יום שלישי ט"ז בשבט תשפ"ב 18/01/2022
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  • The Mission Continues

    As in the past so it remains today - we were and still are under the selfsame commitment to adhere to the directions of the Gedolei Yisrael, who stand guard against breaches of purity threatening our camp. When we were required to ask – we asked. When we were instructed to depart – we left. The moment we are summoned back to raise the flag, every other consideration is pushed to the side and we answer: We are ready!

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בראי היום

  • Harav Yisrael Friedman zy”a, the Rebbe of Husyatin

    מוטי, ויקיפדיה העברית

    The ancestral chain of Harav Yisrael Friedman, the founder of the Husyatin chassidic court, originates with the holy Baal Shem Tov. The Husyatin chassidus has its roots in Galicia and eventually came to Tel Aviv, during the turbulent years between the two World Wars.

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  • Maccabi'im Gravesite

    In honour of Chanukah, we will discuss a fascinating, ongoing investigation attempting to establish the place of burial of Mattisyahu Kohen Gadol and his family.

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Reflections

The Jews of Persia – Iran

The origins of Iranian-Persian Jewry are rooted deep in the past, going back to the time of the exile of the Ten Tribes during the Bayis Rishon period. From then and until the present day, the Jewish community of Iran has been a continual presence in that country, numbering at the peak of its prosperity close to a quarter of a million souls.

Motty Meringer 03/12/2009 15:14

The kingdom of Persia was, according to Jewish tradition, the second of the four kingdoms to which the Jewish people were exiled. The first Jews to settle in Persia were those of the Ten Tribes who were exiled there by the King of Ashur. According to the record of the prophet Yechezkel, a portion of the Ten Tribes were exiled to the cities of Madai, which was part of the Persian Empire. The Jewish community of Persia then expanded with the exile of King Yehoiachin by the Babylonians, when many of the exiles settled in the cities of Persia, near Bablyon. The first kings of Persia, Koresh and Darius, acted kindly towards the Jewish exiles, but it was also during this period that the evil king Achashveirosh rose up and plotted to murder the entire Jewish people, from the youngest to the oldest, women and children too, and confiscate all their possessions. King Koresh was the one who allowed the exiles to return to Eretz Yisrael and commence the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, and already towards the beginning of the Persian Empire period, the first exiles started to return to Eretz Yisrael under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemiah, as is described in Sefer Ezra; “So said Koresh the King of Persia – Hashem Elokim of the Heavens has given me all the lands of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Yerushalayim which is in Yehudah. Whosoever is from His people, Elokim should be with him, and he should go up to Yerushalayim which is in Yehudah and build the house of the L-rd the G-d of Israel, he is Elokim who is in Yerushalayim.”

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Even after the return to Eretz Yisrael in the period of the second Beis Hamikdash, some Jews remained under Persian rule who had chosen to remain there and not ascend to Eretz Yisrael. These Jews enjoyed relative peace and stability under their Persian rulers, who allowed them to conduct their lives as Jews as they pleased, without disturbance. In the neighbouring state of Babylon, which was then also under Persian rule, Jewish life blossomed after the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash, and the Jews of Persia benefited from the presences of the yeshivos of Babylon – Nehardea, Sura and others. The Jews of Persia humbled themselves before their leaders, who were descendants of the Davidic dynasty, conducting their lives according to their guidance.

In the middle of the period of the Amora’im in Babylon, Persian rule was replaced by the rule of the Sassenids. The Sassenids were fanatically religious idol-worshippers, and their priests, who are referred to in the Talmud as “amgushim,” caused great suffering for the Jews of Persia and Babylon. These persecutions brought about the sealing of the Talmud and the end of the period of the Amora’im. The Jews of Persia also suffered at the hands of the priests, who imposed severe decrees upon them and also instigated riots against them.

The onset of Sassenid rule led to a marked deterioration in the situation of the Jews of Persia, which only deteriorated further after the Muslims conquered Iran. The decline in the situation of the Jews was not especially instigated by the government, but nonetheless, relations with the authorities were not friendly during this period. But it was the spiritual condition of the Jews that declined more than the physical. During this period, there was a large Jewish community in the city of Isfahan, and many Jews were drawn to the Karaite movement, joining this cult that denied the authority of the Oral Law. The Karaites were led by Tzadok and Baitus, originally talmidim of Antigonos ish Socho, but who had later left the true path. A further calamity occurred when a Jew by the name of Yaakov Ovadiah ben Yitzchak Abbo Issi rose up and announced that he was the messenger announcing the Geulah and the emissary of Moshiach. A while later, he even proclaimed himself to be Moshiach ben David. Abbo Issi began to innovate new halachos, and he added an additional four tefillos to the daily prayers, in order that the Jews should daven four services a day, corresponding, so he argued, to the pasuk, “Sheva bayom Hilaltichah – we shall praise You seven in the day.” In addition, Abbo Issi forbade the eating of meat and the drinking of wine, and he added other stringencies, many of them bizarre in nature, which were previously unheard of. At the other extreme, Abbo Issi wanted to add the books of the Nazarenes (Christians) and the Muslims to those studied by Jews, and make a type of new covenant, R”l. Abbo Issi began to encourage the Jews to rebel against the Muslims who then ruled over them, and he even led a number of battles against them. Eventually, Abbo Issi was killed by the Muslims, and his followers dispersed and fled – however, the spiritual damage he had caused to Persian Jewry was severe.

Under Muslim rule, the Jewish community expanded and many Jews engaged in trade and commerce with other countries in the region and the Far East, particularly with China – trade flourished during this period. All along the trade routes, little towns sprung up, populated by Jews who were involved in trade between the Far and Middle East. In the year 4981, the entire Persian Empire was overrun by the Mongolian armies, under the leadership of Genghis Khan. The Mongols were an exceedingly cruel people, and in the course of the battles that they fought, they destroyed entire Jewish communities. On the other hand, once the fighting was over, they treated the Jews far more humanely. During the period in which they ruled over Persia, which lasted for some forty years, the Jewish community flourished, with many of its members even rising to positions of authority.

After the Mongols left Persia, Shiite Muslims clamped down again and reasserted their authority, and the Jews suffered greatly at their hands. Many humiliating decrees were passed against them, and restrictions were placed on their forms of employment. In addition, their lives as observant Jews became that much harder to lead, as the Muslims sought to limit Torah observance. In a later period, Muslim fanatics began to organise riots and attacks against the Jews, during the course of which the entire Jewish population of the town of Tabriz was murdered, from the youngest to the oldest. In other Jewish communities, Jews suffered from rioting and harsh decrees levelled against them, and many Jews were killed al kiddush Hashem, Hy”d.

A more well-known chapter in the history of Persian Jewry is the story of the forced converts of Mash’had. The Muslims there forced the Jews to convert to Islam on pain of death, and Mash’had became a holy city to Islam, which no non-Muslim was permitted to enter. In approximately the year 5507, a Persian Sheikh by the name of Nadar Shah who was returning from distant India came to live in the city of Mash’had, bringing his great wealth with him. In order to manage his finances, the sheikh summoned thirteen Jewish families to live in Mash’had and manage his affairs. The Jews duly arrived in Mash’had, but immediately after they arrived, the sheikh died, and the Jews were left abandoned in that fundamentalist Muslim city, living in constant fear for their lives.

The saga relating to the Jews of Mash’had commenced with a blood libel. A Jewish woman turned for help to a Muslim doctor, to treat her leprous hand. The doctor ordered the woman to wash her hand in the blood of a dog. The woman, who according to Jewish custom would not touch a dog, hired a Muslim youth to catch a dog for her and bring her its blood, in return for payment. The youth did as he was instructed, but when the time for payment arrived, an argument broke out between him and the woman, over the precise amount of money due to him. In the heat of the argument, the youth abruptly left and resolved to take revenge against the Jews. That day was a festival for the Muslims, on which they fasted and gathered in their houses of prayer. The youth made his way to one of the mosques, and there he related that on that Muslim holy day, the Jews had killed a dog and called it by the name of the Muslim prophet, in order to mock Islam and deride its prophet Mohammed y”sh. Hordes of Muslims gathered around the youth, who continued to incite the incensed mob, which eventually swept into the Jewish neighbourhood where they set fire to the batei knesses and killed thirty-six kedoshim, Hy”d.

A short while after these riots, a decree was imposed on the Jews of Mash’had which gave them the choice of converting to Islam or being put to death. The Jews of Mash’had decided as one to externally accept upon themselves the Muslim faith, even whilst continuing to observe the laws of the Torah in secret. Thus it was that the entire Jewish community of Mash’had, which then numbered some four hundred souls, publicly converted to Islam. This terrible year which had brought so many calamities to the Jews of Mash’had was named by them ‘Allalla Dav’, which means ‘Heavenly retribution.’

Ironically, it was precisely the strict laws of Islam that the Jews of Mash’had were now forced to publicly adhere to that enabled them to continue their Jewish religious practices in secret, without detection. For example, married women who were required to be fully covered with a veil, began to serve as couriers for the men, transporting items of religious importance without fear that Muslims would stop them to investigate what they were carrying. An additional advantage of the distance that the Muslims kept from married women was that Jewish women could be given Jewish and not Muslim names, as there was no danger that a Muslim would ever find out what a married woman was called. For men the situation was more complex; they had two names – the Jewish name they were given at their bris milah, and the Islamic name they had to use in public. In order to appear genuine Muslims, the men would buy treife meat in the butcher’s store, and would then feed it to the dogs when they arrived home. In addition, the Jews would have to open their own stores on Shabbos, but in order not to desecrate the holy day, they would have a small child stand in the store, who would inform any potential customer that his father had just stepped out for a few minutes, but would shortly return. Eventually, the customer would tire of waiting and leave.

One particularly great danger now facing the Jews of Mash’had was that of intermarriage. The natural result of the integration of the Jews into the wider Muslim community was the desire of the Muslims to marry their daughters, and the Jews had to find a solution to this dilemma. The problem was not as great as might be thought, since in the eyes of the Muslims, the converted Jews still had an inferior status, known as ‘Jedid al Islam’ – which translates as ‘new Muslims’. The Muslim community tried to keep a distance from the newcomers to Islam, and therefore there was almost no actual danger of intermarriages occurring. However, in order to safeguard against even the slightest possibility of this happening, the Jews would proclaim at each birth of a girl; “the daughter of so-and-so is for so-and-so,” engaging in marriage their daughters immediately after birth. In this way, in the event that a Muslim would ever express the desire to marry a Jewish girl, he would be informed that she was already engaged to be married from when she was a young girl.

The Jews of Mash’had succeeded in maintaining their Jewish identity and observing Jewish customs until the beginning of the twentieth century of the common era. Then, many of them emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, where they resumed open practice of Judaism, and established flourishing kehillos in Bnei Brak, Yerushalayim and other towns across the country.
The fate of the Jews of Mash’had was different to that of the Jews living in other communities across Iran. In the mid-nineteenth century of the common era, new winds bearing the ideologies of emancipation and equal rights began to blow across Persia. European Jews began to take an interest in the fate of their brethren in Persia, and ensured that diplomatic pressure was exerted from their countries of residence, to the eventual end that Persian Jews were accorded equal civil rights to all other Persian citizens. Naturally this did not transpire overnight, but rather over a period of decades, during which the situation of the Jews of Persia improved beyond recognition. During this period, the connection between the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and those of Iran was strengthened, and many Persian Jews ascended to the Holy Land. In fact, some twenty thousand Jews left Iran for Eretz Yisrael up until the time of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Tamarah
Memorial Placquard in the Bucharim Neighborhood of Jerusalem [צלם]

Tamarah
Memorial Plaque  צלם

At the end of the nineteenth century of the common era, the Palhavi family took control over Iran, whose leaders behaved well towards the Jews and granted them full civil rights. From the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, until the Six Day War, a further seventy thousand Jews left Iran for the Holy Land, of which several thousand eventually returned to their birthplaces, due to the difficult financial situation then prevalent in Eretz Yisrael, and also to their difficulties in acclimatising to their new surroundings.

In the year 5739 the Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran, which transformed the state from a thriving Western-style Persian state into a fundamentalist Muslim republic, ruled by fanatical priests, the Ayatollahs. At the time of the revolution, there were some forty thousand Jews still living in Iran, whose situation changed overnight from being wealthy and prosperous merchants into a status of a persecuted and despised minority. During the decade that followed, several tens of thousands of Jews left Iran, most of whom went either to the United States or to Eretz Yisrael. As of today, there are approximately twenty thousand Jews remaining in Iran, who are scattered among a number of cities. These Jews suffer from their extreme Muslim neighbours and from various harsh government decrees. The fanaticism of the Iranian government, coupled with its hatred for the Zionist state, has led on many occasions to attacks on Iranian Jews, in order to exert pressure on the State of Israel. For instance, several years ago, thirteen Jews were imprisoned in Iran, who were prominent members of the kehillah of Shiraz. These Jews were accused of spying for the State of Israel, a type of modern blood libel against Jews.

Today, Iran is responsible for a large amount of terrorist acts perpetrated over the world and against Jews specifically, and its government funds terrorists in many regions. In at least two cases Iran was directly implicated; an attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina in the year 5752; and another attack on the Jewish community centre in the same city in the year 5754, in which 114 Jews were killed and hundreds more were injured. Iran was clearly responsible for both of these attacks, providing both planning and financing.

In recent years, Iran has been engaged in its effort to develop a nuclear bomb, and the entire world has been thus far unsuccessful in preventing Iran’s extremist leaders from pursuing their evil designs. The Jews of Iran have been trying to keep out of the limelight during this period in which the international focus is on their country of birth, fearing that they could be further victimised by their Muslim neighbours, as a way of exacting revenge or exerting pressure on the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and the rest of the world. Relatives of Persian Jews living in Eretz Yisrael maintain ties with their brothers in Iran using indirect means, via other countries such as Turkey, which have diplomatic relations both with the State of Israel and Iran. The Iranian government has a paranoid fear of any connection between Persians and the State of Israel. The Jews of Iran live in relative economic stability, enjoying relative religious freedom, which allows them to conduct their lives as traditional Jews. In the Iranian parliament, one seat is permanently and officially reserved for a representative of the dwindling Jewish community.