The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School

           Summer 2009 - Course Syllabus

                        A Certain People:  The Jews of Persia

Instructor: Dr. Marsha B. Cohen


Persia’s Jewish communities date back over three thousand years, even before the dispersion of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel and the Babylonian exile from Judea. Biblical Judaism was radically transformed by its encounter with Persian culture 2500 years ago, which returning exiles brought back with them.  Persian Jews maintained trade ties with the medieval Jewish kingdom of Khazaria, and established Jewish communities and settlements all along the Silk Road in Central Asia, including Kaifeng, China, and in various parts of  India.  We will explore the history and traditions of the Jews of Persia through biblical texts, rabbinic literature, reports of medieval travelers and other primary resources in order to gain unique insights into the evolution of Jewish belief and practice, and to challenge and offer new directions to conventional Jewish historiography.  Preparatory readings outside of class are available but optional—see  below.

Course Outline

I.   Ancient Persia.  How Jews got to Persia and why they didn’t leave.  Zoroastrianism influences Judaism.  Persian words (e.g. dat=law; pardes=orchard) are incorporated into Hebrew, and Aramaic, the spoken language of the Babylonian empire, becomes the spoken language of Judea.  

Roadmap #1

  • Babylonian Origins of the Purim Story

  • II. Persia in Late Antiquity and early Medieval Jewish Sources.  The Persian context of the Talmud and Geonic literature. 

    Roadmap #2

  • Zoroastrianism in Early Jewish and Greek Sources (handout)
  • Breaking New Ground in Ancient Persia
  • Historical Context of Stories in the Talmud
  • Persian Parallels with Talmudic Texts
  • III. Travelers and Traders in Muslim Persia. Jews establish communities in BukharaSamarkand and the mountain regions of the Caucasus, as well as Afghanistan, China and IndiaKhorasan (present day eastern Iran and Afghanistan), was home to   Jewish ascetic, messianic sectarian groups and freethinkers who resisted the authority of the Babylonian academies. 

  • Early Karaism
  • Al Qirqisani on the Karaites and Other Jewish Sects
  • Hiwi the Heretic
  • Benjamin of Tudela
  • Azarbaijani Jewish History
  • Jews in China
  • Jews of Medieval Afghanistan
  • IV.  Shiism and Judaism.  The decision of Shah Ismail to adopt Shiism as the official religion of Persia 500 years ago set off a wave of persecutions in the 16th and 17th centuries of Sunni and Sufi Muslims.  What is Shiism?  Why were Shiites referred to by orthodox Sunni heresiographers as "the Jews of Islam"?      

  • "Historical Background of the Religion of Shiism" (Note: this article has an anti-Shia agenda!)
  • A Shia Jewish Debate

  • V.                Iranian Jews: religion and politics in the  20th-21st centuries.  Persia’s constitutional revolution of 1906.  The Pahlavi period and the Islamic revolution.  Jews in Iran today.  Persian Jewish diasporas in  Israel and the U.S.  Present-day Israeli-Iranian relations.  


  • A Second Fateful Triangle (mbc)
  • God, Grievance and the Bomb (mbc)


    Other Readings and Resources
  • Lions and Roses Powerpoint
  • Lions and Roses: An Interpretive history of Israeli-Iranian Relations (Marsha B. Cohen's Doctoral Dissertation)