History Crash Course #43: The Jews of Babylon

The oldest and most stable of Jewish communities was spared the ravages of holy warriors.

The story of the Jews of Babylon of necessity begins some 1,000 years before our current timeline ― in the 434 BCE, when the Babylonians first marched on Israel as part of their campaign to stake claim to the former Assyrian empire. In that first foray, the Babylonians did not destroy the Temple, nor send the Jews into exile. However, they did succeed in taking into captivity 10,000 of the best and brightest Jews. (See Part 22)

While it seemed like tragedy at the time, these brilliant men, Torah scholars all, immediately established a Jewish infrastructure upon arrival in Babylon. A dozen years later when the Temple was destroyed, the Jews who were exiled to Babylon found there yeshivas, synagogues, kosher butchers, etc., all the essentials for maintaining a Jewish life. (See Part 23)

Seventy years later, when the Babylonians fell to the Persians and the Jews were permitted to return, only a small number did. Of what was probably a million Jews living in the Persian Empire, only 42,000 went back, meaning that the vast majority stayed in Babylon under Persia domination.

During the Second Temple period, up until its destruction in 70 CE, the Jewish community in Babylon ― far from the eye of the storm that raged in the Land of Israel ― continued to flourish.

Indeed, this is where the center of Jewish rabbinic authority came to rest after the Roman Empire shut down the Sanhedrin in 363 CE.

The head of the Jewish community of Babylon ― who was officially recognized by the Persian authorities ― was called Resh Galusa in Aramaic, which means Rosh Galut in Hebrew, and “Head of the Diaspora” in English.

The Resh Galusa was a person who was a direct descendant of the House of King David. Even though he was not a king in the land of Israel, he was recognized as not only being the representative of the Jewish community in Babylon but as also having noble status.

Over 1,500 year history of the Jewish community in Babylon approximately 40 people held that title, all tracing their ancestry back to King David. This was a noble line that was always preserved in Jewish history.

Sassanian Dynasty

Part of the reason for the stability of the Jewish community in Babylon was that the area was held by the Persian Sassanian dynasty from the 3rd century CE on. The Sassanians managed to keep out of their kingdom first the Romans and then the Byzantines. (For more on the Byzantines see Part 41) In this way the Jews of Babylon were protected from harm that the Byzantine Christians inflicted elsewhere.

In this atmosphere, Jewish scholarship was able to flourish in the great yeshivas at Sura (which was founded by Rabbi Abba Ben Ibo better known as Rav) and at Nehardea (which was founded by the Babylonian sage Shmuel) and which later moved to Pumbedita.

This is where the Babylonian Talmud was written, as we saw in Part 39, immortalizing the great rabbis of Babylon, especially Abbaye and Rava. As historian Berel Wein relates in Echoes of Glory(p. 267):

Their stamp of analysis and discussion appears in countless numbers of debates and discussions that form the Talmud. In fact, the surname of the Talmud is “the discussions of Abbaye and Rava.

(Another great rabbinic scholar in Babylon was Rav Ashi, the editor-in-chief of the Babylonian Talmud in the early 5th century.)

These rabbis, as we explained in Part 39, are known in Jewish scholarship as Amoraim, “explainers” or “interpreters.” The Amoraim lived from about 200 CE to about 500 CE.[1]There was a brief, transitional period (475 C.E.-590 C.E.) between the Tannaim and the Amoraim alled the Savoraim. The Savoraim put the “finishing touches” on the Babylonian Talmud by … Continue reading They were followed by the Gaonim, the “great ones” or “geniuses.” The Gaonim were the heads of the yeshivas in a time when Jewish scholarship thrived in Babylon.

But then the situation changed.

Things began to worsen for the Jewish Babylonian community in the middle of the 5th century when the Persian priests, fighting against encroaching Christian missionaries, unleashed anti-Christian persecutions and included Jews in the mayhem. Writes Wein (p. 277):

The worsening situation in Babylonia came as a shock to the Jewish community, for nothing of this sort had officially been in Babylonia for almost a millenium. Jewish confidence was shattered.

Things went from bad to worse ― with the Reish Gelusa executed at one point ― as Babylonia became embroiled in civil war and as the Byzantines continued their encroachments.

In the midst of this chaos, the Moslem conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century brought unexpected benefits to the Jewish community in Babylon.

Caliph Omar

Mohammed had died in 632 leaving no successor, a situation which led to immediate strife and a split in the nascent Muslim world. The candidates for caliph were two: 1) his cousin Ali, who married Mohammed’s daughter Fatima; and 2) his first convert and father-in-law, Abu Bakr.

This struggle gave rise to the creation of two Muslim sects: 1) the Shi’ites who recognized Ali as Mohammed’s rightful successor ; and 2) the Sunnis, who recognized Abu Bakr as the rightful successor.

Today, the Shi’ites are the minority in the Muslim world, making up 16% of all Muslims. The majority of the Muslims are Sunnis, followers of Abu Bakr and his successor Omar, who founded the first major Islamic dynasty, the Omayyad (sometimes spelled Umayyad).

Caliph Omar recognized that the road to unity was to have a common enemy. He therefore embarked on a series of foreign wars of conquest, in which the Muslims were remarkably successful.

As part of his conquests Caliph Omar invaded Jerusalem in 638, taking it away from the Byzantines.

To see the remains of Byzantine homes from that period, you can visit today the archeological excavations below the southern end of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was this area, in particular, that Omar turned over to 70 Jewish families following his conquest. (Until then the Byzantines had forbidden the Jews from living in Jerusalem at all.)

He found the Temple Mount site in ruins and covered with garbage as the Byzantines had deliberately decreed that garbage should be dumped there to humiliate the Jews. Omar had the site cleared and may have prayed at the southern end (toward Mecca) which could well be the first time that a small mosque was erected there, though historians are not certain.

It must be made clear that up to this time, Jerusalem had no special significance to Muslims. During his lifetime already, Mohammed had changed the direction of prayer to Mecca, and the Koran does not mention Jerusalem even once!

Possibly out of concern that the magnificent Christian holy sites in Jerusalem would attract Moslems to Christianity a connection was later made between Islamic tradition and Jerusalem through the story of Mohammed’s midnight ride ― which is recorded in the Koran in Sura 17-al Isra[2]Sura 17:1-3 reads: “Glory be to Him (Allah) who carried his servant ( Mohammed) by night from the sacred place (masjid ― mosque) of Mecca to the sacred place (masjid ― mosque) that is more … Continue reading ― In that dream, Mohammed rides his flying horse, El Burak ― a steed with the body of a woman and the tail of a peacock ― to the “farthest place.” The farthest place in Arabic is El Aksa. There he meets Jebril (Gabriel) and goes up to heaven for a forty-day sojourn, meeting all the prophets and talking to Moses and Jesus etc.[3]For an excellent short explanation of the early Islamic connection to Jerusalem see: Bernard Lewis, The Middle east-A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, New York: Touchstone Books, 1995. pp. … Continue reading

The Omayyad leadership decided that the farthest place (El Aksa) had to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And that the center of the Temple Mount, where a huge stone protruded, must be the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.

In 691, some fifty years after Omar’s conquest, an Omayyad ruler named Abd al Malik built the Dome of the Rock, called Qubbat as Sakrah, there. It still stands today and dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

Note that the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque. Rather it is a shrine built around the huge rock, which Jews believe to be the same stone where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed, where Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven, and where the Holy of Holies once stood. The mosque ― El Aksa ― is another building altogether, built at the southern end of the Temple Mount by Abd al Malik’s son, El Walid in 701. The Dome of the Rock together with the El Aksa mosque are the first great religious building complex in the Islamic world and pre-date the building of the great Mosque in Mecca.

The Dome of the Rock was not always golden as it is today. It was covered with anodised aluminum in 1956, and more recently, the late King Hussein of Jordan, sold one of his houses in London and gold-plated it with 80 kilos of gold. Today, this site is the third holiest to Suni Muslims and the fourth holiest to Shi’ite Muslims, who list Karabala, after Mecca and Medina.

The Temple Mount is known to Muslims as Haram el Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary.” Jerusalem is known to Muslims call El Quds, “the Holy.”[4]It is interesting to contrast the Christian and Muslim treatment of the Temple Mount. Part of the early Christian world view was that God had destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews because the Jews … Continue reading The taking of Jerusalem was a big blow to the Christians, reeling from other Muslim conquests that were sweeping the world. Jews greeted it more favorably, as the Christians had been merciless to the Jews. The Muslims might humiliate them, but they would not slaughter them outright.

Indeed, when Omar defeated the Persians and took over Babylonia, he immediately re-instituted the authority of the Reish Galusa to head the Jewish community. As a matter of fact, Omar was so fond of the Reish Galusa ― Bustenai Ben Haninai ― that when he himself decided to marry the daughter of the Persian king, he insisted that Bustenai marry her sister. Thus in a bizarre twist of fate, the Reish Galusa became brother-in-law to the caliph.

(After the death of Bustenai, his sons by an earlier wife sought to delegitimatize his sons by the Persian princess, claiming that she never converted to Judaism. However, this was unlikely as the case of a Reish Galusa marrying a non-Jewish woman without conversion would have caused a furor and public condemnation. Indeed the Gaonim of the day ruled that all his children were legitimate Jews.)

The Karaites

During the long history of Babylonian Jewry, sometimes the Reish Galusa wielded more power, sometimes the Gaonim. Much depended on the political climate and the personalities involved. Generally, however, the position of the Gaon was determined by scholarship, while the position ofReish Galusa was depended on lineage (as the Reish Galusa was traditionally the descendant of King David.)

And it was a dispute over lineage that gave rise to a splinter sect in 8th century Baghdad ― a splinter sect that came to be known as the Karaites.

When Shlomo, the Reish Galusa, died childless in 760, two of his nephews Hananiah and Anan vied for the position. Hananiah got the job and Anan went off to start his own religion.

This is another example of a pattern we have seen previously ― a split among the Jews due to pride and ego. (We saw it, for example, in Part 20 with Rehoboam and Jeroboam.)

The sect that Anan started in some ways was similar to the Sadducees. Like the Sadducees, the Karaites didn’t recognize the authority of the Oral Torah and hence they read the Written Torah literally. (Their name, Karaites, comes from the Hebrew verb, kara, meaning “read.”)

As we saw earlier, it is impossible to live a Jewish life without the Oral Torah as so much of the Written Torah is not specific enough. Thus, where the Torah commands “and you shall write them [these words] upon the doorposts of your home,” how can anyone know which words of the Torah, or indeed, if the entire Torah is to be written on the doorpost? It is the Oral Torah that explains that this passage refers to the words of the Shema prayer, which are to be written on a parchment scroll and then affixed in a specified place and manner on the doorpost. The mezuzah!

As a result of their literal reading of the Torah, the Karaites came to observe Shabbat in total darkness, unable to leave their homes all day except to go to the synagogue. They did away with the observance of Chanukah because it is not mentioned in the Written Torah, as well as with the separation of meat and milk for the same reason. Ironically, because so many statements in the Bible cannot be explained with out the Oral Law, the Karaites had to create their own oral law as a way of translating these statements in the Bible into practical applications.

One might think that this sect would have little appeal but, this was not the case. The Karaites began to attract those Jews who wanted to dismiss the opinions of the rabbis; this turned out to be a huge draw. [5]Karaism reached the peak of it’s popularity in Israel the 10th and 11th centuries. After the Crusader conquest of the land in 1099 C.E. the center of the movement shifted to Constantinople and … Continue reading

That is, until the great sage, the Sa’adiah Gaon entered the picture.

Sa’adiah Gaon

Sa’adiah Gaon is famed for his writings, particularly the Book of Belief and Opinions, and for his critiques of the Karaites which made mincemeat of their beliefs. In addition to being the Rosh Yeshiva (The Dean) of the great Yeshiva of Sura, he was one of the greatest Jewish legal and philosophical minds of the period.

His arguments stopped the spread of Karaitism which could have overwhelmed the entire Jewish world. It was so popular at one point that in the 10th century the majority of Jews in the Land of Israel may well have been Karaites.

However, the Karaites never recovered from the assault of Sa’adiah Gaon on the logic of their beliefs. Their numbers shrunk with time, though unlike the Sadducees, they never completely disappeared.

(During the 19th century, in the Russian Empire, the status of the Karites change until eventually they were legally considered to be a religion totally separate from Judaism. During World War II, the large Karaite community in the Crime was spared by the Nazis who also did not consider them to be Jewish.)

Today, there is a small number of Karaites left, living chiefly in Israel, though no one is sure how many as the Karaites forbid census-taking. Their population has been variously estimated at 7,000 all the way up to 40,000. Until recently the Karaites were reputed to be very religious people, and from the outside appear indistinguishable from Orthodox Jews, though they are forbidden to marry other Jews and marry only each other.

When the Sa’adiah Gaon died in 942, the period of the Gaonim of Babylon was almost over. It would officially end in 1038 with the death of Chai Gaon. By then, a great many Jews had left Babylon, following the opportunities that were opening up for them in other parts of the world conquered by Muslims, especially in Spain.


1 There was a brief, transitional period (475 C.E.-590 C.E.) between the Tannaim and the Amoraim alled the Savoraim. The Savoraim put the “finishing touches” on the Babylonian Talmud by completing the final editing of the text.
2 Sura 17:1-3 reads: “Glory be to Him (Allah) who carried his servant ( Mohammed) by night from the sacred place (masjid ― mosque) of Mecca to the sacred place (masjid ― mosque) that is more remote (el Aksa ) whose precinct we have blessed…”.
3 For an excellent short explanation of the early Islamic connection to Jerusalem see: Bernard Lewis, The Middle east-A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, New York: Touchstone Books, 1995. pp. 68-71. Lewis points out that one of the earliest Islamic names for Jerusalem was Bayt al-Maqdis, clearly derived from the Hebrew phrase for the Jewish Temple, Bayt ha-Miqdash. He also mentions that an equally early Islamic tradition mentions that el Aksa means “heaven” and the claim that it meant Jerusalem was a Jewish plot to Judaize Islam.
4 It is interesting to contrast the Christian and Muslim treatment of the Temple Mount. Part of the early Christian world view was that God had destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews because the Jews had rejected Jesus. Leaving the Temple Mount in ruins and filled with garbage was the “Christian way” of proving this theological point. The Byzantines then built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the traditional site of crucifixion and burial of Jesus) to the west of Temple Mount and above the remaining Temple Mount platform. This served as a physical demonstration of the victory of Christianity over the Judaism.
The Muslims, on the other hand, chose to clean off the Temple Mount and build their structure (The Dome of the Rock) over the site where the Jewish Temple stood. Building over Judaism’s holiest site was their way of “proving” that Islam had supplanted Judaism. In addition, the dome of the Dome of the Rock is slightly larger than the dome of the Holy Sepulcher and Arabic inscription on the inside of the Dome of the Rock is taken from Sura 112 of the Koran which reads: “Say: He is God alone: God the eternal! He has no children, and He was not born…” an obvious attack against the Christian concept of Jesus as the son of God. (Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet and that the notion that God has children is a pagan idea. On this Judaism would also agree.) The Dome of the Rock is therefore an architectural demonstration of Islamic theology: Islam is the one true faith. Judaism and Christianity are false.
5 Karaism reached the peak of it’s popularity in Israel the 10th and 11th centuries. After the Crusader conquest of the land in 1099 C.E. the center of the movement shifted to Constantinople and later the Crimea and Lithuania.
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