This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Baghdad: For Centuries a Major Centre of Jewish Life*

News Item:

January 1991--Outbreak of the Persian Gulf War. An international coalition led by the United States attacks Iraq in response to Dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of Kuwait.

A number of times every winter I am asked about the peculiar scheduling of the petition for rain in the daily service, which the prayer-books instruct us to begin reciting from December 4th. I usually mutter some confusing reply about talmudic calculations based on autumnal equinoxes and other concepts that are not all that clear in my own mind.

During the fateful days of the Gulf War the more basic significance of this date comes to mind in all its irony: We are actually praying for an abundant rainfall for Iraq!

Surprising as this might sound in today's circumstances (especially when we keep in mind the terrible drought that troubled Israel this year), this fact underlines the special connection that has always existed between the Jewish people and that part of the world currently known as Iraq. This was the birthplace of Abraham and the land to which the Judæans were exiled after the destruction of the First Temple. Scholars believe that this was where the Torah underwent its final redaction.

The fact that Jews throughout the Diaspora continue to define their winters according to the Iraqi climate testifies again to the decisive influence of the Iraqi (or, as known in other times: Babylonian, or Mesopotamian, etc.) Jewish community. It was the Babylonian Talmud that was recognized as the highest legal authority for Jews throughout the world, and it occupied a place of such centrality in their studies that the Babylonian landscape was at times more real for many Jews than their own.

Let me illustrate this vast subject by limiting myself to a few comments about the Jewish involvement with Iraq's capital, Baghdad. Now, the history books tell us that the history of Baghdad did not commence until the year 763 when it was built as a new military outpost by the Caliph al-Mansur. However students of the Talmud are familiar with a third-century Rabbi Hanna Bagdata'a. For Rashi, writing in eleventh-century France, it was obvious that this rabbi was a native of Baghdad. Modern scholars are not ready to automatically reject that identification since Muslim Baghdad was likely built upon an already existent town that may well date back to talmudic times, as evidenced by its Persian name.

By the 10th century the major Babylonian institutions, including the great talmudic yeshivahs of Sura and Pumbedita and the court of the Exilarch, had all relocated to Baghdad in order to be closer to the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, which was the most powerful political force in the western world. It was through their official recognition by the Baghdadi Caliphs that the Babylonian Jews were able to impose their religious leadership and their Talmud upon most of the Jewish world.

During the zenith of Iraqi-Jewish dominance it was inconceivable to many Jews that Baghdad had not always been a major Jewish center, and some talmudic sources were rewritten to reflect that perception. According to one such tradition Rav, the original founder of the venerable talmudic academy at Sura, had really intended to go to Baghdad, but had been tricked into staying by the mother of one of his students, who did not want to be parted from her son. The woman in question had approached the scholar asking how much milk would be needed to cook a portion of meat. Shocked by this display of halakhic ignorance, Rav concluded that his presence was needed in such a Jewish wasteland, and so he stayed there.

I recently had a look at a fascinating medieval Hebrew text, which claims to describe how the vessels from the first Temple in Jerusalem had been hidden away prior to its destruction by the Babylonians. "All of these vessels were concealed and interred in a tower in the land of Babylonia, in a city named Baghdad." The source, by the way, states that the hiding places of these vessels were recorded on a copper tablet. This legend is particularly interesting when we note that a copper scroll containing a treasure map indicating the hiding-places of Second Temple artifacts (possibly reflecting a plan that was never executed) is one of the most enigmatic documents to be discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

All these sources testify to the strength of the historical Jewish connection to Iraq and its capital, a fact which only serves to intensify the tragedy of the current situation, when a self-styled Nebuchadnezzar has again tried to aim his deadly arrows towards Jerusalem.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, March 15 1991.


  • Masekhet Kelim [Tractate on the Temple Vessels] in: A. Jellinek, ed., Bet ha-Midrasch 1 (reprint: Jerusalem 1967).