian Beginnings, ed. L. Paul, Wiesbaden, 2003, pp. 177-94.

Idem, “Jewish-Persian between Middle-Persian and New Persian: Re-examining an old Hypothesis,” in Irano-Judaica V, ed. S. Shaked and A. Netzer, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 96-104.

H. Rabin, “The General Characteristics of Jewish Languages,” Pe‘amim 1, 1979, pp. 40-45 (Hebrew). E. L. Rapp, Die jüdisch-persisch-hebräischen Inschriften aus Afghanistan, Munich, 1965.

Idem, “The Date of the Judaeo-Persian Inscriptions at Tang-i Azao in Central Afghanistan,” East and West 27, 1967, pp. 51-58.

C. Salemann, [review of Lagarde, 1884], Literatur-Blatt für orientalische Philologie 2, 1884-85, pp. 74-86.

Idem, Judaeo-Persica I. Chudâidât, ein jüdisch-bucharisches Gedicht, St. Petersburg, 1897.

Idem, “Zum mittelpersischen Passiv,” Izvestiya Imperatorskoĭ Akademii Nauk 13, 3 (serie 5), 1900, pp. 269-76.

Idem, “Po povodu evreĭsko-persidskogo otryvka iz Khotana,” Zapiski Vostochnogo Otdeleniya 16 (1904-1905), 1906, pp. 46-57.

M. Seligsohn, “Quatre poesies Judeo-Persanes sur les persecutions des Juifs d’Ispahan,” Revue des etudes Juives 44, 1902, pp. 87-103, 244-59.

Idem, “The Hebrew Persian Manuscripts of the British Museum,” Jewish Quarterly Report 15, 1903, pp. 278-301.

S. Shaked, “Judaeo-Persian Notes,” Israel Oriental Studies 1, 1971, pp. 178-82.

Idem, “An Early Karaite document in Judaeo-Persian,” Tarbiz 41, 1972, pp. 49-58 (Hebrew).

Idem, “Judaeo-Persian Appendix,” in Sefer Pitron Torah. A Collection of Midrashim and Interpretations Edited from a Manuscript with Introduction, Annotations and Indices, ed. E. Urbach, Jerusalem, 1978, pp. 347-52.

Idem, “Epigraphica Judaeo-Iranica,” in Studies in Judaism and Islam presented to Shelomo Dov Goitein, ed. S. Morag et al., Jerusalem, 1981, pp. 65-82.

Idem, “Two Judaeo-Iranian Contributions: 1, Iranian Functioms in the Book of Esther; 2.

Fragments of two Karaite Commentaries on Daniel in Judeo-Persian,” in Irano-Judaica, ed. S. Shaked, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 292-322.

Idem, “Aspects of the Early Heritage of the Jews of Persia,” Pe‘amim 23, 1985, pp. 22-37 (Hebrew).

Idem, “An Unusual Verb Form in Early Judaeo-Persian,” in Studio Grammatica Iranica, Festschrift für Helmut Humbach (Munchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft), ed. R. Schmitt and P. O. Skjærvø, Munich, 1986, pp. 393-405.

Idem, “An Early Geniza Fragment in an Unknown Iranian Dialect,” in Barg-e sabz. A Green Leaf. Papers in Honour of Prof. J. P. Asmussen, Acta Iranica 28, Leiden, 1988, pp. 219-35.

Idem, “Notes on the Preposition bē in Judaeo-Persian,” in Etudes Irano-Aryennes Offertes a Gilbert Lazard, Cahiers de Studia Iranica 7, 1989, pp. 315-19.

Idem, “Qumran: Some Iranian Connections,” in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots, Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield, ed. Z. Zevit et al., Winona Lake, Ind., 1995, pp. 277-81.

Idem, “Jewish Sasanian Sigillography,” in Au carrefour des religions. Melanges Philip Gignoux (res Orientales VII), ed. R. Gyselen, Bures-sur-Yvette, 1995, pp. 239-56.

Idem, “Corpus of Early Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts,” Jerusalem, January 1998 (not for publication or circulation).

Idem, “New Data on the Jews of Afghanistan in the Middle Ages,” Pe‘amim 79, 1999, pp. 5-14 (Hebrew).

Idem, “A list of Judaeo-Persian Bible Translations,” Pe‘amim 84, 2000, pp. 40-54 (Hebrew).

S. Shaked, “Some New Early Judaeo-Persian Texts,” in Irano-Judaica V, ed. S. Shaked and A. Netzer, Jerusalem, 2003.

Idem, “Early Judaeo-Persian Texts with notes on a Genesis Commentary,” in Persian Beginnings, ed. L. Paul, Wiesbaden, 2003.

D. Shapira, “Qissa-ye Daniel or ‘The Story of Daniel’ in Judaeo-Persian: The Text and its Translation,” Sefunot 22, 1999, pp. 337-66 (Hebrew).

Idem, “Biblical Quotations in Pahlavi,” Henoch 23, 2001, pp. 187-195.

Idem, “’Judeo-Persian,” Jewish Language Research website at http://www.jewish-languages.org/judeo-persian.html, 2002.

E. Spicehandler, “Introduction,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, p. 43.

Idem, “A Descriptive List of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts at the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 114-36.

B. Utas, “The Jewish Persian Fragment from Dandan-Uiliq,” Orientalia Suecana 17, 1968, pp. 123-136.

E. W. West, “Sassanian Inscriptions Explained by the Pahlavi of the Parsis,” JRAS 4, 1870, pp. 357-405.

D. Yeroushalmi, The Judeo-Persian Poet Emrani and his book of Treasure, edited, Translated and Annotated Together with a Critical Study, Leiden, 1995.

A. Yaari, “The Books of Bukharan Jews,” Kirjath Sepher 18, 1941, pp. 393-78; 19, 1942, pp. 35-55, 116-39 (Hebrew).

E. Yarshater, “The Jewish Communities in Persia and their Dialects,” in Memorial Jean de Menasce, Louvain, 1974, pp. 453-66.

H. Zotenberg, Catalogue des Manuscrits Hebreux et Samaritains de la Bibliotheque Imperiale, Paris, 1866.

Idem, “Geschichte Daniels,” Archiv fur wissenschaftlische Erforschung des Alten Testaments (Merx-Archiv) 1, 1869, pp. 385-427.


Introduction. Several hundred years before the emergence of a Persian Jewish literature, and prior even to the emergence of classical Persian literature, Persian documents and stone inscriptions were being written in Hebrew script. These are of historical importance for the light they shed on the development of the Persian language and in particular the language spoken by the Jews (see JUDEO-PERSIAN LANGUAGE).

European scholars were the first to embark on research on Judeo-Persian epigraphy. In 1829 Konrad Dietrich Hassler (pp. 469-80) published an article which can be regarded as the first landmark in Judeo-Persian studies; and in 1838, Solomon Munk (p. 135) wrote a brief study of portions of a manuscript found in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Paul de Lagarde produced a comprehensive description of the characteristic elements of Judeo-Persian and made the case for its importance in his Persische Studien (1884). Theodor Nöldeke, Karl Salemann, and Paul Horn agreed with de Lagarde on the importance, primarily linguistic, of these texts; and further contributions were also made by Hermann Zotenberg, Alexander Kohut, Ignazio Guidi, Hermann Ethé, and Walter B. Henning.

Wilhelm Bacher (1850-1913) was another significant and extremely prolific contributor to the advancement of Judeo-Persian scholarship; and he was able to benefit from hundreds of Judeo-Persian manuscripts that had been purchased by Elkan Nathan Adler (1861–1946) in Iran and Central Asia at the end of the 19th century and brought to London. They are at present housed in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. Walter Joseph Fischel’s pioneering work on Persian Jewish history should also be noted, although he did not deal specifically with the field of Judeo-Persian manuscripts.

The contribution to Judeo-Persian studies made by the early printers and editors of Judeo-Persian manuscript should also be acknowledged. The Jews of Central Asia were pioneers in printing Judeo-Persian books, most of which were printed in Jerusalem. Avraham Yaʿari mentions Binyamin Ben Rabbi Pinchas ha-Qatan and Rabbi Binyamin Yochanan Ha-Cohen as being among the first to print tafsirs (Judeo-Persian translations with or without commentaries) for the Book of Psalms and the Book of Proverbs (Yaʿari, p. 382). Shimʿon Ḥākhām (b. Bukhara, 1843; d. Jerusalem, 1910) was the most prominent early figure in the field of printing and editing Judeo-Persian manuscripts.

Early writings in Judeo-Persian. Most of the inscriptions and documents written in Judeo-Persian at the beginning of the Islamic period were discovered in the 19th century. They are important for the study of the development of early New Persian, and their existence proves that Jews lived and were active in all areas within and beyond the borders of historical Persia, and that they used Judeo-Persian as their medium of linguistic communication. A list of the texts is given below in their chronological order. The two oldest texts are the earliest specimens preserved, not only in Judeo-Persian, but also in New Persian generally; their language is free of Arabic influence and replete with archaic terms.

1. Three stone inscriptions found in 1952 by Roman Ghirshman and Richard N. Frye in Tang-e Azāo, a gorge in the mountains of Western Afghanistan, about 200 km east of Herat in Ḡur Province. All three are in Judeo-Persian, and bear the names of the engravers, who thus recorded their visit to the site; the father of one of them is a Persian named Samiel Ramash (Pers. rāmeš “joy”). Walter B. Henning (1957), based on an abbreviated date that appears on the tablets, determined the year of the inscriptions to be 1064 Seleucid (752-53 CE).

2. Part of a letter in 37 lines from a Jewish merchant, found in 1896 by an archeological team led by Sir Aurel Stein in the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Dandān Öilïq in Khotan, Chinese Turkistan (Xinjiang Province). It deals with matters of commerce and was apparently written in the eighth century. It was published by David Margoliouth (1903), discussed by Carl Salemann (1904), Walter Henning (1957), Bo Utas (1969), and Shaul Shaked (1971).

3. A copper tablet found in the 19th century at Quilon, Travancore, on the coast of Malabar, southern India. The tablet bears a brief text with the testimony and signature of four witnesses. Its contents relate to a gift of money given to a Christian church in Quilon. The item is believed to date from the 9th century.

4. An early document of the Karaites (scriptural literalists who rejected rabbinical interpretation) from the Cairo Geniza, dated 17 Av 1262 Sel./22 July 951. The document deals with judicial deliberations in a Karaite court.

5. A court document (probably Karaite) of 1332 Sel. (1020-21) from Ḵorramšahr, Khuzestan.

6. An early Judeo-Persian fragment found in Zefra in Isfahan Province in 1973 by Amnon Netzer. The translation may help to clarify the linguistic features of the language linking Middle Persian with New Persian (Netzer, 2002).

7. Hundreds of items on pages dealing with various subjects, found at the Cairo Geniza, are preserved in libraries including those at Cambridge, Oxford, John Rylands Library Manchester, the British Library, London, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. They may be classified as: (a) personal letters; (b) court decrees; (c)tafsirs (commentaries) on the books of Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Daniel, and Nehemiah; (d) lengthy discussions of Karaite religious law (halakhah), including a section of a Karaite book of religious commandments; (e) works on medical subjects; (f) Judeo-Persian works on Hebrew grammar; (g) Judeo-Persian poems.

8. Numerous cemetery headstones found by French and Italian archeological teams in an area about 2 km south of the village of Jām in Ḡur Province with inscriptions in Judeo-Persian, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The first headstone was discovered in 1946, and the rest over the years up to the 1960s. The headstone dates range from 1012 to 1218 CE. Jām is thought to be the site of the medieval Firuzkuh, the capital of the major branch of the Ghurids. The presence of a cemetery in Firuzkuh indicates the existence of a Jewish community in this remote region. The fact that the latest of the headstones is dated 1218 makes it likely that the Firuzkuh Jewish community was eradicated with the invasion of the region by the Mongols. The headstones are still being studied, both for the linguistic information they may provide on the Judeo-Persian language and for information on the status and origins of the deceased.

The tafsir literature. The literal meaning of tafsir is “interpretation” (including translation) or “commentary” on sacred writings, primarily the Hebrew Bible (Pentateuch, Prophets, Writings) and the Talmud, which has been a venerable tradition among Persian Jewry. In its broader sense the term is used for interpretation or commentary on secular writings as well.

The beginnings of tafsir production are obscure, but it may be supposed, based on the existing tafsirs, that the earliest ones were devoted to the Bible. They constitute a very large proportion of the entire canon of sacred, rabbinical, and religious writing, but most of their authors remain unknown. General rules and guidelines probably existed for tafsir production, such as those mentioned in the introduction to Bābāʾi ben Nuriʾel Eṣfahāni’s tafsir on the Book of Psalms (see below). The body of Judeo-Persian tafsirs may be divided into the following categories:

1. Literal translation of Hebrew or Aramaic originals into Persian. This kind of translation retains the syntax of the original, thereby deviating from that of the Persian language. There is a certain degree of similarity between this type of translation process and the way in which Muslim sacred writings in Arabic were rendered into Persian. There were also attempts to translate piyyutim (religious songs, liturgical hymns) in a literal manner, but in most cases rhyming words were used that did not correspond exactly to those of the original. Literal translations were made primarily of the Bible and the Apocrypha, as well as of midrashim (exegetical texts), prayers, and benedictions.

2. Literal translations accompanied by brief explanations and synonyms of difficult words in the Hebrew or Aramaic original. This type of translation became prevalent over the last few centuries, due to an overall decline in the levels of comprehension of sacred writings within the Jewish community. In many cases, it was impossible to distinguish between the translation and the original, with the result that later transcribers retained the explanatory terms (the synonyms) rather than the translated ones. Thus, we have been left with many manuscripts whose precision as translations is questionable, but which are of interest to linguistic researchers.

3. Translations that are paraphrases accompanied by commentaries and drashot (homiletic expositions). This type of translation is common for both prose and poetry. The commentaries and drashot vary in length according to the original sentence. At times, the original sentence is translated with no need to add an accompanying interpretation or drashah. Translations of this kind may also include sections translated in the manner described in item 2, above. There were Jewish poets, such as Moshe ben Esḥāq and Simān-Ṭov Melammed, who first composed Hebrew piyyutim and then translated or reformulated them as Judeo-Persian poems. The poet Šāhin (see below; Netzer, 1996, pp. 54-58) referred to his own poetical tafsir of the Pentateuch and of the Book of Esther as šarḥ (interpretation, commentary).

4. Translations called “tafsir,” even though their linguistic (occasionally even thematic) resemblance to the original is so minimal that they can hardly be considered proper tafsirs. This type of tafsir usually refers to various piyyutim, which were originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic. Sometimes, despite the lack of similarity between the original and the tafsir, one may discern an effort to maintain a thematic bond between them.

5. Not translations, but tafsirs in the sense of commentaries on words, ideas, and biblical verses, or on events, in sacred writings and in rabbinical literature. Also belonging to this category are drashot, in most cases the author’s original compositions, which were intended to be delivered before an audience. These drashot generally make use of tales, anecdotes, and explanations of ideas based primarily on biblical verses. Woven into these sermons are proverbs, stories, and quotations from non-Jewish Persian poetry.


The following list of important tafsirs is given in the order of the books of the Bible.

Pentateuch. 1. The first tafsir of the Pentateuch to become known to the West (in the 16th century) was that of Yaʿqov ben Yosef Ṭāvus, a scholarly Persian Jew who taught at the Jewish Academy in Istanbul. The tafsir appeared in Istanbul in 1546 in the polyglot Pentateuch printed by Elʿazar ben Gershon Soncino, along with the Hebrew original of the Pentateuch, the Targum (Aramaic translation) of Onkelos, and Rabbi Saʿadia Gaʾon’s Judeo-Arabic tafsir. Ṭāvus’s tafsir was transcribed from Hebrew characters into Persian script by Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), and in this form it accompanied the Bible printed by Bryan Walton in London in 1657. The Hyde printing of the tafsir of the Pentateuch aroused interest in Judeo-Persian language and literature. For many years Western scholars regarded Ṭāvus’s work as the first tafsir ever produced on the Pentateuch, but later it became evident that the work was actually a link in the long chain of Persian Jewry’s tradition of Bible study, about whose beginnings we have no information (Fischel, 1952).

2. The Vatican Library has an undated manuscript (Vat. Pers. MS 61) of a tafsir of the Bible purchased by the Italian traveler Giambattista Vecchietti in the town of Lār (southern Fārs Province) in May 1606. Limited linguistic research dates it to no later than the 14th century. Ignazio Guidi (1885) described the manuscript with some linguistic comments; Max Seligsohn (1903) compared parts of this manuscript with the Pentateuch tafsir in the British Library (see below), and with the Ṭāvus tafsir. Of various editions of the Vatican Pentateuch tafsir, that of Eltorre Rossi (1948) is the most recent; the entire text has been published in transliteration (Paper, 1965; idem, 1965-66).

3. In 1898 the British Museum acquired a manuscript (Or. 5446) from a Tehran resident visiting London. Its colophon states that the tafsir was transcribed by Yosef bar Mosheh on 14 Adar II 1630 Sel./6 March 1319. Seligsohn determined the correct page order, and the manuscript was published by Herbert Paper (1972a).

4. The MS Adler B.63 in The Jewish Theological Seminary of America [JTS] in New York was acquired in Bukhara at the end of the 19th century by Elkan N. Adler. The text is broadly identical to that of the Vatican manuscript. This tafsir is not a literal translation of the Pentateuch; but rather a collection of drashot, commentaries, and midrashim. Paper (1972b) has compared part of this manuscript (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) with other texts.

5. A manuscript was purchased in September 1973 for the Ben-Zvi Institute [BZI] (BZI 4559/1; for all BZI manuscripts, see Netzer, 1985) from a Jewish antiques dealer in Tehran. It contains tafsirs on sections of the Pentateuch accompanied by drashot and midrashim (see under Torah in the general index in Netzer, 1985), including a Pentateuch tafsir that was transcribed in 1788. Despite the manuscript’s relatively recent transcription, its language and syntax suggest that it was transcribed from an older text.

Prophets. 1. The Judeo-Persian commentary on the Book of Samuel, called ‘Amuqot Shamu’el (BL classification number G. 77 = Or. 10482[2]), is an old manuscript. Its linguistic attributes have been studied by Wilhelm Bacher (1897b).

2. A tafsir of the Book of Isaiah in the Bibliothèque Nationale [BN], Paris, was published by Paul de Lagarde (1884), along with the text of the Book of Jeremiah and the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel (also from BN manuscripts). He also studied the marginal additions and noted certain linguistic phenomena in the text. Studies by Theodore Nöldeke (Literarisches Centralblatt, 1884, pp. 888 ff.) and Paul Horn (1893) complemented de Lagarde’s work. Paper (1975a) and Asmussen (1974) published transcriptions and research done on the de Lagarde text and on the printed text of Shimʿon Ḥākhām’s translation of Isaiah (worthy of note is the Book of Isaiah and its tafsir in BZI 4559/2).

3. The Judeo-Persian commentary on Ezekiel is one of the oldest manuscripts housed in the St. Petersburg library. Carl Salemann (1900) described the text and published the fifth chapter with linguistic annotations, and, more recently, Thamar E. Gindin (2000) has studied it further. The text is considered a significant source material for Iranian philology, in part due to its archaic vocabulary.

4. Part of the Hosea tafsir in the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN 101) was studied by Asmussen (1975). There is also another Hosea tafsir kept in Ben Zvi Institute (BZI 4559/5), which has not yet been studied.

For the studies of Judeo-Persian manuscripts on other Prophets, see Asmussen, Carlsen, Mainz, and Paper listed in the bibliography. There are also tafsirs of the books of Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micha, Naḥum, and Zephania (BZI 4559/6-11) that deserve scholarly research; the one on the Book of Jonah (BZI 4529/4) is very likely older than the rest.

Writings. 1. Tafsirs of the Book of Psalms were widely read by the Jews of Persia. The above-mentioned Giambattista Vecchietti purchased several such tafsirs in Shiraz and Lār in 1601. One of these was read aloud to a Persian Christian named Šams-al-Din Ḵonji, who transcribed it in Persian on 12 May 1601 at Hormoz (Blochet, I, pp. 1-2).

One of the most important tafsirs of the Book of Psalms was written in 1740 by Bābāʾi ben Nuriʾel, a rabbi in Isfahan, at the behest of Nāder Shah Afšār (r. 1736-47). Bābāʾi was aided in his translation by Mirzā Mahdi ʿAqili, an erudite Muslim scholar, who is mentioned in the introduction. Part of this tafsir has been studied by I. Grill (1887) and Asmussen (1966). Ezra Zion Melammed (1968) published a critical edition based on five manuscripts: (a) a 122-page manuscript belonging to his father, originally transcribed in 1797 in Qomša near Isfahan, is apparently the oldest of them; (b) MS BZI 905; (c) BZI 938; (d) BZI 927; (e) BZI 995.

Two Psalms tafsirs were published in the late 19th century: (a) the Book of Psalms translated by Binyamin Cohen of Bukhara, was published in Vienna in 1883 with Hebrew text and Persian translation on facing pages; (b) Mirzā Nur-Allāh ben Ḥakim Mosheh, a baptized Jew who engaged in missionary activity within the Persian Jewish community, transliterated into Hebrew characters the Persian translation of Psalms by Robert Bruce (see EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN PERSIA). Mirzā Nur-Allāh’s edition was published in London in 1895 by the British and Foreign Bible Society.

2. A tafsir of Proverbs edited by Herbert Paper (1982) was based on the MS Adler B.46 (Adler, 1921, no. 433) and on a private manuscript that belonged to the late Walter J. Fischel. In 1885, a Jew from Bukhara named Benyamin ben R. Yoḥanan ha-Kohen translated and annotated the Book of Proverbs, using the translation he had received from his rabbis (Yaʿari, p. 392).

3. Paper has published a critical edition of a tafsir of Job from an incomplete manuscript (missing 1:1-17, 1:21-2:7) in M. Benayahu’s private collection. It lacks a colophon, but, in Paper’s opinion (1976a, p. 314), it had been transcribed “in the 15th century or earlier.” A certain Bābā Jān ben Pinḥas of Samarqand translated the Book of Job into Persian and published it in 1895 (5665) in Jerusalem. The BZI library only holds a tafsir of Job in New Judeo-Aramaic (BZI 924), which was transcribed in 1955.

4. A tafsir of the Song of Songs was well known and widely read within the Persian Jewish community. Asmussen and Paper published a critical edition from MS BN 116. The text’s date of transcription has yet to be precisely determined, but linguistic and paleographic evidence point to a date no later than the 14th century. Ernest Mainz has published the Song of Songs tafsir in Latin transliteration, based on BN 116 and 117 (Mainz, 1976; Shaked, 1979).

In 1906, Rafāʾel ben Pinḥas, head of the Jewish community in Ḵoqand, published a Persian translation of the Song of Songs made by Shimʿon Ḥākhām (d. 1910). Ezra Z. Melammed edited versions of the Aramaic translation of Song of Songs and its tafsir “in the language of the Persian Jews, based on a manuscript found in the estate of R. Shlomo ben David Katz” (Melammed, 1971, p. 1; on BZI manuscripts that include the Song of Songs tafsir, see BZI 932).

5. A tafsir of the Book of Ruth in Paris (MSS BN 90 and 116) was published in Latin transcript by Ernest Mainz (1976). The tafsir in MS 90 had been transcribed in Lār in 1601 (see BZI 935/7 for Ben-Zvi Institute manuscripts relating to the tafsir of the Book of Ruth).

6. A tafsir of Lamentations found in BN 101 and 118 was published by Mainz (1973).

7. A tafsir of Ecclesiastes in MS Adler B.46 (Adler, 1921, no. 433) was edited by Paper (1973); another, in BN 116 and 117, was published by Mainz (1974). Rafāʾel Khodādov recently published a new edition of Shimʿon Ḥākhām’s work, Šāhin’s commentary (šarḥ) on the Book of Esther. The edition includes an Ecclesiastes tafsir transcribed in 1893. The BZI library holds two manuscripts of the Ecclesiastes tafsir by the translator Yehudah ben Binyamin of Kāšān (BZI 1045/4, 4547/3).

8. The tafsir of the Book of Esther was edited by Mainz based on BN 127 and 116. In MS 127 there is a yearly calendar, the beginning of which is missing; at the end, the author states that the calendar starts from the year 1591 Sel./1280. Like the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, for the Jews of Persia the Book of Esther held a place of particular importance because of its unique connection to the history of Persian Jewry.

9. A tafsir of the Book of Daniel was edited by Mainz in 1982, based on BN 128 and 129. MS 128 includes a work called Qeṣṣa-ye Dāniāl, which scholars assume to be a tafsir of a lost translation or midrash on the Book of Daniel. This midrashic tafsir is particularly important on account of its messianic content and archaic language. Some scholars believe that it was written or transcribed around the 13th century. Two fragments of commentary on the Book of Daniel from the Geniza were published by Shaul Shaked (1982a, pp. 309-22).

Tafsirs of the Talmud. So far only small sections of either the Babylonian or the Jerusalem Talmud are known to exist in Judeo-Persian. The reasons for the lack of a full tafsir of Talmud seems to be: (1) The Talmud was the exclusive domain of the community’s learned elite, and therefore it was felt that there was no need for a translation for public consumption. In dictionaries compiled by Persian Jews, we find interpretations and explanations of difficult words in the Talmud, which indicate that the study of the Talmud was common among the community’s educated class. (2) Due to the deteriorating cultural-religious state of the community in recent centuries, there has been a decline in the number of students with Talmudic expertise. The focus has moved to the Zohar (a mystical commentary on the Torah) and kabalistic studies because of their mystical orientations palatable to Jews living in Persia (see below).

The tractate Pirqei avot (Ethics of the fathers), due to its moral content and homiletic character, suited the worldview of Persian Jews; and it was translated into the language of the tafsir by various authors. One of the translators was Rabbi Yaʿqov Paltiel of Rašt, where he lived and was active in the mid-19th century. He called the tafsir ‘Ohel Ya‘qov (BZI 929/4). He also left an additional tafsir, on the Pataḥ elyahu (Prayer for the dead), accompanied by drašot (BZI 1083/3).

We know more about another translator, Rabbi Simān-Ṭov Melammed, who, in addition to poems and piyyutim, has left us a tafsir on Pirqei avot (BZI 925). Also deserving of mention is the tafsir of Shimʿon Ḥākhām, which was published in 1907. According to him, the tafsir of Pirqei avot “would be studied in the cities of Bukhara and its districts on the Sabbaths between Passover and Shmini Atzeret [the last day of Rosh-Hashanah]” (Yaʿari, 1942, p. 46.59). Before Shimʿon Ḥākhām tafsir was printed, Nethanel and Binyamin Shauloff in Jerusalem published another commentary on Pirqei avot in 1902, containing the original and the accompanying tafsir verse by verse. Wilhelm Bacher (1902) described this tafsir in depth, and Paper (1976b) published the first chapter of the texts of Shauloff and Ḥākhām.

Other tafsirs of Pirqei avot are accompanied by midrashim and stories; some of the tales are taken from classical Persian literature (see, for example, BZI 1008). In 1536, the poet ʿEmrāni (1454-1536) composed a paraphrase translation of Pirqei avot in Judeo-Persian poetry titled Ganj-nāma (Netzer, 1996-99, I, p. 66; see below). There are over thirty manuscripts of Pirqei avot in the BZI library, mostly tafsirs, including some accompanied by midrashim, commentaries, and stories (Netzer, 1985, index; Yeroushalmi, 1999).

Halakhah. Normative Persian Jewish life, as reflected in the manuscripts, was based on the observance of the halakhot (religious laws and commandments) by most Jewish communities. At the present stage of research it is difficult to give an overall picture of the halakhic changes and developments that occurred within the Jewish communities in the various geographic regions or historical periods in Persia. As far as is known, very few or significant rabbinical court decisions were preserved in Persia, resulting in a lack of halakhic Responsa literature that could shed light on life of the community.

The fact that the Persian Jewish community produced no well-known halakhic authorities presents additional problems for scholars, although it is possible that there were some learned rabbis who dealt with complex halakhic issues. The halakhic works in Hebrew or in Judeo-Persian that the community possesses are generally devoted to ongoing, immediate concerns of Jewish life, such as those of kosher animal slaughter, halakhot related to prayer, blessings, circumcisions, marital relations, holidays and festivals. Controversial halakhic issues reflecting the dynamics of halakhic development over time did not, as far as we know, find a place in Judeo-Persian manuscripts.

The available manuscripts indicate that Persian Jews relied heavily on Moses Maimonides’ (Ebn Maymun) Mishneh Torah and Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulḥan ‘arukh, although these books have not yet been found in their entirety in Judeo-Persian translation. As it is known, the codices of Maimonides and Caro were not accepted unquestioningly by all Jewish communities. The current state of research does not enable us to answer the question of where the Persian Jewish communities stood on the controversies surrounding them, or whether there were attempts within these communities to produce a separate halakhic codification.

Avraham Aminof and Shimʿon Ḥākhām made an important contribution to the field of halakhic compilation with their four-part Judeo-Persian Liquṭei dinim (The book of laws).

Midrashim. 1. Persian Jews were very interested in aggadic and halakhic midrashim, which found their place not only in biblical tafsirs, prayers, drashot, and prose stories, but also in verse, as in the poetry of Šāhin, ʿEmrāni, Binyamin ben Mishaʾel (Aminā), and others. In addition to the midrashim listed in the Otzars index (Netzer, 1985), there are those in other collections, such as Midrash Seder Yetzirat ha-Valad, Midrash Sheqalim, and Midrash Megillah in the Gester collection in the British Library, London (Or. 9953 = G. 1084); and, in the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College [HU], Cincinnati, Midrash Esther (2140[3], 2197[7]), Midrash Bereshit and Shmot (2197), Midrash Devarim ‘atiqim (2123), Midrash le-Shir ha-shirim (2139, 2197[5]), and Midrash Ruth (2159[3], 2197[7]).

2. At the end of 19th century, Elkan N. Adler purchased Judeo-Persian manuscripts in Tehran (marked T) and Bukhara (marked B). These manuscripts, now housed in the library of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (see Adler, 1898 and 1921), include a number of midrashim. Midrash leqaḥ Ṭov by Rabbi Ṭuviah ben Elʿazar is an anthology of midrashim on the books of Genesis and Exodus, with a glossary (MS B.5). The continuation of this midrash (on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is in MS T.76. This midrash, which was originally on the Pentateuch and the five Scrolls (the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), was compiled during the 12th century, and it is thought to have included a polemic against the Karaite sect. Midrash leqaḥ Ṭov was published several times; it is called both Psiqta and Psiqta Zuta. There are also midrashim on the tractates Ta‘anit, Megillah, and Ḥagigah (all in MS B.9); Midrash masekhet Derekh eretz Zuta (B.46g), parts of which are in the Maḥzor Vitri; Midrash Ma‘aseh Rabbenu and Midrash ha-Ne‘lam with a tafsir (B.10a, g); compilations based on Midrash Rabba (B.32b); Sefer ha-Yashar (B.37), which was transcribed, apparently from a Venice imprint in 1773 in the city of Herat; and Midrash Bereshit (T.45).

3. An important midrash called Pitron Torah is a collection of midrashim and interpretations of the Bible, found in MS HU no. 4-4767. This manuscript was published in a critical edition by Efraim E. Urbach (1978). It was transcribed by Yosef ben Shmuel ben David ben Mosheh in the month of Ṭevet 1640 Sel. (1328) in the city of Sambādagān. Pitron Torah covered the entire Pentateuch, but in the manuscript only the portion relating to the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy has survived.

4. One of the most interesting Judeo-Persian midrashic works is the Maṭ‘amei Binyamin by Binyamin ben Eliyahu, a scholar and poet who lived in Kāšān. MS HU 5225 is an autograph manuscript, written in 1823 (5573); BZI 915 was transcribed by Nehoray ben Khodādād in 1825 (on the BZI manuscripts of Maṭ‘amei Binyamin, see BZI 915, 1069, 4507, 4521). Identical with this text in content, apart from minor editorial changes, is Zikhron Raḥamim by Raḥamim Melammed ha-Cohen (a native of Shiraz; d. Jerusalem, 1932), which was printed in Jerusalem in 1930; the author’s son, Ezra Z. Melammed, published a critical edition (Melammed, 1959). Several Judeo-Persian midrashim differ from those found in other sources, for example: Midrash ‘aliyat Mosheh la-marom in Judeo-Persian contains material additional to, and differing from, that of the same midrash found in a Yemenite manuscript. One may find similarities between this midrash and the Middle Persian text Ardā Wirāz-nāmag (see ARDĀ WĪRĀZ) on certain matters concerning the description of hell and paradise (Netzer, 1978 and 1990).

Kabbala and mysticism. The number of kabbalistic works in the BZI collection is small, despite the fact that Persian Jews were much preoccupied by kabbalistic issues, a consequence of their tendency toward metaphysical observation and of the influence of Sufi literature. Except for collections based on the Zohar, kabbalistic literature interwoven with midrashim such as Midrash Talpiyot (BZI 1090/1), and the short work Avqat Roqaḥ (BZI 935/2) attributed to Rabbi Makhir, we cannot at present point to any obviously kabbalistic works. The influence of the kabbalistic streams can be felt in midrashim that were studied by Persian Jews, such as Midrash ‘aliyat Mosheh la-marom, although it is not considered to be a clearly kabbalistic midrash.

We do not know whether kabbalistic circles arose within the Persian Jewish community, nor are we aware of any influence upon it of the European Hassidic streams. It is too early to say whether the messianic and eschatological issues that preoccupied Persian Jewry are indicative of significant kabbalistic activity within the communities of the region. Shabbetai Zvi (1626-76), proclaimed messiah in 1665, had apparently a fair number of followers in Persia, as well as in Turkey and elsewhere; the merchant/traveler Jean Chardin tells of a wave of messianic fervor on the part of Persian believers (VI, p. 135).

The kabbalistic tendency of Persian Jewry can also be detected in poems and piyyutim. Songs of praise to non-Persian Jewish sages such as Shimʿon bar Yohay (mid-2nd cent.), as well as poems and piyyutim by well-known kabbalistic figures, may be found in several collections of poems. A well-known piyyut with kabbalistic content is Avarekh u-Ahallel by Elishaʿ ben Shemuʾel of Persia. His poem gives us a glimpse of the poet’s complex kabbalistic world, based on mystical-speculative foundations with a system of heaven and angels (Netzer, 1985, index).

The motif of aspiration to unmediated oneness with God and the effacement of the Self, which runs through Persian Sufi poetry, finds expression in Persian Jewish poetry as well, although, from a general Jewish standpoint, few kabbalistics actually shared it. Examples of this aspiration are found in ʿEmrāni’s Sāqi-nāma, Yosef Yehudi’s lyrical poetry, and Simān-Ṭov Melammed’s poems and piyyutim. These Jewish poets found in Sufi poetry an acceptable system of mystical symbolism that they could adopt as their own. They struggled to comprehend the secrets of the Divine and of Creation under the influence of a Sufi approach, but with the Bible as their foundation. At times this biblical foundation is so weak and indistinct, and the Sufi motifs so dominant, that it seems as though one is dealing with non-Jewish Sufi poets. Mystical elements such as the search for ecstatic experience and oneness with God, not via the intellect but through introspection and ecstasy, are consistently expressed in the terminology and symbolism of both Jewish and non-Jewish Persian Sufi poetry.

Despite this, it is not known whether the Persian kabbalistic circles possessed creative forces that aspired to a deep understanding of the Bible or to the generation of new trends in communal religious attitudes. Nor is there a clear indication of the existence of Persian Jewish kabbalistics of similar caliber to those figures who arose in other Islamic countries, such as Shalom Sharabi (Yemen and Jerusalem, d. 1777), Avraham Azulai (Morocco, d. 1741), Avraham Ṭubiana (Algeria, d. 1793), Shalom Buzgalo (Morocco, d. 1780), Sassoon ben Mordechai (Baghdad, d. 1830).

Philosophy, theology and apologetics. 1. No purely philosophical works or writings that may be defined as completely theological or apologetic have thus far been found in Judeo-Persian literature, except for some argumentative fragments of the Karaites. The most important work to have embraced to some extent all three of these fields is Yehudah ben Elʿazar’s Ḥovot Yehudah (Netzer, 1995). We have no information on the author, but he most probably lived in Kāšān. Ḥovot Yehudah was completed in 1686, during one of the most troubled periods in Persian Jewish history due to the restrictions imposed by the Safavid state and to unrest connected with the activity of Shabbetai Zvi’s followers across Persia. It is written in fluent Judeo-Persian comparable to that of the finest specimens of classical Persian literature of the period. Its content leaves no doubt about the author’s broad and deep erudition. The author provides some information about another work on the same subjects composed earlier by a Persian Jew named David Bar Maʾmin of Isfahan (see BZI 4577, fol. 5a). We have no other information on Bar Mamin’s work, which apparently was lost.

Ḥovot Yehudah contains four discourses, divided overall into eighteen parts and fifty-two chapters, along with preface and conclusion. Each discourse contains a detailed discussion of a particular subject related to one of the principles of Jewish faith proposed by the author. In the first discourse the author discusses cosmology and the existence of a Supreme Being. In the second he addresses various kinds of prophecy. In the third he discusses the Torah of Moses and the Jewish faith. The fourth discourse is a continuation of the third but includes a discussion of such issues as the resurrection of the dead, reward and punishment, redemption and the coming of Messiah, paradise and hell. In this work the author relies primarily on the writings of Maimonides. He also quotes Rabbi Yosef Albo’s Sefer ha-‘iqarim and the works of other great Jewish scholars. The author demonstrates profound familiarity with the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Ḡazāli, and Averroes.

2. BL Or. 8659 has a theological-apologetic section of Sefer ha-mitzvot. This section consists primarily of a midrashic and halakhic discussion of various aspects of the commandment of circumcision. The piece, despite being short (only ten leaves), is significant as a sample of Karaite apologetic literature written in Judeo-Persian (MacKenzie, 1968). As Shaked points out: “If this is in fact part of a Karaite work, then it represents a new discovery, since it would then be the first existing evidence of a Karaite written literature in the Judeo-Persian language” (Shaked, 1972, p. 50).

Judeo-Persian prayer books. 1. Siddurim (prayer books) found in Persian Jewish manuscripts were transcribed, so far as is known, from the 16th century on. These siddurim, even the later ones, reveal interesting features of Persian Jewish prayer customs. Based on the manuscripts, scholars such as Adler (1898), Rabbi Simḥa Assaf (Assaf and Yoel, 1941, p. 30), and Shlomo Ṭal (1981) concluded that the Jewish Persian siddur is based on that of Rabbi Saʿadia Gaʾon, head (gaʾon) of the religious school at Sura, Babylon (d. 942). Adler bases his conclusion primarily on MS T.79, which had been transcribed in Persia in 1565 (Adler, 1921, pp. 600 f.); Rabbi Assaf seems to concur (Assaf and Yoel, 1941, p. 30).

2. A more comprehensive study was carried out by Ṭal based on MS Adler B.6 (alternative classification: ENA 23), which he compared with Adler T.79 and Sassoon collection 1045, 1143, 1144 (Sassoon, II, pp. 897, 959, 963). BZI 945 and 4527/1 contain Saʿadia Gaʾon’s Tefilat ha-Shaḥarit, but it is not clear whether Ṭal had made use of them. Another relevant manuscript is the Seder Tefilot (BL, Or. 10576).

3. Rabbi ʿAmram Gaʾon’s (d. 875) work on liturgical practice was particularly influential in those lands, including Persia, that were under the spiritual leadership of the great Babylonian religious schools (yeshivot). It should be mentioned that his prayer book, the Seder ha-Rav ‘Amram Ga’on, influenced the siddurim of the Jews of Spain, France, and Germany, and served as the basis for the Siddur Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaqi, d. 1105) and the Maḥzor Vitri, 11th-century works produced in France.

Many years before Adler visited the communities of Persian Jews; they had already ceased to use their unique siddur (see above, no. 1) and had begun using those published by the printing presses of Leghorn (Livorno), Warsaw, and Vienna. Interesting in this context is a statement of a Bukharan Jew, quoted by Adler: “They say that a hundred and fifty years ago a learned man came to them, Rabbi Avraham Mamon, whose descendents are now among the most prominent Jews of Central Asia. He came from Morocco to faraway Bukhara and persuaded the Jews there that, [since] like him they were also descendents of the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, they should therefore adapt themselves to the prayer customs [of the latter]” (Adler, 1921, p. 602). It appears that the version of prayer used by Persian Jews changed due to the influence of emissaries from the West and from North Africa. At present two important questions remain unanswered: (a) when did the Persian Jews begin using Rabbi Saʿadia Gaʾon’s siddur, and (b) when did they cease to use it? One thing is clear: the prayer version in MS Adler B.6 (= ENA 23), primarily in the margins of the transcriber’s manuscript, already reveals deviations from the Rabbi Saʿadia Gaʾon version.

4. Scholars believe that the Jews of Persia were under the authority and influence of the Babylonian sages during the period of the Gaonim (post-Talmudic period, 7th to 11th century), and that teachers and rabbinical judges were sent to them from Babylon. However, Persian Jewry was not only subject to influence, but also exerted influence in the liturgical field. Emissaries were sent from Persia to the Chinese Jewish community. This fact is known to us from, among other things, portions of the prayer liturgy found in Kaifeng in eastern China. These texts contain Persian names of emissaries and Judeo-Persian instructions to worshippers (see Neubauer; Leslie; Ben-Zvi, 1966b, chap. 14).

5. In addition to the prayer service, Persian Jews sang sacred songs as well as the secular works of poets from Spain, Italy, and the Land of Israel, such as Shlomo ben Gabirol (d. 1057), Yehudah ha-Levi (d. 1141), Yisrael Nagara (d. 1625), and others. Sacred poems composed by Persian Jewish poets, such as ʿEmrāni, Shamuʾel Pir-Aḥmad, Elishaʿ ben Shamuʾel, Binyamin ben Mishaʾel (Aminā), Simān-Ṭov Melammed, and others, also found a place in the liturgy.


Jewish Persian poetry is varied in content and broad in scope. Its linguistic features deserve a brief analysis: (a) Nearly all of the longer poems are composed in the hazaj meter (see ʿARŪŻ), which is commonly used in classical Persian poetry as well. (b) With regard to verse form, the majority of poems are in rhymed couplets (maṯnawi), although classical Persian poetry in general is characterized by a multiplicity of forms. (c) In versified tafsirs of Hebrew piyyutim, the poets do not always adhere to the meter throughout the entire poem, a deviation from the strict rules of Persian prosody. (d) In early manuscripts, such as BZI 4529 and 4598, the versified tafsirs of Hebrew piyyutim are literal translations that follow the Hebrew word order. (e) Words, particularly those in Hebrew, are used in stanzas and in rhyme schemes according to their spoken form. For example, Hebrew avot “fathers,” pronounced āvut by Persian Jews, rhymes with the name Dāwut (Dāwud, i.e., David). Shlomo (pronounced šelemu) rhymes with Persian gu “saying, say!” “Solaymun” (Solaymān, i.e., Solomon) rhymes with “Yehošuʿa ben Nun,” and bičun “ineffable” with sobḥun (sobḥān “praise”). (f) Long vowels appear at times as short ones in Judeo-Persian poetry, in order to avoid metrical deviations, a phenomenon existing in Persian popular poetry as well. (g) In words that end with two consonants, the second one occasionally has to be suppressed in order to ensure adherence to the meter. This phenomenon is related to the spoken form of the word, and is common practice in classical Persian prosody (Netzer, 1973, p. 69, example no. 15).

The following is a concise presentation of the most important and prominent of the Jewish poets and their major works. A brief overview is included of the non-Jewish poets whose works are found, not only in collections of secular poetry, but also in collections with sacred poems and prayers.

Šāhin. Arguably the most important of the Jewish Persian poets, Šāhin is also, to the best of our knowledge, the earliest. He is dated to the 14th century, but we have no information about his life, and even his real name is unknown; it may be assumed that “Šāhin” (lit. hawk) is his pen name. Bacher, in his important study on Šāhin (1908b), stated that the poet lived and was active in Shiraz, but this is a point on which scholars are divided. Šāhin’s language and style seem to be close to the one called Ḵorāsāni style (sabk-e Ḵorāsāni; Netzer, 1999c).

The title commonly used for all parts of Šāhin’s translations of the Bible is Šarḥ-e Šāhinal ha-Torah (Šāhin’s commentary on the Torah). Ardašir-nāma is referred to as Šāhin’s commentary on the Scroll of Esther, and ʿEzrā-nāma is called Šāhin’s commentary on Ezra. No other work by Šāhin has been found; the attribution of the poem “Šāh Kešvar va Bahrām” to him by Asmussen is not substantiated (Asmussen, 1970, pp. 5-45; Netzer, 1974a, pp. 259-60; idem, 1996-99, I, pp. 90-92). All of Šāhin’s works were published in Jerusalem by Shimʿon Ḥākhām, but the printed edition of Šarḥ-e Šāhin ‘al megillat Esther is incomplete (Ḥākhām, 1905; idem, 1910).

1. Musā-nāma (The story of Moses). Šāhin was the first and only poet to have given poetic expression to the Pentateuch in Persian. He first translated the four last books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) in 1327. Since the events of these books are connected with the figure of Moses, this translation was called Musā-nāma. Comprising about 10,000 verses, the work is not a literal translation of the biblical source; rather it incorporates legends (aggadot) from Jewish midrashim and from non-Jewish traditions. As is common in long poetic works, Musā-nāma begins with verses in praise of God, Moses, and the prophets. A special section is devoted to glorification of the ruler at the time, Sultan Abu Saʿid (r. 1317-35; Netzer, 1996-99, I, p. 55).

2. Ardašir-nāma and ʿEzrā-nāma. About six years after he completed the Musā-nāma, Šāhin produced his second work in verse, in which he describes the events of the books of Esther and Ezra. Bacher and other scholars speak of two separate works: Ardašir-nāma on the Book of Esther and ʿEzrā-nāma on the Book of Ezra, but it seems that the poet intended to produce one poetical text with two historically and dramatically interrelated sections. This suggestion is supported by four points: (a) The two texts appear as a single poetic unit in most manuscripts. (b) Ardašir-nāma opens with a conventional proem, including verses exalting the Creator and Moses and a section in praise of the Il-khanid ruler Abu Saʿid, whereas ʿEzrā-nāma has no such introduction and enters immediately into a description of the events of the Book of Ezra as though they were directly connected with those of the Book of Esther. (c) The hero of the Book of Ezra is “Cyrus ben Esther and Ardašir,” which establishes a natural dramatic and historical connection with the Book of Esther. (d) Ardašir-nāma does not end with a concluding section, while ʿEzrā-nāma does, and, besides, mentions mid-Šawwāl 733 (early July 1333) as the date of completion (Netzer, 1996-99, I, p. 56).

Ardašir-nāma tells two separate stories. One is related to Esther and King Ardašir (Aḥašveroš), and the other is a love story centered on Širuya (Ardašir’s son by his wife Vašti) and a Chinese princess named Mahzād. In about 6,000 verses Šāhin presents spectacular scenes of love and revenge, nature and hunting, sport and battle, scenes reminiscent of the symbolic world of Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma. ʿEzrā-nāma is much shorter, about 500 verses, and is of interest for its description of the life and death of “Cyrus ben Esther,” as well as its fascinating accounts of meetings between him and such major Jewish figures as Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, Mattitiah, and Mordechai, ending with the death of Mordechai and of Esther in Hamadān (see Figure 1; Netzer, 1974b).

3. Berešit-nāma. Completed in 1359, the Berešit-nāma is Šāhin’s final opus, a paraphrase translation of the Book of Genesis, which completes his translation of the entire Pentateuch. The work, composed in about 9,000 verses, may be divided into four distinct sections: (a) from the creation of the world to the binding of Isaac; (b) the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22); (c) the verse epic connected to the Book of Job; (d) the story of Joseph and his brothers and the love of Zolayḵā (Potiphar’s wife) for Joseph (the section also known as Yusof o Zolayḵā; Netzer, 1996-99, I, pp. 56-58; Figure 1).

Šāhin does not rely on biblical sources alone. Many episodes are taken from midrashim or even from the Muslim tradition (Netzer, 1990; for a concise illustration of the poet’s treatment of the story of Abraham in Šarḥ-e Šāhin ‘al ha-Torah, see BZI 978, fols. 23-73; Netzer, 1985, pp. 29-30). The story of Abraham is told in over 2,200 verses and is based on (a) Genesis 11-25, (b) Qeṣaṣ al-anbiāʾ (Muslim collections of stories about the prophets; see Nagel), and (c) the following midrashim: Bereshit Rabba, Sefer ha-yashar, Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli‘ezer, Seder ‘Olam Rabba, Seder ‘Olam Zuta, Midrash ha-gadol, Midrash Tanḥuma, and others.

ʿEmrāni. ʿEmrāni (b. Isfahan 1454; d. Kāšān, 1530s), the second prominent poet of Judeo-Persian, who tried to complete his predecessor’s literary enterprise. ʿEmrāni was born in Isfahan, and, at a certain point, he moved to Kāšān, where, to the best of our knowledge, he died after 1536. Until recently, scholars of Judeo-Persian knew of only two of his works, namely Fatḥ-nāma and Ganj-nāma, but in fact he produced about a dozen works of poetry and prose:

1. Fatḥ-nāma. As far as is known, Fatḥ-nāma is ʿEmrāni’s first and longest work (about 10,000 verses). It describes the events related in the books of Joshua, Ruth, and Samuel I-II. The poet’s introduction states that he began to compose the work at age twenty, in 1785 (Sel./1474). ʿEmrāni’s intention was to give poetic expression to the books of the Prophets and the Writings, and thereby to complete Šāhin’s literary project. However, it appears that he was unable to finish this work. All manuscripts of the Fatḥ-nāma examined by the present author lack a concluding section. Most of the manuscripts end with the story of the conquest of Jerusalem by King David and the sending of gifts by King Hiram of Tyre (Samuel 2:6). Like Šāhin’s Musā-nāma, Fatḥ-nāma is composed in the hazaj meter. It includes a greater number of Hebrew words than does any of Šāhin’s works. Compared with the latter, the Fatḥ-nāma is more faithful to the biblical text. It also incorporates material from the sages and the midrashim (BZI 981, 982, 964; HU 1275, 1484; JTS 1366, 1430; Netzer, 1996-99, I, pp. 58-62).

2. Wājebāt wa arkān-e sizdahgāna-ye imān-e Esrāʾil (The thirteen commandments and pillars of the Jewish faith) was composed in 1508 and contains about 780 verses. It follows Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith” (MSS HU1183, HU2496, JTS324).

3. Ḥanukā-nāma (The story of Hanukkah), composed in 1524, is an epic poem of about 2,000 verses describing the heroic battle of the Maccabee army against the Selucid invaders. The poem has also been referred to as Ẓafar-nāma. A similar poem with an identical title was composed by Elishaʿ ben Shamuʾel (Rāḡeb) in the 17th century (HU 1183, fols 22b-51b; JTS 1411, fols 4a-74b).

4. Enteḵāb-e naḵlestān (The choice of the palm grove). This is an undated poem in about 600 verses, in which the poet complains about the people of Isfahan and his determination to leave for Kāšān. It also appears under the title Enteḵāb-e golestān (The choice of the rose garden). The poem seeks to enlighten members and leaders of the community by offering moral, religious, and practical counsels (HU 1183, fol. 222a; also HU 2498).

5. Sāqi-nāma (Ode to the cupbearer). This is a mystical, lyrical poem of approximately 190 verses relating the author’s mystical aspiration to achieve oneness with the Creator. The poem incorporates excerpts from the works of such Persian poets as ʿOmar Ḵayyām, Saʿdi, and Ḥāfeẓ (text in Netzer, 1973; BZI 934; HU 1182, 4484).

6. Qeṣṣa-ye haft barādarān (The story of the seven brothers). This poem is also known as Moṣibat-nāma (The tale of afflictions), “Miriām bat Nāḥum and her Seven Sons,” and “Ḥanna and her Seven Sons.” It is a midrashic lamentation incorporating sections in prose. Until recently the work was attributed to Yosef ben Esḥāq ben Musā, but the textual evidence indicates that its author was actually ʿEmrāni. The name Yosef Kāteb (Yosef the scribe) in the work refers to a poet who in 1688 added his own verses to ʿEmrāni’s poem (Netzer, 1973, pp. 49-50; idem, 1996-99, I, pp. 64-65; BZI 922, 970, 4563; HU 1928).

7. Monājāt-nāma (The book of supplications). This undated work is a short poem containing blessings and praise of God; it is found in various verse anthologies.

8. ‘Asara harugei ha-malkhut (The ten who died for the kingdom). Based on a Hebrew midrash of the same name, this is an undated work in both poem and prose, which is also known as Moṣibat-nāma (see no. 6, above; BZI 938, 563; JTS 88).

9. Zambilduz (The basket-weaver). This short didactic poem was discovered by the present author in Shiraz (BZI 1094), and references to the story were later found in BZI 1008, fol. 121b. It is a love story between a princess (sister of King Anuširvān) and a poor basket-weaver. To some extent it reminds one of the disappointed love between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Yusof o Zolayḵā). ʿEmrāni is mentioned as the author but since it differs in style and diction from the well-known works of ʿEmrāni, this attribution must be regarded as tentative.

10. Ganj-nāma (The book of treasures). Completed in 1536, this is a fine versified paraphrase of the Mishnaic tractate Pirqei avot (Ethics of the fathers) in approximately 4,900 verses. It appears to have been the poet’s last major work, displaying his intellectual maturity and refined sentiments. Writing in old age, ʿEmrāni, in the last verses, mentions the death of his friends, calling them by name and lamenting their loss. In a separate section he extends counsel to his son Jalāl-al-Din Sar Šālom (Netzer, 1973, pp. 179-207; idem, 1996-99, I, p. 66; Yeroushalmi, 1995; MSS: BZI 912, 913, 1027, 4554; HU 1001, 2230, 3065, 4429; JTS 1429, 8615, 8616).

11. Short poems. (a) Five lyrical verses under ʿEmrāni’s name in a BZI manuscript (Netzer, 1985, p. 189, item D16); (2) a poem on the ascetic life, with a recurring refrain, in a BZI manuscript (Netzer, 1985, p. 198, item T9); (3) Dar setāyeš-e taḥammol (On praise of forbearance), a didactic poem of sixteen verses also found in other works such as Fatḥ-nāma and Enteḵāb-e naḵlestān (BL, Or. 13704; HU 1183, fols. 222a-b, HU 2496, fols. 119b-120a).

12. Prose works. As far as we know, ʿEmrāni produced only two prose works. One is a midrash on the binding of Isaac (BZI 1011/2), and the other a tafsir on Pirqei avot (Netzer, 1974, p. 264). The latter seems to have served as the basis for the Ganj-nāma (above, no. 10).

Ḵᵛāja Boḵārāʾi. Boḵārāʾi’s only known work, composed in 1606, is a religious verse epic in 2,175 couplets titled Dāniāl-nāma. It is based on the Book of Daniel, the Apocrypha, and the midrashim and contains Rabbi Saʿadia Gaʾon’s calculations (based on verses in Daniel) regarding the End of Days and the coming of the Messiah. In 1704 Binyamin ben Mishāʾel (Aminā) edited the text and inserted several of his own verses in it. The work is written in an epic style reminiscent of Šāhin’s Musā-nāma and ʿEmrāni’s Fatḥ-nāma. In the opening section Boḵārāʾi lauds Šāhin (lit. hawk) and refers to himself as a “frail sparrow” (gonješk-e żaʿif). However, at the end of the work the poet expresses pride in the fact that he was able to present his people with a creation which “is on a level with Ferdowsi[’s Šāh-nāma].” Dāniāl-nāma includes vivid descriptions of the battlefields in which the armies of “Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede” fight against their enemy, Belshazzar of Babylon (Netzer, 1971; idem, 1972).

Only one complete manuscript of Dāniāl-nāma is known (BL Or. 4743; HU no. 2680 is a 237-verse portion of the beginning). It was transcribed by Mosheh Yisrael Gadaloff in 1913 in the Central Asian city of Oš in Farḡāna (for Oš, see Barthold, p. 156); written in Hebrew square characters, it is vocalized to reflect local pronunciation. Four sections are devoted to the praise of God and the prophets, supplications to God on behalf of the Jewish people, praise of Moses, and the author’s reason for composing the poem (Netzer, 1996-99, I, pp. 67-68).

Aharon ben Mashiaḥ. Because of persecution, this poet fled from his native city of Isfahan and settled in Yazd. His relatively short poetic work, Šofṭim-nāma (The book of judges), a paraphrase of Judges 1-18, was composed in 1692. It is in the same meter and style as ʿEmrāni’s Fatḥ-nāma and is well known for having been included in most Fatḥ-nāma manuscripts. The poet also pays tribute to ʿEmrāni by figuratively referring to him as “my rabbi and also my teacher.” The author hints at bloody events in Isfahan, and mentions the killing of an important person named Matitiya, “who was killed like Zechariah [the prophet]” (in 2 Chron. 24:21) and the murder of four of the city’s rabbis. It is very likely that the Matitiya in question was Matitiya ben Binyamin Zeev Bloch, emissary of Shabbetai Zvi, about whose death Yehudā ben Elʿazar writes in Ḥovot Yehudah (Netzer, 1995, p. 496).

Mordechai ben Rabbi David. It is not clear why Aharon ben Mashiaḥ did not complete his versification of the Book of Judges. In any case, the task of completing it was taken up (probably just a few years later) by Mordechai ben David (Mordeḵāy ben Dāvid), who entitled his poem Ma‘aseh pilegesh ‘al ha-Giv‘ā (The story of the concubine on the hill). This piece is sometimes referred to as the Supplement (Tatemma) of Šofṭim-nāma. It too uses the language, style, and meter of ʿEmrāni’s Fatḥ-nāma and is usually included with it in manuscripts. The poem is undated, but appears to have been composed during a stormy period of persecutions and conversion decrees. The poet states that he had spent eight months in the king’s prison (zendān-e šāhi), and had been forced to sell his property and turn the money over as ransom, escaping with his life. It is unclear from where and to where he was obliged to flee (Netzer, 1996-99, I, p. 83).

Elishaʿ ben Shamuʾel (17th century). This poet, who used the pen name Rāḡeb, lived in Samarkand and wrote two major works (see also Netzer, 1988).

1. Šāhzāda va Ṣufi. Composed in 1684, this work is based on the Avraham b. Ḥisdai’s (of Barcelona, 13th century) translation into Hebrew of an Arabic version of a well-known literary tale, called in Hebrew “The King and the Nazirite.” The poet’s introduction confirms that he had translated the story into Persian from Hebrew (ʿAmrāni language). The ultimate source of the story is an Indian tale about the life of Gautama Buddha. It found its way, through Iranian mediation, into Georgian, Greek, and other European languages. In Middle Persian it was called Balauhar and Budāsaf, but the second name thereafter became corrupted. In its Greek version it turned into a Christian tale called Barlaam and Josaphat or, in its first Latin translation in 1048, Barlaam and Joasaph (see BARLAAM AND IOSAPH). The Arabic version, titled Bilawhar wa Yudāsaf, had been originally rendered from a Manichean text in Middle Persian.

Comparison of the versions in the various languages reveals differences in ideological stances as well as literary motifs. The Greek-European version is replete with Christian concepts expressed by the Christian monk who comes to teach the prince about the virtues of the ascetic life. In the end the prince becomes a devout Christian.

Avraham b. Ḥisdai introduced many changes into his version, such as in the king’s attitude toward his son, the ideologies inherent in the Nazirite’s counsel, and in the fate of the prince, who is left to live a life of loneliness and sorrow. The final sections are infused with philosophical and theological ideas, and incorporate ethical discussions, stories, and anecdotes that are not found in the Greek-European version, and which also differ from the Judeo-Persian version.

Like “The King and the Nazirite” of Ebn Ḥisdai, Šāhzāda va Ṣufi is written in both verse and rhyming prose. The Judeo-Persian work is composed of thirty-eight sections, of which thirty-four present the story, while the other four are the introduction, devoted to praising God and Moses, and conclusion. Section 33 presents the Sufi’s final teachings to the prince, dealing with the final destiny of the soul enclosed in the body-prison, from which it is to be freed to return to its heavenly source. Section 34 is an ethical sermon to the people of Israel, which generally resembles those in Yehudah Lāri’s Maḵzan al-pand (Netzer, 1973, pp. 369-76). Of special interest is section 13, in which the Sufi presents to the prince lessons from the life of the king of Khorasan (Netzer, 1973, pp. 335-38), and the words of wisdom spoken at the end of section 15 by the famed Persian Sufi, Šams-e Tabrizi (ibid, p. 344).

The language and style of the prose and verse imitate Saʿdi’s Golestān. The poet demonstrates great ability in constructing the story and in presenting his ideas in a richly imaginative classical Persian. Šāhzāda va Ṣufi is preserved in a large number of manuscripts, indicating its popularity and status as one of Persian Jewry’s cultural and literary treasures.

2. Ḥanukā-nāma. A short poetic work composed, as mentioned in the poet’s introduction, on the thematic framework of ʿEmrāni’s Ḥanukā-nāma. Here, as in his other works, Rāḡeb displays a skillful command of the Persian language. The poem is undated, and it is difficult to determine, based on internal evidence, which of the author’s two works was composed first. In the opening of Ḥanukā-nāma, the poet writes of himself as one known within the community as a poet, and this may well indicate that other poetic work had preceded this one.

Yosef ben Esḥāq ben Musā. Little information is available about this poet. Bacher (1899) has suggested the possibility of his identification with a Bukharan poet, Yosef Yahudi. Yosef Ben Esḥāq is credited with a work called Antioḵus-nāma (publ. Jerusalem, 1903). He also wrote several verse tafsirs of piyyutim found in manuscripts at the BZI (see Netzer, 1985, index, s.v. Yosef ben Esḥāq ben Musā, Yosef Šāʿer, Yosef Yahudi; idem, 1996-99, I, pp. 72-75).

Binyamin ben Mishaʾel, better known by his pen name Aminā. Based on the information in his poem, Tafsir-e Azhārōt-nāma (BZI, mx. 1085), he was born in Kāšān in 1083/1672 (Netzer, 2003, p. 69). Some biographical information about him is found in his Sargoḏašt-e Aminā bā hamsar-aš, which relates his marital problems with his wife after twenty years of marriage (Klau MS 217(7)b; see Spicehandler, 1968). Due to this marital strife Aminā left Kāšān to take up residence near Mount Alvand, perhaps in the city of Hamadān. In the same poem, he addresses his seven children by name, complaining about his wife.

Aminā composed about forty poems, in which the subjects range from the sacred to the secular and to personal and familial issues. They are scattered in anthologies of poetry in many manuscripts in various libraries. Aminā’s works are notably brief, except for three, each one over 200 couplets (Netzer, 2003, p. 74). One of these long poems is ‘Aqedat Yiẓḥāq (The Sacrifice of Isaac; ca. 250 couplets), based on the midrash of Yehudah ben Shamuʾel ben Abbās (fl. 12th cent.). His second long work is a commentary on the Book of Esther (ca. 216 couplets), based on the book itself and on midrashim. The third is the Tafsir-e Azhārōt-nāma (324 couplets), composed in 1732. Several of his poems, such as Monājāt (Supplications, 6 couplets in Hebrew and Persian), Davāzdah ševaṭim (Twelve tribes, 24 couplets), and Tafsir-e Azhārōt-nāma, appear to have achieved the status of sacred writing and were chanted in synagogue services (Netzer, 2003, pp. 75-80).

Aminā also composed a long Hebrew poem with twenty-three strophes containing twenty-nine columns arranged in alphabetical, acrostic alliteration. Each strophe is made of four lines (see, Netzer, 1979a; idem, 2003, p. 79).

Simān-Ṭov Melammed. He was born in Yazd, lived for a time in Herat, and afterwards settled in Mashad (specific dates are unavailable). It is possible that he reached Mashad prior to 1793, since it is said that he met there the learned Rabbi Yosef Maman (a native of Tituan, Morocco), who, on his way from Safed in Palestine to Bukhara, stopped in Mashad that year. Two different death dates given are 1823 or 1828, but the internal evidence indicates that he died in Mashad, most probably in 1800 (Netzer, 1999a). We have information on relations between the Yazd and Mashad communities based, among other things, on their correspondences. For example, there are the letters of Rabbi Or Shraga of Yazd from 1782 and 1783 to Mashad, regarding emissaries who came to his city from Palestine (Ben-Zvi, 1966a, p. 297).

Simān-Ṭov composed mystical poems, in several of which he mentions his pen name Ṭubiā. His major work is Ḥayāt al-ruḥ based on Baḥya b. Pakuda’s Ḥovot ha-levavot (Duties of the heart) and on Maimonides Dalālat al-ḥāʾerin (Guide for the perplexed), which he mentions in his preface. Another important poetic work is Azharot (“warnings,” which are hymns read in Mussaf, the “additional” prayer service, on the feast of Šavuʿot), composed in Hebrew and Persian (BZI 1087). The meter of the tafsir on the positive commandments in Azharot differs from that of the tafsir on the negative commandments. Azharot was published by Matitiah ben Mordechai ben Avraham Garji (Jerusalem, 1896). The printed work also includes several of Simān-Ṭov’s poems, such as his piyyut for a circumcision (Netzer, 1979), and a piyyut on the Thirteen Principles of Faith formulated by Maimonides. Simān-Ṭov also translated Pirqei avot into Persian (BZI 925; Netzer, 1996-99, I, pp. 76-77).

Yaʿqov ben Yeḥazqel. This poet, a native of Kermān, died in 1961 at age seventy-five, according to the owner of the unique, incomplete manuscript of his work, the Šamuʾil-nāma (in the private collection of Avišay ben Yaʿqov, Jerusalem). This poetic work, to the best of our knowledge, has never been referred to in any catalogues or Judeo-Persian research works. It is a paraphrased versification of parts of the Book of Samuel in about 1,000 couplets. It is composed in the motaqāreb (see ʿARŪŻ) meter, which was rarely used in Judeo-Persian poetry; as noted above, hazaj meter was predominant.

Other poets. Many Persian Jews have applied themselves to the composition of poetry and piyyutim in Persian and in Hebrew. Information on most of these poets is scarce; generally lacking are biographical details apart from their names and, infrequently, the names of their fathers. There are poems and piyyutim written in Persian, and also in Hebrew, whose authors have remained nameless, but they are undoubtedly Persian Jews. Apart from those discussed above, about sixty poets have been described, or mentioned with excerpts from their poems, by Amnon Netzer (Netzer, 1982).

None of the poets listed above (including the most prominent among them, Šāhin and ʿEmrāni) and their works have yet been subjected to any thorough study and research. Additionally, there are many anonymous poems and piyyutim in the Judeo-Persian manuscripts. Textual analysis of the poems and piyyutim, identification of their authors, and investigation of their intellectual world are yet to be carried out. Just as the Jews of Persia expressed their uniqueness and their religious and cultural experience through the medium of poetry, this poetry in its turn helped to preserve the community physically and spiritually in the face of adverse circumstances, and deserves further study.

Non-Jewish poets in the Judeo-Persian literary tradition. Major Persian poets were loved by the Jews, and very few poetry collections failed to incorporate samples of their works. According to Joseph Wolff, while he was in Mashad in 1831, he met Jews and “Jewish Sooffees” who possessed poems, transcribed in Judeo-Persian, of Ḥāfeẓ and divāns of other Persian poets (Wolff, 1835, p. 158). Non-Jewish Persian poetry is found in collections that also included sacred piyyutim and, at times, even liturgical works. The large number of poems, quatrains, and Persian divāns found in the Judeo-Persian manuscripts indicates that non-Jewish Persian poetry was an inseparable part of a Persian Jew’s cultural heritage. In Persian Jewish manuscripts we find not only works of great Persian poets such as Ferdowsi, ʿAṭṭār, Neẓāmi, Ḵayyām, Ḥāfeẓ, Jāmi, Ṣāʾeb, and Maktabi, but also a great many poems composed by less celebrated authors, including some about whom we have no information. Some of these unknown poets may have been Jews, or of Jewish origin, but their works need to undergo thorough study and research before such a suggestion can be substantiated.

Jewish poets took as their model the style, symbolic concepts, literary terminology, and prosody used by Persian poets. Some Jewish poets incorporated verses by non-Jewish Persian poets into their own works (e.g., ʿEmrāni in his Sāqi-nāma, in Netzer, 1996-99, I, p. 103, vv. 8-10; see Netzer, 1973, pp. 43-44, 251-60; idem, 1996-99, I, pp. 63-64, 99-106). In some cases, Jewish poets took the opening verse (maṭlaʿ) from a well-known poem by a non-Jewish poet, and then continued on, developing their own poems along the same structural and thematic lines. There are some rare cases in which the poem of a non-Jewish Persian poet served as the tafsir of a Hebrew piyyut, such as the verse of David Bar Aharon ben Ḥasin’s piyyut, Oḥil yom yom ešta’eh, for which a poem of Ḥāfeẓ served as tafsir (BZI 4516/1; Netzer, 1985, p. 189, item D28). Persian Jews also entertained themselves with folk literature of non-Jewish poets transcribed in Judeo-Persian, such as Bahrām o Golandām, Dāstān-e Ḥaydar Beg va Ṣamanbar, Sarv o Gol, and Flaknāz (Netzer, 1996-99, I, pp. 90-96).


During the Middle Ages historical writing as a genre was highly developed in Persia and in other Islamic countries. However, to judge by what has survived in the manuscripts, it must be said that the Persian Jews did not particularly excel in this area, and thus many periods in the life of the community have remained obscure. The colophons likewise play a minimal role in the recording of events or in the provision of biographical information. In this area the Jews of Persia cannot be compared with the Armenians, whose colophons are rich in information of historical interest (Sanjian, 1969).

The Safavid period (1501-1736) was a decisive one in the national and religious life of the Persian people. After fierce internal battles and bloody wars against their neighbors invading tribes and neighboring peoples, primarily the Ottoman Empire, the first Safavid rulers succeeded in creating a state that would unify its population along religio-nationalistic lines. A direct outcome of this, the increase in the power of the Shiʿite clergy in the royal court, also entailed an adverse effect upon the Persian Jewish community (Levy, 1960, pp. 174 ff.; Netzer, 1980; Moreen, 1987).

Bābāʾi ben Loṭf. Bābāʾi ben Loṭf (d. after 1662) of Kāšān is the first known Persian Jewish historian. He described the sufferings of the Jews in all parts of the country during the period 1613-62. His chronicle, Ketāb-e anusi (The book of a forced convert), composed of approximately 5,300 verses, describes in heart-wrenching poetry the persecutions, restrictive decrees, mass expulsions, murders, and property confiscations to which the Jewish community members and leaders were subjected. His account is substantiated by similar descriptions in those of European travelers, and by the chronicle of the Armenian Bishop Arakel of Tabriz, who also recorded the sufferings of the Armenians and Jews in Persia.

Bābāʾi ben Loṭf devoted a major portion of his work to the events of 1656-62, some of the hardest years endured by the Jewish community under Shah ʿAbbās II (r. 1642-67). He lists nineteen other cities and localities where Jews lived: Abarqu, Ašraf, Bandar, Damāvand, Faraḥābād, Gilyārd, Golpāyagān, Hamadān, Isfahan, Kāšān, Kermānšāh, Ḵᵛānsār, Lār, Naṭanz, Nehāvand, Qazvin, Qom, Shiraz, and Yazd. The Armenian chronicler Arakel of Tabriz mentions additional localities and provinces: Ardabil, Astarābād, Fumanāt, Khorasan, Šuštar, and Tabriz.

There can be no doubt that Jewish communities existed in other locations around Persia, some of which appear in the accounts of European travelers. The persecutions also caused families to leave their native cities and settle elsewhere. Some Jews even considered going to Jerusalem. The author himself decided to leave Kāšān and start a new life in Baghdad. There were also expulsions of Jews to remote areas. The authorities decided to expel the Jews of Yazd to Kabul in Afghanistan. This expulsion did not take place due to the opposition of the Muslims of Yazd, who regarded the Jews as a useful socioeconomic element. These expulsions and migrations altered the demographic map of Persian Jewry.

The importance of Ketāb-e anusi as a primary source lies in the fact that, in addition to the story that it tells of persecutions and forced conversion decrees, it describes the organizational, social, and economic state of the Persian Jewish communities. We learn from this document that the Jews worked in a variety of different fields: medicine, pharmacy, herbalism, music, tailoring, and metalwork; some were fine craftsman in the production of silk cloth and silk belts; some were millers, antique dealers, and jewelry merchants. Jewish women held positions as counselors and teachers of the ladies of the royal court, and occasionally practiced fortunetelling (Netzer, 1980).

Bābāʾi ben Loṭf makes favorable mention of four personages: Shah Ṣafi I (r. 1629-42); the theologian and poet Mollā Moḥsen Fayż Kāšāni (d. 1680); Mirzā Ašraf, governor of Kāšān; and the Sufi, theologian and poet Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli (d. 1621). The worst persecutions were endured by the Jews of the capital city of Isfahan. According to Bābāʾi ben Loṭf, most of those who underwent forced conversions, after having been humiliated and devastated emotionally, socially, and financially, were eventually permitted to return to Judaism. The persecutions recounted in Ketāb-e anusi were neither the first nor the last to be suffered by the Persian Jewish community. About seventy years after the work was completed, another Jew of Kāšān, Bābāʾi ben Farhād, the grandson or great-grandson of Bābāʾi ben Loṭf, composed a versified history of the Jews of Kāšān in about 1,300 verses, titled Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān, in which he described the further oppression experienced by the Jewish community there (Moreen, 1987).

Bābāʾi ben Farhād and Mashiaḥ ben Rafāʾel. After more than two hundred years of rule, the Safavid dynasty began to disintegrate. The dynasty’s internal weakness invited external pressures, and it seemed as though Persia was about to lose its national autonomy to an Afghan invasion from the east. Under the command of their chieftains, Maḥmud and, later, Ašraf, the Afghans swept across wide expanses of Persia, capturing the capital city of Isfahan in a bloody battle and massacring many of its inhabitants (1722). In other battles waged against provincial or city governors, the Sunnite Afghans succeeded in gaining control of much of Shiʿite Persia, and they ruled over it for about eight years (1722-30). These upheavals disrupted the existence of the Persian Jewish community.

In various cities, particularly Kāšān, pogroms broke out in which Jews were greatly harmed, and pressure increased on them to convert. The Jews of Kāšān, as well as those of Isfahan, were forced to embrace Islam, and were also obliged to pay large sums to the local governors. As he passed through Kāšān in pursuit of the Afghan enemy, Nāderqoli Khan (later Nāder Shah Afšār) also extracted large sums of money from the Jews of that city. The persecutions and the pressures with which the Jews had to contend are the main subjects of Bābāʾi ben Farhād’s work Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān dar bāb-e ʿebri wa guyimi ṯāni (Events concerning the Jews of Kāšān and their second conversion to Islam). The poet composed his chronicle in 1729-30, and in it he showered praise on the invading Afghan ruler Ašraf for his attitude toward the Jews and for refraining to harm them, in contrast to the Shiʿite Persians.

For seven months the Jews of Kāšān were forcefully treated as converts; afterwards, in return for a large communal ransom, they were permitted to return to Judaism. Bābāʾi ben Farhād criticizes the spiritual leaders of Kāšān, particularly the head of the Jewish community, for having displayed weakness and, together with several prominent community members, for having seen fit to convert to Islam. Another Kashani Jew, Mashiaḥ ben Rafāʾel, added about 200 verses to Ketāb-e sargoḏašt. The addition is mainly a repetition of events already written by Bābāʾi about Kāšān. Mashiaḥ ben Rafāʾel also contributes words of praise for Avraham, the head of the city’s Jewish community, for his steadfastness and courage, and his success in having the decree canceled.


Jewish physicians held a special status in Persia, and the Muslim population displayed appreciation both of their work and of their personal qualities. In many cases they were the ones who rescued their persecuted brethren (Neumark, pp. 79-79). The profession was usually passed down within the family. Several Jewish physicians earned great renown, such as the viziers to the Il-Khans, Saʿd-al-Dawla (d. 1291; see ARḠŪN KHAN) and Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh (d. 1318; see ABAQA; ḠĀZĀN KHAN), remembered more as a historian, who early on converted to Islam. We have no information regarding the course of study or credentialization of Jewish physicians, but it may be assumed that their studies were no different from those generally accepted at the time in Persia.

Medical treatises that were transcribed into Judeo-Persian include the following: (1) al-Kāfi by Jebrāʾil b. ʿObayd-Allāh (d. 1006), written in Ray; (2) Ḏaḵira-ye ḵᵛārazmšāhi by Sayyed Zayn-al-Din Esmāʿil Jorjāni, based on Avicenna’s al-Qānun fi’l-ṭebb, written in 1110 and dedicated to Qoṭb-al-Din Moḥammad Ḵᵛārazmšāh (r. 1097-1127); (3) al-Aʿrāż al-ṭebbiya, also by Jorjāni, for the Ḵᵛārazmšāh Atsïz (r. 1127-56), which was used extensively by Persian Jewish physicians; (4) Kefāyat-e manṣuri by Ebn Elyās, dedicated to Sultan Mojāhed-al-Din Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin, possibly the Muzaffarid ruler (r. 1384-87) of Fārs. (5) Resāla-ye ātašak by ʿEmād-al-Din Maḥmud b. Masʿud Širāzi (2nd half of the 16th cent.), on the curing of sexually transmitted diseases; (6) Ṭebb-e Šefāʾi by Moẓaffar b. Moḥammad b. Ḥosayn Šefāʾi, an alphabetically arranged work that was widely used by Jewish physicians, particularly in Kurdistan. It was translated into Latin by the Carmelite priest Matheus and printed by Father Angelus in Persia in 1681; (7) Zād-al-mosāferin by Moḥammad-Mahdi b. ʿAli-Naqi (fl. 1728).

In the field of theoretical and applied sciences, a number of works used in the calculation of the Hebrew calendar have been identified. The most important of them was the Judeo-Persian work Maḥzor dulābi, based on R. Yoshiahu ben Mevura-al-ʿAquli’s Maḥzor remez (see BL Or. 2451 and MS Adler B.1). The Jews of Persia seem to have displayed great interest in astronomy. Two astronomical texts that were transcribed into Judeo-Persian (BL Add. 7701) in 1666 are Resāla dar hayʾa by ʿAli Qušji and Moḵtaṣar dar maʿrefat-e taqwim by Ḵᵛāja Naṣir-al-Din Ṭusi. The Vatican Library MS 387-10 contains a Hebrew treatise on astronomy called Zeh sefer toldot ha-shamayim uha-aretz (History of the heavens and the earth) by Yosef ha-Parsi “Joseph the Persian.” Belonging to the popular science of the period are many works on fortune telling, astrology, folk remedies, and amulets; these are found in almost all of the Judeo-Persian manuscript collections (Shaked, 1983; Rosen-Ayalon, 1990; Shani). Worthy of mention (in addition to those listed in the general index in Netzer, 1985) is the astrological work Mishpaṭei ha-mazalot by Avraham b. Ezra (1089-1164) in MS Adler B.22. This work apparently was studied by the Jews of Persia and Bukhara.


Many Judeo-Persian tales exist in written form, both in prose and in poetry, and in all kinds of literature, in biblical and Talmudic commentaries, in midrashim, and in secular works. This type of literature is of great importance in understanding religious, cultural, and social mores, as well as the emotional world of an ethnic or religious group. Some of the stories, including ones that were incorporated into such sacred works as the Ethics of the fathers (Pirqei avot, see above), were taken from Persian sources. The number of these stories is large, and it is desirable that they be classified according to a special index or code, so that the cultural and historical trends that they reflect may be studied. A fairly complete sampling of stories and anecdotes from the tafsir of the Pirqei avot is given in the description of BZI 1008 (Netzer, 1985, pp. 110-12). This sampling generally reflects the midrashic literature, but no other kind of literature, such as that represented by Šāhzāda va Ṣufi, whose original sources are not Jewish.


The study of Hebrew and Aramaic and the need to understand sacred books impelled the Jews of Persia to compile dictionaries, which have subsequently become important sources for Semitic and Persian language scholars:

1. No longer extant: Yosef Bar Mosheh, transcriber of a tafsir of the Bible (of 1319; BL Or. 5446) states that Rabbi Abu Saʿid compiled a dictionary explicating difficult words in the Bible.

2. ‘Amuqot Shamu’el (BL Or. 10482[2]) is not an alphabetical dictionary, but it contains definitions of difficult words in the Book of Samuel, arranged in the order of the biblical verses. Since it is a very old work it is of great lexical value.

3. Sefer ha melitza by Shlomo ben Shamuʾel was transcribed in the city of Urganj (Gorganj) in 1339 (Bacher, 1900). It contains about 18,000 Hebrew and Aramaic terms (including words borrowed from Greek and Persian) that appear in the Bible, the Talmud, and midrashim. The words were translated into and explicated in Persian. Certain Persian words reflect the local pronunciation of the region of Chorasmia, hence the importance of the work for Persian linguistic studies (see CHORASMIA iii). The compiler was aided in his work by the dictionaries and commentaries of Rabbi Saʿadia Gaʾon, Hai Gaʾon, Rashi, and Maimonides. The existence of this dictionary testifies to the fact that the Jewish community of Gorganj could justifiably boast of Torah scholars deeply versed in sacred literature.

Many words in the dictionary have yet to be identified. Moreover, the manuscripts are not free of errors, which are repeated in different manuscript versions. The compiler’s method is based on the translation of the word from its source into Persian, accompanied by its Targum interpretation (Aramaic) and followed by quotations from the Bible, the Talmud, and midrashim. The compiler also presents words derived from the same root, with translation and explication.

The following manuscripts of Sefer ha melitza are known: (a) Incomplete MS 75, Firkowicz collection, St. Petersburg library. This manuscript was transcribed by Elišaʿ and it states that Shlomo ben Shamuʾel finished the dictionary in Tammuz, 1651 Sel./June 1339 in Gorganj. The date of transcription is unknown. Neubauer and Steinschneider wrote about this manuscript in 1866 and 1875. The manuscript has 87 leaves, but many are missing from beginning, middle, and end. The work is entitled Agron, as is Rabbi Saʿadia’s dictionary. (b) Complete MS 710, Sassoon collection (Ohel David, I, p. 500), entitled both Agron and Sefer melitza (without the article ha), transcribed by Shamuʾel ben Yiẓḥāq ben Nisan ben Avraham ben Yosef in Marv, in Nisan 1704 Sel./April 1473; 441 pages (not folios). (c) Incomplete MS B.44(a), Adler collection, 355 folios. (d) Incomplete MS B.44(b), Adler collection, 24 folios. (e) Incomplete MS B.44(c), Adler collection, transcribed by ʿUziel Mosheh ben David for Yaʿqov ben Yehudah in Kislev, 1802 Sel./November 1491. It includes “dalet-nun-bet” to “tav-tav”; leaves are missing between “dalet” and “yod.” Adler purchased these manuscripts in 1896/1897 in Bukhara and Samarkand. The above group, except for (b), were studied by Bacher. (f) BZI 4562 (purchased in Shiraz in 1973), 113 folios (“aleph-bet-kaf” to “tav-tav”). It was transcribed in 1805 Sel./1494 in Kāšān by Yaʿqov ben ʿOvadia ben Yosef ben Ezrā Kāvus, for R. Shamuʾel ha-Levi. On fols. 68b, 69a, 89b, 90a, 96a is written: “Explicated by Yiẓḥāq ben M. Baḵši Šoḥet Zarqān,” and next to the word Zarqān (the township near Shiraz) is the doublet “Zargān.”

4. Agron is a dictionary compiled by Mosheh ben Aharon ben Šerit in Širvān in 1459 (BL Or. 10482[1], incomplete: part of “yod” to “tav”). The work defines difficult Hebrew and Aramaic words in the Bible, arranged at times by root, but mainly by nouns (discussed in Bacher, 1896-97; Horn, 1897; Nöldeke).

For a description of the dictionaries in the BZI collection, see the general index in Netzer, 1985. Of particular importance is MS 4556/1, which was purchased in Yazd in 1973.

The following dictionaries are in the Adler collection (Jewish Theological Seminary, New York City): (1) Perush ha-milot appended to a siddur, containing explications of difficult biblical words beginning with “Parshat Noah” (Gen. 6:9-11:32); apparently it was composed in 1183 (MS B.1). (2) Sefer biur milot ha-Torah, compiled or transcribed in 1708 (MS B.43). (3) Milon la-milim qashot sheba-Torah from “Parshat va-Era” (Exod. 6:2-9:35) to “Parshat Ha’azinu” (Deut. 32; MS B49). (4) Milon la-milim qashot ba-Torah relates to the books Kings, Ezekiel, Esther, Song of Songs, and Joel (MS B.50).

The following are in the British Library: (1) Mikhlal la-milim qashot sheba-Tana, incomplete, 54 leaves; transcribed in 1804/5 (Or. 2454). (2) Mikhlal la-milim qashot ba-mishnah in 188 folios, compiled by Ābābā ben Nuriʾel in 1736/7 (Or. 9804). (3) Perush ha-milim ha-qashot ba-mishneh Torah, compiled in 1550; together with the text of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, 270 folios (see Or. 10043; cf. BZI 4556). (4) Agron (see above). (5) An incomplete dictionary, possibly from the 17th or 18th century, containing definitions of difficult words from the end of Genesis to the beginning of Chronicles. It has 95 folios (Or. 10556). (6) Milon la-milim qashot ba-Tana, possibly from the 16th or 17th century, 138 folios; many leaves from the books of the Prophets are missing (Or. 10577).

The following are in the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati (Spicehandler, 1968): (1) Mikhlal Yofi [la-Tanakh], from “Parshat Noah” to the Writings, transcribed by Issakhar ben Ḵᵛāja Dāwud; 266 pages (MS 2040). (2) Mikhlal [la-Tanakh], from “Parshat Toldot” (Gen. 25:19-28:9), was transcribed, apparently in Hamadān, by Avraham ben Esḥāq; 218 pages (MS 2115b). (3) Mikhlal Yofi la-mishnah, compiled in 1736 by Shlomo Ābābā Nuriʾel, transcribed in 1830 by Yosef ben Ābābā; 302 pages (MS 2120). (4) Mikhlal la-Tana, from the end of “Parshat va-Yeḥi” (Gen. 47:28-50:26) to “Parshat Tetzaveh” (Exod. 27:20-30:10), was transcribed in 1815 by Mordechai ben Binyamin, probably in Hamadān; 172 pages (MS 2121). (5) Mikhlal Yofi la-mishnah, compiled in 1799(?) by Ābābā Nuriʾel and transcribed by Esḥāq ben Yaʿqov for Mordechai ben Binyamin, possibly in Yazd; 266 pages (MS 2122). (6) Mikhlal Yofi la-mishnah is different from MSS 2120 and 2122 and may have been transcribed or compiled in Shiraz; 300 pages (MS 2124). (7) Incomplete Mikhlal of explications of difficult words in the Pentateuch and the Hafṭarot (readings from the Prophets), from “Parshat va-Yetze” (Gen. 28:10-32:3) to “Parshat Nitzavim” (Deut. 29:9-30:20), probably transcribed or compiled in Hamadān; 94 pages (MS 2130). (8) Mikhlal [la-Tana] begins with “Parshat Noah” and continues to the end of the Hebrew Bible; 498 pages (MS 2194).


For detailed bibliography on Judeo-Persian, see Netzer, 1985, pp. 59-69; Lazard, 1968, pp. 95-98; Zand, 1989, pp. 530-45.

Roubène Abrahamian, Dialectes des Israélites de Hamadan et d’Ispahan, et dialecte de Baba Tahir, Paris, 1936.

Elkan N. Adler, “The Persian Jews: Their Books and Their Ritual,” Jewish Quarterly Review 10, 1898, pp. 584-625.

Idem, Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Collection of Elkan Nathan Adler, Cambridge, 1921.

Avraham Aminof and Shimʿon Ḥākhām, Sefer liquṭei dinim (The book of laws), 4 vols, Jerusalem, 1900-1901.

Arakel of Tabriz, “Livre d’histoires composé par le vartabied Arakel de Tauriz,” in M. F. Brosset, ed. and tr., Livre d’Histoires: Collection d’Historiens Armeniens I, St. Petersburg, 1874-76; tr. George Bournoutian as The History of Vardapet Arakel of Tabriz, Costa Mesa, 2005.

Jes Peter Asmussen, “Einige Bemerkungen zu Baba ben Nuriels Psalmenübersetzung,” Acta Orientalia 30, 1966, pp. 15-24.

Idem, Studier I: Jødisk-persisk Literatur, Copenhagen, 1970.

Idem, Studies in Judeo-Persian Literature, Leiden, 1973.

Idem, “Über die Wiedergabe geographischer und ethnischer Namen in einer jüdisch-persischen Jesaia-Version,” Temenos 10, 1974, pp. 5-9.

Idem, “Jüdische Hoseastucke,” in Monumentum H. S. Nyberg, Acta Iranica 4, Tehran and Liège, 1975, pp. 15-18.

Idem, “Eine jüdisch-persische Version des Propheten Ovadja,” Acta Antiqua, 1977, pp. 255-63.

Idem, “Simurgh in Judeo-Persian Translations of the Hebrew Bible,” in Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater, Acta Iranica 16, Leiden, 1990, pp. 1-5.

Jes Peter Asmussen and Herbert H. Paper, eds., The Song of Songs in Judeo-Persian, Copenhagen, 1977.

Simḥa Assaf and Y. Yoel, eds., Siddur Rav Sa‘adiya Gaon, Jerusalem, 1941.

Bābāʾi ben Farhād, Ketāb-e sargoḏašt-e Kāšān, ed. with commentary Vera Basch Moreen as Iranian Jewry during the Afghan Invasion, Stuttgart, 1990.

Wilhelm Bacher, “Ein hebräisch-persisches Wörterbuch aus dem 15 Jahrhundert,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 16, 1896, pp. 201-47; 17, 1897a, pp. 199-200.

Idem, “Ein persicsher Kommentar zum Buche Samuel,” ZDMG 51, 1897b, pp. 392-425.

Idem, “Der Dichter Jūsuf Jehūdi und sein Lob Moses,” ZDMG 53, 1899, pp. 389-427.

Idem, Ein hebräisch-persisches Wörterbuch aus dem vierzehnten Jahrhundert, Strassburg, 1900.

Idem, “Eine persische Bearbeitung des Mischnatraktats Aboth,” Zeitschrift fur hebräische Bibliographie 6, 1902, pp. 112-18, 156-57.

Idem, “Un episode de l’histoire des Juifs de Perse,” Revue des études juives 46, 1903, pp. 262-82.

Idem, “Les Juifs de Perse aux xviiie siècles d’apres les chroniques poetiques de Babai b. Loutf et Babai b. Farhad,” Revue des études juives 51, 1906, pp. 121-36, 265-79; 52, 1906, pp. 77-97, 234-71.

Idem, “Judaeo-Persian,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, New York and London, 1907a, pp. 313-24.

Idem, “Un episode de l’histoire des Juifs de Perse: Livre des evenements de Kachan, par Babai b. Farhad,” Revue des études juives 53, 1907b, pp. 85-110.

Idem, “Le livre d’Ezra de Schahin Schirazi,” Revue des études juives 56, 1908a, pp. 249-80.

Idem, Zwei jüdisch-persische Dichter, Schahin und Imrani, Strassburg, 1908b.

Vasiliĭ (W.) Vladimirovich Barthold, Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion, 3rd revised ed., E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Series 5, London, 1968.

Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Meḥqarim u-meqorot, Studies and Sources, Jerusalem, 1966a. Idem, Nidḥei Yisrael (The Jews of diaspora), Jerusalem, 1966b.

E. Blochet, Catalogue des manuscrits persans de la Bibliothèque Nationale, 4 vols, Paris, 1905.

Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, 4 vols., Cambridge, 1902-24.

B. H. Carlsen, “Jonah in Judeo-Persian,” in Acta Iranica 5, Tehran and Liège, 1977, pp. 13-26.

Jean Chardin, Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’orient, ed. Louis Langlès, 10 vols, Paris, 1811.

B. Cohen, Sefer Mishlei ‘im targum parsi yehudi (Book of Proverbs with Judeo-Persian translation), Jerusalem, 1885.

Idem, Sefer Tehilim ‘im targum parsi (Book of Psalms with Persian translation), Vienna, 1883.

James Darmesteter, “L’apocalypse persane de Daniel,” in Mélanges Renier, Paris, 1886, pp. 405-20.

Elišaʿ b. Shamuʾel (Rāḡeb), Šahzāda va Ṣufi (The prince and the Sufi), Jerusalem, 1907.

Hermann Ethé, “Neupersische Literatur,” in Wilhelm Geiger und Ernst Kuhn, eds., Grundriss der iranischen philologie, 2 vols., Strassburg, 1896-1904, II, pp. 212-368.

Walter J. Fischel, “Israel in Iran: A Survey of Judeo-Persian Literture,” in Louis Finkelstein, ed., The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion, New York, 1949, pp. 817-57.

Idem, “The Bible in Persian Translation,” Harvard Theological Review 14, 1952, pp. 3-45.

Idem, “The Jews in Mediaeval Iran, from the 16th to the 18th Centuries: Political, Economic, and Communal Aspects,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica I, 1982, Jerusalem, pp. 265-91.

Thamar E. Gindin, “Ha-pirush le-sefer Yeḥzqel be-parsit-yehudit qeduma” (An old Judeo-Persian interpretation to the Book of Ezekiel), Pe‘amim 84, 2000, pp. 40-54.

Idem, “Ergative Constructions in the Jewish Dialect of Yazd?” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica V, 2003, pp. 105-19.

Ignazio Guidi, “Di una versione persiana del Pentateuco,” Rendiconti della Reale Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 1, 1884-85, pp. 347-55.

Haideh Sahim, “The Dialect of the Jews of Hamadan,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica, III, 1994, pp. 171-81.

Shimʿon Ḥākhām, Šāhin Torah (Šāhin on Torah), Jerusalem, 1905.

Idem, Sefer šarḥ Šāhin: ‘al Megilat Ester (The book on the interpretation of the Book of Esther by Šāhin), Jerusalem, 1910.

Konrad D. Hassler, “Nachricht von einer bisher noch unbekannten persischen Übersetzung der Salomonischen Schriften,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken 2/3, 1829, pp. 469-80.

Walter B. Henning, “The Inscriptions of Tang-i Azao,” BSOAS 20, 1957, pp. 335-42.

Paul Horn, “Zu den jüdisch-persischen Bibleübersetzungen,” Indogermanische Forschungen 2, 1893, pp. 132-43.

Idem, “Zu Širvānis hebräisch-persischem Wörterbuch,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 17, 1897, pp. 201-3.

Alexander Kohut, Kritische Beleuchtung der persischen Pentateuch-Übersetzung des Jacob ben Tavus: unter stetiger Rücksichtnahme auf die aeltesten Bibelversionen, Leipzig, 1871.

Paul de Lagarde, Persische Studien, Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften 31, Göttingen, 1884.

Gilbert Lazard, La langue des plus anciens monuments de la prose persane, Paris, 1961.

Idem, “La Dialectologie du judeo-persan,” in Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 77-98; slightly abridged tr. as “The Dialectology of Judeo-Persian,” in Amnon Netzer, ed., Pādyāvand I, Costa Mesa, 1996, pp. 33-59.

Idem, “Le dialecte des juifs de Kerman,” in Monumentum George Morgenstierne I, Acta Iranica 21, Deuxième série, Hommages et opera minora 7, Leiden, 1981, pp. 333-46.

Idem, “Remarques sur le fragment judéo-persan de Dāndān-Uiliq,” in Barg-e Sabz: A Green Leaf: Papers in Honour of Professor Jes. P. Asmussen, Acta Iranica 28, Leiden, 1998, pp. 205-9.

Donald D. Leslie, The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng, Leiden, 1972.

Ḥabib Levy, Tāriḵ-e yahud-e Irān, 3 parts in 2 vols., Tehran, 1960; abr. tr. George W. Maschke as Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora, Costa Mesa, 1999.

D. N. MacKenzie, “An Early Jewish-Persian Argument,” BSOAS 31, 1968, pp. 249-69.

Ernest Mainz, “Esther en Judéo-Persan,” JA 258, 1970, pp. 95-106.

Idem, “Les lamentations en Judéo-Persan,” Studia Iranica 2/2, 1973, pp. 193-202.

Idem, “L’ecclésiaste en Judéo-Persan,” Studia Iranica 3/2, 1974, pp. 211-28.

Idem, “Ruth et le Cantique des Cantiques en Judéo-Persan,” JA 264, 1976, pp. 9-34.

Idem, “Le livre de Daniel en Judéo-Persan,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica I, 1982, pp. 148-79.

David S. Margoliouth, “An Early Judaeo-Persian Document from Khotan in the Stein Collection, with Other Early Persian Documents,” JRAS, 1903, pp. 747-60.

Ezra Zion Melammed, ed., Sefer zekhron Raḥamim (The book of the memoir of Raḥamim), Jerusalem, 1959.

Idem, ed., Tafsir Tehilim be-lashon yeudei Paras (Tafsir of Psalms in the language of the Jews of Persia), Jerusalem, 1968.

Idem, ed., Shir ha-shirim (Song of songs), Jerusalem, 1971.

H. Mizraḥi, Yehudei Paras (Jews of Persia), Tel Aviv, 1959.

Glyn M. Meredith-Owens, Handlist of Persian Manuscripts 1895-1966, London, 1968, pp. 38-44.

Vera B. Moreen, “A Dialogue between God and Satan in Shāhin’s Bereshit-Nāmah,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica III, 1984, pp. 127-41.

Idem, Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism: A Study of Bābāī ibn Luṭf’s Chronicle, 1617-1662, New York, 1987.

Idem, “Polemical Use of the Qur’ān in Two Judeo-Persian Texts,” in Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica IV, 1999, pp. 203-13.

Idem, “Judeo-Perisan Translations of Hebrew Poetry: Tarjamah, Tafsīr, Ta’wīl?” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica V, 2003, pp. 82-95.

S. Munk, “Notice sur Rabbi Saadia Gaon et sa version arabe d’Isaie, et sur une version persane manuscrite de Bibliothèque Royale p. 135,” in Samuel Cahen, tr., La Bible IX, Paris, 1838.

Tilman Nagel, “Ḳiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ,” in EI2 V, pp. 180-81.

Amnon Netzer, “Dāniyāl-Nāme: An Exposition of Judeo-Persian,” in Girdhari L. Tikku, ed., Islam and its Cultural Divergence: Studies in Honor of Gustave E. von Grunebaum, Urbana, 1971, pp. 145-64.

Idem, “Dāniyāl-Nāma and its Linguistic Features,” Israel Oriental Studies 2, 1972, pp. 305-14.

Idem, ed. and annotated, Montaḵab-e ašʿār-e fārsi az āṯār-e yahudiān-e Irān (An Anthology of Persian Poetry of the Jews of Iran), Tehran, 1973; reviewed by Żiāʾ-al-Din Sajjādi in Rāhnemā-ye ketāb 17/2, 1974, pp. 312-17.

Idem, “A Judeo-Persian Footnote: Šāhin and ʿEmrānī,” Israel Oriental Studies 4, 1974a, pp. 258-64.

Idem, “Some Notes on the Characterization of Cyrus the Great in Jewish and Judeo-Persian Writings,” in Acta Iranica 2, Tehran and Liège, 1974b, pp. 35-52.

Idem, Tafsir Midrashaliyat Moshe la-marom ([the text of] A midrash on the ascension of Moses in Judeo-Persian), Jerusalem, 1977.

Idem, “Taḥnunim le-Rabbi Binyamin ben Mishaʾel mi-Kashan” (Supplications of Rabbi Binyamin ben Mishael), Pe‘amim 2, 1979a, pp. 48-54.

Idem, “Selected Hebrew Poems of the Jews of Persia,” in A. Shtahl, ed., ‘Adot Yisrael (Jewish communities), Tel Aviv, 1979b, pp. 231-37.

Idem, “Redifot u-shmadot be-toldot yehudei Iran be-me’a ha-17” (Persecutions and forced conversions in the history of Iranian Jewry in the 17th century),” Pe‘amim 6, 1980, pp. 32-56.

Idem, “A Jewish-Isfahāni Folk Song,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica I, 1982, pp. 180-203.

Idem, “Ha-sifrut shel yehudei Paras” (The literature of the Jews of Persia), Pe‘amim 13, 1982b, pp. 5-19.

Idem, Otzar kitvei ha-yad shel yehudei Paras be-maḵon Ben Zvi (Manuscripts of the Jews of Persia in the Ben Zvi Institute), Jerusalem, 1985.

Idem, “ ‘Iyunim be-sfat ha-dibbur shel yehudei Paras” (Studies in the spoken language of the Jews of Persia), in Yosef Dan, ed., Tarbut ve-historiah/Culture and History, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 19-44.

Idem, “Shāhzādeh u-Ṣufi mi-et Elisha‘ ben Shamu’il,” Pe‘amim 35, 1988, pp. 24-45.

Idem, “The Story of the Prophet Sho‘ayb in Shahin’s Musānāmeh,” in Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater, Acta Iranica 30, Leiden, 1990, pp. 152-67.

Idem, “A Midrash on the Ascension of Moses in Judeo-Persian,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica II, 1990, pp. 105-43.

Idem, Ḥovot Yehudah le-Rabbi Yehudah ben El‘azar (Duties of Judah by Rabbi Yehudā ben Elʿazar), Jerusalem, 1995.

Idem, “Sayr-i dar adabiyāt-e yahud-e Irān, baḵš-e yakom” in idem, ed., Pādyāvand I, Costa Mesa, Calif., 1996, pp. 41-106.

Idem, ed., Pādyāvand, Judeo-Iranian and Jewish Studies Series, 3 vols, Costa Mesa, Calif., 1996-99.

Idem, “Simān-Ṭov Melammed,” Pe‘amim 79, 1999a, pp. 56-95.

Idem, “Sayr-i dar adabiyāt-e yahud-e Irān,” in idem, ed., Pādyāvand III, Costa Mesa, Calif., 1999b, pp. 84-88.

Idem, “Notes and Observations Concerning Šāhīn’s Birthplace,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica IV, 1999c, pp. 187-202.

Idem, “An Early Judeao-Persian Fragment from Zefreh,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 27, 2002, pp. 419-38.

Idem, “The Jewish Poet Aminā of Kashan and His Sacred Poems,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica V, 2003, pp. 68-81.

Adolf Neubauer, “Jews in China,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 8, 1896, pp. 123-39, 362.

Ephraim Neumark, Masa‘ be-eretz ha-qedem: Suryah, Kurdistan, Aram Naharayim, Paras ve-Asyah ha-merkazit (A journey in an ancient land: Syria, Kurdistan, … and Central Asia), ed. Abraham Yaʿari, Jerusalm 1947.

Theodor Nöldeke, “Judenpersisch,” ZDMG 51, 1897, pp. 669-76.

Mirza Nurolah, Tehilim yā ketāb-e mazāmir yaʿni zbur-e David (Psalms or the Hymns of David), London, 1899.

Paola Orsatti, “The Judeo-Persian Pentateuch of Constatinopole and the the Beginnings of Persian Linguistic Studies in Europe,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica IV, 1999, pp. 172-78.

Herbert H. Paper, “The Vatican Judeo-Persian Pentateuch,” Acta Orientalia 28, 1965, pp. 263-340; 29, 1965-66, pp. 75-181, 253-310.

Idem, Targum ha-Torah le-Parsit-Yehudit (Translations of Torahs in Judeo-Persian [belonging to the British Museum]), Jerusalem, 1972a.

Idem, “Another Judeo-Persian Pentateuch Translation: MS HUC 2193,” Hebrew Union College Annual 43, 1972b, pp. 207-51.

Idem, “Ecclesiastes in Judeo-Persian,” Orientalia 42, 1973, pp. 328-37.

Idem, “Isaiah in Judeo-Persian,” in Monumentum H. H. Nyberg II, Acta Iranica 5, Leiden, 1975a, pp. 145-61.

Idem, “Notes to a Judeo-Persian Bible Manuscript: Ben-Zvi Institute Jerusalem, Ms. 1028,” Indo-Iranian Journal 17, 1975b, pp. 218-43.

Idem, “A Judeo-Persian Book of Job,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 12, 1976a, pp. 313-65.

Idem, “Pirke Abot (Chapter 1) in Judeo-Persian,” in Louis L. Orlin, ed., Michigan Oriental Studies in honor of George G. Cameron, Ann Arbor, 1976b, pp. 81-95.

Idem, “Proverbs in Judeo-Persian,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica I, 1982, pp. 122-47.

Idem, “A Judeo-Persian Bible Lexicon: British Library MS 10556,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica IV, 1999, pp. 214-22.

Myriam Rosen-Ayalon, “A Judeo-Persian Amulet,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica II, 1990, pp. 199-216.

Elttore Rossi, Elenco dei manuscritti Persani della Biblioteca Vaticana, Rome, 1948.

Żiāʾ-al-Din Sajjādi: see Netzer, 1973.

Carl Salemann, Chudāidāt: Ein Jüdisch-Buchārisches Gedicht, Mémoires de l’Académie Impériale des Sciences de St. Pétersbourg, 7th Series 42/14, St. Petersbourg, 1897.

Idem, “Zum mittlepersischen passivum,” in Bulletin de l’Académie Impériale des Sciences de St. Pétersbourg, 5th Series, 13, St. Petersbourg, 1900, pp. 269-74.

Idem, “Po povodu evreĭsko-persidskogo otryvka iz Khotana,” Zapiski Vostochnogo Otdeleniya 16, (1904-5), 1906, pp. 46-57.

Avedis Krikor Sanjian, Colophons of Armenian Manuscripts, 1301-1480: A Source for Middle Eastern History, Cambridge, Mass., 1969.

Homa Sarshar, Houman Sarshar, and Debbie Adhami, eds., Teruʿā: yahudiān-e Irān dar tāriḵ-e moʿāṣer/The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews, 4 vols., Los Angeles, 1996-2000.

David Solomon Sassoon, Ohel Dawid, Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London, 2 vols, Oxford, 1932.

M. Seligsohn, “Quatre poésies judéo-persanes sur les perscutions des Juifs d’Ispahan,” Revue des études juives 44, 1902, pp. 87-103, 244-59.

Idem, “The Hebrew Persian Mss. of the British Museum,” Jewish Quarterly Review 15, 1903, pp. 278-301.

Shaul Shaked, “Judeo-Persian Notes,” Israel Oriental Studies 1, 1971, pp. 178-82.

Idem, “Te‘udah Qarait be-Parsit-Yehudit” (A Karaite document in Judeo-Persian), Tarbitz 41, 1972, pp. 49-58.

Idem, “Shir ha-shirim in Judeo-Persian” (Song of songs in Judeo-Persian), Pe‘amim 2, 1979, pp. 109-11.

Idem, “Epigraphica Judeo-Iranica,” in idem, ed., Studies in Judaism and Islam Presented to Shelomo Dov Goitein, Jerusalem, 1981, pp. 65-82.

Idem, “Two Judaeo-Iranian Contributions,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica I, 1982a, pp. 292-322.

Idem, “ ‘Al ha-Sifrut ha-kishuf ha-yehudit be-artzot ha-Islam” (On the Jewish magic literature in Islamic lands), Pe‘amim 15, 1983, pp. 15-28.

Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages, 5 vols., Jerusalem, 1982-2003.

Raya Shani, “A Judeo-Persian Talismanic Textile,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica IV, 1999, pp. 251-73.

Dan Shapira, “Bel and the Dragon in Judeo-Persian,” ibid., V, pp. 52-67.

M. Simān-Ṭov, Sefer azhārōt (The book of warnings), Jerusalem, 1896.

Sarah Soroudi, “Shirā-ye Ḥātāni: A Judeo-Persian Wedding Song,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica I, 1982, pp. 204-64.

Idem, “Judeo-Persian Religious Oath Formulas as Compared with Non-Jewish Iranian Traditions,” ibid., II, pp. 167-83.

Ezra Spicehandler, “A Descriptive List of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts at the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 114-36.

Idem, “Shāhin’s Influence on Bābāi ben Lotf: The Abraham-Nimrod Legend,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica II, 1990, pp. 158-65.

Donald Stilo, “Hamadān ix. Jewish Dialect,” in EIr. XI, 2003, pp. 623-27.

Shlomo Ṭal, Siddur tefilah nusaḥ Paras (Prayer book in Persian version), Jerusalem, 1981.

Efraim E. Urbach, ed., Sefer pitron Torah (The book of deciphering the Torah), Jerusalem, 1978.

Bo Utas, “The Jewish-Persian Fragment from Dandān-Uiliq,” Orientalia Suecana 17, 1968, pp. 123-36.

Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours among the Jews, Mohammedans and Other Sects (between the Years 1831-1834), 2nd ed., London 1835.

Avraham Yaʿari, “Sifrei yehudei Bukhara” (The books of the Jews of Bukhara), Qiryat sefer 18, 1942, pp. 282-393; 19, 1942, pp. 35-139.

Ehsan Yarshater, “The Jewish Community of Persia and Their Dialects,” in Philippe Gignoux and Ahmad Tafazzoli, eds., Memorial Jean de Menasce, Louvain, 1974, pp. 453-66.

Idem, “The Hybrid Language of the Jewish Community of Persia,” JAOS 97/1, 1977, pp. 1-7.

Idem, “The Jewish Dialect of Kāshān,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 27, 2002, pp. 439-62.

Dalia Yasharpour, “Elišaʿ ben Šemūels Šahzādeh va Ṣūfī: The Judeo-Persian Adaptation of the Buddha Biographies,” Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 2005.

David Yeroushalmi, ed. and tr., The Judeo-Persian ʿEmrāni and “His Book of Treasure”: ʿEmrāni’s Ganǰ-nāme, A Versified Commentary on Mishnaic Tractate Abot, Leiden. 1995.

Idem, “Yahudiyat: Irān wa Eslām dar āṯār-e šoʿarā-ye yahud-e Irān,” in Homā Saršār, ed., Teruʿā:Yahudiān-e irāni dar tāriḵ-e moʿāṣer/The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews II, Beverly Hills, Calif., 1997, pp. 149-72.

Idem, “The Mishnaic Tractate Abot in Judeo-Persian Literature,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica IV, pp. 223-50.

Idem, “Judeo-Persian Literature,” in Houman Sarshar, Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, Los Angeles, 2002, pp. 75-95.

Michael Zand, “Bukhara,” in Encyclopedia Judaica Year Book 1975-1976, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 183-92.

Idem, “Bukharan Jewish Culture under Soviet Rule,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 9/2, 1979, pp. 15-22.

Idem, “Bukhara vii. Bukharan Jews,” in EIr. IV, 1989, pp. 530-45.

Herman Zotenberg, “Geschichte Daniels,” in Archiv für Wissenschaftliche Erforschung des Alten Testaments (Merx-Archiv) I, Halle, 1869, pp. 385-427.

Valentin A. Zhukovskiĭ, Materialy dlya izucheniya persidskikh narechiĭ (Material for the study of Iranian dialects) II, Leningrad, 1922, pp. 390-94.


Loterāʾi is the secret jargon used by the Jewish communities of Iran and Afghanistan when they do not want the content of their talk to be understood by non-Jews. It is commonly called Loterāʾi, or a variant of it (Luftāʾi in Kashan, Lutrāʾi in Golpāyegān, and Lutruʾi in Kermanshah), and it serves to protect the privacy of conversation among the members of the community in the presence of the guim (Heb. goyim), the gentile (see Yarshater, 1977; Lazard, 1978; Zarubin, 1924 quoted by Lazard, ibid.).

The Jewish community of Persia, except for the Jews of Kurdistan who speak an Aramaic dialect, adopted the Iranian language of their home region. Whereas the non-Jewish inhabitants of these regions, who spoke a Median dialect in the north and west of Iran down to Isfahan province, eventually gave up their language to Persian, which began to exert its influence from Sasanian times onward, the Jewish communities, being generally rather secluded from the Iranian populations, have kept their non-Persian Iranian dialects (see Yarshater, 1974).

The term lot(a)rā (lwtrʾ), and its variations lot(a)ra and lotar, is defined by Persian dictionaries as a language designed to prevent outsiders from understanding the content of a conversation (See Farhang-e Jahāngiri, which is followed in its definition by Farhang-e Rašidi, Borhān-e qāteʿ, Ānandrāj, Anjoman ārā-ye Nāṣeri, and Dehḵodā’s Loḡat-nāma). The oldest text in which the term occurs is Ḥodud al-ʿālam (10th century, by an anonymous author; ed. Sotudeh, p. 144), where we read that “the people of Astrābāḏ speak in two languages, one the Lotarā (lwtrʾ) of Astrābāḏ, and the other the Persian of Gorgān” (Dehḵodā who also quotes the passage, gives “kordāni” instead of “Gorgāni,” apparently from a different ms; cf. V. Minorsky’s translation, p. 134, which has “Gurgāni.”) The next oldest occurrence of the term is found in a manuscript of Asadi’s Loḡat-e fors (quoted by Dehḵodā, s.v. lwtrʾ) under lif: “lif is a plant; and in Lotra the beard is called lif.” Three verses are quoted from the 12th-century poet Kamāl-al-Din Esmāʿil in the Persian dictionaries—two lines in the Farhang-e Jahāngiri and one line in Dehḵodā. Raḥim ʿAfifi, editor of the Farhang-e Jahāngiri (p. 2095), quotes from the Tāriḵ-e Waṣṣāf two lines from the poet Idaji, where lowtara occurs, and he takes it to mean ‘nonsense, futile words’, but the text does not seem to warrant this, since here the word refers to a Koranic passage beginning with law tara “if you should see,” to illustrate the meaning of the term, leave no doubt that lotarā refers to secret, unintelligible, and enigmatic language.

Besides lif, mentioned above, two other words are referred to as “Lutorāʾi” in a poem of Suzani, the 12th-century poet (Dehḵodā, under lwtrʾ). These are zif “ugly” and daḵ “beautiful.” None, however, occurs in the current Jewish Loterāʾi, and therefore could be assumed to have a different basis, if, as the Borhān-e qāteʿ implies, by Loterāʾi was meant in Persian an artificial, “made-up” language, like Zargari. These words may represent distortions of some other words; for daḵ, however, cf. Heb. Zaḵ “pure” (for the interchange between d and z, see below).

Of the explanations of the term offered by the Loterāʾi speakers, the one which seems plausible is “non-Toraic” (i.e., *lo-Torah), which distinguishes it from Hebrew (Toraic). It is possible that the term was adopted into Persian from the Jews in earlier periods, and that Astrābād’s Loterāʾi-speakers were in fact its Jewish community.

Loterāʾi is a mixed language. The pronouns, adjectives, and the majority of nouns and verbal bases, as well as some prepositions, are Semitic, whereas verbal endings, modal prefixes, suffix pronouns, most of the particles, as well as sentence structure are Iranian. In fact, it is very much like a ‘spoken’ Huzwāreš, if one could imagine it being spoken, where the vocabulary is Semitic, but the structure and syntax are Iranian. This can be illustrated by comparing the following examples from Golpāyegān. Abbreviations used: Heb(rew), Aram(aic), Ara(bic), OHeb = Old Heb., BHeb. = Biblical Heb., Gol(pāyegāni), Neh(āvandi), Khom(eyni), Shir(azi), Kāsh(āni), Mash(hadi), Esf(ahāni), Yaz(di), Ham(adāni), Teh(rāni), Huz(vārish). Also G (Harold L. Ginsberg), and R (the late Prof. Franz Rosenthal), who helped the author with the Semitic components of Loterāʾi.

Ir(anian): mon gun be-šon xiābān, šon o var-e-gard-on “I want to go out (lit. in the street); I shall go and return” was given in Lot(erāʾi) as ANNI BĀY-um b-EZ-on xiābān, būd šon vā-EZ-on. ANNI (Neh., etc., ANI) “I” Heb. ani, Gol. mon. BĀY-un “I want to, I am about to, I must”; Aram. bʿy, beʿa; Heb. baʿa; “to want to, to ask, to seek.” (beʿa is the common Aramaic word for ‘to want to’). The Lot. verb must derive from the Aram. participle bāʿi (G). –b(e)-EZ-on “that I go.” Cf. b(e)-EZ “go!” EZ-id-am or be-EZ-ā-m “I went,” vā-EZ “go back, return.” The stem EZ (E:Z or HEZ in other variations) must be traced to Aramaic and Hebrew ʾzl “to go.” Cf. MPers. Huz. ʿZLWN= šudan “to go”; Arabic azaliyyun “long gone, long past, without beginning.” The verb, which is the common word for “to go” in Aramaic, occurs in Old Aramaic, Egyptian and Biblical Aramaic, Mandean, Samaritan, Christian-Palestinian and Judeo-Aramaic (Köhler and Baumgartner, Heb. u. Aram. Lex., p. 26). Already in the Talmudic period, -l tended to drop (G.), a fact which may explain its absence in Loterāʾi.

Another example will further illustrate the hybrid nature of the language: Lot. vaxti EZ(Z)-id-am DERAX-e NĀŠĪM GĀDUL-ie, be-š-MEŠTĀ-n-ā ANNI TĀM mi-ĀŠunam “when I went to the wife of the elder one, she said, “I shall put it right.” DERAX “before, French chez, to,” Heb. derex “road”; cf. han-DERAX-e “accompanied by,” Pers. ham-rāh-e (lit. “following the same road”); NĀŠĪM “wife,” Heb. pl. of iššā “wife” (cf. išā, which is used in Lot. for “woman”); GĀDUL “big, great,” Heb. gadōl; MEŠTĀ “to say” is not quite easy to explain; one might think of meštaʿʿe, the participle of ištaʿʿe, “to talk, converse, narrate” (G.); TĀM, “whole,” corresponds to Pers. dorost. – mi-ĀŠ-un-am “I fix, prepare,” Neh. TĀM KĀM-un-; ĀŠ-ne, ĀŠ-un “do!” ĀŠ-un-d “did.” As a general-purpose verb, it assumes different meanings with different prefixes and complements. -un is an Iranian causative element; cf. Neh. be-HEZ “go,” be-HEZ-un “bring,” var-KĀ(M) “get up!” dar- KĀ(M) “sit down!” dar- KĀM-un-eš “seat him!” The base ĀŠ- also occurs without un-, e.g., Neh. be-m-ĀŠ-i “I bought, took.” This could possibly be traced to Heb. ʿāsā “to do,” although the phonetic change in the sibilant is not supported by other examples. Cf. Shir. ŠEQ, ŠOQ, Heb.-Aram. šūq “market,” although it remains to be ascertained whether the phonology of the Shirazi Loterāʾi, which has marked differences from the Loterāʾi of Median provinces, would be applicable here.

In each region Loterāʾi follows more or less the grammar of the local dialect—not without some differences, which are of particular interest for the study of the earlier stages of the local dialect. But because of the general resemblance of these dialects, and a fairly common stock of Semitic vocabulary, Loterāʾi is more or less understood among all the Jewish communities in question. Only in Fārs (Persis) do the verbal stems differ more conspicuously from those in the Median regions.

In Tehran, where the Jewish population was 43,000 in 1976 (Statistical Center of Iran, p. 79), is derivative, and possesses no native dialect, a modicum of Loterāʾi was used in the bazaar and in the ghetto among the Jewish traders and shopkeepers. Its vocabulary is mixed and reflects the varied origin of Tehrani Jews. At the same time it shows the close relationship, and in some instances the unity, of Loterāʾi vocabulary from different regions.

The Semitic vocabulary of Loterāʾi poses some interesting questions as to its origin and date. The majority of nouns are Hebrew, sometimes without significant modification, e.g., EVEN “stone”; ES “tree” (Heb. ʿēṣ); HITTIM, Shir. ITIM “wheat” (Heb. ḥittīm); ZEHAD “this, this one” (Heb. ze-eḥād); ŠATTEYAH “rug” (Heb. saṭīaḥ); HALOW “milk” (Heb. ḥālāv); BĀQĀR “cow” (in Heb. collective: “cattle”); MELĀXĀ “work, affair”; RĀŠĀ “wicked, cruel” (Heb. rāšāʿ); ĀFĀR “earth” (Heb. ʿāfār); MAŠĀRET “apprentice” (Heb. məšārēt); HĀM “warm” (Heb. ḥam); TĀM “whole”; KAMĀ “how many” (for KAMĀ-tā “a few”; cf. Pers. cand-tā); HĀNUT “shop” (Heb. ḥānut); BOQER “morning”; QĀTUN “little” (Heb. qāṭōn); BĀSĀR “meat”; SAXVI “cock” (OHeb. sexwi; it occurs in Job 39:36 and in Jewish liturgy (G.) LEHAM, Shir. LĀM “bread” (Heb. leḥem); TAPUAH “apple” (Heb. tappuaḥ); EQUZIM “walnut” (Heb. pl. egōzīm); HĀTUX “broken” (Heb. ḥātux “cut”); BEQIĀ, Shir. BĀXIĀ “weeping” (Heb. boxia), MAYEM “water” (Heb. māyim); RIŠON “first”; “man,” IŠĀ “woman” (Heb. iššā).

Some other nouns show some phonetic modifications, e.g., Gol. PUNIM “face” (Heb. pl. pānīm); SUN “sheep” (Heb. ṣōn); SAʾUR, Khom. SAʾURI “barley” (Heb. seʿōrā, pl. seʿōrīm); ŠĀXAR “aqua vita” (Heb. šēxār); QEMA “flour” (Heb. qemaḥ); ḤĀTUR “cat” (Heb. ḥātūl); Xum. KELE “dog” (Heb. kelev); HINNA “gratis” (Heb. ḥinnām); QANNO “thief” (Heb. gannāv); AHRA “back” (Heb. āḥōr); Shir. BIKA “egg” (Heb. bēṣā); Shir. RAKKA “thin” (Heb. raqqā); Shir. MAYERĀ “quickly” (Heb. meherā “soon”); Shir. ARON “last” (Heb. aḥarōn); Shir. PALITA, Ham. PERITĀ, Mash. PARUTĀ “money” (Heb. pērūtā “penny”).

A third group displays semantic modifications, with or without phonetic changes, e.g., Gol. MALBIŠ “clothes” (Heb. act. participle malbīš “one who clothes”); MAUN “goods” (Heb. māʿōn “dwelling, tabernacle”); Khom. PETAH “door” (Heb. “entrance”); Neh. HEBEL “bad” (BHeb. “vanity, nothingness”); YĀHID “empty” (Heb. yāḥīd “solitary, sole”). Among this group may be included also possessive constructions which serve as single words, as is the case in some Middle Persian ideographs, e.g., Gol. AYNĀM “eye,” (Heb. ʿēnām “their eye”); KULLĀM “all” (Heb. “all of them”); Khom. ĀBI “father” (Heb. “my father”; cf. Shir. ABEQ); AHI “brother” (Heb. āḥī “my brother”; BENI-či “son” (Heb. beni “my son”); GAMELLI “camel” (Heb. gāmāl “camel,” gemallī “my camel”); Shir. IMI “mother” (Heb. immī “my mother”)—Khom. IMMO and Gol. IMMĀ, however, may come from Aram. voc. immā “mother!”; cf. ŠENAY, below. BAT-iči “daughter” appears to have been formed by analogy from Heb. bat “daughter,” since “my daughter” in Heb. is bitti (G.); cf. Gol. pir-či “son,” do-či “daughter.”

A fourth group is common to Aramaic and Hebrew, and is generally found in the Aramaicized Hebrew of Talmudic periods; e.g., Gol. ŠENAY “tooth” (Heb. šen “tooth,” šinnai “my teeth”); LIBBĀ “heart” (Aram. libbā, Heb. lev); Khom. REŠĀ “head” (Aram. rēšā, Heb. roš); Shir. YĀRT-ak “child” (possibly from Aram. yaldā “boy”; cf. Heb. yeled); KĀFĀR “market” (Aram. and OHeb. “village, country place”). In Neh., etc., BĀBUSE “father” and MĀMUSE “mother,” an Aramic diminutive particle (ōs, ōsō) seems to have been attached to bāvā, an Aramaic adaptation of Iranian bābā “father” (G.) MĀMUSE must have been formed by analogy from māmā “mother.”

The nature and provenance of some of the nouns and adjectives do not seem to be clear and require further study, e.g., Gol. DENEY “husband,” LAKMĀ (a mis-hearing on my part for LATMĀ?) “beating,” NEŠAQ “on credit” (cf. Pers.-Ara. nesya), PASILĀgōīm, Muslim” (cf. Heb. pāsūl, Aram. pəsīl “disqualified, ineligible,” G.), TANAYIM “hen,” cf. Heb. tarnegol “cock,” tarnegolet “hen” (G.); EKLUL “cock”; Khom. DĀQIM “almond” (I have recorded this word in Shir. in the sense of “place”[?]); Neh. QEYRĀ “thick soup” = Pers. āš; Shir. ĀQĀR “meat,” ČUMĀ, (beside PALITA) “money”; Mash. SĀYEF “Muslim.”

The numerals have Hebrew forms, e.g., Shir. EYĀD-i, YĀD-i (cf. Gol. EHĀTā, i.e., EḤĀD “one” + “unit of counting”) “one,” ŠANE “two,” ŠALOŠĀ (Gol. SARUŠĀ-tā) “three,” ARBAĀ “four,” HAMIŠĀ “five,” ŠISĀ “six,” ŠEBĀ “seven,” ŠAMONĀ “eight,” TISʾĀ “nine,” ASĀRĀ “ten” (in Shirazi s and z are regularly pronounced like the unvoiced and voiced English th, respectively, as is the case in several Central dialects; in this entry, however, they have been transcribed by s and z), EYĀD ESĀR “eleven,” ESRIN “twenty,” EYAD ve-ESRIN “twenty one.”

This is also the case with the pronouns, e.g., in Neh.:



1st person:



2nd person:



3rd person:



( in the 1st and 3rd person plural is the Iranian plural marker; KULLAM is an indefinite pronoun, meaning ‘all’, but also used for ‘you’; u-HAYI appears to be a combination of an Iranian and a Hebrew pronoun, cf. u + EḤĀDĀI “that one”; see above: ZEḤĀD “this, this one”).

The more significant and also the more problematic Semitic elements in Loterāʾi, however, are the verbs. Loterāʾi employs relatively few verbal bases, partly because the language has limited scope and is used only for common daily purposes, and partly because it makes extensive use of a few general-purpose verbs by (a) assigning to each more than one meaning, even opposite ones, and (b) modifying their meaning by prefixes, and, more frequently, by nominal complements, as is also the case in Persian. For example, the base (H)EZ- means “to go” as well as “to come” and “to arrive”; (H)EZ-un, its causative form (the causative marker in the Imperative may be -un or -n[e]), means “to carry” and “to bring”; vā-EZ “to go back” and “to come back.” In Esf., bi-PRIS means “eat!” “take!” and “buy!” Gol. ĀŠ-un-, Neh. KĀM-un, and Shir. TA:N, like Pers. kardan, serve a variety of meanings; Gol. dar-ĀŠ-ne (Kash. der-ĀŠ-an) “take!”; ŠAELĀ ĀŠ-ne “ask!” (Heb. šəʾēlā “question”). TĀM ĀŠ-un- corresponds to Pers. dorost kardan and means “to prepare, to fix, to cook, to sew, to milk, to weave and to put on” depending on the context; QEMA ĀŠ-ne “grind,” ŠEPPAR ĀŠ-ne “break!” (Heb. qemaḥ “floor”).

In a few cases the Hebrew origin of the verb is clear, e.g., Mash. be-LEX, Yaz. ve-LEX “go!” (Shir. LEX, but also DEX; for the interchange between d and l, cf. DABAR/LAVAR “word, talk”). Ham., etc. dar-HALUM “go to sleep” (Heb. ḥa-lōm “dream”). A larger number, about seven or eight, are traceable to verbs common to Aramaic and Talmudic Hebrew—more often to Aramaic, perhaps, but not unknown to the Jews anyway (R.). These are Ham., Gol., Esf., etc. (H)EZ “to go”; P(E)RIS, PIRIS “to eat”; Shir. “to drink” (Aram. pəras, BHeb. paras “to break, divide; to break bread”); Shir. AV- “to give” (Aram. yehav-; already in midrash h drops out: ya(h)av > yav, G.); Gol., etc. BAU- “to want to”; NAZK-un, Kash. NASK-en “kill! hit!” (Aram. nzq “to injure”; cf. Heb. hizziq < hinziq, R.; hardly Aram. nəxas “to kill”); Shir. OXEL- “to eat” (cf. Heb. ōxēt “eating”).

These bases, although used in Biblical or Talmudic Hebrew, raise the question whether they were borrowed directly from Aramaic, or, to put it in a different way, whether at the time of the inception of Loterāʾi the Jews of Persia were Aramaic-speaking and Hebrew elements were imported only later and increasingly in the course of time. This suspicion is somewhat strengthened by the fact that a couple of verbal bases are specifically of Aramaic origin. One is Shir. ZA(W)N- (here it is possible that -n is an original sound which has coalesced with the Iranian causative marker; in Shir. both ZAN and DAN “sell!” occur; cf. Z(E)VĀ/D(E)VĀ “to say,” below); Teh. DEV-, Esf. DAM- “to sell”; Aram. zabben “to sell.” The other is DEYL- “to fear”; Aram. deḥel (this verb does not occur in Heb. G.).

On the other hand, it may be argued that, if direct borrowing occurred, one would have expected Aramaic forms in pronouns and numerals. On balance, however, it is easier to explain later importation of Hebrew numerals and pronouns than later Aramaic borrowings.

A number of verbs remain to be identified, namely, Gol. REJ- “see, know,” Mash. RUJ- “look, watch,” Neh. vā-REJ- “see, know, find” and also “be able to” (Neh. vā-REJ-am “that I see,” vā-REJ-id-am “I saw, knew,” vā-š-e-REJ-ā “he used to know”); Shir. KELOWS- “laugh” (be-KLOWS “laugh!” KELOWS-id “he laughed,” be-KLOWS-un “make laugh!”); Neh. VIĀJ-, Mash. VELĀJ- “sell, finish with” (Neh. be-š-VIĀJ-ā-yeš “he sold to him”; Mash. be-VELĀJ “sell!”), YOQAR-VELĀJ “one who charges high prices” (Heb. yāqār “dear”); Mash. NUND “give” (be-NUND “give!”); TEK- “do, make” (be-TEK-en “make! fix!); Shir. GĀL- “go” (be-GĀL- “go!”; GĀL-ed-em “I went”); ĀJ- “come” (be-ĀJ “come,” ĀJ-essem “I came”); TA:N- “do, make” (be-TA:N “do,” mi-TA:N-em “I do”); KOD- “hit, kill” (from qtl ?); ŠED(D) “catch [a disease!”; Z(E)VĀ, D(E)VĀ- ‘say” (mi-ZVĀ-n “they say,” eš-DEVĀ-s “he said,” LE-BEZVĀ “don’t say!,” em-LE-DEVĀ-sesā “I had not said”); MARG-un (also in Teh.) “hit” (Shir. LE-be-MARG-u “don’t hit!” šu-mi-MARG-ondesā “they had hit”; šu-mi-MARG-ono “I shall hit”; Teh. MARG-und “he hit”); ČED- “know, understand” (LE-mi-ČED-em “I don’t know”), cf. Kash. ČA- “know, see” (ni-ČĀ-n “I don’t know,” ne-ČĀ-dun “I did not see,” ni-ČE-u (sic) “he did not know”), Esf., Yaz., Ker. ČER “see, know” (Esf. be-ČER “see!” ne-ČER-une “I don’t know, I don’t understand,” be-m-ČERN-a “I said, I knew”; Yaz. ne-ČER-in “I don’t recognize, I don’t know”).

Some of these verbs have a non-Semitic look, but the final test of a word being Loterāʾi is whether it is considered as such by the speakers and whether they use a different word for it in their native Iranian dialect. Obviously the verbs, which seem to be the oldest elements of the Semitic vocabulary, have undergone considerable phonetic change.

The fact that the great majority of the Semitic vocabulary in Loterāʾi is drawn from Old Hebrew and Aramaic attests to the antiquity of the Jewish settlements of Persia, but does not encourage tracing them to pre-exilic periods, when the language of the Jews was Hebrew—notwithstanding Shalmaneser’s reported deportation of the Jews to Median territories (2 Kings 17:6).

Loterāʾi must have developed at a time when the cities in which the Jews were dwelling had not yet given up their local language for Persian (as is still the case in Ḵānsār) and the Iranian dialects which are now spoken by the Jews as their native tongue were understood by the gentile population around them. Therefore a language with a heavy dose of Semitic elements for private communication made sense. It is equally conceivable that, as Persian gradually replaced the local dialects, the Iranian language of the Jews could, at least partially, serve the purpose of privacy, and this factor most probably contributed to the shrinking of Loterāʾi and to its retaining only the most basic vocabulary. Hebrew vocabulary, however, could be imported almost at will from the common fund of Hebrew religious literature known to the Jews.

Further, the fact that Loterāʾi is shared by all the Jewish communities of Persia, except the Jews of Kurdistan, seems to point to a common origin of these communities. However, considering some differences in vocabulary, particularly between the Loterāʾi of Fārs and that of the Median territories, dialectal differences among the original settlers seems probable. (Cf. the following text.) The Aramaic dialect of Kurdish Jews has no bearing on Loterāʾi, cannot have been its origin, and has followed an entirely different development.

One might hope that a closer study of the Semitic elements in Loterāʾi would help to clarify some of the questions that this preliminary survey has raised and yield more precise conclusions concerning the date of the Jewish settlements in Persia and their original language.


A. Loterāʾi of Golpāyegān: 1. ANNI KAMĀ-tā BENI-či ve BAT-iči VIĀ-m-a. 2. DENNEY ANNI BOQER mi-EZ-ad ḤĀNUT. LEYLĀ mi-EZZe BETĀ. 3. un-HĀD va-ne-mi-REJ-ad ANNI bā in BENI-či-ā ve MELĀXĀ-ye BETĀ če-mi-ĀŠ-un-am. 4. ASĀRĀ-tā ham ĀDĀYIM VIA-m bu QĀTUN-e: KAM(M)Ā BĀQĀR, MELĀXĀ GUIM-ā. ATĀ vā-mi-REJ-i re MELĀXĀ. 5. ANNI TOFERET LIBBĀ-m BĀU-š b-EZ-om YERŠALĀYM. DENNEY-im LIBBĀ-m BĀU-š b-EZ-om YERŠALĀYM. DENNEY-im LIBBĀ-š ne-BĀ. na-š-BĀU b-EZ-u. 6. KULĀM-e MĀUN-eš-a NEŠAQ GE-KĀM-un-de be PĀSIL-ā, PERIS-id-and. 7. ve ANNI o BENI-či-ā-m GĀLUT-and hālā na-ČER-on XOTIN-em vā BENI-či-ā b-EZ-on ISRĀEL. 8. DENEY-m-ā če-MELĀXĀ be-ĀŠ-un-on? 9. ATĀ MEŠTān-i ANNI če ĀFĀR REŠĀ-m ĀŠ-n-on.

B. The above text in the native Iranian dialect: 1. mon čan-tā pir-či va do-či dāron. 2. mira-m sobḥ šu, dokkun, še yu kia. 3. un na-zun-u ke me tu kia bā večā če-kār ekeron. 4. da:-tā kāregar-am dār-bon kam-u. čan-tā gāb, kār-ā-ye guym-ā. to zuni če kār-ā. 5. mon xayyāt-on. mon del-em gu-š bešon Yerušalāim. mira-m del-eš na-š-egu be-šu. 6. hame māle-eš-ā heš-da nesya be guym-ā, xordand. 7. mon-o večā-m dar ezāb-enda. hālā na-zun-on xo-m ve večā-m be-ši-m Isrāel. 8. mira-m-ā če-kār be-keron? 9. to vāy če xāki sar-em ker-on?

C. Translation: 1. I have (lit. there is to me) several sons and daughters. 2. My husband goes to his shop every morning. He returns (lit. comes) in the evening. 3. He does not understand what I do (i.e., what problems I have) with these children and the housework. 4. Even if I should have ten men, it is still not enough (lit. is little): I must take care of several cows, [and] the works of the gentile. You know what work. 5. I am a seamstress. I want (lit. my heart wishes, a calque on the Persian expression: del-am-mi-xāhad.) to go to Jerusalem. My husband does not want to go. He has given (i.e., sold) all his goods to the gentile on credit; they have refused to pay (lit. they ate; lit. translation of the Persian colloquial idiom xordan “to refuse to return or pay back”). 7. And I and my children are in misery (BHeb. galut “exile” by extension has come to mean “persecution” and “misery”). At the moment I cannot, myself and my children, go to Israel. 8. What shall I do with my husband if I go? 9. You tell me what shall I do (lit. what earth should I pour on my head; translation of the Persian idiom ce xāki be saram konam, adopted also into the Iranian dialect of Golpāyegān).

(Not being a Semitist, the author was helped for the Aramaic and Hebrew equivalents of Loterāʾi vocabulary by two distinguished colleagues, the late Professors Harold L. Ginsberg and Franz Rosenthal. Only occasionally their given explanations are marked by G. and R., respectively.)


R. ʿAfifi, ed., Farhang-e Jahāngiri, 3 vols. Mashad, 1972-76.

G. Lazard, “Note sur le jargon des juifs d’Iran,” Journal Asiatique, 1978, pp. 251-55.

V. Minorsky ed. Hudūd al-ʿĀlam, The Regions of the World: a Persian Geography, 372 A.H.-982 A.D., London, 1937.

M. Sotudeh, ed. Ḥodud al-ʿālam, Tehran, 1962.

Statistical Center of Iran, National Census of Population and Housing, 1976, Tehran, 1980.

E. Yarshater, “The Jewish Communities of Persia and Their Dialects,” Melange Jean de Menasce, Paris, 1974, pp. 453–66.

Idem. “The Hybrid Language of the Jewish Community of Persia,” in JAOS 97/1, 1977, pp. 1-7.

I. I. Zarubin, “O yazyke geratskikh evreev,” Doklady ross. Akad. Nauk, 1924, no 4, pp. 181-85.

(This entry is largely based on the author’s article “The Hybrid Language of the Jewish Community of Persia,” JAOS 97/1, 1977, pp. 1-7, with the kind permission of the Journal of the American Oriental Society.)


This entry is divided to two sections:

(1) A general survey on Persian Jewish music.

(2) Specific topics on the Jewish contribution to Persian music.

(1) A General Survey on Persian Jewish Music

This section is divided into four sub-sections: introduction, religious music, para-liturgical music, and secular Persian Jewish music.

Introduction. It is no simple task to define Persian Jewish music. First, no thorough and comprehensive research on the subject has yet been conducted. Second, Persian Jewish music cannot be entirely detached from other existing types of Persian music (see bibliog.). There are several extant works on music in Persian from the pre-modern era, most notably those of Ṣafi-al-Din Ormavi (d. 1294), Qoṭb-al-Din Širāzi (d. 1310), and ʿAbd-al-Qāder Marāḡi (d. 1435). These works, however, do not shed sufficient light on the performative aspects of Persian music and its historical development. Jewish musical development is even harder to understand, since, as far as is known, no such corpus of information exists for it prior to that of Avraham Zvi Idelsohn (see Bibliography).

Persian Jewish manuscripts yield a fair amount of religious, semi-religious, and secular poems in Hebrew and Persian, which were sung by Jews in and out of synagogues. These poems indicate the place of respect that was accorded to this type of literature in the community’s cultural life. The canon of Hebrew songs and poems and their accompanying tafsirim (interpretations) were readily accessible to the majority of Persian Jews, and it would have been difficult to find a Jewish home in which there was no dastak (handy and portable note-book) containing the community’s best-loved songs and poems in Judeo-Persian (Persian written in Hebrew script) and in Hebrew. The dastak would also have included the finest Persian poetry, written by famous classical Persian poets such as ʿOmar Ḵayyām (Khayyam), Saʿdi, and Hafez (Netzer, 1973, pp. 64-66; idem, 1982, pp. 5-19). Many Jewish shopkeepers and peddlers kept dastaks in their coat pockets, in case they should find themselves in the company of a few fellow Jews, or for singing for their own pleasure when they happened to be alone and far from home. The question that poses itself is, what was the nature of these songs and melodies, and what was their musical structure? This article does not presume to provide a definitive answer to the question, but rather attempts to explore the issue by considering some of the known relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish Persian music.

We have no reliable information on the way in which non-Jewish and Jewish Persian music influenced each other in ancient times. As far as is known, Persian music itself absorbed musical elements from such ancient cultures as those of India, Mesopotamia, and Greece. Moreover, Persia functioned, to a certain extent, as a bridge for musical interaction between the regions and cultures to its east and west. It may be assumed that the two musical cultures in question, the Persian and the Jewish Persian, existed independently of each other in the distant past. This type of musical independence also characterized various non-Jewish tribes and ethnic groups in such regions of Persia as Khorasan, Gilān, and Fārs. The term “Persian music” itself serves as a blanket term for a variety of traditions.

Jews were dispersed throughout Persia, and it may be assumed that they were subject to various influences. Yet, to a certain degree, their music retained its unique character. This was due to two main factors: (1) Jewish music had greater durability because it was primarily religious music; (2) the social and cultural isolation of the Jews prevented the penetration of external influences to a certain extent. Despite these factors, it is difficult to imagine that Persian music would not penetrate into the musical experience of Persian Jews during their long sojourn in the land. This is particularly true in the light of the Iranian Jews’ complete linguistic assimilation and their extensive acculturation in many other areas. It may indeed be said that Persian Jewry is more fully adapted to Persian culture than any other religious minority present in the country today with the exception of the Zoroastrians. Armenians and Assyrians, for example, not only retained their language and a good portion of their cultural heritage, but also maintained their own music, both religious and secular. In the field of poetry, however, Persian Jewry took the format and framework of Persian poetry and filled them with Jewish content (Netzer, 1973, Introd., pp. 9-71; Moreen, 1996; eadem, 2000; Yeroushalmi, 2002).

One scholar who was aware of the relationship between Persian music and Jewish Persian music, and who believed that the former influenced the latter, was Avraham Zvi Idelsohn. On the other hand, Laurence Loeb, who spent some time in Shiraz and surrounding areas (1967-68), thought that Jewish music influenced the music of Fārs, but he did not produce any convincing evidence to substantiate his statement (Loeb, 1972, p. 11). Idelsohn seems to have been the first musicologist to deal extensively with recording, analyzing, and preserving Persian Jewish synagogue music. His monumental work on Persian Jewish sacred music was produced in Palestine, mainly in Jerusalem, between 1918 and 1920. Idelsohn recorded, in the crude conditions available at that time, 134 pieces of liturgical music and collected them under the titles Sabbath and Holidays; Sliḥot (penitential prayers/hymns recited on days of fast or trouble, and especially during the month of Elul and the first days of Tishri, until the Day of Atonement); High Holy Days; Lamentations (as songs and poems sung at the synagogue); and Zmirot (songs and hymns classified as semi-religious). These works were recorded as sung by Jews from Tehran, Hamadān, Kāšān (Kashan), Isfahan, and Shiraz. Idelsohn believed that Persian Jewish liturgical music was similar in quality and form to that of the Yemenite Jews, and that it was characterized by a spirit of gloom, sorrow, pain, and grief, “particularly in the formulation of the Sliḥot and the lamentations” (Idelsohn, 1923, p. 20). The influence of Shiʿite religious melodies on Jewish Persian music remains to be studied (cf. Caron, pp. 430-40). The Persian Jewish musical tradition may be divided into three categories: (1) religious (liturgical) music, (2) para-liturgical music, and (3) secular music.

Religious music. Religious music, also referred to as synagogue music, includes Torah reading, hafṭarot (chapters from the Prophets read in the synagogue after the portion from the Torah), prayers, and all other kinds of liturgical readings that take place within the synagogue and have no instrumental accompaniment. This kind of music is usually monophonic, and to a lesser degree, responsorial. The musical readings may be performed by a ḥazzan (cantor), a šaliyaḥ-ṣibur (abbr: Shas, “community leader in religious affairs”), a rabbi or an adult Jew with a pleasant voice and knowledge of the prayer service, but never by a professional singer who supports himself as a moṭreb. Practitioners of this profession, who entertained the public at weddings and other rites of passage celebrations, were considered as having a low social status by both Muslims and Jews, and their occupation as a demeaning one.

Synagogue melodies were preserved from external influence to a greater degree than the other types of musical traditions mentioned above. It appears, however, that even this citadel could be breached occasionally, whether via the mass media or by means of scholars and rabbis from Palestine who visited Persia, or Persian Jews who studied for the rabbinate outside the country of their birth. For example, Rabbi David Shofet (b. 1939 in Kāšān) of the Abrišami Synagogue in Tehran taught boys Sephardic melodies for the reading of sacred texts, and liturgical and para-liturgical poems.

The melody accompanying the Torah reading and the prayers (ritual reading) is Persian in character and structure, and a connection may be discerned between it and the melodies (Pers. guša) of one of the modes (Pers. dastgāhs) of Persian classical music. Despite the existence of a relationship between the two musical traditions, the Persian Jewish ritual melody is not identical with Persian classical music. The technique of yodeling (čahčah or taḥrir) is forbidden in ritual reading. Some well-known melodies of the Persian modes, such as the Baḵtiāri guša of the mode Homāyun, or the Ḡamangiz guša of the Dašti mode, have not been heard in Jewish-Persian ritual songs.

Based on recordings that the present author had made of some Jewish residents of Isfahan and other cities in Iran in the two decades after 1973, ritual readings are performed within the tetrachord scale. Within this range there are usually three or four tones, including quarter-tones (sori and koron). These melodies may be assigned to Persian musical modes, primarily Dašti, Abu-ʿAṭā, Afšāri, Bayāt-e Tork, Šur, Bayāt-e Eṣfahān, Homāyun, Segāh, and Čahārgāh. However, cantors and other Torah readers are not, for the most part, familiar with these modes. It should be emphasized that transcribing the melodic reading of worshipers into musical notation is not easy, since it is almost impossible to anticipate its order and sequence, even within the framework of a specific, defined scale. Moreover, the cantor, when repeating the verses, reads them in an order and succession of different intervals, and also may move from a modal framework of one scale to another scale, all without being aware of these changes. The congregation does not react to these “deviations,” since it is concerned only with the correct chanting of the verses by a reader, but the changes cannot be drastic and qualitative. For example, the cantor is forbidden to use the yodeling (čahčah) technique, he cannot span an entire octave or more, and he cannot incorporate known melodies from the broad spectrum of those melodies (gušas) or taṣnifs known to the general public.

Tempo and meter are difficult to analyze in studies of this type of vocal music. It is hard for the researcher to monitor the frequency of changes in tempo and meter in prayers and the melodic chanting of Torah verses. Even poems and songs classified as liturgical (which by their nature are supposed to be rhythmical and metrical) are prone to changes in meter and tempo. A melody is usually syllabic, that is, each written syllable is meant to correspond to a sound, but toward the end of each line the reader or the cantor breaks into an improvised passage of several notes sung to one syllable of text (melisma) whose purpose is usually to return the tone to the finalis. An insistence on retaining the finalis makes it somewhat easier to assign the melody correctly to a scale that corresponds to one of the Persian classical musical modes (dastgāhs). It should be also noted that their positioning and their character are generally dependent upon the subjective mood of the cantor.

Para-liturgical music. This type of music includes songs and poems sung on Sabbath and holidays outside of the synagogue or, infrequently, in the synagogue, usually in Hebrew, and occasionally accompanied by an interpretation (tafsir). This type of song was more likely than liturgical music to have been influenced by Persian classical music. In several Judeo-Persian manuscripts, preserved in the collection at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the names of the Persian dastgāhs are written above the Hebrew songs and poems and their tafsirim, indicating that they were sung to these melodies. In everyday practice, however, not everyone was strict about adhering to the melodies, and not everyone was familiar with the entire dastgāh system, since such familiarity required musical skill and training. It is likely that a poem meant to be sung to a specific tune was sung to a different one, or that during the course of the singing changes would be made to the melody. Usually more attention was paid to the pleasantness of the singer’s voice than to the melodic rules. Sometimes a Hebrew poem would have a melody different from that of its Persian tafsir (see the notations of the melodies recorded in Isfahan and in Israel between 1973 and 1983 in Netzer, 1984, pp. 174-81).

The verses of the songs and poems included in this type follow metrical conventions and were probably intended to be sung with meter and tempo, but there is no consistent adherence to these prosodic-musical elements. Here, as with religious music, the tones do not deviate from a tetrachord range; quarter-tones and improvised melismatic ornamentation are incorporated into the singing.

In para-liturgical music free use may be made of familiar secular melodies from Persian classical music, and they may have instrumental accompaniment, usually the tombak (chalice drum) and the daf(f) with or without chimes. In this way para-liturgical music differs significantly from religious music. Such permissiveness does not, however, apply to songs and poems sung in mourning situations, or those which are in the style of lamentations, sliḥot, supplications, etc.

Secular music. Persian Jewish secular songs are in Persian and are intended for non-religious events, but they are also sometimes used for events with some connection to religious practice, such as circumcision ceremonies, or to occasions possessing some religious content, such as the well-known wedding song (see Netzer, 1984, p. 178, song no. 17; idem, 1996, pp. 107-14; Soroudi, 1982, pp. 204-64; Houman Sarshar, pp. 237-59). These songs are similar in character and quality to local and regional Persian songs called tarānahā-ye maḥalli. The melodies of this type of Persian Jewish music are Persian in their scale structure, but a listener sensitive to Persian music can discern the unique Jewish character of at least some of them, particularly in the case of the aforementioned wedding song.

Secular songs are not meant to be sung at the synagogue, but rather at home, on Sabbath and holidays within the context of joyous events. The most important and central oeuvre sung throughout the year, on Sabbath and holidays, at weddings, circumcisions, and other events is that of Šāhin, the great Jewish poet of the 14th century. Iranian Jewry is not lacking in works of poetry of its own in Persian, authored by such Jewish poets as ʿEmrāni, Benyāmin ben Mišāʾil Kāšāni, called Aminā, and Simān-Ṭov Melammed, and others.

There are secular songs common to all, or nearly all, of the Persian communities, such as the wedding song mentioned above. There are also songs specific to certain communities and unknown to others, such as the Ḵākšuri song, sung in the Jewish dialect of Isfahan and unique to the Jewish community of that city (Netzer, 1982, pp. 180-203).

Of the three types of Persian Jewish music, it is the secular which is the most likely to disappear, for three main reasons: first, unlike religious music, secular music lacks staying power; second, a very large number of secular songs and melodies sung on radio and television serve as alternatives to the specifically Jewish secular songs and are taking their place; and third, Iranian Jews, particularly the younger generation, associate these songs with ghetto life, and they have a similar attitude toward the Jewish dialects that they speak. Many Jewish families, particularly the more affluent, prefer to hire Persian singers for their weddings and to listen to modern and classical Persian music, and regard the playing of Jewish music as somewhat infra dig and detrimental to their social standing.

For a music sample, see Yom le’yom.


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(2) Specific Topics on the Jewish Contribution to Persian Music

This section is divided into the following sub-sections: moṭrebs, Persian classical music, instrument makers, and popular music.


Excluded from courts, mosques, and other locales of Muslim ritual, Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian musicians thus became practice-for-hire popular musicians or moṭrebs who, in the face of existing prohibitions, performed at life-cycle ceremonies and other social gatherings. Existing scholarship and historical documents suggest that Jews were the most prevalent minority engaged as moṭrebs. Other than the fact that they were a widely dispersed minority with documented settlements throughout Persia at the time of Shah ʿAbbas I’s reign (Fischel, pp. 276-77), one of the more central factors for their prevalence in this field was the notion of najāsat (uncleanness), which, though applicable to all non-Muslims, was most strongly associated with Jews. As a result, there were many draconian restrictions regulating physical contact between Jews and their Shiʿite compatriots, particularly with respect to any exchange of organic goods (Ebrami, pp. 100-101; Chaouli, 2006, pp. 46-48; Maghen, pp. 183-94). For Jewish families with little or no capital to fund the exchange of merchandise, service for hire was the only available means of income, with music-making being the least physically demanding and comparably most lucrative. The trilateral combination of demographics, najāsat, and aforementioned Shiʿite prohibitions and the concomitant low social status thus resulted in a circumstance that, partly by default, turned a portion of the Jewish population of Persia into professional entertainers in general, and moṭrebs in particular. Those historical reports suggesting that professional musicians throughout Persia were exclusively Jewish no doubt fall short of contemporary standards of a methodic population census, but it would safe to say that the majority of the moṭrebs in Persia were indeed Jews (R. Ḵāleqi, I, p. 22; Mašḥun, p. 283, 357; Mir-ʿAlinaqi, p. 153; Loeb, pp. 155-56).

Though reasonably lucrative, professional music-making came at a considerable social cost for the Jewish moṭrebs, who generally belonged to the lowest echelons of society (Confino, pp. 142-43; Loeb, pp. 158-59). Viewed by both Muslims and Jews as enablers and agents of various moral and physical laxities, they were further disdained by many Muslims simply for being Jewish, and marginalized by Jews for socializing with Muslims, eating non-kosher food in their employers’ homes, working at all hours of the night, and sleeping late into the day. The social disdain for moṭrebs was to such a degree that professional musicians were subject to frequent physical harassment (Z. Ḵāleqi, p. 40; Loṭfi, 1992, p. 138). Predominantly for this reason, professional music-making became a familial trait, with families intermarrying more out of necessity than choice, thereby creating dynasties of musicians from whose ranks some of 20th-century’s Jewish masters of Persian classical music would eventually emerge (Loeb, pp. 156, 158-59, 161; Loṭfi, 1990, p. 4).

Though outcasts, moṭrebs were nevertheless indispensable members of society, and their services were very much sought after at social gatherings and life-cycle celebrations. In the case of the Jewish moṭrebs, this peculiar dichotomy granted them an exceptional license to move freely across socio-economic divides and transcend with ease otherwise insurmountable social boundaries. We have documented evidence of their presence in the shah’s court as early as the rule of Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah Qājār (r. 1797-1834). Physicians and jewelers were the only other members of the Jewish community in post-Safavid Persia to have such a wide-ranging license. This broad social pass no doubt afforded the Jewish moṭrebs many opportunities, both positive and negative. Aware of the mercurial nature of their social status, for instance, Mirzā Aḥmad Khan ʿAlāʾ-al-Dowla, the governor of Fārs, attempted to engage the Jewish moṭrebs of Shiraz to spy on his behalf in 1903. They managed to evade this by leaving town or rejecting work opportunities for some time (Saʿidi Sirjāni, ed., p. 719).

The negative social values associated with and often unjustly attributed to the moṭreb should by no means be taken as a reflection of his or her artistic creativity and musical expertise, as the moṭreb’s music is no less grounded in the traditional modal system (dastgāhs) of Persian classical music than that of the master musician. Furthermore, over the course of the past five centuries, moṭrebs have practiced, preserved, and passed on specific techniques and particular songs and melodies that would have otherwise been lost, and without which the heritage of Persian music would be unquestionably impoverished. As such, moṭrebs merit equal recognition for their respective part in the preservation of the Persian musical tradition. In light of the fact that the moṭreb was often the exclusive source of music for every member of society prior to the broad distribution of gramophones and radios in Persia in the early to mid-20th century, it further becomes more than apparent that the professional musician’s contribution to Persian music was not only in its preservation but also in its proliferation (Loṭfi, 1992, pp. 137-38, 146-47; Mir-ʿAlinaqi, pp. 153-54; Chaouli, 2002, pp. 24-27, 30-34, 36-42; Mašḥun, pp. 371-73).

After the rise of the Qajar dynasty and the official reinstitution of the category of court musicians, the more skilled professional musicians found their way to the court. Named ʿamala-ye ḵāṣṣ-e ṭarab (entertainers’ ensemble), these court musicians were retained by the shah and various courtiers with an annual stipend of food and clothing. During the reigns of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96) and his son Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah (r. 1896-1907), the court regularly retained fourteen ensembles of ʿamala-ye ḵāṣṣ-e ṭarab), each consisting of nine to twelve musicians and dancers. Photographs in an album (no. 6884) belonging to the Golestān Museum and now held in the archives of The Central Library (Ketāb-ḵāna-ye markazi) of Tehran University show that four of these ensembles were exclusively Jewish. According to Alain Chaouli, all musicians are identified by name in each photograph (Chaouli, 2002, pp. 137-38, 144-45; Najmi, pp. 182, 226). The earliest Jewish musicians known to us belong to this category of ʿamala-ye ḵāṣṣ-e ṭarab, with their names and details having been preserved essentially because of their association with the court. Of these, the oldest one on record is Ostād Rostam Kalimi Širāzi, the leader of a group of ʿamala-ye ḵāṣṣ-e ṭarab at the court of Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah. His group was headed by his pupil, the renowned female vocalist and musician Ostād Zohra, wife to Jaʿfarqoli Khan, Āḡa Moḥammad Khan Qājār’s (r. 1796-97) brother and Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah’s uncle (Solṭān-Aḥmad Mirzā, pp. 38, 40; Mašḥun, pp. 374-75; Maleki, pp. 133-35). Chaouli’s claim (2006, p. 78) that Ostād Zohra and her rival Ostād Minā (wife of Moṣṭafāqoli Khan) were both Jewish requires more substantial evidence. In one of his qaṣidas, the poet Mirzā Ḥabib Qāʾāni (1807-53) mentions one, or possibly three, Jewish tār players from the early Qajar era: “Tārzan Zāḡi o Rayḥān o Maliḵāy-e yahud” (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 18-19; Mašḥun, p. 378). Given Qāʾāni’s proclivity for composing court poetry, it is likely that these musicians were well known in the court, though the syntax makes it impossible to determine with certainty whether the qualifier “yahud” (Jewish) applies to all three musicians or to Maliḵāy alone. Similarly, a mid-19th-century oil-on-canvas portrait identifies a Jewish setār player named ʿArus ben Šelemo. Granting some degree of verisimilitude to the portraiture, we may assume from his attire that ʿArus was esteemed highly enough as a musician to be under the patronage of a member of the ruling elite if not the shah himself (Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 138). Nothing more is known about any of these four musicians.

Among later professional Jewish court musicians, the kamānča player Musā Khan Kāši, or Ḵāšāni (1856-1939) is the best known (Figure 1). Also admired for his mellifluous singing voice, Musā Kāši was given the honorific title of Khan by Masʿud Mirzā Ẓell-al-Solṭān (1850-1919), Nāṣer-al-Din Shah’s son and prince governor of Isfahan, in whose provincial court he served for nearly twenty years. While in Isfahan, Musā Khan took on a novice pupil by the name of Bāqer Khan Rāmešgar, who became one of the 20th century’s masters of the kamānča (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 66, 68-69; Sepantā, 1987, p. 118). Musā Khan later became a musician at the court of Jalāl-al-Dawla Qājār, the prince governor of Yazd (Levi, III, p. 437), and from there he went to Tehran at the invitation of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah to perform at his court (Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 144, figs. 671, 672). Musā Khan was famous for his innovation of the six-stringed kamānča, a traditionally three-stringed instrument that took on its now-requisite fourth string in the mid-19th century. While Musā Khan’s six-stringed kamānča did not prove a lasting tradition among later kamānča players, his chief pupil, Bāqer Khan Rāmešgar, was known to use one regularly (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 66, 69-71, 318; Chaouli, 2006, pp. 91-92; During, 1984, p. 77).

Raḥim Qānuni Širāzi (1871-1944) was another Jewish musician from this period to hold a position of particular esteem in the history of Persian music, most notably for reintroducing the qānun (trapezoidal zither) into Persia around 1900. The instrument had not been in use there since the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb (Mašḥun, pp. 523-24). This earned him the accolade Qānuni, which he officially adopted as his last name in 1926. During his lifetime, Raḥim Qānuni remained the sole master of the qānun in Persia, and while he had some pupils, none surpassed him (Ghanuni; Behbudi). After Raḥim’s death, his son Jalāl Qānuni (b. 1900-87) became the next most renowned qānun player in Persia (Š. Behruzi, pp. 238-42; Ghanuni; Behbudi).

Among other famous professional Jewish musicians of the Qajar era, mention should also be made of Dāwud Kalimi Širāzi, a celebrated tār player, who was teacher to ʿAli-Reżā Khan Čangi (kamānča player in the late-Qajar court) and father to Āqā Jān (known as Āqā Jān-e Dovvom, see below) and Esmāʿil Sāqi, both renowned musicians in their own right. An accomplished tār player, Esmāʿil Sāqi was a student of Āqā Ḥosaynqoli (1853-1916), and kept regular company with the famous lyricist ʿAli-Akbar Šeydā (d. 1909), who dedicated one of his taṣnifs (ballads) to Esmāʿil Sāqi (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 71, 135, 396, 406; Mašḥun, p. 467). An acclaimed tombak/żarb (chalice drum) player was Āqā Jān-e Dovvom, who was teacher to Bālā Khan (Raḥamim Kalimi, b. ca. 1865; d. July 1956). Son of tombak/żarb player Yaḥyā (Yehudā) Khan, Bālā Khan was among the acclaimed tombak/żarb players of his time and a musician at the courts of the last three Qajar monarchs. His exceptional skill on the tombak/żarb earned him the honorific title Bālā Khan from Nāšer-al-Din Shah; and he adopted it as his official name (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 406-7). He is the father of two 20th-century master musicians, namely, Morteżā Khan and Musā Khan Ney-Dāwud (see below; Figure 2).

The second half of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of a number of other acclaimed Jewish tombak/żarb players. Chief among them was singer and tombak/żarb player Āqā Jān–e Awwal who studied the tombak/żarb with Samāʿ Ḥoẓur (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 404-5). The other two are Yusof Khan (also known as Howni), who was of Bālā Khan’s generation, and Mordaḵāy ʿAzariyā, who played the tombak/żarb at the court of both Nāṣer-al-Din Shah and Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah. Like Bālā Khan, ʿAzariyā was the patriarch of an extended family of master musicians. A renowned tombak/żarb player in his own right, ʿAzariyā’s son Ebrāhim was father to the 20th-century composer and master musician Solaymān Ruḥafzā (Mašḥun, p. 646; see below).

The disproportionate number of tombak/żarb players among 19th-century professional Jewish musicians in Persia cannot be considered fortuitous or unrelated to the proliferation of both moṭrebi and classical music. Master tombak/żarb player Ḥosayn Tehrāni (1912-74) states that prior to his lifelong effort to elevate its status to that of a respectable instrument, the tombak/żarb was regarded with great disdain in Persia. As such, tombak/żarb playing was entrusted to the lowest ranks of professional musicians, that is, predominantly the Jews (Mir-ʿAlinaqi, p. 153). Yet the fact remains that to the end of the Qajar period, the tombak/żarb was a requisite instrument in ensemble performances. Moreover, a basic knowledge of tombak/żarb-playing was a prerequisite for all dedicated vocalists and practitioners of other instruments (Loṭfi, 1992, pp. 225-26; Naṣirifar, V, pp. 406-7). This stemmed from the peculiar and often complicated rhythms of a range of gušas in various modes (dastgāh), which required an advanced familiarity with rhythm in order to be executed correctly. As such, master tombak/żarb players like Mordeḵāy ʿAzariyā were also percussion teachers to many Muslim masters of Persian classical music and āvāz. Moreover, the particular proclivity of Jews for playing the tombak/żarb lead to a relatively greater number of Jews skilled in żarbi-ḵᵛāni (rhythm-singing), which, unlike its closest contemporary Western counterpart “freestyle wrap,” is sadly a dying art in today’s Iran (Loṭfi, 1992, pp. 231-33). While many of Shiraz’s Jewish moṭrebs as well as Muslim moršeds (in this context the man who accompanies the exercising athletes with singing and beating of a drum) of zur-ḵānas (traditional Persian gymnasium) throughout Persia were skilled practitioners of this art through the middle of the 20th century, few at the turn of the 21st century can claim any degree of mastery in this particular genre of traditional Persian music, now immeasurably impoverished with the loss of their unrecorded songs and lyrics.

Within the broader category of professional musicians, the Jewish moṭrebs of Shiraz generally enjoy a reputation as the finest, with reports of this reputation dating as far back as the early 1800s (Loṭfi, 1992, pp. 142-43; R. Ḵāleqi, pp. 27-28; Loeb, p. 81, 155-63; Browne, pp. 119-20, 241, 243, 320-21; Wills, p. 165, apud Loeb, p. 157). In Shiraz, one of the earliest known by name was Arzāni (Browne, p. 323). Another named Mollā Āqā Yahudi was considered the town’s finest musician during the reign of Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah. Several different episodes from his professional life have been recorded, one involving the kidnapping of his fifteen-year-old dancer son by a Muslim shoemaker (Saʿidi Sirjāni, ed., pp. 588-89; Chaouli, 2002, pp. 121-22), and another recounting the details of a dispute between Bahāʾ-al-Soltān and Enteẓām-al-Soltān Farrāšbāši over his services (Saʿidi Sirjāni, ed., pp. 597-98, 602). Other accounts about Jewish moṭrebs from this period reveal that on occasion some would travel to surrounding towns and villages for work, while others left Shiraz for good in order to avoid the relentless persecution of one particular cleric, Ḥājj Sayyed ʿAli-Akbar Fāl-Asiri, who would periodically round up Jewish musicians, destroy their instruments, and shave their heads in humiliation (Saʿidi Sirjāni, ed., pp. 338-39, 409, 575, 588, 616, also see pp. 157-58, 160, 337, 356, 470, 585, 686; Chaouli, 2002, pp. 116-21). A 1903 survey of Jewish occupations in Shiraz by the Alliance Israèlite Universelle shows that 80 of the 1,025 members of the community were musicians (Loeb, p. 82; Confino, pp. 142-43; Saʿidi Sirjāni, ed., p. 602). In 1960, Ḥabib Levi claimed that ten percent of the Shiraz’s Jewish population of 17,000 were professional musicians (Levi, III, p. 1011). By 1968, Laurence Loeb documented only nine violinists, thirteen tār players, fourteen żarbiḵᵛāns, and one qānun player. Keeping in mind the likely inaccuracy of Levi’s demographics, this decline in numbers may be attributed to improved economic opportunities for Jews and the proliferation of radios and phonographs in private homes. The fee for a troupe of two moṭrebs ranged from 300 to 2,000 rials around 1968, with an average earning of 950 to 1,400 rials per week during the peak season of late-March to mid-October; approximately the weekly wage of a school teacher at the time (Loeb, p. 157-58). By the late 1970s, a group of five or six moṭrebs could expect to earn between 3,000 to 4,000 rials for the night. While a comprehensive list of Jewish moṭrebs from Shiraz cannot be compiled (see below for selected list), mention should be made of the most renowned. Of these, Moš-Allāh Managen and his sons Faraj and Jalāl, as well as Kerāmat, ʿAziz, and Jalāl Bālāzāda are among the older and more celebrated families of moṭrebs from Shiraz. Jalāl Owrām-Pulād (also known as Fulādi) was a dancer-actor and the ṣandoqdār of Shiraz’s most famous ru-ḥawżi troupe (dasta-ye Jalāl Khan). He was admired for his striking good looks and beautiful dance, and his troupe was well known for its siāh-bāzi performance. Its Čahār darviš performance was among its most popular events. In the mid 1940s, Hāšem Ariya was one of Shiraz’s last and most celebrated boy-dancers who performed wearing women’s clothes. Known mostly by his stage-name Tirām-tirām, Ariya later took on the violin and formed a group with Yaʿqub Kāši (tār) (originally from Kāšān; Loeb, p. 160; Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 361). Šekar Širāḵun is another of Shiraz’s celebrated moṭrebs. Reputed for his expertise in playing the tombak/żarb while singing, dancing, and juggling the instrument, he was particularly known for a dance he had coined the juqanaki (< juqan “mortar,” a Shirazi Pers. term), which consisted of playing and juggling the tombak/żarb while singing and walking around the room in a half-squatted posture as if seated on a chair (Rafailzadeh). Āqājān Baḵši (violin), ʿAziz Baḵši (violin, siāh-bāzi actor), and Māni (żarbiḵᵛān) also formed a famous troupe. Nasim Golak (żarbiḵᵛān), Ḥašem Delnavāz (tār, vocalist), who eventually moved to Tehran where he performed on the radio, and Šokri Kaftari (tār) were among the other most reputed moṭrebs of Shiraz, the last two often traveling to Tehran for work. Mention must also be made of Manučehr Širāzi (vocalist, tombak/żarb), the vocalist in Jalāl Qānuni’s ensemble, noted for his broad knowledge and skill at performing daštestāni (folk songs of the Fārs province) songs.

As well as Shiraz, other cities with a relatively large Jewish population also had their own Jewish moṭrebs, though not in such large numbers. In Isfahan, for instance, the Šabrang family was one of the oldest families of professional musicians from the first quarter of the 20th century. Closer to the 1940s, tār player Musā Širāzi (a native of Shiraz), tombak/żarb player Sāqi Tombakzan, Šabrang (vocals), Višcow (violin) and ney player Ruben-e Ṭows (also known as Pir-e Vezaḡ) were the city’s main moṭrebs. In Isfahan, as in other cities throughout Persia, moṭrebs were a fixed feature of all festive life-cycle events, especially weddings and circumcisions. Their most public performances consisted of their leading the ritual precession from the bride and bridegroom’s respective homes to the public bath in a ceremony called ḥamum-barun, where the new in-laws would take the bride and groom to the public baths in an elaborate festivity on the eve of their wedding (R. Ḵāleqi, I, pp. 25-27). Since Jews were barred from Muslim baths and Muslims would not enter Jewish ones, this ritual in particular was always led by Jewish moṭrebs, who followed the precession as far as the vestibule of the bathhouse and entertained the family during the often day-long festivities. During the same ritual in Shiraz moṭrebs would sit in the ante-chamber of the bathhouse called bina, where patrons changed their clothes before entering the inner bathing chamber. The most renowned female moṭreb in Isfahan was a Jewish woman named Bati Bandandāz, a talented tombak/żarb player who was also endowed with a beautiful voice and had a wide knowledge of folk songs, especially daštestāni melodies. She also presided over the bride’s ritual grooming and requisite first shaping of her eyebrows on the eve of her wedding (Baravarian; Omidvar; Sakhayi; N. Sarshar).

Kāšān also had a sizeable Jewish population and a number of Jewish moṭrebs. Among them were Bābā Jān (vocals, kamānča), Raḥmān Menaša; Esḥāq Māšiah (dāyera); Moša Ḥaïm (tār); Esḥāq Abrāhām Qaṣṣāb (tombak/żarb); Musā Khānzāda, son of Musā Khan Kāši (kamānča); Rabi Rowšan (kamānča); Yaʿqub Jimjim (santur); Moš-Allāh (sornā); Nur-Allāh Kohan (kamānča); ʿAziz Kohan (violin); Nisān Mollā-Yuhannā (tombak/żarb); ʿAziz Sornāzan (sornā); Yusef Khan (kamānča); and one female musician Goli Ḵānom (ney) (Haghani).

In Tehran, on the other hand, the number of Jewish moṭrebs was comparatively small relative to its Jewish population. They generally convened around Sirus Street near Tehran’s Jewish quarter Sar-e čāl, where the majority of Jewish instrument makers (see below) were located. Of these, some would also work as pay-for-hire musicians, while others worked mainly as agents for those moṭrebs that did not keep a shop. Among Tehran’s Jewish moṭrebs the male żarbiḵᵛān Nabāti, tār-player and vocalist Najāt-Allāh Moš-Allāh Dunel, female tār-player and vocalist Šāzda Nabāti, and tār-player Farangis Verdi are the only ones from the latter part of the 20th century whose names have survived (Z. Baḵši). Another relatively more famous, named Marżia Kalimi (also known as Marżia Ḵāldār) was a vocalist from the Aḥmad Shah era (r. 1909-1925) whose name has survived mostly because of her regular collaborations with the lyricist Mirzā ʿAli-Akbar Širāzi, Šeydā, who fell passionately in love with her. The latter’s famous taṣnif “Marżia” was originally dedicated to this singer and performed by her (Mašḥun, pp. 395, 465; Ḵāleqi, I, p. 395; Maleki, pp. 143-44). This same song was later performed in a famous recording by the 20th-century singer of Barnāma-ye Golhā, Marżia (Š. Behruzi, pp. 391-92). While the reasons behind the comparatively lower number of Jewish moṭrebs in Tehran require further analysis, one possible explanation for it may be the fact that many of the Jewish musicians born in the capital in the 20th century were more likely to gravitate towards Persian classical music. Furthermore, given that socio-economic opportunities for Tehran’s Jewish community improved earlier and more rapidly than in other cities, it is also likely that the Jews in Tehran were more quick to take up other means of income than professional music making. The active promotion of Western music at the expense of Persian music and the government mandate that all professional musicians should have permits also had an impact on the profession of moṭrebs, particularly in Tehran, where the government was capable of exerting a greater control on the populace.

Selected list of moṭrebs from Shiraz. Mayur ʿAlam (ru-ḥawżi actor); Kerāmat Āqābālā (Bālāzāda, violin) (Loeb, p. 158); Jalāl Āqābālā (Bālāzāda; tār); Sāqi Āqābālā (Bālāzāda); Ḥāšem Aria “Tirām-Tirām” (boy-dancer, violin) (Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 361); Arzāni (Browne, p. 265); Āqājān Baḵši (violin); ʿAziz Baḵši (siāh-bāzi actor, violin); Māni Baḵši (tombak, vocalist); ʿAziz Bālāzāda (tār); Benti-Yaʿqub (comedian, ru-ḥawżi actor); ʿAziz Češbālā (violin); Manučehr Čubḵaṭṭi Širāzi (folk singer); Ḥāšem Delnavāz (tār, vocalist); Jalāl Fišfišak (violin); Naṣim Golak (tombak, vocalist); Manučehr Jikjikak (dancer); Šokri Kaftari (tār); Šokr-Allāh Ḵandaru (tār); ʿAziz Kāši (kamānča); Dāvud Kāši (violin); Yaʿqub Kāši (violin) (Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 361); Faraj Ḵošḵerāmān (Tefilim; tombak, ru-ḥawżi actor); Faraj Managem; Jalāl Managem; Moš-Allāh Managem (Faraj and Jalāl’s father); Reyḥān Mollā-Āqāʾi (violin); Ṣion Muneṣā (tombak); Jalāl Owrām-Pulād (Fulādi) (comedian, dancer, ru-ḥawżi actor); Laṭif Pejmān (violin); Jalāl Qānuni (qānun); Raḥim Šiāzi Qānuni Širāzi (qānun); Šekar Širāḵun (tombak, singer, performer); Manučehr Širāzi (vocalist, tombak); Moš-Allāh Tefilim (żarb, ru-ḥowżi actor); Qitak Tefilim (tombak, ru-ḥawżi actor) (Source: Javanizadeh; Nowbandegani; Rafailzadeh).


The turn of the 20th century was a time of great change in Persia’s social, political, and cultural environments. Music was one of the many fields affected by these changes, as the introduction of Western musicology and notation exposed many musicians to previously unexplored possibilities in music making. The unprecedented transcription of the dastgāh with the notation of the repertoire (radifs) collected by Mirzā ʿAbd-Allāh, the composition of operas or operettas like Golroḵ by ʿAli-Naqi Vaziri (1886-1980) and Rastāḵiz-e Irān by Moḥammad-Reżā Mirzāda ʿEšqi (1894-1923), and the composition of military marches and national anthems are but some examples of such possibilities (R. Ḵāleqi, II, pp. 278-87; Sepantā, p. 133; Z. Ḵāleqi, pp. 47, 53; Šehābi, pp. 72-86). During this same period, the work of the Alliance Israèlite Universelle in educating the Iranian Jewish communities and the Constitutional Revolution’s recognition of the full civil status of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews as citizens were greatly contributing to a general shift in the perception and position of Jews in society at large. Within the community of Jewish musicians, many saw this time of social expansion as a venue to contribute directly to the burgeoning phase of the development of Persian classical music. While recent scholarship has documented the name of many of these musician (see Chaouli, 2002, pp. 145-51), the present entry will consider only those who have left a noticeable mark on this development.

Solaymān Ḥaim is the oldest one of these. Though far more famous for his achievements as a lexicographer, like his contemporary Mirzāda ʿEšqi, Ḥaim was among a handful of Persians to have experimented with the then-novel and short-lived musical genre of the operetta in Persia. A skillful tār and kamānča player, Ḥaim was also known for his beautiful singing voice. During the two decades spanning the end of the Qajar and the beginning of the Pahlavi eras, Ḥaim wrote, directed, and produced three operettas: Yusof o Zolayḵā (full text with stage directions reprinted in Sarshar and Sarshar, 1999, pp. 287-352), Ester o Mordeḵāy, and Rut o Nayomi, all of which were brought to stage at the Grand Hotel in Tehran with Ḥaim himself as the lead male in each play. While it was still common for men to play the part of female characters during this period, we know that at least in one production in 1928 the famous Armenian singer Loretā (Loretta) played the role of Zolayḵā opposite Ḥaim (Sarshar, ed., 2002, pp. 159, 267; Sarshar and Sarshar, 1999, pp. 3-28, 277-86).

Born in Tehran, master tār player Yaḥyā Hārun Zarpanja (1897-1932) was one of the most prolific Jewish recording artists of his time. His surviving records demonstrate his exceptional technical mastery on the tār with his unusually fast and strong pick and his effortlessly fluid tremolos (riz). Of particular note among these recordings are his Sorud-e melli (national anthem) in the Māhur mode with Jamāl Ṣafawi on vocals and arrangements by Moḥammad-Taqi Bahār (1886-1951, Columbia 15038), and his sessions in 1928 with Parvāna on vocals for His Master’s Voice label (Mir-ʿAlinaqi, pp. 155; Kinnear, p. 19). Yaḥyā Khan’s other regular collaborators were the singers Nāhid Nikbaḵt and ʿAli Khan Farāzi, with each of whom he recorded several albums for the Columbia label, again in 1928. Yaḥyā Zarpanja died of an infection in a hospital in Tehran due to post-surgical complications, thus cutting short a promising career as a classical musician. Master tār player Naṣr-Allāh Zarinpanja (1906-81) is Yaḥyā Khan’s most acclaimed pupil (Behruzi, pp. 86-87; Chaouli, 2006, pp. 100-101; Jawādi, II, p. 509; Naṣirifar, II, pp. 24-25; Mir-ʿAlinaqi, pp. 155-59; Sepantā, 1987, pp. 209, 222-23; Idem, 1990, p. 177).

Grandson and son of master tombak/żarb players Mordeḵāy and Ebrāhim ʿAzariā, respectively, Solaymān Ruḥafzā (also known as Simon Imorā, ca. 1900-95) was a master tār player as well as a skilled violin, viola, and kamānča player. Ruḥafzā was a pupil of Āqā Ḥosaynqoli and Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Darviš Khan (1872-1926); his chief accomplishment is a series of recordings in 1959 of the complete radif of the seven dastgāhs. Collected and arranged by Musā Maʿrufi, this compilation included Mehdiqoli Hedāyat’s notation of Mirzā ʿAbd-Allāh’s radif (Naṣirifar, I, p. 62; Mir-ʿAlinaqi, p. 154; During, 1984, p. 32). This studio recording of Ruḥafzā’s performance subsequently became the basis for the first-ever complete notation of the radif, published in 1963 by the Iranian Ministry of Fine Arts (repr. 1973). According to Šāpur Behruzi, the recordings were still available in the musical archives of the Ministry of Culture and Art as late as 1993 (Š. Behruzi, p. 383; Jawādi, II, p. 734). Ruḥafzā died in Israel in 1995 (R. Ḵāleqi, III, pp. 109-13; Sepantā, 1990, p. 223; Mašḥun, pp. 553, 559; Nasirifar, IV, pp. 21, 147, 155, 187-88, 191; Jawādi, II, p. 594).

A colleague of Ruḥafzā, master tār player, lyricist, and composer Ebrāhim Sarḵoš (1910s-March 1982) was also a third generation musician. Ebrāhim’s father Karim and brother ʿAli-Akbar were also accomplished musicians in their own right, though both were known predominantly as master tār and santur makers (see below). Among Sarḵoš’s most valuable and least recognized achievements were the first-ever complete recordings of the āvāz radif for the Ministry of Culture and Art (Wezārat-e farhang o honar) with the vocalists Adib Ḵvānsāri (1901-82) and Ruḥangiz (1904-84) separately and himself on tār (Jawādi, II, pp. 736, 771; Š. Behruzi, p. 519; Maleki, p. 194). The complete Ḵᵛānsāri recordings were released on CD in 2005 by Mahoor Institute of Culture and Art (www.mahoor.ir). In a career spanning over fifty years, Sarḵoš wrote, arranged, performed, and recorded a plethora of songs and programs for the radio, his most successful and longest lasting collaboration being with the renowned female vocalist Ruḥangiz. His most famous arrangement was that of the song “Dar fekr-e to budam” (I was thinking of you), performed by the vocalist Marżia in 1950 (R. Ḵāleqi, III, pp. 168-69; Sepantā, 1990, pp. 208, 252; Š. Behruzi, pp. 90-92; Nasirifar, I, pp. 290-92, IV, pp. 147, 155; Maleki, p. 289).

Yonā Dardašti (1903-93) is the only Jewish vocalist in recorded Persian classical music history to have received wide national acclaim as a master vocalist. Dardašti learned the basics of the avāz radif from his father, a ḥazzan (cantor), before studying with Ḥosayn Ḵożuʿi (also known as Mirzā Ḥosayn Sāʿatsāz, 1874-1944). A singer in the style of the Khorasan school, Dardašti was known for his powerful voice, high range, and smooth yodeling (taḥrir; Naširifar, II, p. 154; Mašḥun, pp. 658, 674). In 1947 Dardašti began singing for Radio Tehran, where, alternating with Jalāl Tāj Eṣfahāni (1903-81), he performed on the live weekly program Šomā va rādio (You and the radio) every Thursday evening (8:00-8:30 PM) and Friday morning (10:00-12:00 AM) for nearly nineteen years. Despite his numerous concerts and live radio performances, very few recordings were ever made of Dardašti’s voice, with even fewer having survived. Of these, three āvāzes in Segāh, Šuštari, and Bayāt-e Tork were re-released in Los Angeles in the 1980s. His famous recording of the sāqi-nāma (rhythmic singing of a poem in the genre known as such) in the Māhur mode is also a staple in many anthology CDs of classical Persian songs. Dardašti moved to Rishon-LeTzion, Israel in 1967, where he funded the construction of the Šušan ha-Bira Synagogue, himself becoming its ḥazzan. During one of his trips back to Tehran in the mid-1970s, Dardašti recorded selections of liturgical music including the Patakh Eliahu, a monājāt, and fragments of Selihot prayers, all of which were also re-released in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s. He died of cancer on 16 January 1993 in Rishon-LeTzion and is buried in Jerusalem (Chaouli, 2006, pp. 101-3; Dardashti, p. 177).

ʿAbd-Allāh Ṭāleʿ Hamadāni (1914-2004 was a poet, lyricist, composer, vocalist, and violinist most famous for his collaborations with Morteżā Khan Ney-Dāwud and Qamar-al-Moluk Vaziri (1903-59). “Āfat-e din o deli, rahzan-e jāni” in Bayāt-e Eṣfahān, “Āh ke šod ruz-e waṣl āḵer-e šab-e ḥejr” in Afšāri, “Az farvardin gašt ḵold-e barin sāḥat-e bostān” in Bayāt-e Tork, and “Bād-e ḵazān bār-e degar tā ke vazān šod” in Abu ʿAṭā were four of his songs that were performed by Qamar, but never recorded (Z. Ḵāleqi, p. 113). Of the various taṣnifs by Ṭāleʿ Hamadāni, six were posthumously recorded in a CD called Ṭāleʿ-e mehr, with Yaldā Yazdāni on vocals (Naṣirifar, II, pp. 158-64; Chaouli, 2002, pp. 280-84; Š. Behruzi, p. 512; Ṭāleʿ Hamadāni; P. Ṭāleʿ; Š. Ṭāleʿ).

Arguably the most renowned Jewish master of Persian classical music, and indeed one of 20th century Iran’s leading musicians, is the composer and tār player Mortażā Khan Ney-Dāwud (1900-90), son of master tombak/żarb player Bālā Khan. A pupil of Āqā Ḥosaynqoli and Darviš Khan, Ney-Dāwud is among the very few Persian master musicians to have created a style of tār-playing so distinctly his own that it bears his name. Alongside this technical blueprint, he is credited with the discovery and training of a number of Iranian master musicians. The most renowned of these were two of Persia’s greatest recorded vocalists, Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Banān (1911-1985) and Qamar-al-Moluk Vaziri, the former discovered by Ney-Dāwud at the age of six (Naṣirifar, I, p. 371). Ney-Dāwud first met Qamar around 1920, and after a few years of training he organized her first concert held in 1924 at the Grand Hotel, Tehran. The concert was of great historical significance. Nearly twelve years before the official unveiling of women (kašf-e hejāb) by Reza Shah (r. 1925-41) in 1936, Qamar appeared on stage without the traditional Islamic hejāb (Z. Ḵāleqi, pp. 48, 146). Ney-Dāwud and Qamar’s other legendary concert was held in Hamadān in 1931. Together, these two concerts have become historical markers not only in the field of Persian classical music, but also in the life of those who lived in Tehran and Hamadān at the time, both having become leitmotifs in many published memoirs of the period (e.g., Mošfeq Hamadāni, pp. 62-64). From 1926 until the end of their artistic collaboration, Ney-Dāwud and Qamar would become the most recorded artists of their time, producing over one hundred albums for His Master’s Voice and Polyphon Records. These albums represent that period’s first methodic recording of the complete radif of music and song combined (Sepantā, 1987, p. 188). In addition to his collaboration with Qamar, Ney-Dāwud regularly worked with at least three other legendary female figures of Persian classical music, namely Ruḥangiz (Batul ʿAbbāsi, 1904-84), ʿEzzat Ruḥbaḵš (d. 1989), and Moluk Żarrābi (1910-99), playing the tār in the first two’s début radio performances on Sunday 15 February 1942 and Friday 20 February 1942, respectively (Sepantā, 1987, pp. 305-7; Š. Behruzi, p. 519; Maleki, p. 194). Of the three, Moluk Żarrābi was the most regular collaborator with Ney-Dāwud, the latter being in part responsible for her vocal training (Naṣirifar, I, p. 35; Homa Sarshar; Gabbay).

Mortażā Khan was exceptionally gifted in composing piš-darāmads (see DARĀMAD), čahārmeżrābs, and taṣnifs, most of which he wrote between 1926 and 1950. While reverberations of Mortażā Khan’s compositional achievements continue to be felt in many contemporary recordings of Persian classical music, his technical contribution to this tradition will arguably remain his most important and long-lasting one. Up to the turn of the 20th century, the radif in each of the seven dastgāhs was not only taught but also performed on a crescendo, starting with the darāmad and continuing to the āvāz, taṣnif, and finally the reng, with the gušas and āvāzes arranged from the slowest to the fastest rhythm and the lowest to the highest range in each dastgāh’s respective scale. Along with his mentor Darviš Khan and his contemporary composer and master violinist Abu’l-Ḥasan Ṣabā (1902-57), Mortażā Khan was one of the pioneers in the compositional rearrangement of the traditional radif, reorganizing specific gušas and āvāzes of respective dastgāhs with variation in rhythm and melodic scale dispersed throughout the radif (Sepantā, 1990, pp. 280-82). Mortażā Khan can therefore be regarded as one of the major figures in Persian classical music, who shaped its future course by providing a model that virtually all composers and performers after him continue to emulate. He joins the ranks of such late 19th-century pillars of Persian classical music as Mirzā ʿAbd-Allāh by having his own signature radif. Known as the Ney-Dāwud radif, this arrangement of 297 gušas of the seven dastgāhs and five āvāzes, each identified by name prior to performance, was recorded in its entirety over the course of eighteen month with Mortażā Khan on tār in the studios of Radio Iran starting in 1969 (Ney-Dāwud, 1977). These recordings contained fifty-seven more gušas than Mirzā ʿAbd-Allāh’s canon radif (Talaʾi, p. 5) and as such remain the most expansive radif recorded to date. A complete copy of these recordings is stored at the Ministry of Education in Tehran. At his own insistence, Ney-Dāwud’s only compensation for this work was one complete copy of the recordings, which he later donated to the music library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1980s (Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 145). Nearly thirty-six years after the original recording, Ney-Dāwud’s radif was finally released for the first time in 2005 by Mahoor Institute of Culture and Art.

In the Ney-Dāwud family, Mortażā Khan’s accomplishments are followed by those of his brother Musā Khan (1910-91), who was a master violinist. Throughout his musical carrier, he collaborated with many of the established masters of his time and was a regular member of Mortażā Khan’s ensemble in concerts, recordings, and live radio shows, especially with respect to performances with Qamar and Moluk Żarrābi (Dawlatšāhi, no. 259; Ḵatibi, pp. 20-22). More adept in notation than his older brother, Musā Khan’s most invaluable contribution to his collaboration with Mortażā Khan was the meticulous transcription of all their music, which comprised a considerable collection of taṣnifs, piš-darāmads, and čahārmeżrābs (Dawlatšāhi, no. 253). Of these, the only one exclusively attributed to Musā Khan himself is a piš-darāmad in Čahārgāh called “‘Ešq-e bi ḥāṣel” (unrequited love), which he taught to all of his students (Gabbay; Naṣirifar, IV, pp. 281-83; Dawlatšāhi, no. 254).


Religious prohibitions against music making also extended to the craft of instrument making; and here again non-Muslims, especially Jews and Armenians, filled in the void. Unfortunately very few old Persian musical instruments have survived to bear witness to their maker’s craftsmanship and identify them with any markers. Reliable information about particular Persian instrument-makers thus seldom reaches back further than the early to mid-19th century (Šehābi, pp. 70-71). As was the case with musicians, Muslim instrument makers also played a very prominent role in this craft alongside their Jewish compatriots, but the available statistics suggest that there were a disproportionately large number of Jews represented in this field: In the late 1960s almost all of the thirty-five to forty music stores in the vicinity of the Majles in Tehran were owned by Jews (Loeb, 159). Up to that time, a sizeable portion of instruments in Tehran were made, repaired, and sold by these craftsmen, some of whom closely guarded the secrets of their trade (Naṣirifar, IV, p. 497). By 2005, however, there were no Jewish instrument makers of note left in Iran.

Among Tehran’s Jewish instrument makers, the Delšād family is one of the most renowned and prolific. The family’s involvement in the field dates back to the late 19th century, when tombak/żarb player Ebrāhim Khan (d. ca. 1950) opened his store on Sirus Street next to the Kešvari Bathhouse in Tehran’s Jewish quarter. Ebrāhim had four sons, Solaymān, Mehdi, Našāṭ, and Fayż-Allāh (1913-82), who were all trained by him. Together, the four Delšād brothers owned and operated the Delšād music store on Bahārestān Square, which also served as a teaching studio for some of today’s master instrument makers in Persia. Of the four, Fayż-Allāh was the only one to have acquired the honorific title ostād (master) by his fellow craftsmen. Fayż-Allāh died in Tel Aviv, and was buried there in February 1982. His three sons Hušang (b. 1940), Farhād (1945-93), and Farivar (b. 1950) would each become highly skilled craftsmen in their own right. Farhād studied the craft of instrument making with three other masters in Iran, Ebrāhim Qanbari (b. 1928), Dariuš Ṣafwat (b. 1928), and ʿAbbās Šāpuri (b. 1923). Among his brothers, Farhād was the most prolific craftsman, with expertise in the making of tārs, setārs, kamānčas, ʿuds, tombaks/żarbs, and violins. Delšād instruments were highly coveted by master musicians throughout Persia, and many remain today as some of the most exquisite examples of their kind (Naṣirifar, III, pp. 363-70, V, pp. 389-92; Delshad).

ʿAli-Akbar Sarḵoš (b. 1923), brother of master tār player Ebrāhim Sarḵoš, is another established Jewish instrument maker, whose exceptional expertise in making santurs (hammer dulcimer) had earned him a reputation as one of the masters of his craft. Among ʿAli-Akbar Sarḵoš’s contributions to the craft of instrument making is his addition of the quarter scale to the accordion, a modification which enables the instrument to produce the full range of notes necessary for playing the entire dastgāh (Naṣirifar, II, pp. 365-68).

Sons of Qodrat and Āšer Esḥāq Baḵši, Ṣion (b. 1920) and his brother Najāt-Allāh Baḵši (1924-2005) were two of the other established instrument makers in Tehran. A skilled tombak/żarb, violin, and kamānča player, Ṣion was especially renowned for his craftsmanship in making tombaks/żarbs (Chaouli, 2002, p. 296). Najāt-Allāh Baḵši (b. 29 May 1924) was reputed for his exceptional craftsmanship in making tārs and repairing antique ones (Naṣirifar, V, pp. 383-85). Located on Bahārestān Square near the Majles in Tehran, Ṣion and Najāt-Allāh’s “Baḵši brothers’ music store” was relocated after fifty years to a store on Darvāza Šamirān in the late 1980s. By the time of his last interview on record in October 2002, Najāt-Allāh was the last remaining Jewish store-owner of classical Persian instrument sales and repairs in Tehran (Farahani). He died on 5 October 2005 and was buried in the Giliārd cemetery in Tehran. His last store was demolished soon afterwards to make way for the new subway line (M. Bakhshi; Z. Baḵši).


The westernization campaign that swept through Persia after the rise of Reza Shah in 1925 eventually affected the state of Persian music as well. Broadly speaking, this impact translated into a gradual shift in popular taste away from traditional and Persian classical music towards a novel genre highly influenced by the popular music of neighboring and western countries (Sepantā, 1990, p. 231). Called pop or jāz (jazz) music, this particular hybrid of Persian and quasi-Western music initially emerged out of extensive sampling of Russian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic folk and popular songs. Rapidly evolving into a distinctly Persian version of 1970s soft-rock by artists like Tom Jones, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, and Sonny and Cher, Persian pop reached the peak of its popularity in the decade prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 with recording artists like Guguš/Googoosh, Sattār, and Dariyuš on one end of the spectrum, and Mahasti, Hāyeda (1942-90), and ʿAli-Akbar Golpāyagāni on the other, the last three additionally successful performers of a more traditional hybrid of Persian music. Though none of the musicians that took the stage with this novel genre of Persian music were Jewish, its promotional and distribution infrastructure from 1962 to 1979 was, by and large, dominated by Āpolon (Apollo) Records, owned and operated by the Jewish brothers Manṣur and Manučehr Bibiān (b. 22 November 1933).

Āpolon Records originally started in 1954 as a record shop selling imported 45s. In 1956, Manučehr Bibiān met a then unknown singer named Vigen Derderiān (1929-2003) performing at Kāfa (Café) Šemirān, and decided to produce a 45 rpm record of one of his songs. Recording their first song in a makeshift studio in Bibiān’s home with a one-band hand-held recorder, they produced Vigen’s now famous “Ḵodā negahdār.” Printed on a 45 rpm record by Royāl Records, this song is the first Persian pop song ever produced. It was soon followed by Vigen’s next two hit singles “Šā[h]-dumād” and “Bārun bārun-e,” the last sung both in Persian and Armenian. After Vigen, Bibiān produced records for Ravānbaḵš and Purān. Prior to the production of these albums, the only pop music available in Persia was that of foreign artists. Their production thus represented a veritable revolution in modern Persian music, and their commercial success quickly attracted a new generation of musicians, lyricists, and singers, who started to work with the fledgling Āpolon Records. Under Manučehr Bibiān’s leadership, Āpolon Records discovered some of the leading Iranian pop icons like singers Rāmeš, Dariuš, and Giti, and the composer/lyricist Farid Zolān (b. 1956; Sarshar, ed., 2002, p. 392, fig. 754). Exponentially increasing its influence over the recording industry, by the early 1970s Āpolon Records was working with virtually all the leading figures of Persian popular music, among them Jahānbaḵš Pāzuki (composer), Anuširavān Ruḥāni (composer), Manučehr Češm-Āḏar (lyricist/composer), Homā Mir-Afšār (lyricist), Ḥasan Šamāʿizāda (lyricist/composer), Jannati ʿAṭāʾi (lyricist), Turaj Negahbān (lyricist), Sattār (singer), Guguš (singer), Mahasti (singer), Ḥomayrā (singer), Hāyeda (singer), Golpāyagāni (singer), Banān (singer), Parisā (singer), and Moḥammad-Reżā Šajariān (singer), most of whom worked exclusively with Āpolon. In addition to his credit for producing the first Persian pop song, Bibiān was also the first recording executive to produce and promote a particular genre of Persian urban folk coined lālazāri music after the famous street in Tehran, where the cabarets showcasing its most popular singers were located. As such, Manučehr Bibiān is credited for the discovery of such Persian urban folk icons as Susan, Āqāsi, and Firuza, each of whom separately ranked among the most commercially successful recording artists of 1970s Iran. With exclusive production rights on more than six thousand titles, an established reputation for the discovery and promotion of new talent, and an ensemble of many of the leading recording artists, in the six to seven years prior to the Islamic Revolution, Āpolon was selling an average of twenty five thousand unites per day via nearly two thousand records stores throughout the country and others abroad. As such, Āpolon had become by far the largest music production company in the country, and Manučehr Bibiān the most influential recording executive in Persia prior to 1979 (Bibiān).

For a music sample, see Bayāt-e Tork.


Nādera Badiʿi, Tāriḵča-i bar adabiyāt-e āhangin-e Irān, Tehran, 1975.

Mayer Baḵši, interview, 5 April 2006.

Zinat Eṣfahāni Baḵšim (Najāt-allāh Baḵši’s wife), interview, 25 June 2007.

Shokrollah Baravarian, interview, 28 April 2006 and 15 May 2006.

Kayḵosrow Behruzi, “Musā Ney-Dāwud ham raft,” Rahavard 8/29, Spring 1992, pp. 414-15.

Farideh Ghanuni Behbudi, Raḥim Qānuni’s granddaughter, interview, 8 July 2007.

Šāpur Behruzi, Čehrahā-ye musiqi-e Irān, Tehran, 1993.

Manučehr Bibiān, “Oral History Project: Interview no. 44, 1 June 1997,” Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, Los Angeles. Edward G. Browne, A Year amongst the Persians, London, 1893.

Alain Chaouli, “Les Musiciens juifs en Iran aux XIXe et XXe siècles et leur contribution à la sauvegarde du patrimoine musical iranien,” Ph.D. diss., Université Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, 2002.

Idem, Les Musiciens juifs en Iran aux XIXe et XXe siècles, Paris, 2006.

Albert Confino, L’Action de l’A.I.U. en Perse, Algiers, 1941.

Galeet Dardashti, “Yonah Dardashti,” in Haim Saadoun, ed., Iran, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 177.

Fatḥ-Allāh Dawlatšāhi, “Ostād Musā Ney-Dāwud,” series of 12 articles, in Javānān, 27 March 1992-12 June 1992, nos. 251-62, p. 16 (reference given to issue no.).

Houshang Delshad, interview, 6 May 2006.

Jean During, La Musique iranienne: tradition et évolution, Paris, 1984.

Hooshang Ebrami, “The Impure Jew,” in ed. Houman Sarshar, Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, 2002, pp. 97-102.

Henry G. Farmer, A History of Arabian Music to the XIIIth Century, London, 1929.

Walter J. Fischel, “Toledot yehude paras bi-me shalshelet ha-sefevidim,” Zion 2, 1937, pp. 273-93.

Amir Gabbay, Musā Khan Ney-Dāwud’s nephew and son-in-law, interviewed along with his wife Manijeh (Majiža) Ney-Davud Gabbay, 15 May 2006.

Behjat Ghanuni, Raḥim Qānuni’s daughter-in-law, interview, 8 March 2006.

Nejatollah Haghani, interview 16 May 2006.

Shahpour Javanizadeh, interview, 21 and 28 March 2006.

Ḡolām-Reżā Jawādi, Musiqi-ye Irān az āḡāz tā emruz, 3 vols., Tehran, 2001.

Ruḥ-Allāh Ḵāleqi, Sargoḏašt-e musiqi-e Irān, 6th ed., 2 vols., Tehran, 1997; III, ed. ʿAli-Moḥammad Dašti, Tehran, 1998.

Zohra Ḵāleqi, Āvā-ye mehrabāni: yādvāra-ye Qamar-al-Moluk Vaziri, Tehran, 2000.

Parviz Ḵaṭibi, Ḵāṭerāt-i az honarmandān, ed. Firuza Ḵaṭibi, Los Angeles, 1994.

Iraj Khademi, interview, 30 March 2006.

Michael Kinnear, The Gramophone Company’s Persian Recordings: 1899 to 1934, Victoria, 2000.

Ḥabib Levi, Tāriḵ-e yahud-e Irān, 3 vols., Tehran, 1960.

Laurence Loeb, Outcaste: Jewish Life in Southern Iran, New York, 1977.

Moḥammad-Reżā Loṭfi, “Moṭreb wa moṭrebi dar Irān,” in idem, ed., Ketāb-e sāl-e šeydā: majmu‘a-ye maqālāt-e musiqi-e viža-ye pažuheš dar farhang-e Irān, Washington, D.C., 1992, pp. 133-44.

Idem, “Šenāḵt-e formhā-ye musiqi-e Irān,” ibid., pp. 222-35.

Idem, “Taḥlil-i bar šiva-ye tār-navāzi-e Mortażā Ney-Dāwud,” Nāma-ye šeydā, nos. 6-7, 1990, pp. 1, 16-17.

Zeʾev Maghen, “Strangers and Brothers: The Ritual Status of Unbelievers in Islamic Jurisprudence,” Medieval Encounters 12/2, 2006, pp. 173-223.

Tukā Maleki, Zanān-e musiqi-e Irān az osṭura tā emruz, Tehran, 1991.

Ḥasan Mašḥun, Tāriḵ-e musiqi-e Irān, Tehran, 2001.

Homā Mir-Afšār, interview, 19 May 2006.

Sayyed ʿAli-Reżā Mir-ʿAlinaqi, “Yād-i az musiqidānān-e yahud-e Irān-zamin: zarpanja-i ke zud ḵāk šod,” in Moḥammad-Reżā Loṭfi, ed., Ketāb-e sāl-e šeydā: viža-ye pažuheš dar farhang-e Irān, Washington, D.C., 1993, pp. 152-59.

Idem, “Ḵāmuši-e Ney-Dāwud,” in Nāma-ye šeydā, nos. 6-7, 1980, pp. 4-6.

Mošfeq Hamadāni, Ḵāterāt-e nimqarn ruz-nāma-negāri, 1991.

Gina Nahai, communications with author, 5 May 2006.

Nāṣer Najmi, Tehrān dar goḏar-e zamān, Tehran, 1988.

Ḥabib-Allāh Naṣirifar, Mardān-e musiqi-ye sonnati wa nowin-e Irān, 5 vols., Tehran, 1993.

Turaj Negahbān, interview, 19 May 2006.

Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia V: Later Sasanian Times, Leiden, 1979.

Mortażā Ney-Dāwud, interview, printed in Kayhān, no. 10112, 21 Esfand 1355 Š (1977), p. 20.

Idem, interview printed in Eṭṭelāʿāt, Tuesday 10 Tir 1354 Š (1975), as quoted in Zohra Ḵāleqi, Āvā-ye mehrabāni: yādvāra-ye Qamar-al-Moluk Vaziri, Tehran, 2000, p. 40.

Idem, interview with Jām-e Jam Television Station, September 1984, Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History archive, DVD #104.

Jalal Nowbandegani, interview, 25 March 2006.

Nimtadj Nowbandegani Rafailzadeh, interview, 28 March 2006.

Zoleikha Omidvar, interview, 10 May 2006.

Jahanbakhsh Pazoki, interview, 18 May 2006.

Haim Saadoun, ed. Jewish Communities in the East in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Tel Aviv, 2005 (in Hebrew).

ʿAli-Akbar Saʿidi Sirjāni, ed., Waqāyeʿ-e ettefāqiya: majmu‘e-ye gozārešhā-ye ḵofyanevisān-e Engelis dar welāyāt-e janubi-e Irān az sāl-e 1291 tā 1322 qamari, Tehran, 1983.

Shokrallah Sakhayi, interview, 10 May 2006.

Homa Sarshar, “Mortażā Khan Ney-Dāwud,” 20-mn video documentary, Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History archive, DVD #3, Los Angeles, 1998.

Homa Sarshar and Houman Sarshar, eds., Yahudiān-e Irāni dar tāriḵ-e moʿāṣer, 4 vols., Los Angeles, 1997-2000.

Houman Sarshar, ed., Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, Los Angeles, 2002.

Nejat Sarshar, interview, 5 May 2006.

Hušang E. Šehābi (Chehabi), “Az taṣnif-e enqelābi tā sorud-e waṭani: musiqi wa nāsionālizm dar Irān,” Irān-nāma/Iran Nameh 16/1, 1998, pp. 69-96.

Sāsān Sepantā, Tāriḵ-e taḥawwol-e żabṭ-e musiqi dar Irān, Isfahan, 1987.

Idem, Čašmandāz-e musiqi-e Irān, Tehran, 1990.

ʿAżod-al-Dawla Solṭān-Aḥmad Mirzā, Tāriḵ-e ʿażodi, ed. with commentary, ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾi, Tehran, 1974.

Johanna Spector, “On Jewish Music,” in Conservative Judaism 21/1, 1966, pp. 57-72.

Dariush Talaʾi, Traditional Persian Art Music: The Radif of Mirza Abdollah, (with a 5-CD set), Costa Mesa, Calif., 2000.

ʿAbd-Allāh Ṭāleʿ Hamadāni, “Oral History Project: Interview no. 43, 28 April 1997,” Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, Los Angeles. Parvin Ṭāleʿ, Ṭāleʿ Hamadāni’s daughter, interview, 16 March 2006.


While the Jews of the Parthian and Sasanian empires spoke (eastern) Aramaic, not Middle Persian, Persian influence on Judaism through the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) is by no means negligible. The Bavli is full of Iranian words and motifs, such as the resurrection of the dead and the last judgement, that are familiar in Zoroastrianism. The laws of purity set forth in the Pentateuch (Leviticus mainly) and in the Mishnah, the 2nd-century CE law code of Judaism, exhibit remarkable affinities with the Zoroastrian counterparts. The Mishnah and counterpart Zoroastrian law codes exhibit striking, formal correspondences, but there is no counterpart in Iranian law codes to the commentary of the Talmud to the Mishnah (Neusner, 1993). However, Iranian language, law, and culture made its impact on the Jews and on Judaism.

For nine centuries Babylonian Jews lived under Iranian rulers, Parthian, then Sasanian, from the middle of the 2nd century BCE to the 7th century CE. Other Jews lived in Mesopotamia (Dura Europos) and Nippur (whence the Jewish magical bowls), in Armenia, in Characene (see Characene and Charax), in Khuzestan, and in Iran proper. But the Bavli represents principally Babylonian conditions, though making reference to Khuzestan. Babylonia had a diverse population, not made up mainly of an Iranian majority and a Jewish minority. In Babylonia lived various sorts of Semites—Tai Arabs, Mandaeans, Syrians, Babylonians—who spoke different dialects of Aramaic as well as Greek. There also were Armenians, Indians, Romans, and Chinese, in small numbers, in the commercial life of the Iranian-administered provinces, particularly in the imperial capital, Ctesiphon and its commercial neighbors, Selecta and Vologasia. The Jews were mostly farmers and artisans living in villages. Thus, Babylonia was a mosaic of peoples and cultures.

Being a military aristocracy, the Parthians made slight effort to Iranize the low country of present-day Iraq. The Sasanians, however, made a systematic effort to settle the rich lowlands between the two rivers, improving the standing of Zoroastrianism. From time to time they made an effort to impose Zoroastrianism on the territories; in Armenia these efforts went on for centuries.

The Babylonian Talmud is full of Iranian words. Rabbis could understand spoken Persian, we do not know what dialect, but could not read the written language. The original language of the passage that follows is Aramaic:

II.11 A. When to R. Pappa would come a document written in Persian deriving from gentile archives, he would give it to two gentiles to read, not in the presence of one another, not telling them the purpose, and if their readings concurred, he would issue an order on the strength of the document to recover a debt even from property mortgaged after contracting the debt to a third party.

II.12 A. Said R. Ashi, “Said to me R. Huna bar Nathan, ‘This is what Amemar said: “As to a document in Persian on which Israelite witnesses signed, we collect on the strength of it even from mortgaged property.” ’ ”

B. But lo, the Israelites can’t read it.

C. It’s a case of those who can read Persian [Pahlavi].

D. But it has to involve writing that can’t be forged without leaving some sort of evidence, and in the case of Pahlavi documents, that consideration is not enforced!

E. It is one that has been treated with gall nuts.

F. Lo, we require that the final line of the document contain the gist of the contents of the document, and the Persian courts don’t impose that requirement!

(Bavli Gittin 19b)

Pappa could not read the language but could understand when it was read to him. There is no reason to suppose that the rabbis could read the Iranians’ holy books. But they did record disputations with Magi, although the following story does not yield profound knowledge of Zoroastrianism (V.16):

A. Said a magus to Amemar, “The part of you from the middle and above belongs to Hormiz, and the part of you from the middle and downward belongs to Ahormiz.”

He said to him, “If so, how can Ahormiz let Hormiz piss on the ground.”

(Bavli Sanhedrin 39a)

Reference is made to Iranian festivals, two of them being days on which taxes were paid (V.4):

A. These are all Roman festivals. What about the Persian ones?

B. They are Mutardi, Turyaskai, Muharnekai, Muharin.

C. These are the festivals of the Romans and the Persians. What about the Babylonian ones?

D. They are Muharnekai, Aknayata, Bahnani, and the tenth of Adar.

(Bavli Abodah Zarah 11b)

Mutardi refers to Nawsard; Turyaski, to Tiragān (13th of the 4th month); Muharnekai, to Mihragān; Muharin, to Nawruz (see Taqizadeh, pp. 632-39).

Some Jews adopted Iranian names and mastered Iranian military arts and wore Iranian garments (I.7):

A. Rabbi Ahi b. Rabbi Josiah had a silver cup in Nehardea. [14B] He said to Rabbi Dosetai b. Rabbi Yannai and to Rabbi Yosé bar Kippar, “When you come back from there, would you bring it with you?”

B. Then went and got it. They said to them, “Effect transfer of title” [so that you are responsible for the cup from this point forward, and we are not].

C. They said to them, “No.”

D. “Then give it back to us.”

E. Rabbi Dosetai b. Rabbi Yannai said to them, “Yes,” but Rabbi Yosé b. Kippar said to them, “No.”

F. They were abusing him. He said to him, “Look, sir, what they are doing!”

G. He said to him, “Hit him again, hit him again, harder, harder.”

H. So when they got back to him, he said to him, “Look, sir, it wasn’t enough that he didn’t help us, but he even said to them, ‘Hit him again, hit him again, harder, harder’!”

I. He said to him, “Why did you do this?”

J. He said to him, “Those men are a cubit high, and their hats are a cubit high, and they took[?] from their bellies [in deep voices], and they have outlandish names, like Arda and Arta and Pili-Barish [Pahlavi: Arda/Arta = Sadoq, that is, Justified; Pili-Barish = Elephant-Rider]. If they give orders, ‘Tie him up,’ they tie him up. If they give orders, ‘Kill him,’ they kill him. So if they had killed Dosetai, who is going to give Yannai, my father, a son like me?”

K. He said to him, “Are these men close to the government?”

L. He said to him, “Yes. They have horses and mules in their retinue.”

M. He said to him, “If so, what you did was perfectly within your rights.”

(Bavli Gittin 14a-b)

An Arta the Scribe is known from the Dura synagogue graffiti as well, not to mention an Arsaces in addition to an Abraham. The reference to Jews wearing high hats “(as tall as themselves”) calls to mind the pointed cap or hood brought by the Iranians from the Siberian steppes. The Babylonian Talmud (Bavli Horayot 13b) refers to a Jewish authority from Babylonia who wore the kamara, sash, which signified authority in the Kerdīr inscription. The context of the several stories suggests that Jews wore Iranian garments, which were outlandish in the eyes of the Palestinian counterparts. The Talmudic rabbis do not seem to have known much about Iranian religion and culture, and the contrary was also the case. While one may locate in Rabbinic literature motifs and images familiar in Iranian religions, the resurrection of the dead and last judgement being a principal borrowing, one cannot support that the authorities who included them saw them as Iranian. On the contrary, they went to great efforts to prove that resurrection of the dead and last judgement derived from the ancient Israelite scriptures. So the rabbis of the Talmud knew those aspects of Iranian culture, law, and religion that impinged on the practical affairs of the Jewish community. The only matters of Iranian law that interested them had to do with taxes and real estate transactions, laws they had to enforce in their own courts. The Middle East was divided into three cultural units: Hellenistic-Roman, Iranian, and the third world of Semites, Armenians, and other smaller groups. It was to that complex third world, the Semitic, Aramaic-speaking part of it, that the rabbis of the Talmud belonged.


Bernhard Geiger, “The Synagogue. Middle Iranian Texts,” in The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report VIII, Part I: The Synagogue, ed. Carl H. Kraeling et al., New Haven, 1956, pp. 283-317.

A. Kohut, “Les fêtes persanes et babyloniennes dans les Talmuds de Babylon et de Jérusalem,” Revue des études juives 24, 1892, pp. 256-71.

Jacob Neusner, “How Much Iranian in Jewish Babylonia,” JAOS 92, 1975, pp. 184-90.

Idem, Judaism and Zoroastrianism at the Dusk of Late Antiquity. How two Ancient Faiths Wrote down their Great Traditions, Atlanta, 1993.

J. Neusner et al., eds., The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation, Chico, Calif, then Atlanta, 1984-95.

Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh, “The Iranian Festivals Adopted by the Christians and Condemned by the Jews,” BSOAS 10, 1940-41, pp. 632-53.

Sigismond Telegdi, “Essai sur la phonétique des emprunts iraniens en araméen,”JA 226, 1935, pp. 177-257.

Cite this page
Houman Sarshar, Mayer I. Gruber, Jacob Neusner, Vera Basch Moreen, Daniel Tsadik, Mehrdad Amanat, Orly R. Rahimiyan, Thamar E. Gindin, Amnon Netzer and Ehsan Yarshater, “JUDEO-PERSIAN COMMUNITIES”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 26 February 2021 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_4089>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 20090615

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