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"By The Waters Of Babylon" : The Longest Diaspora

based on an article in Wizo Review

The Jewish connection with Babylonia dates from the time of Abraham the Patriarch, who started his journey to the land of Canaan from Ur, just south of the city of Babylon. However, it was only after many centuries, with the exiles from Judea and Samaria in the years 721 and 733 BCE, that a Jewish presence was established in Babylonia. But it was the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the exile of the elite of the nation to Babylon, which created the background for the flowering of Babylonian Jewry.

First Return to Zion

When Babylonia fell to the Persians in 539 BCE, forty-seven years after the destruction and exile, the victor, King Cyrus the Great, was quick to issue a royal directive giving the Jews permission to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Of the 120,000 Jews living in Babylon, 40,000 decided to return to Judea and, eventually, to rebuild the second Temple, but 80,000 decided to remain and prospered there in agriculture and commerce, under the leadership of the Resh Galuta, the Exilarch.

The destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 CE) strengthened the status of the Jews in Babylon, and it became, in fact, the spiritual center of the entire Jewish dispersion. For over a thousand years the Jews of Babylon were represented by the Resh Galuta, the Exilarch (the administrative head of the Jews in exile), and great academies of learning were created in Nehardea, Sura and Pumbedita. Babylon became the center for the creation of great works of Jewish scholarship.

The Talmud

The highly significant contribution of Babylonian Jewry to Jewish life was best expressed and preserved in the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud (Oral Law), the basis for Jewish law (halacha), philosophy and the Jewish way of life - an enormous undertaking began at the Academy of Sura and was completed in the year 499 CE. It has been rightly maintained that no book, with the exception of the Bible, has played such an essential part in the history of the Jewish people as the Talmud in both its versions, but the Babylonian Talmud is considered superior to the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud.

Islam Arrives

When the armies of Islam began their triumphant conquest of large portions of what was then the civilized world, Mesopotamia became one of their earliest victories. The Jews of Babylonia welcomed the Moslem conquerors with relief, since the local Persian Sassanian ruler had began one of their frequent waves of harassment and persecution.

Baghdad and the Period of the Geonim

Baghdad founded in 762 A.D., soon became the capital not only of the Moslem Empire but also of Babylonian Jewish life and scholarship. Shortly after its emergence as a capital and a heavily populated city, Baghdad gradually became the seat, first of the Exilarch, and then of the Geonim, who up till then had resided in the three centres of Jewish learning: Nehardea, Sura and Pumbedita. The Geonim were the spiritual leaders who headed the Babylonian academies.

The two most outstanding and influential Geonim were Sa'adiah ben Joseph Gaon (882-942) and Hai ben Sherira Gaon (939-1038).

Turkish Revival

After centuries of decline, the fortunes of the Jews of Iraq began to improve noticeably during the first decades of the 1800's under the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area for almost 400 years, beginning in 1534.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Iraqi Jewish community was noted for its highly developed communal organization. In Baghdad, which had the highest concentration of Jews, there were dozens of institutions including yeshivot, schools, synagogues, charitable organizations, medical institutions and other bodies, designed to meet the needs of the community.

Operation Ezra & Nehemiah

From 1950-52, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah brought almost all the Iraqi Jews to Israel, first by way of Cyprus, then directly to Israel. More than 110,000 people made aliyah. By 1967 only 3,000 Jews remained in Iraq. Today less than 60 Jews remain, all of whom live in Baghdad.



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