This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Babylonians Behaving Badly*

Back in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the central rite of Yom Kippur was that of the “scapegoat.” The high priest would lay his hands upon the head of a goat and confess the iniquities of the people, then send it away to symbolically carry our sins into the wilderness.

The Mishnah described in detail the ritual procedure as it was observed during the era of the Second Temple, and the route that was followed by the goat as it was led away. It noted that a special architectural structure had to be erected in order to distance the goat from the throng of eager worshippers who gathered to observe its progress: “They made a causeway for it, because of the Babylonians who would pull its hair as they shouted at it: Get going! Get going!”

Rashi explained that the elevated causeway became necessary because those Babylonians were impatiently plucking the animal’s hairs as they urged it to hurry up and dispose of their sins as quickly as possible. The implication is that they were behaving in a crude manner inappropriate to a solemn religious ceremony, and might even be violating a biblical prohibition by plucking hairs on a holy day.

Elsewhere in the Mishnah, the rabbis dealt with another question that would arise periodically in the observance of the Day of Atonement in the Temple.

Although the system that was later adopted for reckoning the Hebrew calendar does not allow Yom Kippur to ever fall on a Friday, evidently that was not the case in earlier generations. This could create a problem with respect to the festival sacrifices. Normally the meat from sacrifices would be eaten by the priests, but this could not be done on a fast day. According to the laws of the Torah it was permissible to delay eating sacrificial meat until after the end Yom Kippur—but no later than the following night. In the current scenario, however, the night after Yom Kippur was a Sabbath, when cooking is prohibited.

In its discussion of this scenario, the Mishnah reports that “the goat of the Day of Atonement was eaten in the evening. The Babylonians used to eat it raw, for they were of a ‘delicate constitution.’”

That last expression has generally been understood as a euphemism, indicating that those Babylonians were actually very indelicate—crude gluttons who had no qualms about devouring uncooked flesh.

Evidently the Israeli rabbis who composed those passages in the Mishnah did not regard their Babylonian coreligionists, even the priests among them, with much admiration; and they depicted them as so many boorish Homer Simpsons who were driven by impatience, impulsiveness and gluttony.

The Talmud records that this anti-Babylonian sentiment was challenged by the third-century sage Rabbah bar bar Ḥana who explained that the persons involved were not really Babylonians at all, but residents of the great Hellenistic metropolis of Alexandria, Egypt. It was an indication of their disdain for Babylonians that the Mishnah’s authors referred to those Alexandrians as “Babylonians.”

It should be noted that Rabbah bar bar Ḥana was himself a native of Babylonia whose immigration to the land of Israel was not entirely successful. Nevertheless, the Talmud cited an earlier and more authoritative source that made the same point in the name of two disciples of Rabbi Akiva from the mid-second century: “Rabbi Judah said: they were not Babylonians, but Alexandrians. Rabbi Yosé said to him: may your mind be set at ease even as you have set my mind at ease!”

Rashi explained that Rabbi Yosé, a resident of Sepphoris in the Galilee, was himself of Babylonian descent, though I am not aware of any other evidence to that effect. Perhaps the sage was offended by the implied ethnic stereotyping (though apparently he was less disturbed by the targeting of Alexandrians). At any rate, this reading still assumes that “Babylonian” is an insulting epithet and it is hard to understand how that interpretation could have set anyone’s mind at ease.

In more recent times, scholars have proposed different solutions to the Alexandrian-Babylonian conundrum. For example, Yitzhak Isaac Halevy, author of a monumental history of rabbinic Judaism from a traditionalist perspective, rejected Rashi’s interpretation that the rabbis were perpetuating sweeping negative stereotypes. In fact, a central thesis of Halevy’s work was that the Babylonian Jews were the ones who consistently preserved the authentic Torah tradition that had been corrupted by the sectarian divisions and Hellenistic influences that were rampant in the land of Israel. This, he explained, is why mainstream Judaism ultimately chose to follow the Babylonian Talmud rather than its Jerusalem counterpart.

In the present instance, Halevy explained that the rabbis were referring to people who were indeed both Babylonian and Alexandrian; that is to say, an enclave of Jewish immigrants to Egypt who continued to exist as an identifiable minority even after several generations of residency in Egypt to which they had originally been invited to serve as soldiers (as attested by Josephus Flavius).

In support of his theory, Halevy pointed out that the version of the story found in the Jerusalem Talmud does not actually say they were not Babylonians—only that “they were Alexandrians.” Furthermore, when the Mishnah quoted the calls uttered by the Babylonians as they spurred the scapegoat along its way, they did not cite them in Hebrew (the normal language of the Mishnah) nor in Greek (the vernacular of Alexandria)—but in Aramaic, the language of Babylonian Jews.

Halevy made effective use of his approach to resolve another apparent contradiction between ancient documents. Josephus related how Herod the Great, determined to wrest the high priesthood from the hands of the Hasmoneans, removed it from the traditional high priestly dynasty and assigned it instead to a non-pedigreed outsider from Babylonia named Hanamel. A high priest of that name is indeed mentioned in the Mishnah, but he is designated there as an Egyptian! This inconsistency, Halevy argued, can also be resolved on the assumption that Hanamel was a member of the Babylonian Jewish enclave in Alexandria.

Other scholars have raised similar issues with respect to the origins of one of rabbinic Judaism’s most prominent teachers, Hillel the Elder. The familiar talmudic tales about this pioneering sage—aside from their hagiographic and moralistic tone that makes them very suspect as historical documents—are inconsistent as to whether Hillel acquired his learning in Jerusalem or in his prior native land. Nonetheless, he is consistently referred to as Hillel “Ha-Bavli” (the Babylonian).

And yet modern scholarship has been impressed by how many details of his life and teachings would fit better into an Alexandrian setting. In one well-known instance, for example, he resolved a legal question related to Alexandrian wedding practices by carefully expounding the wording of their marriage contracts.

Of greater interest to scholars has been the uncanny resemblance between the seven hermeneutical (midrashic) rules introduced by Hillel for the interpretation of the the Bible and the methods that were employed by the Hellenistic philologists of the Alexandrian schools for the elucidations of Homer or of legal texts. This has led several scholars to propose that Hillel must really have hailed from Alexandria.

Jewish folk culture has never been inhibited about attributing derogatory character traits to our brethren from different corners of the diaspora. Distinctive personality types are evoked by the mention of Litvaks, Romanians, Galicianers, Yekkes, Persians, Iraqis or immigrants from other lands.

While such stereotyping might not be completely preventable, we probably should not make it too easy to label us as vulgar rednecks—at the very least, we might refrain from plucking hair from goats or gorging ourselves on raw meat.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 15, 2017, p. 19 .
  • For further reading:
    • Daube, David. “Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric.” Hebrew Union College Annual 22 (1949): 239–64.
    • Glatzer, Nahum N. Hillel, the Elder. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.
    • Halevy, Isaac. Dorot Ha-Rishonim. Frankfurt am Main: Judah Gold, 1906.
    • Kaminka, Armand. “Hillel’s Life and Work.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 30, no. 2 (1939): 107–22. doi:10.2307/1452123.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission, Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B. C. E.-IV Century C. E. Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, v. 18. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950.
    • Neusner, Jacob. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. Vol. 1. Studia Post-Biblica 9. Leiden: Brill, 1969.
    • ———. “Appendix: Biographical Reflections.” In The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70, Part III: Conclusions:320–32. Leiden: Brill, 1971.
    • Schalit, Abraham. Hordos Ha-Melekh. Mosad Bialik, 1960.