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Are You a Zoroastrian?

A new translation of the Bundahišn, the Zoroastrian Book of Creation, offers surprising insight into the cosmology of the Talmud

Geoffrey Herman
August 11, 2021
Culture Club/Getty Images
A Parsi high priest performing Navjote, the Zoroastrian induction ceremony, in a colorized photograph from the early 20th century Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images
A Parsi high priest performing Navjote, the Zoroastrian induction ceremony, in a colorized photograph from the early 20th century Culture Club/Getty Images

There was a time when the publication of an ancient work of Zoroastrian cosmology was a moment of great excitement in the world of Jewish scholarship. Such was the case with the appearance of the first complete German edition of the Bundahišn by Friedrich Windischmann, published posthumously in 1863 (Zoroastrische Studien, Berlin). Rabbinic scholars rushed to procure copies as if it was the latest in the Harry Potter series, studied it closely, collated it with ancient Jewish traditions, and competed with one another to share the fruits of their endeavors. Persia was all the rage. Christian scholars had been eagerly debating the impact of Zoroastrian religion on the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Established truths were being questioned, and new theories of religious development tested. Jewish scholars jumped on the bandwagon, dragging rabbinic traditions into the fray.

The new English translation of The Bundahisn: The Zoroastrian Book of Creation, just published by Oxford University Press, edited and ably rendered into English by Domenico Agostini and Samuel Thrope, is an opportunity to recall this early but little known episode in Jewish scholarship and to delve into the question of the complex scholarly relationship between Zoroastrianism and Judaism. It is also an invitation for a renewed look into one of the most important works of Zoroastrian cosmology and its potential for comparative study with the Babylonian Talmud.

One of the leading early Jewish scholarly enthusiasts for Zoroastrianism was the 19th-century Galician reformer Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Schorr. He scoured Windischmann’s edition, and anything else he could get his hands on, determined to demonstrate the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, and published his findings in his iconoclastic Hebrew journal, HeHalutz. Another was Alexander Kohut. His doctorate, submitted to the University of Leipzig, dealt with the influence of Zoroastrian angelology and demonology on post-biblical Judaism. There were many others.

The intellectual curiosity of these scholars was often agenda-driven, in the direction of religious reform. The prolific maskil Shlomo Rubin, who penned a slim volume in Hebrew, Persia and Judah, proclaimed his objectives unabashedly on the cover, “to show and teach that not all that our forefathers received from the Persians was the most fitting and appropriate, and worthy of being absorbed amongst us for generations to come.” He went on to explain that “only a little, and just that concerning ethics and good manners” should be kept for posterity. Most of their customs “do not accord with the spirit of true Judaism, and are not suitable to be grafted onto our tree of life.”

What were the Persian grafts in Rubin’s view? The list he provides is somewhat surprising: the blessing over the new moon; the ritual washing of the hands in the morning; the messiah; angels, demons, and spirits; charms, incantations, and amulets; the Kabbalah, “as formulated since the days of the Ari and Hayyim Vital!” Unsurprisingly, the “Persian religion” described by such authors seemed, on occasion, to consist of the sum total of whatever they found unsavory in traditional Judaism, rather than having much to do with genuine Zoroastrian beliefs.

The origins of the Persian turn in scholarship can be found a century earlier and are associated with the name of a remarkable young Frenchman named Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805). Having heard that original scriptures of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, unknown in Europe, were available in India among the Parsees, as the Zoroastrians living on the Indian subcontinent were known, he traveled there. In Surat, he learned the ancient languages and collected the texts with the help of local Parsees. One of the religious works he brought back to France was the Bundahišn, and a French translation was made available precisely 250 years ago, in 1771.

The arrival of these scriptures in Europe stirred controversy. Hitherto, knowledge about ancient Zoroastrianism had been secondhand, largely from Greek and Latin sources. Over the centuries, indeed already in ancient Greek works, Zoroaster, the traditional founder of the faith, had acquired a certain aura. Greek authors fashioned him in the likeness of a sage and a philosopher, as Nietzsche would consciously do much later. Expectations from this mission were high, but with these Zoroastrian scriptures things appeared quite different. Zoroastrianism turned out to be more about priests and cultic practices, and it took some time for these works to be accepted for what they were. Yet even as the preliminary groundbreaking translations would need revision, these were the key texts that had survived from of an ancient world religion closely related to the Achaemenid kings of biblical renown, Cyrus and Darius. They were the scriptures of the Persian empires that, prior to the Arab conquest of the seventh century CE, had faced Rome as an equal.

By the middle of the 19th century, as European scholars labored over the newly acquired Persian compositions, the maskilim got interested. Familiar with the claims of biblical scholarship that attributed many of the developments within biblical and Second Temple Judaism to borrowings from Zoroastrianism, they saw the potential in their own battle with traditional Judaism. Persia was weaponized. After all, the fundamental text of Orthodox traditional Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud, was composed by rabbis living in the Persian empire, and explicit references to the Persians and their religion are plentiful there. A gold rush began to identify Persian influences in Jewish sources.

Reading through Schorr’s essays is like trudging through a dense but exotic jungle. He leaps from topic to topic, drawing from his impeccable knowledge of Jewish literature. One is bewildered by his broad mastery over the current scholarship, citing from his sources in French or German, from Windischmann, or Spiegel, and references to other ancient and modern authors. But as he piles up his evidence, brilliant insights can be followed by seemingly desperate efforts to grasp at straws. He turns with relish from aggadic myth and legend to Halacha, where he would assert that Persian influence is also tangible. He writes more as a polemicist than a scientist, ardently seeking to convince. What is missing is a systematic critical methodology, both of rabbinic literature and of the Zoroastrian languages and literature. Kohut was unfortunately not much better, even as he played by the rules, employing the contemporary academic journals of the day as his platform. In his revision of the medieval lexicon of rabbinic literature, the Aruch, he hypothesized Persian etymologies for rare and less rare words a little too flippantly. Interest in a Persian connection to early Judaism was pervasive at the time, impacting the study of ritual, mythology, law, and custom. The Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901 and 1906, reflected popular scholarly sentiment when it devoted multicolumn entries to “Zoroastrianism,” “Avesta,” and “Jews in Pahlevi Literature.”

Not all shared this enthusiasm. The late 19th-century French chief rabbi and scholar at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, Israël Lévi, warned against too hasty comparisons between Jewish and Persian demonology. The discovery of a growing quantity of Jewish incantation bowls in Iraq contemporary to the Talmud, with texts full of demons and spells, offered a new resource with which to test matters. The absence of Persian religious content in these Aramaic artifacts was noticed. By the early 20th century one scholar wondered aloud whether the influence of Persia had been overrated. When a team of scholars based in Vienna, on the eve of the Anschluss, completed a project to revise Kohut’s Aruch, Bernhard (Dov) Geiger, an expert in Iranian languages, purged it of Persian etymological caprices.

Biblical studies moved on. Rabbinic scholars were interested in other things, and a greater sense of responsible scholarship had taken root. Persia receded to the sidelines. When the Encyclopedia Judaica was published in the 1970s, the entries devoted to Zoroastrianism had vanished. The Bundahišn was not the only Zoroastrian text on the radar of the early Jewish scholars, and not much of what was said a century ago has withstood the test of time, but in some ways the comparative study of the Bundahišn, more than other Zoroastrian texts, alongside the Babylonian Talmud, has yielded the more interesting, compelling, and lasting results.

Ancient Zoroastrian literature involves a few ancient languages. The earliest stratum, Avestan, is cognate with Vedic Sanskrit, and was transmitted orally for perhaps a millennium before a script was invented for it. The later scriptures are in Middle Persian, the language of the pre-Islamic Sasanian empire and much of the subsequent Zoroastrian literature. Its writing system is complicated. Although read in Persian, words are written down in a vowelless script derived from Aramaic, combining a phonetic spelling with the employment of Aramaic heterograms. They write MLKA and read shah. The Bundahišn is written in Middle Persian. It was redacted in the ninth century CE, but is not entirely a product of this period, since it also includes and responds to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian literature. It has reached us in two recensions, a shorter so-called “Indian” one, and a somewhat longer more original “Iranian” one. This edition is based on the Iranian version.

Bundahišn means “primal creation,” and it deals with creation, cosmology and eschatology. It is a well-known text among scholars of ancient Iran and comparative religion. It is also a great work of ancient literature in its own right, and this new translation is the first edition to show this so clearly. Reading through the 36 chapters, you will encounter summaries of ancient Zoroastrian lore, myths, and knowledge, including topics such as astronomy, medicine, geography, and zoology, alongside an account of the Zoroastrian creation myth and eschatology. Stylistically it is not fully consistent, and might be hard to categorize. Indeed, there is something in the quasi-encyclopedic array of topics it discusses, including wind, clouds, rivers, vermin, sleep, plants, fire, song, and wolves, that has generated considerable comparative interest between this composition and the Babylonian Talmud.

In the early wave, as Jewish scholars had plowed through this book, they identified countless parallels to biblical and rabbinic topics. A taxonomy of types of fire—a topic central to Zoroastrianism—in the 18th chapter of the Bundahišn offered a parallel to a similar taxonomy of fire in the Babylonian Talmud, and scholars debated which came first. Mythology, in particular, seemed rewarding. The first human couple in Genesis was compared to the first human being in Iranian tradition, Gayōmard, and to the first human couple in the Bundahišn, Mašyā and Mašyāne.

Numerous giant creatures from Iranian mythology were seen to have parallels in the Babylonian Talmud. Some were central to Jewish eschatological beliefs.

Numerous giant creatures from Iranian mythology were seen to have parallels in the Babylonian Talmud. Some were central to Jewish eschatological beliefs. There was the Zoroastrian Hadayōš bull or Srisōg, about which the Bundahišn relates: “At the primal creation, people passed from continent to continent on it, and at the Restoration [the eschatological purification of the earth] they will prepare the food of immortality from it.” This suggested Bemehoth, the eschatological ox (shor habar) of Jewish tradition from which the righteous are destined to feast. The mythological Kar-fish of Iranian tradition, gigantic fish that stay in the deep Frāxkard Sea, encircling the Gōkarēn Tree until the Restoration consuming only “spiritual” (mēnōg) food, evoked the Leviathan.

Reuven Kiperwasser and Dan Shapira, two Israeli scholars, have shown in a series of recent studies what the Bundahišn can reveal to scholars of Judaism, and it concerns precisely the mythological creatures. Set within a chapter that concerns legal questions relating to the sale of a ship, the Talmud drifts into a series of seafarer tales related by the Talmudic rabbi, Rabbah bar bar Hannah (Baba Batra 73b-75a). This rabbi describes mythical creatures he observed while on the high seas. These include a day-old auroch (urzila) as big as Mount Tabor; a frog the size of the fortress of Hagronia (a known place in Iraq); and a sea monster (tanina) that swallowed that frog, but was subsequently plucked into the air by the pishkantsa bird. Next, a few tales about a huge fish (kewwara, meaning Kar fish). When thrust upon the shore and died, it was so large that they managed to fill 300 flasks of oil from one of its eyeballs; elsewhere it is related that sand had settled on its back and they camped on it. Another time they sailed between two fins of the fish for three days and three nights in the opposite direction of the fish. He saw a bird who planted its ankles in the deep sea and its head reached the heavens. Most of these creatures have parallels in Iranian mythology, as earlier scholars have recognized, although the names of these creatures in the Talmud are not exactly the same as in the Iranian tradition.

Thus, the Bundahišn, after describing the Hōm (Haoma plant), that grows in the Frāxkard Sea, preserved for the Restoration, relates on pp. 121-122:

the Evil Spirit, in opposition to it, fabricated a frog in that deep water, so that it might destroy the Hōm. To restrain the frog, Ohrmazd created two Kar fish who constantly encircle the Hōm … It is revealed about the Wās of Five Hundred Lakes (a fish): It is so long that when it goes swiftly from dawn to dusk in the Frāxkard Sea, it does not even travel the length of its own large, well-grown body … It says about the three-legged donkey: It stands in the middle of the Frāxkard Sea … the donkey itself is as big as Mount Xwanwand … When it rests one of its three feet on the ground, each one takes up as much space as a herd of a thousand sheep …

It continues with tales of mythical birds, the Čamrūš, Karšift, and others.

The Talmud sets these creatures in contexts that speak to its Jewish audience and biblical sources. The medieval commentators of the Talmud did their best to make sense of it. But once we have seen the Bundahišn, the Zoroastrian Vorlage is undeniable. While the Bundahišn is not the earliest Zoroastrian source in which they appear, they are, quite strikingly, all found in the Bundahišn, and all in one location, chapter 24! Furthermore, the order in which they appear in this brief Talmud chapter is essentially the same order as they appear in the Bundahišn. All this suggests that the relationship between the Talmud and the Bundahišn is not incidental nor haphazard. Nor is its explanation simple. This is not cut and paste, and the links and transmission history are complex, but the value of studying these two works in tandem is evident.

In another development, recently published incantation bowl spells in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic mention the combination Leviathan kewwara. This is a juxtaposition of Leviathan, the mythical creature in Jewish tradition, with the Kar fish, its Zoroastrian counterpart, offering textual support to the hypothesis advanced by scholars 150 years ago.

There are other topics of interest and comparison between the Babylonian Talmud and the Bundahišn and no doubt others wait to be discovered. In contrast with the ideas popular around a century ago, the evidence and the claims made about the religions in question, while not inconsequential, are less major: more about the margins than about the core. As scholars have returned to these topics in recent years, the methodology has become more cautious, and expectations more reserved.

This edition is not focused on the Jewish angle, but it is very much an Israeli production. It is the result of the joint efforts of two specialists in Zoroastrian religion and Iranian languages. The first is Domenico (Nico) Agostini, trained at the Sapienza University in Rome and at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. He is an associate professor in ancient history at Tel Aviv University, specializing in pre-Islamic Iran. His other publications on Zoroastrianism include an edition of a Zoroastrian eschatological work, Ayādgār ī Jāmāspīg, un texte eschatologique zoroastrien (Gregorian and Biblical Press, 2013). The second is Sam Thrope, the curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection at the Israel National Library in Jerusalem, who received a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. Among his diverse accomplishments is his translation from the Persian of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s The Israeli Republic (Restless Books, 2017) and his recent interview with Iranian ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is a foreword by Shaul Shaked and an afterword by Guy G. Stroumsa, both preeminent emeritus professors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The translation and interpretation of Middle Persian texts is known to be a grueling task, and even the most competent scholars often differ when reading such literature. The Bundahišn is no different. The readers have been spared the deliberations with which the translators were faced in their toil over this difficult text. The result is smooth and readable. Astute efforts have been made to mediate an unfamiliar religious tradition and lexicon to the uninitiated. And yet the Bundahišn continues to beckon students of ancient Judaism. It should revive interest in ancient Zoroastrianism, which is its primary aim. For the inquiring student of the Talmud, it offers a commentary like no other.

Professor Geoffrey Herman is Directeur d’études at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris (EPHE-PSL) where he holds the chair of Ancient Judaisms and Classical Rabbinic Literature.

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