Early Jewish Diaspora: 600 B.C. to A.D 500

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Cochin Jew in India in the 1800s
Diaspora is a word used to describe the dispersal of Jews outside their homeland and around the world — particularly after the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70 and the killing of tens of thousands of Jews by the Romans in A.D. 135. These days the word is applied to other groups forced out of their homeland such as Tibetans and Ukrainians. It can also apply to Jews dispersed at other times.

In 597 B.C., after Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, the Jews were exiled from their homeland then called Judea. This is sometimes referred to as The Exile. The Exodus of Jews from Egypt around 1300 B.C. did not really create a diaspora because that's how the Jews ended up in their homeland of Israel. Over the centuries the Jewish Diaspora came to include communities throughout the world but particularly in the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and in Europe.

After being kicked out Palestine, the Jews lost hope of establishing a Holy Jewish empire. Instead they concentrated on surviving in the their new worlds. Some Jews remained in Palestine and lived there while numerous rulers came and went. But they didn't lose all hope. Jews refer to their period of exile as the “Galut”. During the entire time they kept alive hopes of returning to Zion, the traditional name of Jerusalem. This longing was kept alive with expression, “Next year Jerusalem,” often expressed at end of Passover.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Bible and Biblical History: ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Bible History Online bible-history.com Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Jewish History: ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org ; Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Exile of the Jews after the Babylonian Conquest (587-538 B.C.)

In 587 B.C. the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jewish leadership was killed. This resulted in the exile of most of the Israelite nobility and leadership. Many Jews were sent into exile in Babylon.

In 539 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus, who had defeated the Neo-Babylonian armies, gave the exiles permission to return. Many, however, remained in Babylonia, which, together with Egypt, where Jews had also voluntarily settled, became the first community of the Diaspora. Those who did return found a Temple in ruins and, according to The Bible, a dispirited people, without spiritual leadership, who had turned their backs on the laws of the Torah and had mixed with non-Hebrews and adopted some of their non-monotheist religious practices.

The Jews that stayed in exile marks the beginning the Jewish tradition of the Diaspora — living away from Israel. It was also apparently during the Babylonian Exile that the institution of the synagogue as a house of prayer began to emerge. During the centuries that followed the conquests by the Neo-Babylonians, the Jewish state fell under the auspices of various empires such as Persia, Hellenistic Greece and Rome. It was a bit like an ethnic state like Turkmenistan or Armenia in the Soviet Union, or a colony like pre-World War II India or Algeria.

Jewish Diaspora After the Destruction of The Temple in A.D. 70

After the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70 and the banishment of the Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 135 , Jews began dispersing around the world. Many Jews lived in isolated groups that often had little or no contact with other Jewish groups. The groups were held together by religious tradition and by faith in a common calling and destiny. This cohesion and fragmentation allowed Jews around the globe to develop as community that was both national and international at the same time.

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, Simeon Bar Kokhba led the Jews in a revolt against their Roman overlords. After three years the tenacious and valiant forces of the revolt were put down, and Bar Kokhba himself was killed in the last decisive battle, in the summer of 135. (According to one account, he was taken captive and enslaved.) In the aftermath the Jews were banished from Jerusalem, and Jewish ritual practices, including circumcision, study of the Torah, and observance of the Sabbath, were prohibited. The spiritual leadership was summarily executed, and most of the remaining Jewish population fled. The Romans quickly repopulated Judea with non-Jews, and the Land of Israel, aside from Galilee, ceased to be Jewish. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

The fugitives from Judea scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Joined by scholars, these Jews spread to Asia Minor and westward to Spain, Gaul (France), and the Rhine valley, where they organized self-governing communities. Those Jews remaining in the Land of Israel also slowly reorganized themselves. The Sanhedrin (Greek for Council of the Elders), which formerly had its seat in Jerusalem, was reconstituted in Jabneh (Yavneh) as the supreme representative body in religious and communal affairs. The institution continued until the early fifth century, when the Roman authorities abolished the office of the presidency of the Sanhedrin.

Roman-Era Jewish Diaspora

20080220-JewsKeifengpg6s 1907 National Geographic.jpg
Kaifeng Jew in China 1910s
During the Roman period Jews began moving out of Palestinian to places like Alexandria and Rome. Most Jews settled in North Africa and the Mediterranean area. Within a few decades between 3 and 6 million Jews lived outside of Palestine in the Roman Empire and only about half that number lived in Palestine. Alexandria was a center of Christian and Jewish learning as well Greek learning. One of the greatest achievements of the Alexandria Library and learning center was The creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, brought together by Ptolemy, to translate the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. According to a Jewish legend, Ptolemy asked each of the Jewish scholars to individually to translate the whole Hebrew bible, and miraculously, the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: “When we see the Christians beginning to spread out beyond the original homeland environment, they're following a pathway that had already been well trod before them by other Jews. By the middle of the first century, there are probably more Jews living outside of the homeland, than actually live back in Judah proper. This is what we call the Diaspora, that is, the dispersion of Jewish population throughout the Empire, and we know that there are major Jewish communities in most of the large cities of the Empire, all the way from the Persian Gulf on the east to Spain on the west. It's an extensive diffusion of the Jewish population throughout the Roman. [Source: L. Michael White: Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“And these these Jewish communities in the Diaspora environment faced a number of challenges. How do you maintain your traditional Jewish identity and piety, while at the same time fitting into the social and cultural traditions of Greek and Roman cities? In some localities, we find Jews participating in the theater or in normal aspects of daily life. In other cities, we find Jews experienc[ing] oppression and seeming to distance themselves from the local environment. So, it varies from city to city, on what the Jewish experience would be. On the whole, however, Judaism in the Diaspora was able to accommodate a great deal of Hellenistic culture. The normal language for Jews in the Diaspora was Greek. It was in the Diaspora that the Bible was translated from Hebrew into a Greek vernacular. So, later on, when we find Paul quoting scripture, he's not quoting the Hebrew Bible. He may not even know the Hebrew Bible directly. He quotes the Bible in Greek.

Dispersed Jews in the Roman Empire

The relations between Romans and Jews scattered through the cities of the Roman Empire were less than cordial. Anti-Semitism was a common feature of Roman life. Under Hadrian, Jews who gazed on the ruins of the Temple faced a punishment of death. Constantine allowed wailing there once a year.

ancient synagogue in Ostia Antica near Rome

The Romans demanded that their gods be worshipped, but at the same time they received the local gods. The reason the Jews and Christian were persecuted is that they presented a threat and refused to worship the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions in the Roman empire. Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and many others were practiced. There were lots of other strange religions around — Manichaeans, Donatist, Pelagians, Arians. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.

As the Christian religion grew, Jewish Christian converts worked to convince the Romans that their religion was different from militant Judaism. As time went on, the Romans were absolved of any guilt involving Jesus's death and the blame was placed on the Jews who handed him over to the Romans.

Some of the Jews in Italy were probably descendants of 5,000 captive Jews the Emperor Titus brought to Italy after the destruction of the Second Temple. But most are thought to have settled even before that because of the importance of Israel as a maritime trading center. A headstone of a grave found in Italy, dated to A.D. 1st century, thought to belong to a 25-year-old female, Jewish household slave reads: “Claudia Aster, captive of Jerusalem. Tiberius Claudius Proculus, imperial freeman, took care of the epitaph. I make sure through the law that you take care that no one casts down my inscription.”

Jewish Population in Rome and Ostia

L. Michael White wrote: “There are very large Jewish communities in some of the major Roman cities. Rome itself, seems to have something on the order of ten different synagogue congregations, and the Jewish population of the city of Rome at its zenith was perhaps 100,000. Unfortunately, we have no archaeological evidence of the actual synagogue buildings themselves from the city of Rome but fortunately, a recent archaeological discovery from the nearby port city of Ostia, shows us one such congregation, in its very real setting. [Source: L. Michael White: Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“When you go through the city of Ostia, you're seeing a kind of microcosm of the city of Rome, in the first century. It's a little Rome, and as you go down the main streets of Ostia, and you go out the gate near the harbor, down the road, you find a little building just off to the side, and as you go in, you find a hall for assembly. From the outside, this building looks like any other along that street. You wouldn't know it's ... a place of worship for a Jewish community until you go inside and look at the carvings over the arches that show us a menorah. This is a Jewish synagogue. It may date from the very end of the first century and is one of the earliest that we know of, from the Diaspora.

“So, here's a Jewish congregation through several generations trying to maintain its its life, its identity, in a major Roman city. It's interesting that ... right adjacent to the hall of assembly, is a kitchen and a dining room. Apparently, they too had fellowship dinners. Apparently, they too were engaged in an active social life.

Jewish Catacombs in Rome: A Great Source

Jewish catacombs in Venosa

L. Michael White wrote: “One of our best sources of information about the Jewish community at Rome comes from their burial places. There are several important Jewish catacombs, and they've yielded hundreds of inscriptions that tell us the names and identity of the numbers of the Jewish congregations in Rome. They're a mixed lot. Some of them seem to be predominantly Aramaic speaking, and don't know much Greek, but the vast majority used Greek and a few even know Latin. What they show us is how thoroughly integrated the Jewish communities were in the social life of Rome. They participate in all aspects of commerce and trade. They are busy organizing their community life. We hear of people who are the mothers or fathers of the synagogues, meaning they're the ones who actually build the buildings and support the congregations. We hear of the leadership of the Jewish groups. So, we find these Jewish communities really trying to maintain their identity, just like any immigrant group would have expected to do in their new locality. [Source: L. Michael White: Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Shaye I.D. Cohen: of Brown University told PBS: “The Greek word "diaspora" means a scattering. And indeed there was a scattering of Jews throughout the known Greek and Roman world from the third century B.C. and on down. There's a famous utterance by Strabo, a Greek geographer of the late first century, B.C., who says that you can't go anywhere in the civilized world without encountering a Jew. And by his time this certainly was true. There were large Jewish communities in Egypt, especially in Alexandria, but even throughout the countryside, up the Nile Valley. There were large Jewish communities in Syria, a very large one in the city of Antioch, but throughout Syria, and there were numerous Jewish communities throughout Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, just as there were Jewish communities in Greece and throughout the Italian peninsula, most especially of course in the city of Rome. Even further west, we know about Jews in southern France, and Jews in Marseilles and perhaps even Jews in Spain.... [Source:Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“It's interesting to note that early Christianity first spread in those areas where there was a Jewish presence. That is, it spreads in Egypt, it spreads in Syria, it spreads in Asia Minor, it spreads in Greece and Italy. These are precisely areas where we know there were Jewish communities, there were Jewish synagogues and there were Jews in number scattered throughout all these areas. Presumably the earliest Christian travellers and missionaries like Paul would begin their travels by obviously approaching their brethren, approaching their fellow Jews, and converting some of them to the new path or the new religion, if I may use that word, or the new way of thinking, and perhaps using these communities as springboards from which to get access to the non-Jews in these very areas also. It's clear, then, that the Diaspora communities formed the Jewish network which early Christians as Jews were able to use for their own purposes.

Jewish Identity and the Diaspora

menorah from a Jewish catacomb in Venosa

Paula Fredriksen of Boston University told PBS: “The Jewish way of constructing reality is through the Bible. And the center of gravity in the Jewish Bible, what pulls the story along, is getting to the land of Israel. So the land of Israel, the promise of land to Abraham, the importance of the land, the holiness that goes along with the land, is embedded in Jewish historical imagination through the medium of the Bible. This means that religiously and socially, any place outside the land is, in a sense, not home for a Jew, even if Jews can live for generations in other cities. [Source: Paula Fredriksen: William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The Jewish designation... for territory other than the land of Israel, is the Diaspora. And by the time of the first century, there were probably then, as now, more Jews living outside the land of Israel than within the land of Israel. There's a very energetic Jewish population in Babylon since the destruction of the first temple. There is a very wealthy, vigorous Jewish population living in the major cities around the Mediterranean. And that population, which is speaking Greek, which is the matrix of the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, which becomes eventually the seedbed of Christianity ... to make the idea of Israel available to Greek readers ... to liberate it, in a sense, from its native language.

“Nonetheless, despite the wide dispersion of Jewish population throughout the Roman Empire and in the east, Jews are bound together imaginatively and socially by the calendar. Jews have this trans-local imaginative community. They have every seventh day off ... they're the ones who have the weekend in antiquity. They have the Sabbath, which is a time, typically, for the community to gather wherever it is, whether they're in a village in the Galilee, or in a suburb of Rome, and hear the law read... they have the great pilgrimage holidays. They have the calendar of the Jewish liturgical year. And therefore, Jewish populations in the Diaspora would also journey home even if their actual home was Alexandria or Rome or any place in Asia Minor. Their spiritual home and their historical home was Israel, and specifically, Jerusalem.

All Jews Relate to the Temple

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University told PBS: “The Jewish historian, Josephus, has a very memorable line. He says, "one temple, for the one God." The Jews saw themselves as a unique people, with the one God alone... there's one God of this one special people, one temple, and that's a very powerful idea, reflecting accurately, I think, the historical truth that the temple was a very powerful unifying source, within the Jewish community.... [Source: “Shaye I.D. Cohen: Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“At the same time, the temple also serves as a source of division and a source of conflict in the Jewish community. Many, many Jews were unhappy with the way the priests ran the temple. The priests did not obey the purity laws properly. They didn't follow the right calendar. They didn't perform the sacrifices properly. The priests themselves were insufficiently pious. Their marriages were somehow illicit or improper. The priests used the office for self-aggrandizement, for self-advantage. They were somehow were making themselves wealthier at the expense of the community and on and on and on.

"We hear a series of such complaints about the priests, many of the them in the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of them found in Rabbinic literature, but some of course, as anybody who reads the Bible knows, going back to the prophets, even in Biblical times, complaining about the priests of the temple.... Nonetheless, it's clear among all the numerous groups within the Jewish community of the 1st century, that all of them, to justify themselves, have to some degree or other deal with the temple. They have to either explain why the priests are wrong and they are right, or they have to explain that the priests are correct but =they're only correct, insofar as they agree with what this group itself believes.... You can see that among virtually all the groups in Jewish society in the 1st century of our era.

Religious Explanations of the Jewish Exile

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: With the vast majority of the Jews living outside the Land of Israel, many in distant lands, the rabbis referred to the emerging Diaspora as the Exile, as a tragic national and religious state of homelessness.[Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

While many answers were given to explain the indignity and spiritual dislocation wrought by the Exile, the rabbis were united in their faith that God would redeem the exiles and regather them. This redemption was associated with the advent of God's appointed deliverer, the Messiah, who would be chosen from among the descendants of King David. A redeemed Jerusalem became the symbol of the hope for the coming of the Messiah, who would herald not only the liberation of the Jews from Exile but also the establishment of the universal kingdom of God upon earth.

The messianic age would witness the perfection of creation and of the human order. The rabbis also taught, however, that in Exile the Jews were not utterly bereft of God's providential presence. Earlier God had told the Israelites, "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will go down with you into Egypt and surely bring you again" (Gen. 46:3–4), and he accompanied the Jews in Exile. This teaching allowed the Jews to develop a creative spiritual and religious life while they mourned the desolation of Zion, or Israel, and new centers of Jewish life emerged throughout the Diaspora.

Synagogues in the Jewish Diaspora

Shaye I.D. Cohen: of Brown University wrote: “The word "synagogue" is a Greek word, it means a gathering or an assembly, or perhaps a congregation. The synagogue, then, was the point of communal organization of the Jews in the Diaspora. Wherever you have a sufficient number of Jews, you would have a Jewish community. Wherever you would have a Jewish community you would have a Jewish synagogue. The synagogue, then in part, is a community building or a community place, a place where Jews would gather to discuss matters of communal concern. Sort of like a New England town square, where the citizens would gather regularly to discuss issues of importance. Among the issues that they would discuss, of course, Jews would discuss Judaism. That is to say they would discuss their sacred texts. Many of our sources tell us that Jews would gather in synagogues regularly, perhaps every Saturday on the Sabbath, or perhaps more often than that, in order to read the laws, to read the Torah, the sacred book of Moses and to expound upon it. And any reader of the New Testament knows that this is what Jesus did in the homeland, in the Galilee, entering the synagogues on the Sabbath and expounding the scriptures. And of course, we also know this from Paul, that in his travels in Asia Minor, Paul routinely went to seek out the local synagogue and therein to teach the scriptures from his peculiar perspective, but teach the scriptures to the Jewish community. So something else that happens there in a synagogue then in these public gatherings will be the communal study of the sacred texts, specifically of the Torah. We imagine also that they probably will have prayed, together... [Source:Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Diaspora synagogues in Antiquity

“According to the New Testament, another remarkable feature of the synagogues in the Diaspora is not only that they attracted large crowds of people, but among these crowds will have been gentiles. Gentiles apparently found these synagogues to be interesting or a place worth visiting, perhaps because they enjoyed hearing the philosophical type discussions about God, or perhaps they enjoyed hearing things being sung or chanted. We don't know exactly why gentiles found these places attractive; modern scholars too readily assume it's because these people were somehow believers of Judaism, or somehow were half converts... as if there's no other rational explanation why gentiles would want to go to a synagogue if they were not almost converting to Judaism. But the fact is there are many reasons why gentiles may have come.... Gentiles found the Jewish synagogues and the Jews themselves apparently open, interesting, attractive, friendly and why not go to the Jewish synagogue, especially because there are no non-Jewish analogs. There's nothing equivalent to this communal experience anywhere in pagan or Greek or Roman religions. And we shouldn't be surprised if it would have attracted curious, well intentioned by-standers, who may have come in to witness, or perhaps even participate to some degree in what was going on.

Diversity of Judaism

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: “It would be a mistake to think of Judaism in this period as a state religion, even though the temple is the centerpiece of Jewish life and of Jewish worship. There's no such thing as a state church. It's not a monolithic religious or cultural entity at this time. Indeed, what we're seeing more and more through the research and the archaeological discoveries, is how diverse Judaism was in this period. So we see different groups, such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees. We also see a number of new religious texts and new practices starting to develop. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“For example, let's not forget that the Holy Day, the festival of Hanukkah, was a relatively new holiday celebration at the time of Jesus. It had only been around for something like a hundred years. But it shows some of the new ideas, the new experiences that Jews have had to overcome in that time. And so, we're watching a religious tradition that is itself still going through certain changes. Some of those changes were met with a view of optimism and progress. Some people, though, might not have liked them. And so, this sets the stage for what we see as some of the tension and some of the controversy that also surrounds the temple. So the interesting thing about the temple in the days of Jesus is that on the one hand, it's a grand, new place. It's the center of life and worship. It's the showpiece of Jewish tradition. And yet, it could also be a center of controversy and tension.

“One of the best examples of the ...the kind of diversity and vibrantly different thought that's at work in Judaism in this period is, of course now, what we know from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Self Definition for Jews in the Second Century

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University told PBS: “The second century of our era was an age of definition not just for Christianity but also for Judaism. In Christianity, of course, the second century of the common era is a time of sects and heresies and divisions and splits and schools of all sorts as Christians try to figure out exactly what Christianity is and exactly what Christianity isn't. On the Jewish side of the fence, we don't hear much about conflicting sects or heresies. Most of them seem to have disappeared in the wake of his destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. So we don't hear about then conflicting parties the way we do on the Christian side. [Source: “Shaye I.D. Cohen: Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

But nonetheless, I think we can still call the second century of our era an age of definition, even on the Jewish side. Because it is the second century of our era that marks the emergence for the first time into the light of history of a new group and a new culture and a new literature and a new way of thinking and writing. We call the people rabbis and we call their Judaism "Rabbinic" texts or "Rabbinic" literature.... It is the rabbis who now emerge as a new kind of Judaism, and it is this Judaism that will endure from the second century of our era down to our own age.

Babylonian Diaspora

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Babylonian Diaspora, whose origins date to the destruction of the First Temple and the decision of most of the exiles not to return, was the oldest and largest settlement of Jews for at least the first thousand years of the Exile. By the second century A.D. the Jewish community of Babylonia had reached between 800,000 and 1.2 million, constituting from 10 to 12 percent of the total population.[Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Under the leadership of an exilarch (head of the Exile), a hereditary office occupied by descendants of King David, the Jews enjoyed religious freedom and communal autonomy. The exilarchs ruled according to the Torah and Halakhah and encouraged the establishment of rabbinical academies (yeshivas), which initially acknowledged the authority of the academy in Jabneh and elsewhere in the Land of Israel.

But with the decline of Israel, the Babylonian academies became the center of Jewish learning and culture. They produced the commentary on the Mishnah (collection of oral teachings on the Torah) known as the Babylonian Talmud, a labor of seven generations and hundreds of scholars, who completed their task in approximately 500, and communities throughout the Diaspora turned to Babylonian rabbis for guidance. The preeminence of the Babylonian Jewish community lasted until the tenth century, when it was superseded by centers of Jewish learning in the West. Alternative leadership was provided by the exilarch (in Aramaic, Resh Galuta, or "leader of the Exile") of the Jewish community of Babylonia, which in Jewish nomenclature corresponded to the Persian Empire.

Babylonian Diaspora as a Jewish Religious Authority

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Since the days of the First Temple, the Babylonian Diaspora had grown in strength, and it emerged as a dynamic center of Jewish spiritual life and learning. Allowed to develop autonomous institutions, the community was headed by the exilarch, a hereditary office reserved for descendants of King David, who represented the community before the non-Jewish rulers of Babylonia. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

For 12 centuries after the abolition of the Sanhedrin and the office of the patriarch, the exilarch headed not only the Jewish community of Babylonia but also most other communities of the Diaspora. The exilarch was responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish community, and he had the authority to impose fines and even to imprison delinquents. His office was strengthened by his administrative and financial control of the great rabbinical academies that had evolved in Babylonia. The spiritual significance of this relationship was under-scored by the academies' practice of naming as the heir to the office the member of the deceased exilarch's family deemed the most erudite in the Torah. Under the tutelage of the exilarch, the academies of Babylonia produced the commentary on the Mishnah known as the Babylonian Talmud. By virtue of the esteem accorded this elaboration of Jewish law, it eclipsed the Talmud produced by the academies in Palestine and served to set the contours of Jewish religious life.

The academies of Babylonia drew students and scholars from throughout the Jewish world. The heads of the academies, known as geonim (singular, gaon; "pride" or "excellency"), thus exercised influence far beyond Babylonia, and they were a major factor in maintaining Jewish unity. From Egypt, North Africa, and Christian and Muslim Spain, questions on all aspects of Judaism were sent to the geonim. From the end of the sixth to the middle of the eleventh century, the geonim were considered the intellectual leaders of the Diaspora, and their decisions were regarded as binding by most Jewish communities.

The decline in the influence of the Babylonian academies and the geonim was to a great measure caused by their success. Through their power the Babylonian Talmud became the bedrock of Judaism, and eventually new centers of learning, along with great rabbinical scholars, emerged throughout the Diaspora. As a result, the dependence on the Babylonia academies and the geonim declined. Political divisions within Islam, which since the seventh century had come to reign over most of the lands of the Diaspora, were also a factor. The caliphs of Spain, for instance, did not appreciate the relationship of their Jews to Babylonia, which was governed by a rival caliph. Moreover, under the caliph of Baghdad, Babylonia entered a period of economic stagnation and impoverishment, which naturally affected the Jewish community and its ability to support the rabbinical academies. By the eleventh century the last of the great academies of Babylonia had closed, and the office of the exilarch, long diminished in stature, came to an end in the fifteenth century.

Centralized Jewish leadership thus also came to an end. The various Jewish communities established their own institutions to govern themselves and to represent their interests in non-Jewish societies. Fragmentation of the Jewish people was prevented by the firm foundation that rabbinical Judaism, as amplified especially by the Babylonian Talmud, had throughout the Diaspora. Despite the loss of a central religious and political authority, a worldwide network of correspondence among rabbis and the circulation of their writings served to reinforce the spiritual unity of the Jewish people.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

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