Geoffrey Herman, A Prince without a Kingdom

, February 24, 2016

A Prince without a Kingdom, by Geoffrey Herman, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 150, Tuebingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2012, 411 pp.

Jewish political institutions are a subject that deserves more sustained attention and intensive study. In Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, under Persian kings and Arab caliphs, a figure known as the Exilarch or “head of the exile” (Hebrew, rosh golah; Aramaic, resh galutha) served as the head of the large and flourishing Jewish communities of Mesopotamia, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, known in Jewish sources as Babylonia (Hebrew, Bavel). It included what became Iraq, after the Islamic conquest of the area, and Persia, to the east. The Exilarch’s wealth, pedigree (claim of Davidic descent), close relations with royal and government officials and centralized authority over Jewish communities made him an object of fascination for historians and scholars. He represented the opposite of the rabbi whose authority was based on knowledge of Jewish law and the ability to teach, interpret and, hopefully, to enforce it. Leading rabbis continued their legacy through their disciples and presided over prestigious Talmudic academies (yeshivas). The tension between the rabbis – some of them, heads of academies (geonim), and the Exilarch; the debate about the date of the origin of the Exilarchate; and the comparison with the role of the patriarch (nasi) in Roman and Byzantine Palestine have dominated most of the scholarship on this subject.1

Despite the seemingly inherent conflict between two principles of authority and the differences in substance and style, it emerges that rabbis and Exilarchs both competed and cooperated in leading Babylonian Jewry under the Sasanian dynasty (224-651CE), the era of the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud.2 In fact, the major source for study of this period is the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 CE). Other sources include midrashim (homilies or exegesis based on the books of the Hebrew Bible) and the earlier Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi) (c. 400 CE) and later chronological-historical works such as the Seder Olam Zuta (SOZ) (c. 800) and the Epistle of Sherira Gaon (ISG) (987). Though useful, the two much later accounts are not considered very reliable and have a pro-rabbinic tendency. Descriptions of the Exilarch, such as the tenth-century account by Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian and the twelfth-century travelogue of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela relate to the institution under the Abbasid Caliphate and contribute to a somewhat romantic image of an exotic eastern Jewish potentate and his vast influence.3

A Prince without a Kingdom by Geoffrey Herman departs from the previous works that regarded the Exilarchate through the prism of the conflict between the rabbis and the Exilarchs. A scholar at the Scholion Research Center at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Herman examines the leadership structure of Babylonian Jewry in the Sasanian period from a broader perspective. He does so by reading the rabbinic texts differently from his predecessors and by introducing and using far more non-Jewish sources, which will be noted below. Herman begins from the following premise: While the majority of subjects in the Persian kingdom, its ruler and the elite practiced the Zoroastrian religion, there were two large minorities: Jews and Christians (mainly Nestorian Christians). The Catholicos, head of the Christian communities in Sasanian Persia, served in a similar capacity as the Exilarch for the Jews. Herman compares the two respective leaders with regard to their status within government bureaucracy, origins of the office, influence upon his community and relations with the clergy – the Catholicos with priests and bishops and the Exilarch with the rabbis and heads of academies. He focuses upon both the differences and similarities between the two leaders who based their authority on precedence, reputation and their respective roles within the Sasanian official bureaucracy, not only within their own communities. For example, just as the role of the bishops changed, so did that of the rabbis, depending upon the personalities and approaches of the protagonists and of the Persian rulers. According to Herman, both the Exilarch and the Catholicos, as official representatives of their respective communities, were close to Sasanian officials and kings and part of the ruling elite. The office of Exilarch, however, originated long before that of the Catholicos and the rosh golah seems to have played a greater role in economic matters.

Such a comparative perspective entails the introduction of a variety of sources rarely or never used for the study of the history of Babylonian Jewry during this period. Among them are Christian chronicles, synod proceedings of the Eastern Church, lives of saints, stories of martyrs, lists of bishops and the homilies or Demonstrations of Aphrahat (280-345), an important fourth-century Christian figure. Many of these works are written in Syriac (Christian Aramaic). This body of sources is parallel to the rabbinic sources and the leadership of the Christians is parallel to that of the Jews within the Persian orbit. Herman points out that the status and location of Christian communities is helpful in ascertaining those of Jewish communities at a particular time. He notes the city of Seleucia, the seat of the Catholicos, and the town of Mahoza, the residence of the Exilarch (150-153). Indeed, by comparing the major figures of both the Jews and the Christians of Sasanian Persia, the Exilarchate appears to be more of a feature of general Sasanian policy and Persian government than a unique, purely Jewish institution. This conclusion not only gives the reader a different understanding of the position of the Exilarch, but also a new perspective on how and where both communities fit into Persian society and its political structure. In fact, the residence of the Exilarch in Mahoza actually may be attributed to the fact that the king spent the winter months there. Herman asserts that “had the Exilarchs moved permanently from the capital city to another city, they would in effect, have ceased to be heads of the exile.” (154)

Furthermore, Herman stresses the Persian ambience and the influence of the Sasanian elite upon the Exilarch. Here, he includes extensive use of archeological sources such as inscriptions, excavations (such as that of ancient Mahoza), seals, coins, silver and glass artifacts, Zoroastrian religious literature and later Arabic translations of histories of the Sasanian kingdom. The introduction of archeological discoveries is fairly new to the study of Jewish institutions in Babylonia in this period. Along with literary sources and the Talmud, such sources contribute to his assessment of the place of the Exilarch. For example, brief subchapters entitled: “Persian Noble Practices and the Exilarch;” “Persian language” and “Gahwārag – A Golden Chair” (215-217); and a long chapter on “Dining with the Exilarch” (239-258) which clearly show the influence of royal Persian banquet customs on the life style of the Exilarch. The latter, in fact, regarded himself as royalty, as a descendant of King David. Herman’s emphasis on the Persian elements in the Exilarchate’s power structure, demeanor and practice also sheds new light on his altercations with the rabbis regarding his departure from the norms which they advocated (181, 220ff.). Here, he masterfully integrates the archeological, literary and Talmudic material. In fact, according to Herman, the Talmudic material points in the direction of viewing the Exilarch as part of the Sasanian establishment and heavily influenced by Persian customs and society – a major observation of his book.

A Prince without a Kingdom presents a nuanced examination of the relationship between the Exilarch and the rabbis, which Herman refers to as “complex.” “For the rabbis, the Exilarch was seen as an outsider and not a participant in their world of concerns.” (181) Herman discusses the intricacies of this relationship through a careful reading of Talmudic sources, including the Ms. Escorial of the Babylonian Talmud that contains a text of Yerushalmi Neziqin (Civil Law) in the margins and additional Talmudic manuscripts. According to Herman, most scholars approached the issue from the standpoint of the status of the rabbis, comparing them to their counterparts in Roman/Byzantine Palestine. Hence, there was a focus upon the competition for authority (182-183). Here, Herman again notes the Sasanian milieu and the comparison with the Catholicos. For example, the attendance of rabbis at gatherings when the Exilarch and his retinue were present is parallel to the bishops who attended the synods of the Catholicos (193-194). The relationship between rabbis and Exilarchs, therefore, was not necessarily one of continuous pronounced conflict inherent in the system of Jewish leadership, but was affected by a broad spectrum of local conditions. A Prince without a Kingdom stresses “differing approaches reflecting diverse and shifting rabbinic leadership” (209) whose geographical locations and concerns in Babylonia played a role in the nature and power of rabbinic authority and its relationship to the Exilarch.

Skillfully discussing Talmudic material, Herman devotes several pages to the judicial system and deals with the important subject of the courts of the Exilarch and the circle of his supporters, rabbinic and otherwise, and the relationship between the communal or denominational court and the Sasanian legal system. For example, regarding punishments designated by the Exilarch, such as excommunication, he again invokes the parallel of the Catholicos who also made use of it (202). It appears that when royal support was strong, the power of these leaders was greater.

A Prince without a Kingdom is not a quick read. It is full of passages from the Talmud both in the original Aramaic from a variety of manuscripts and in readable English translations and likewise, from the Syriac sources with accompanying translations. It takes time and effort, but is worthwhile. For the sources are the building blocks of Herman’s thesis and prove his points. The book covers topics such as courts, taxes, religion and state, the rabbis, and the origins of the Exilarchate. It contains several appendices, an extensive bibliography, a critique of previous scholarship, copious footnotes and lists of Sasanian kings and Catholicoi. Herman also presents his own list of Exilarchs from their origin, which differs from those of scholars whose lists of Exilarchs appear alongside the author’s. Unfortunately, A Prince without a Kingdom does not include a map of the Sasanian kingdom and the sites of important Jewish and Christian centers. This is a major lacuna. On the whole, however, for students of Late Antiquity, Talmud, rabbinic thought and Jewish political and communal institutions, A Prince without a Kingdom is required, thought-provoking and stimulating reading by an accomplished and erudite scholar.

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1 The major study of Babylonia Jewry in the Sasanian period remains the five-volume magnum opus by Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews of Babylonia (Leiden: Brill, 1965-1970). See also: Isaiah M. Gafni, Yehudei Bavel be-Tekufat ha-Talmud (“The Jews of Babylonia in the Talmudic Era”) (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1990) (Hebrew). For a treatment of the origins and role of the Exilarch, see: Moshe Beer, “Rashut ha-Golah bi-yemei ha-Talmud,” (“The Exilarchs in Talmudic Times”), Zion 28 (1963), 3-33 (Hebrew).

2 For a discussion of the differences and commonalities of rabbis and Exilarchs, see: Jacob Neusner, There We Sat Down: Talmudic Judaism in the Making (New York: Ktav, 1978), especially, 44-97.

3 Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1979), 171-175 and 252-254.

About Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer Emerita in Ancient Jewish History at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.