Life in Babylon
As the war, deprivations, and struggles drove the Jewish population in Judea to extremes, another group of Jews lived quite happily in Babylonia. Not that they did not care about what was happening in Judea – they cared a great deal, and most of them had relatives and friends there. The intercourse between the groups never stopped and they held each other in mutual esteem, but their lives took very different modes.
To really understand the relationship between the Jews in the Babylonian Diaspora, particularly the urban Jews in the city of Babylon, and the Jews in Judea, one might look at the relationship between the Jewish population in New York City and the Israelis. Every year, as the NY Jews sit to the traditional Passover Seder, they utter the ritual line that have been repeated for two thousand years all over the world by Jews everywhere: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Of course the NY Jews don’t mean it; right now New York City is home, life is comfortable, English is their language, they like the American lifestyle, education, jobs… Do the Israelis mind? Do they expect every New York Jew to plan immigration to Israel? Do they even want them to? Of course they have no such thoughts at all. They love their cousins and friends in New York, they e-mail and SKYPE, and every so often they all visit each other. Fifty or sixty years ago, when Israel was very poor, American Jews sent generous packages that made both children and adults much more comfortable and happy, and helped restore the economy by their contribution through tourism. Huge cheerful busloads of charming American visitors were a very common sight. These days there is a constant exchange of doctors, business people, students and entertainers. Some American Jews do immigrate to Israel. Some Israelis come and settle in New York. The intercourse between the NY (and other places in America, of course, I am just using New York as a metaphor to Babylon) and Israel never stopped. And while the two groups have many reasons to fight over politics, lifestyle, and degree of religion, and indeed they do so all the time, these are family fights, not enemy fights.
And that is how it was in Babylonia. I have explained it in Chapter One in more detail, but just to reiterate in this context, in 538 B.C.E., after Cyrus (II) the Great conquered Babylonia, he permitted the exiled Jews to return to Judea. Most of them preferred to stay in Babylon, but maintained an excellent relationship with Judea. They sent money, exchanged teachers and scholars, and did much traveling back and forth, but despite the sad songs expressing their longing for their beloved homeland, did not plan to go back. Conditions in Judea were hard, the tyrannical kings and rulers (Greek-Syrians or the Jewish Hasmoneans, or later the Herod and his dynasty) made the life of the citizens a living hell, and there was not much scope for business. On top of that, the strife between the Hellenists and the strict Jewish traditionalists never stopped, and the petty rivalry between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was anything but pleasant. The tolerant atmosphere of Babylonia, which was the melting pot of the region, was more in keep with the lifestyle preferred by the Babylonian Jew.
Life in the city of Babylon, where Hillel came from, was surprisingly modern, and rather comfortable. True, they had many people who were extremely poor for their entire lives, but so do we. They had slaves – slavery was an accepted institution – but we are not free from it either, if you take into consideration the millions of young women who are forced into sexual slavery, and this is not happening only in third world countries… For the middleclass and the rich, Babylon was extremely attractive. Wide avenues, tall buildings, and well-tended public gardens provided an elegant physical area to live in. Excellent cuisines from many countries and very good produce were available since the land was fertile and much of it was agricultural. Women had almost equal rights, particularly in the issue of commerce. Theoretically, the husband could practice polygamy. In reality, it was discouraged by the courts and was
not practical on financial level, since the dowry had to be restored to the first wife’s family if a man legally married a second wife. True, a man could have concubines, but let’s just look at the love life of many of our politicians and celebrities before we throw the first stone… and at least the legal wife was acknowledged as such and respected by the concubines. It would be hard for a lady who was used to having her own income through not only the dowry her father gave her, but through the business she conducted herself, to move to Judea –which was still a provincial country where under Judaic law she would be much more dependent on her husband. A merchant, whose entire business depended on his ability to send his goods by the great rivers that provided excellent transportation, would not have the means to make a living in Judea. While Judaic studies were still better in Judea – the great Torah academies in the Babylonian cities of Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea did not exist yet in Hillel’s time – but the secular studies could engage a scholar, or like so many Jews, then and now, a businessperson with a taste for study, for a lifetime. Mathematics, astronomy, medicine, natural sciences, languages, and much, much more, were available to anyone at the large public libraries. Books, in the form of clay tablets, were everywhere. Boys and girls received excellent education. There is evidence that they were expected to excel in three languages before leaving school, among many other fields of study.
We must also realize that there was no physical part of the city the Jews were confined to. They were not second class citizens, and the concept of ghetto did not exist. So they mingled freely with their neighbors, enjoying a society that was originally composed from at least three different peoples, and then the center of endless migrations. Cosmopolitan, worldly and fun loving, the Babylonians dressed beautifully, engaged in many forms of entertainment, and while highly religious in their own way, they were not at all ascetic in their way of life.
I will go much further into the detail of such interesting topics as fashion, food, commerce, study, politics, etc. as the book progresses, in both Babylonia and Judea, but I thought we should look at what Hillel had to give up when he decided to move to Judea to pursue the higher Torah study he could only get there. Since this is written as a blog, and it’s easy to miss parts of it, you might want to look at Chapter One which appears in the archives in 9/3, 9/8/ and 9/16. It explains in more details how the Jews settled and stayed in Babylonia.
In the next segment, we are going to leap into the year of 55 B.C.E, and rejoin Hillel, from whom we parted in Chapter One just as he was getting near his destination – Judea – after his eventful journey. In the meantime, please remember to leave me comments! If you like, tell me if there is a specific subject that might interest you in either Judea or Babylon at the time of Hillel, such as marriage, death rituals, religion, temple prostitution, horticulture, slavery? I will be happy to accomodate, and if I don't know enough about it, I will take a little side trip and research your subject!