Situating Judaism and Sogdiana

ChrSogd in Syriac Script: The Legend of Barshabba Bishop of Merv, who brought Chr'ity to the E Iranian area

Legend of Bar Shabba in Syriac script

Reliable statistics concerning the Jews of Central Asia, or Bukharan Jews, do not exist until the nineteenth century CE (Tolmas 2006). However, there is evidence of Jews in Central Asia long before an official census. A Jewish cemetery in Persia dates back to the sixth century CE, and ancient inscriptions made by Jews have been found at Merv, or MRGW’N (de la Vaissière 2005; Lurje "Other Religions" 2014). According to legend, Merv is also the starting point for Christianity’s path towards Central Asia and China under the direction of Bishop Bar Shabba. The Persian Qandiyya attributes influence to Jews in Samarkand before the Arab invasion, although no Sogdian text references such influence or Jewish presence in Sogdiana (de la Vaissière 2005). There is documentation of Jews settling in modern-day Georgia after 559 BCE when the Achaemenid Empire absorbed Babylon. It is possible they also settled in the Central Asian parts of the Achaemenid Empire such as Sogdiana, which was located across the Caspian Sea. In the Old Testament, Haman, a vizier in the Achaemenid Empire, discusses the Jews within the empire with King Ahasuerus, or more commonly referred to as Xerxes I:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. (Esther 3:8 NIV)

If Haman or the author of Esther were correct, that would mean that Jews existed in Sogdiana long before the traceable record.

The first specific evidence of Jews in Transoxiana dates back to a fourth century story about Samuel Bar Bisena. In the story, Bar Bisena, a religious law authority, or amora, travels to Merv and lectures on the uncleanliness of the alcoholic drinks served there. This journey could point to the possibility that Jews had lived in Merv long enough to forget ritual requirements for food (Tolmas 2006). It also stands to reason that Bar Bisena was commenting on Merv’s lack of cultural accommodation and was trying to educate a non-Jewish audience in the dietary restrictions of another people. The purpose of Bar Bisena’s journey is not made explicit in the text, but it may have been a trade journey. Many amoras were involved in the silk trade at the time, and Merv was an oasis along the trade routes that made up the Silk Road—an area of trade that the Sogdians and Radhanite Jewish traders also participated in.

Jewish Radhanite traders often traded in and through Sogdiana. What is known about the Jewish Radhanite traders is written in new Persian rather than Hebrew (Lurje 2015). Their land and sea trade routes, as described in the ninth century Kitàb al-Masàlik wa’l-Mamàlik by the postmaster Ibn Khurdàdhbih, spanned from Spain to China—a huge trade route that encompassed Central Asia, including Sogdiana (de la Vaissière 2005). In some Judeo-Persian documents, Sogdians are mentioned. In other documents, some Jewish trading community addresses have Sogdian names (Lurje 2015). While there is no extensive record of the relationship between Radhanite and Sogdian traders, Sogdians were the main traders in much of the terrain Radhanite traders also operated in, and it is worthy to note the possible influence of Sogdian traders on Jewish traders such as the Radhanites (Lurje 2015). There is, however, documentation of a relationship between Jews and Zoroastrians, the pervasive religion of Sogdiana (Hansen 2015).

Historically, Zoroastrians have been thought to be religiously intolerant. However, recent scholarship shows otherwise in the case of their relationship with Jews. Richard Kalmin, chair of Rabbinic Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary, has recently reinterpreted passages of the Babylonian Talmud (Payne 2015). These particular passages were thought to indicate persecution of Jews during the Sasanian period, but Kalmin’s research debunks the myth of violence exercised against Jews by Zoroastrians at the time. These Zoroastrians were actually tolerant of other religions in Central Asia, possibly beyond the spatial and temporal scope of the Sasanians. Rulers of principalities often proclaimed one religion and encouraged their subjects to also adhere to that religion, such as Zoroastrianism in Sogdiana. However, residents were permitted not to comply and practice another religion such as Judaism (Payne 2015).

Further, there was common religious ground between Zoroastrians and Jews. On cosmology, purity, and mythical history, the Talmud lays out similar tenets to those of Zoroastrians (Payne 2015). Indoctrination of Jews into a Zoroastrian community was also reinforced by dina de-malkhuta dina, or “The law of the kingdom is the law”—a teaching of Samuel Bar Bisena that is present in the Babylonian Talmud. That is, Jewish law is subject to the law of the land, helping the community blend into an existing Zoroastrian state. Rabbis adhered to customs of dress and dining as well as legal institutions. Exilarchs, or representatives of Jewish communities at court, also adopted outward customs (Payne 2015). The willingness of Jews to submit to the ruling apparatus allowed them to live within a Zoroastrian community while still retaining Jewish identity.

Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary

Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary

Could this influence and possible collaboration between Zoroastrians and Jews extend to funerary rites? Zoroastrian Sogdians used ossuaries starting in the late fifth century CE to bury cleaned bones of the deceased (Pavchinskaia 1994). Ossuaries were used in Jerusalem as early as the first century CE (“Ossuaries and Sarcophagi”). One ossuary found at Pishpek, the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary, could be one such example of a Jewish ossuary made within the confines of a Zoroastrian state due to its motifs reminiscent of the Jerusalem ossuaries, namely the depiction of vegetation rather than deities, like that of the Mulla-Kurgan ossuary (Longenecker 2015). The fact that it was found at Pishpek, outside the reach of Sogdiana, neither hurts the case nor supports it, as the ossuary could have travelled along the trade routes to Pishpek in the hands of Radhanite, Sogdian, or other traders. Although there is no evidence to support this theory of a Zoroastrian inspired Jewish ossuary, this sort of collaboration between Zoroastrian and Jewish culture, if possible or even probable, could point to other collaborations in important life events, especially considering dina de-malkhuta dina. Jews that were contemporaries of Sogdians seem to fit more than one mold, especially within a Zoroastrian state.

Situating Judaism and Sogdiana