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The articles in this issue have been divided up into the following categories







Babylonian Jewry

by David Dangoor

Excerpt of the talk he gave at the 21st Jewish Genealogical Conference, held in London last July

Babylonia was one of the main birthplaces of the Jewish people from its earliest times, as well as the place where the foundations of Judaism as we know it today were constructed. The area between the River Tigris and Euphrates, approximating to modern day Iraq, can lay claim to a greater part of our history as a nation and as a religion, than any other place. Not only was it from there that Abraham emerged as the founder of our people on his journey to Israel, but it was here that the Jews had autonomy for most time as a people for over 1,000 years, here that the Babylonian Talmud was created from where it formed the framework for rabbinic Judaism. It was in Babylon that the synagogue and the love of learning grew.

Our story starts in Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, where Abram’s father Terah, the head of an Aramean Nomadic family escaped from there in the face of an annihilating attack by Elamite hords attacking Sumaria in about 1960 BCE. An attack in which Ur was destroyed. Terah made his way north with his family to Harran where he died. The succession fell to Abram, his eldest son. Unlike his father, a polytheist worshipping idols, Abram was a monotheist. He broke with idolatry, and turned to the service of the one and only God whom he recognised and by whom he was re-named Abraham. This was not a God restricted to one locality, but the Creator of Heaven and Earth, independent of nature and geographical limitation, and essentially an ethical God to whom justice and righteousness was of supreme concern.

Proceeding south along the eastern bank of the Jordan, he crossed into the land of Canaan to Shechem near Jerusalem. According to Josephus, Abraham was called "The Hebrew" in reference to his ancestor Heber mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrews appear again on the Mesopotamian scene over a thousand years later, when Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful Babylonian King conquered the Kingdom of Judah and captured Jerusalem in 597 BCE, and deported leading Jews to Babylon. After a rebellion by Judah, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 586 BCE, and most of the inhabitants were deported.

When the last group of Jews arrived in Babylonia, they found two other groups of Hebrews already there. One group, there for only eleven years, were recent newcomers still learning to cope with a new life.
The other group were the descendants of those deported by the Assyrians in 721 BCE from the northern kingdom of Israel. However, unlike their predecessors, the later exiles of Judah did not assimilate, because they were more attached to their religious traditions. The prophet Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles was: build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, multiply there and do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the City where God has sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord for its peace, for in its peace you will find your peace.

This became the charter for all the diasporas.

Within 48 years of the destruction of Jerusalem, Babylon was conquered by the Persian King Koresh, Cyrus the Great. He allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Forty thousand did, but the majority stayed in Babylon.

It was the policy of the Achaemenian rulers, from Cyrus down, to tolerate the cults of the subjugated nationalities throughout their empire. Jews in Babylonia worked mainly as farmers as they had in the Holy Land but they also worked as bakers and brewers, weavers, dyers and tailors, shipbuilders and woodcutters. There are records of Jewish blacksmiths, tanners, fishermen, sailors and porters. Street vendors eked out a modest living while men of commerce exported grain, wine, wool and flax, and imported silk, iron and precious stones.

It was at this time that the foundations of the synagogue were laid. The synagogue met the needs of the exiles in more than one sense. It was natural for those living near one another to meet on the days they did not work, the Sabbath, Festivals and Fast days. Without a Temple, they could not sacrifice, but they could sing songs which accompanied the sacrifices and which the scribes had preserved

In the meantime, the Jewish community in Babylon contributed much towards the rebuilding of the structures in Israel. The High Priest Joshua, thought to be Deutero Isaiah and the Prophet Ezekiel are buried in Babylon.

The Babylonian, Ezra the scribe gave Judaism the decisive impulse that eventually produced the Pharisee movement and the rabbinical system. He changed the Hebrew alphabet, and set himself to make the Torah the governing force in Jewish life. It is said of him that if the Torah had not been given to Moses, Ezra would have been worthy to receive it. His shrine (shown on the cover of this issue) stands in Southern Iraq.

In the year 331 BCE, the Achaemenians lost control of Babylonia when their armies were defeated by Alexander the Great in the Battle of Gaugamela near Arbil (Arbela). The Persian troops stationed in the capital Babylon surrendered without fighting and the Macedonian conqueror made a triumphal entry into the old Semitic metropolis. Alexander went on with his swift conquest all the way to India. Two years later he was back in Babylon where he was struck by fever and died there at the age of thirty-two.

Seleucus, one of Alexander’s Generals, made himself master of Babylon, and the large Seleucid empire ruled Babylonia for just over two centuries to 126 BCE.

In 126 BCE, forty years after the Maccabian revolt in Israel, the Seleucid empire was driven out from Babylon by the Parthians, another Persian group, whose Arsacid dynasty provided 350 years of reasonably stable Persian rule, which though it had its ups and downs for the Jews, was generally a benign period. The Arsacids were concerned with fostering local support among indigenous populations and so made little effort to impose their culture and religion over them. Palestinian Jewry under the Hasmoneans, and Arsacid Parthia had a common interest in the destruction of the Seleucid Greek power.

At the beginning of the present era there were many conversions to Judaism all over the Middle East. In about 40 CE, in northern Iraq, the Royal Family and many of the people of Adiabene became Jews. It is estimated that there may have been as many as one million Jews around Babylonia at that time.

However, when in the year 363 the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate offered Babylonian Jewry to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem if they turned against their Persian rulers, they refused.

Parthian reinforcement saw the establishment of a position called the Resh Galuta which is Aramaic for Head of the Exiles, or Exilarch. The holder of this position exercised government over all Babylonian Jewry and Jewry within the Parthian empire. The holders of the office traced their lineage back through the male line to King David and they passed the position within the family, mostly from father to son for 900 years.

During the Parthian rule the Exilarch had his own courts and prisons and collected taxes on behalf of his administration and the central government. There are even records of capital punishment being meted out. This autonomy continued during Sassanian rule, though the powers of the Exilarch were initially severely restricted until the Jewish government accepted State Law on certain matters such as land tenure and payment of taxes, summarised by the principle of dina de malchuta dina (secular law is law) which remains a basic Jewish principle even today.

Most of the fourth century saw Jewish persecution in Babylonia, with many killed, and children given to Mazdean Priests. Jews were even forbidden to light Shabbath candles. When the Sasanians embraced briefly the teachings of Mazdak which included the sharing of property and women, the Exilarch Mar Zutra II expelled the Mazdakites in the year 513, and declared an independent state which lasted seven years, until he was captured and killed in 520.

The idea grew among the Jews of Babylonia that knowledge was an important acquisition. The ignoramus was to be despised, and a man’s standing in the community began to depend not so much on family and wealth as on intellectual endeavour and achievement. Young and old became interested in acquiring knowledge. A young man was counselled to sell if necessary all he possessed to marry the daughter of a learned man. Gradually Jews experienced a kind of cultural democracy. The synagogue had eliminated the priestly intermediary, and education made the Torah available to all. The Torah was read and explained on Shabbat, but since farmers lived some distance from synagogues, and could not travel on Shabbat, portions of the Torah were also read on market days, Mondays and Thursdays. In the Holy Land they read the whole Torah over a three year cycle instead of the Babylonian one year cycle which has prevailed.

Great academies also grew in Nehardea, Sura, and Pumbedita, and while people such as the great Hillel the Babylonian used to go to Jerusalem to study, the centre of gravity of Jewish learning gradually shifted to Babylon. In 219 CE Rav returned to Babylonia and formed the Sura Academy. It was here that the Amoraim over many generations (about three centuries) did their work to explain or complete the Mishna. The word Gemara is from the Aramaic word completion.

The Gemara exists in two versions: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, but it is the Babylonian Talmud that has had the greatest influence on Judaism, as we know it. This is partly because it was focused more on issues important in the Diaspora, partly because the Babylonian community governed itself and so the rules had a direct relevance, and also because this resulted in more polishing of the work by repeatedly revisiting and explaining difficult passages. Also the tyranny of Rome in Judea had prevented the completion of the Jerusalem Talmud.

In 641 CE the Muslims conquered Mesopotamia with the help of Babylonian Jewry who had been suffering from Masdakite religious fanaticism. Such great help was given to the Muslims by the Jews that when the Muslims conquered Persia the two daughters of the Shah were taken by the Caliph Omar, who married one and gave the other in marriage to the Exilarch Bustanai. Muslims divided the world into two main domains; Dar Al-Islam (the domain of Islam), and Dar Al-Harb (the domain of war) but in between they introduced the concept of Dar Al-Sulh (the domain of conciliation) which belong to such peoples as Jews and Christians (the people of the Book) called Dhimmis to whom toleration and protection was extended by treaty, in return for protection money called Jezia. The life of the Jews of Babylonia under Islam took a turn for the better, partly because of the affinity between the two religions.

What is more, the very expansion of the Muslim empire and the establishment in 762 CE of Baghdad as the capital of the Moslem world, and the seat of the Caliphate, opened up extraordinary opportunities for commerce as well as for the extension of the influence of the Babylonian academies.

As a result, one of the main activities of the academies of Sura and Pumbeditha and one of the most significant functions of their heads, the Geonim, was answering queries coming from Jewish communities near and far. These answers were given in Teshuboth, responsa. The questions touched on the whole range of law and the plain meaning of a talmudic phrase or the order of prayers, or points of dogma or history. The answers were often read in public, in synagogues and schools, with copies made and carried to other communities. Subsequently a whole body of collected responsa literature evolved. Many of the remote communities of the diaspora survived on the intellectual guidance coming from Babylonia. Many Geonim in the four centuries after the Muslim conquest had a great reputation throughout the Jewish world. One notable among them was Sa’adia Gaon of Sura in the 10th Century who composed a Book of Seasons about the Jewish calendar, an Arabic translation of the Bible for the common people, and a philosophical justification of Judaism. Another notable Gaon was Samuel Ibn Al-Dastur who also had a daughter who was so learned that she taught the students, but had to do so from inside a building through a window, so the students below her could not see her.

During the period of Geonim, and perhaps in part as a reaction to rabbinic talmudic Judaism, a sect of Judaism called the Karaites based on a literal interpretation of the Bible (Karaim means scripturalists) was started in the 8th century by Anan Ben-David, a wayward elder brother who was passed over in the position of Exilarch in favour of his younger brother. On challenging this he was sentenced to death, but in prison was advised to offer a bribe and claim a new religion that accepted a place for Jesus and Mohammed and which had a different calendar. It gained many disciples over the following centuries and was the greatest threat that rabbinic Judaism had encountered for many centuries.

During the early years of Islam, the Exilarch as the temporal head of the Jewish community was shown great honour and respect by the Muslims. He would visit the Caliph every Thursday with a grand processional escort of Jews and non-Jews, and a herald in front of him would cry out; Make way before our Lord, the son of David. He would kiss the Caliph’s hand and the Caliph would rise and place him on a throne beside him.

Though the Jews’ experience of Islam was generally a very positive one they, like all non-Muslims, did suffer when their rulers were of a more fanatical disposition. Distinctive and unusual clothing to humiliate them was occasionally the order of the day, as well as restrictions of freedom for non-Muslims. Also the Caliph Haroun el Rashid fought against the Khazars who had converted to Judaism and when he met military setbacks against them he took it out on the Jews of Iraq.

Afghanistan today probably gives an insight into the occasional lurches to fundamentalism that occurred from time to time.

Babylonian influence over other Jewish communities began to wane largely as a result of quarrels among Moslem people themselves and the weakening of the Caliphate.

Baghdad ceased to be the centre of the Muslim world between the 10th and 12th Centuries, but disaster was to strike with the conquest of the Mongols. In 1258 Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan stormed the city. The majority of Baghdad’s inhabitants of over 800,000 people (some say as high as two million) including the Caliph and his family was slaughtered and the city given over to plunder and flames, as was the Mongol way

Some accounts suggest that many Jews and other Dhimmis were spared, and thirty years later a Jew called Sa’ad Al-Dawla was made Governor of Iraq. Three years later he was assassinated and the mob turned the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad into a scene of murder and plunder. However two years later an economic crisis compelled the regime to turn to another Jewish physician financier for help. Rashid Al-Dawla’s position as minister lasted for two decades but when his master died he was accused by his enemies of having poisoned him, and was executed in 1316.

In 1401 Tamerlane, the last and greatest of the Mongols, conquered Baghdad again with great loss of life including Jewish lives. The Mongol occupation of Iraq brought about the downfall of Babylonian Jewry as a force in the Jewish world.

After turbulent times and a succession of rulers, the Ottoman Sultan, Salim the Savage, took much of Mesapotamia in 1516, and in 1534 the greatest Ottoman, Sulaiman the Magnificent, entered Baghdad accompanied by a number of Jewish scholars and physicians. He is the one who encouraged Sephardi Jews, recently expelled from Spain to settle in his empire. He would ask how the King of Spain could call himself wise and allow such an important and useful part of his population to leave. He was warmly welcomed by Baghdad’s small Jewish community. The Ottomans were on the whole very favourable to minorities including the Jews, as they perceived the main threat to their rule would come from the majority populations.

The Persians re-conquered Baghdad in 1623. Fifteen years later, Sultan Murad IV laid siege to it. On the night before attack he went in as a beggar to survey. In the evening, he knocked at a Jewish door. Decided that a full loaf would be a good omen, he got full loaf and accommodation. The next day Murad captured Baghdad and later enquired what Mrs Parizat, who had given him lodging, would want as a present. At her request, the growing Jewish community were given a large piece of land to be used as a cemetery. After the Revolution of 1958 President Qassem appropriated the cemetery to build the highest tower in the world. He paid no compensation as the community had forgotten to register its ownership in 1930.

However later Sultans let power slip back to the local Pashas under whom the lot of the Jews deteriorated. Emigration took its toll, and during the 18th and 19th centuries plagues of fearful dimensions left the yeshivot half empty, the rabbinate crippled and the community much reduced. The result was the population of Baghdad is not likely to have grown much in the past five centuries. Indeed the Jewish population of the area of Babylonia in 1950 was about the same as it was 2,500 years earlier at the time when Koresh conquered Babylon. This is despite having been many times larger at certain intervening periods.

In 1917 the British entered Baghdad where the Jews of the district now numbered 80,000, among a population of 200,000). The Jews were soon concerned because the British intended to give the Arabs independence. They feared discrimination. Despite assurances from the British who appointed the Emir Faisal as the first King of Iraq, their minority position gradually resulted in handicaps which got worse when Faisal’s son, Ghazi, took over. He was more stridently nationalist, and less of a statesman. Under the influence of Nazi propaganda, Jews began to find access to government jobs and institutes of higher learning restricted to them. Zionist activity abroad was creating a growing nationalist backlash at home, and Jews found themselves having to make numerous declarations of loyalty to deal with mounting hostilities. A pro-axis government took power in the spring of 1941 with army support, and denied British troops access to military bases in Iraq. When British forces came in, this government fled, but the British stayed outside the capital for a few days while the mob set upon the Jews. About 180 were killed and many more injured in the days before a curfew was imposed.

A lull of a few years occurred, but with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the poor showing of Iraqi troops against it, the Jews found themselves facing government victimisation and extortion with confiscation and fines following trumped-up charges. The few who left the country were required to pay huge deposits, and many started to leave illegally across the mountains. Eventually the government introduced a law allowing Jews to leave on the surrender of their nationality, and loss of their assets. It was declared that there was to be an exchange of populations with Palestinian refugees who were to occupy vacated Jewish houses. Two bombs went off, one among Jewish people and another in a synagogue. As a result when the massive airlift to Israel, known as Operation Ezra and Nehemia, took place in 1951, most of the Jews in Iraq got out with little more than the clothes they were wearing. By 1952 over 130,000 had left and only 6,000 remained. Since then most of those have also left by one means or another so that today, apart from about thirty very old Jews, no-one remains from the community that had flourished for thousands of years.

Today the Babylonian Jewish community is roughly estimated at about 300,000 worldwide, out of which about 280,000 are living in Israel. Outside Israel there are about 25,000, mainly in the US and UK.

Babylonian Jewish children were taught at an early age to memorise as much of their family tree as possible – at least to a well-known ancestor, who would remain a landmark for several generations that followed him.

The Bible’s emphasis on genealogy was to do with protecting land titles.

Community positions, which once attained, were often held for life, featured in names. The President of a congregation was called Hazzan from Hazzanu (Governor), and that title became a surname for the person and for following generations of the family. The Treasurer was known as the Gubbay, and the Secretary was known as the Shamash. A number of Iraqi Jewish families bear the names Hazzan, Gubbay and Shamash.

Other surnames referred to places of origin e.g. Shirazi, Karkukli, Hillawi, Mandelawi, Basri, etc. or the profession e.g. Haddad (Blacksmith), Shohet (Slaughterer), Kateb (Writer=Sofer), Baqqal (Grocer) and Saatchi (Watch repairer), or pedigree e.g. Cohen, Lawi, Nasi, Hakham or Siddiq.

However surnames were not used for much of the time until recently. Instead we used a pattern of first names with one or two distinguishing names threading the line.

Families confined themselves to only a few names which were then repeated in different patterns. Secondary branches established new patterns.

Unfortunately most of the ancient records of our community disappeared in the constant warfare that plagued that region. Perhaps genetic analysis in the coming years will reveal again some knowledge of general genealogical patterns.

In the last three centuries, extensive records were made and are still available. Useful sources of information have been for example the military tax that was levied by the Ottomans from the Jews and which was fully recorded. Some families can date their family tree back to the 17th Century. My own family records go back to around 1700. At that time there was a massive death toll in Baghdad from one of the plagues that decimated the population in that period. New rabbis were brought in, often from Aleppo. My father once came across a person in London who looked identical to a close relative of ours. He asked him his surname which turned out to be Danker, very close to Dangoor. The name apparently is carried by a number of Jewish people from a town in Latvia which was called Dankera, now called Gostini. So perhaps our family came to Baghdad from Spain via Latvia and Aleppo.

Efforts are made to preserve the history and traditions of Babylonian Jewry today. My father created a Foundation called The Exilarch’s Foundation to keep alive many traditions of the community.

He has been publishing a magazine of Babylonian Jewry for thirty years with over 4000 copies distributed free all over the world. It covers a vast range of the culture of our community from history and family trees to poetry and literature, politics and current affairs, cookery and familiar proverbs.

The Scribe is now available on the internet at

The Exilarch’s Foundation has also published a number of editions of the Baghdadi Haggada which includes the translation in Arabic which used to be sung in full as part of the Seder, with the Arabic written only in Hebrew characters.

The Babylonian Jewry Museum in the town of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv features a reproduction of an alleyway in the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad around 100 years ago. It also houses temporary and permanent exhibits and hosts educational activities, symposia for artists, etc.

There are associations in Israel of groups of Iraqi origin, for example the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq which have published many books including a dictionary of the distinctive Judeo-Arabic dialect of Iraq. Apart from distinctive traditions and a distinctive dialect, Iraqi Jews used their own characteristic Hebrew script.

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