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A Brief History of Iranian Jews
Last Updated: October, 2009

Their situation has improved since the mid-1990s, however, their exodus like that of most other Iranians continues. Their economic position has deteriorated since the revolution and they are cut off from the elite and it is harder for them to participate in the large-scale economic and industrial ventures of which they were once part.  Hebrew instructions are allowed, but the authorities discourage the distribution of Hebrew texts, which makes teaching the language a difficult task. Despite all these difficulties Iran’s Jewish population is still the largest in Middle East with the exception of Israel.
Most Jewish Iranians have immigrated tothe USA. They have sponsored a number of Jewish organizations to trace their history and culture in Iran. They have kept their connection with other Iranians and have remained patriotic with respect to their Iranian past. Many wealthy Jewish Iranians have been sponsoring major Iranian cultural activities and have maintained Persian as their mother tongue.

Their numbers are estimated to be close to 30,000 in California. Unofficial estimates put their numbers in the greater New York City area at around 15,000. They are considered Sephardic Jews (with rituals from Babylonian origins) and are different from Ashkenazi Jews with respect to some rituals and foods enjoyed during Jewish festivals. There are several Iranian yeshivas (Jewish religious schools) and synagogues in California and New York, as well as many kosher Persian restaurants.

Iranian Jews celebrate all traditional Jewish festivals and there is little interference in such practices in Iran. The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), Purim Festival, Passover (Pesach), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Hanukah (festival of Lights) are celebrated amongst others. One of their most holy places, the mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadn, is open for pilgrimage. They also have a celebration that is more common amongst the Jewish communities in Iran and Russia. The festival of Ha’ilanot (Birkhat Ha’ilanot; blessing the trees festival) is celebrated more or less around the same time the Yalda Festival, whichis celebrated by the Iranians. The two are similar, but happen at different times. Both celebrate the end of winter and resemble ancient crop or harvest festivals with many treats, mostly fruits and produce from the earth. They also celebrate the Iranian New Year (No Ruz), a pre-Islamic celebration of spring equinox. Since the conquest of Islam and restrictions imposed on music, Iranian Jews (and other religious minorities) have been instrumental in preserving Iranian music, notably in Safavid times when music was often banned.

In early 1999, thirteen Iranian Jews were arrested and imprisoned by Iranian authorities in the city of Shiraz. Those arrested included a rabbi, community leaders and a sixteen year old boy. Eleven of the arrested were from Shiraz, two from Isfahan. While the 13 were not formally charged for well over a year, the Iranian Government accused them of spying for the "Zionist regime". The last of the accused was freed in 2003.

The elections of a conservative parliament in 2004 and the hardliner president; Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 and his stand against Israel have been hard on Iranian Jews and more Iranian Jews are emigrating and leaving Iran. The leadership of the Iranian Jewish community has often been forced to publicly condemn Israel and take part in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist demonstrations.


Recommended readings:

The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran
Muhammad A. Dandamaev and Vladimir G. Lukonin
Cambridge University Press, 1994, last edition 2004.

Cambridge History of Iran. Volume II
Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to AD 650
Josef Wiesehofer.
I.B. Tauris Publishers, London 2001.

Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran
Habib Levy
Abridged & Edited by Hooshang Ebrami
Translated from the Persian by George W. Maschke
Mazda Publishers, USA,1999.

Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (Hardcover)
Houman Sarshar
Jewish Publication Society of America, 2002.


Useful Links

Center for Iranian Jewish Oral history

Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

The Covenant of Umar, Internet Medieval Source Book

For information on Jews in the Quran search ‘ THE KORAN’ online at the University of Virginia or many other English translations of (Quran/Koran) online. Use the words Jews, Moses and Israel to conduct your search.


Relevant Article from Iranica

JEWISH EXILARCHATE, the position of head of the exile, whose title in Aramaic was Resh Galuta. The exilarch was the head of the Jewish community in Babylonia in talmudic and medieval times; he was recognized by the Iranian government in Sasanian times as an ethnarch, ruler of the ethnic group.

Rabbinic traditions in Seder Olam Zuta claim the institution originated in the exile of Jehoiachin, 2 Kgs. 225:27/1 Chr. 3:17 ff. Vologases I (d. 79), possibly responded to the Romans’ establishment of the loyalist Jewish government in the Land of Israel after 70 C.E., when he reorganized the Arsacid administration and may have founded the exilarchate as instrument of local administration to keep Iran’s Jewish community from establishing close ties to a Roman instrumentality. The first explicit reference to an exilarch derives from Judah the Patriarch, author of the Mishnah, the law code of Judaism of ca. 200 C.E. He acknowledged that the Babylonian exilarch, Huna, derived from the male line of the Davidic household, while he derived only from the female line. The Sasanians reconsidered the administration of the non-Zoroastrian communities within their empire. At the outset they denied the ethnarch the right of inflicting capital punishment. But Šāpur I (r. 242-72) conciliated the Jewish community and gave the Jewish administration a legitimate role in administering Jewish affairs, on condition that state law govern in matters of concern to the state: land tenure and taxation. Samuel, the Rabbinic authority, and Šāpur I concurred, with Samuel’s teaching “the law of the government is law” stating the policy of the Jewish administration.

The Rabbinic authorities, who were clerks and administrators trained in the law of Judaism, deferred to the exilarch, who was not himself educated in the law; and they held office under his authorization. The rabbis appealed for popular support in the Jewish community by reason of their knowledge of the law, but they also affirmed the exilarch’s claim to originate in the Davidic, that is, the Messianic, line. The Sasanian regime supported the exilarch when a rabbi, Geniva, cited Prov. 8:15, “By me, kings reign,” to prove that legitimate authority in the community of Israel belonged to the rabbis, masters of the Torah, and not to the exilarch. The exilarch consulted the Rabbinic authorities of the Land of Israel, who advised him to be patient, and the Sasanian government executed the rebel. But when the leading rabbis took the position that they should not have to pay the head-tax imposed by the Sasanian regime on minority communities, the exilarch exercised his authority. In later Sasanian times, in the reign of Pērōz (459-84), Jews and Christians were harassed by the government, and the exilarch was put to death in 470. The office remained vacant for much of the period preceding the advent of Islam.

The exilarchs in Parthian and Sasanian times are as follows: Nahum 140-70, Huna I, 170-210, Mar Uqba I, 210-40, Huna II, 240-60, Nathan I, 260-70, Nehemiah, 270-313, Mar Uqba II, 313-37, Huna, Mar I, Huna III, 337—50, Abba, 350-70, Nathan II, 370-400, Kahana I, 400-415, Huna IV, 415-42, Mar Zutra I, 442-56, Kahana II, 456-65, Huna V, 465-70, Huna VI, 484-508, Mar Zutra II, 508-20, Ahunai, ?-560, Hofnai, 560-80, Haninai, 580-590, Bustanai, d. 670.



Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, Leiden, 1965-70; repr., Atlanta, 1999: Vol. I, ... The Parthian Period, 1965; 2nd printing, rev., 1969; 3rd printing, Chico, Calif., 1984; tr., Histoire des Juifs de Babylonie. Tome I. L’epoque parthe. Paris, 1997; Vol. II, ... The Early Sasanian Period, 1966; Vol. III, ... From Shapur I to Shapur II, 1968; Vol. IV, ... The Age of Shapur II, 1969; Vol. V, ... Later Sasanian Times, 1970.
(Jacob Neusner)
June 6, 2005


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