Syncretism and the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism

Syncretism and the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism

Published 4:09 pm, Wednesday, August 14, 2013 on this LINK.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of building a friendship with Darius Jamshidian.

Many of us know Darius by sight, but not necessarily by name. He is the owner of multiple local Subway franchises and can often be found smilingly schmoozing with his customers.

Besides Darius’ gregarious nature and business acumen, he is extremely proud of his faith heritage, Zoroastrianism.

Speaking with him about comparative religion, I’m impressed with how he “walks in-time” amidst his spiritual ancestors. As a Jew, I envy the individual who can feel such keen kindred with his religious forefathers and foremothers.

Modern Judaism owes much to Zoroastrian influences. Some scholars assert that Jews learned their monotheistic theology from the Zoroastrians.

Certainly, Jews discovered the theology of universalism enmeshed in core Zoroastrian dogma. This was the notion that God’s law is universal and “saves” all who turn to God, no matter their particular faith.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the notion of universalism appears for the first time in the second book of Isaiah, which was written during and right after the Babylonian exile.

We recently commemorated our Babylonian captivity with Tisha B’Av; the commemoration of the destruction of our Great Temple and Jerusalem, and our first exile to Babylon.

During this first exile, Jews feared that their prayers wouldn’t be heard outside of their “Holy Land.” But according to the Bible, angels appear to the exiled Jews.

These angels, as recorded in Biblical literature, are very similar to the Zoroastrian stories of the same time period.

Judaism also began to develop its own theology of heaven and hell after its contact with Zoroastrianism. The pre-exilic Biblical books do not make reference to “afterlife.”

The early Israelite theology was simply that. We came from dust and would return to dust. With the first exile and the new immense exposure to the religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, the “Jewish” afterlife stories become mainstream.

The Zoroastrian dogma of a “final accounting” is completely assimilated into early rabbinic Judaism; “personal and individual immortality is always offered to the righteous.”

The origin of the word “paradise” is Persian, and the afterlife concept is transferred to post-exilic Judaism.

The process of one religion adopting “foreign” aspects of another is called syncretism. To make the process complete, the adoptees often create internal origins for what had been external, non-related beliefs and customs.

Other examples of Jewish rituals with foreign origins: the Sukkah, two loaves of bread on the Shabbat table, breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding, etc.

By the time of the development of rabbinic Judaism in the 3rd century, 800 years after the first exile, many Persian and Babylonian customs and ideas had been incorporated into Judaism, and the historical origins forgotten.

This past month, there has been a special exhibit of the “Cyrus Cylinder,” one of the oldest surviving icons from the ancient world, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art(

Discovered in Iraq (Babylon) in 1879, the Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of the Persian king Cyrus the Great after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C.E.

This artifact marks the establishment of Persian rule, and most importantly for the Jews, records how Cyrus restored shrines and allowed deported peoples to return home.

When my friend Darius speaks lovingly of Cyrus the Great, I feel like adding an “Amen” to each of his sentences. Cyrus restored us to Jerusalem and gave permission for the rebuilding of our Holy Temple.

His historical precedent for “return” becomes one of the major echoes adopted by rabbinic Judaism.

Confronted with the second, more devastating Roman exile, the Cyrus precedent for eventual restoration to our Holy Land was anchored in rabbinic theology and practice.

The Cyrus precedent kept alive the belief in our ultimate return from exile; a hope that came into being in 1948 with the re-creation of the modern State of Israel.

As much as Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism; the most important action of Persia was facilitating our exilic redemption. May God continue to bless the descendants of our Zoroastrian co-religionists.

Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz is senior sabbi at Temple Sholom of Greenwich, co-founder of theSholom Center for Interfaith Learning and Fellowship and a past-president of the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy For an archive of past Greenwich Citizen Columns, please


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: