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Unwitting Disciples of Zoroaster: The Influence of Zoroastrianism on Rabbanism in the Talmud and Midrash


From 226 to 379, the Persian kings gathered and systematized the works of Zoroaster. The result was twenty-one great volumes - against the twenty-one words of the most holy Persian prayer, the Ahuravarrya. Known as Nusk, it is the Talmud of the Zoroastrians (speaking anachronistically).

Due to the hostilities between the Persians and the Arabs in the latter half of the eighth century, the books of the Nusk were singled out for destruction. What now remains to the remnants of Zoroastrianism are five volumes:

1) Yasna - the book of sacrifices, which contains seventy-two chapters among them the Gatha passages (the oldest and most hallowed writings of the Zend-Avesta)
2) Vendidad - twenty-two chapters on the laws regulating evil spirits.
3) Yasht -an elaborate, detailed account of the Persian deities.
4) The Vispered - twenty-four chapters (a supplement to Yasna).
5) Khorda - an abridged edition of the laws in the Zend-Avesta.

The Talmud was greatly influenced by Persian culture. It derives, in fact, much of its content directly from the Zend-Avesta, as will be detailed in brief below. One finds in the Talmud not only Persian superstition and legend, but many legal decisions handed down in accordance with Persian code. Not to mention the customs and usages of Persian life. Even the forms and expressions of the literary Pahlavi entered into the Talmud in no small way. The Persian influence on the Talmud is so great that, at times, it is difficult to separate what is Jewish from what is Persian in it.

A system of nomenclature for angels in Jewish lore, prior to Persian influence, did not exist. We find for example, angels being named for the first time in the book of Daniel (a book compiled during the Persian exhile). The naming of angels was important in the Persian religion, and the Talmud itself relates that: “Shemot HaMal’akhim ‘Alu Lahem MiBavel” - “The names of the Angels arose from Babylon”. Those familiar with Rabbanite theology will note how it is replete with the mention of good and bad angels (just think of the Rabbanite Shalom ‘Aleikhem song for Shabbat night). In Persian teaching, there were two gods, a good god, Ahura Mazda, and an evil god, Ahriman. The Talmud, in fact, went to the extent of borrowing the names of many of the deities and angels in the Persian pantheon, such as: Mithra (called Metatron in the Talmud), Hadar (called Hadarni’el in the Talmud), Dahriman, Tir, Serosh(1) , Aesmadiv [“spirit of anger” in Persian] (called Ashmedai in the Talmud), Angra/Agra (called Agrat in the Talmud),and many more...


DEMONS

As with angels, so did the Amora’im [the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud]of Babylon and the writers of the Christian scriptures draw freely from the Zend-Avesta’s troves of superstitions about demons and imps. Let’s start with a look at Ahriman. From the Talmud, we learn that the angel, Ahriman is identified with Satan (Masekhet Bava Batra 16). Masekhet Sanhedrin 29, and the Vendidad II, 384 refer to Ahriman as the Serpent of Hell.

Ahriman’s myriads of helpers are referred to as divs, what we now call devils. Vendidad I, 21 notes that these divs are more numerous than the dust of the earth (as does Talmud Masekhet Berakhot 6, Midrash Tehillim 17, Tanhuma, etc.,). The following passages from the Talmud and Midrash regarding demons (divs) were derived or directly copied from Vendidad II:

Masekhet Sanhedrin 25 notes that devs are particularly active in graveyards. Masekhet Gitin 68 and Midrash Qohelet state that divs are male and female. Masekhet Berakhot 61 and Masekhet Hulin 105 state that demons can assume the shape of human beings, or flys.  Masekhet Hagigah 16 contends that demons, like human beings, can reproduce. Masekhet Gitin 68 calls Ashemdai (Aesmadiv in Persian) the greatest of the divs. One of the fundamental teachings of Persian religious conduct is the avoidance of unclean hands (Masekhet Shabbat 109). It was believed that Sabetkh, a div, rests upon such hands: The Qissur Shulhan Arukh 2.1 quoting Yosef Caro’s Beit Yosef states, “when a man is asleep, the holy soul departs from his body, and an unclean spirit descends upon him. When rising from sleep, the unclean spirit departs from his body except for his fingers, and does not depart until one spills water upon them three times alternately. One is not allowed to walk four cubits (six feet) without having one's hands washed, except in cases of extreme necessity.”

Masekhet Megillah 3 states that during the period of night, no one must offer or receive the hand of another (for fear of an evil spirit). Masekhet Shevu‘ot 15 and Masekhet Berakhot 4 contain the Persian prayer to repel the unseen forces of evil.

The driving off of evil spirits by adjuration was an integral part of the Persian religion. Whole systems of conjuration were devised by them; and many were the invocations with which some of them commanded the devils. All of these spells and “prayers” can be found in the Talmud. A few examples will serve to illustrate:
Vendidad II, 223 and Masekhet Qiddushin 81 state that the chief thing to utter when exorcising a demon was, “I expel you from me.”

If one has been bitten by a mad dog, a spell must be intoned in order to eject the hurtful spirit. [This very incantation, from Vendidad I.30, as well as the spell to ward against forgetfulness and the spell to insure that the sheep of the slaughterhouse may be fat have been written in the Talmud]

The Persian beliefs in cameos, amulets, and talismans were also absorbed into the Talmud, along with the reading of sacred writings to restore health. In general, Zoroastrian influence is directly responsible for the presence of demons and devils in the Midrash and Talmud.

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