Concluding a Tractate with King Shapur’s Praise and Practice of Rabbinic Law

The Bavli’s editors noted the conclusion of some tractates with an edifying message. For tractates Bava Metzia and Avodah Zarah, they placed stories about Sasanian king Shapur I. In this way, they connected their rabbinic milieu to the Sasanian world in which they operated and imagined Sasanian authority and approval of rabbinic law.

The Colossal Statue of Shapur I, (239–270 CE ), the second king of the Sasanian Empire, stands in a cave located about 6 km from the ancient city of Bishapur in the south of Iran. Its height of about 6.7 m and breadth across the shoulders of more than 2 m make it one of the most impressive sculptures from the Sasanian period. Wikimedia

The Conclusion of Tractates

For any devoted reader of the Babylonian Talmud, the completion of a tractate is a momentous occasion, bringing into focus the concentration and stamina it takes to follow the rabbis’ complex argumentation page in and page out. This celebratory moment was not lost on the Babylonian amoraim themselves, who rewarded the scholarly community with a celebration when a student completed the study of a Mishnaic tractate.[1] The siyum, the tradition of celebrating the completion of a tractate, continues today.[2]

Ending With a Message?

The end of several Bavli tractates was also used by the rabbis to convey edifying messages.[3] It is possible to divide the conclusions of Bavli tractates into three basic groups:

  1. No special material: The end simply close with regular, sober discussion (for example b. Shabbat and b. ‘Eruvin).
  1. Praise of rabbis or rabbinic life that is not directly connected to the prior talmudic discussion. For example, tractates like b. Berakhot, Yevamot, and Nazir conclude with a formulaic homily about sages increasing peace in the world (תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם…).
  1. A related discussion with a special concluding message. For example, b. Gittin ends a discussion about grounds for divorce with a moving meditation on how even the Temple altar cries when a man divorces his first wife.

The Endings of b. Bava Metzia and Avodah Zarah

The conclusions of tractates Bava Metzia and Avodah Zarah seem to conform to the third category. Both end with stories about שבור מלכא – the Aramaic form of the long reigning Persian monarch Shapur (in this case, Shapur I, r. 239-270 C.E.)  – praising or practicing the rabbinic law being discussed in the tractate’s final sugya.

King Shapur’s Praise of Rabbinic Law:
The End of b. Bava Metzia

The discussion at the end of tractate Bava Metzia deals with a mishnah concerning the ownership of vegetables in neighboring, terraced gardens:

בבלי ב”מ קיט ע”א אמר רבי שמעון, כל שהעליון יכול לפשט וכו'{את ידו ולטל, הרי הוא שלו, והשאר של תחתון}
b. Bava Metzia 119a: “R. Simon said: Any (vegetables) that the owner of the upper garden can reach by hand [and grab belong to him, and the rest belong to the owner of the lower garden].”
אמרי דבי רבי ינאי ובלבד שלא יאנס
They said in R. Yannai’s academy: Only if he does not strain himself.
בעי רב ענן ואיתימא רבי ירמיה מגיע לנופו ואין מגיע לעיקרו מגיע לעיקרו ואין מגיע לנופו מאי תיקו:
Rav Anan, and some say R. Yeremiah, asked: If he can reach the foliage but not the roots, or if he can reach the roots but not the foliage—what is the law (in this case)? Let it stand.
אמר אפרים ספרא תלמידו של ריש לקיש משום ריש לקיש הלכה כר”ש
Ephraim the Scribe, a disciple of Resh Lakish, said in the name of Resh Lakish: The law is in accordance with R. Simon.
אמרוה קמיה דשבור מלכא אמר להו אפריון נמטייה לרבי שמעון:
They reported (this) to King Shapur: (King Shapur) said to them: Let us bring praise [Persian āfrin] upon R. Simon!

Why does the Talmud end with King Shapur approving of a rabbinic ruling – partially in Persian, no less?

To answer this question, we should take a broader look at the appearance of King Shapur in the Talmud, and the relationship between the rabbis and their Sasanian context.

Sasanian Law and Shapur I in the Talmud

The Bavli contains a number of passages in which the rabbis acknowledge the relationship between Jewish law and the Sasanian imperial authorities. Perhaps the most explicit of these is the first generation amora, Shmuel’s, dictum: “דינא דמלכותא דינא – The law of the kingdom is the law” where the “kingdom” historically referred to the Sasanian regime.[4]

The third century, when Shapur I ruled and Shmuel lived, was an era of radical change in Sasanian and Jewish societies: the Sasanian Persians, who had taken over from the Parthian Arsacids in 224, were in the process of creating an empire that could govern its vast territories and many inhabitants.  At the same time that the early Amoraim were beginning the rabbinic project in Babylonia. For the rabbis and editors of the Bavli, Shapur I, known to be open to other religious communities, became symbolic of the interrelation between rabbinic and Persian imperial law in this age of transformation. As Yaakov Elman explains “Samuel’s dictum that ‘the [civil] law of the government is [valid] law’ … indicates that, already early on in the Sasanian period, one of the greatest Babylonian rabbinic authorities was willing to come to terms with the new regime and its legal system.”[5]

The upshot of Shapur I’s praise of R. Shimon, placed at a point of emphasis at the end of a large tractate devoted to rabbinic civil law, is to link the authority of rabbinic law with the Persian dynasty – similar to what Shmuel did in his dictum. Moreover, the use of a Middle Persian loanword, āfrin – “praise,”[6] imitates Persian speech and brings an aura of authenticity to the king’s praise. This seems to align with the endings of tractates that conclude with a note of blessing.

The historicity of this tale, which might be doubted given the lack of corroborating evidence about Shapur’s policies towards Jews, is not important—whether historical or not, the episode illuminates the editors’ attitudes towards Persian imperial law.

The End of b. Avodah Zarah: Shapur Performing Jewish Law

Shapur I also appears at the end of tractate Avodah Zarah, a tractate that deals with Jews’ interactions with non-Jews:

בבלי עבודה זרה עו ע”ב “הסכין שפה והיא טהורה (משנה עבודה זרה ה:יב)
b. Avodah Zarah 76b“And the knife (from a gentile)—one polishes it, and it becomes purified” (M. Avodah Zarah 5:12).
אמר רב הונא ונועצה בקרקע עשרה פעמים
Rav Huna said: One sticks it in the ground ten times.
אמר רבא ומקום קשה
Rava said: In hard ground.
אמ’ רב כהנא ובסכין שאין בה פגימות
Rava Kahana said: But (only for) a knife that is not serrated.
תניא נמי הכי סכין יפה שאין בה פגימות נועצה עשרה פעמים בקרקע ודיו
Similarly, it was also taught: A knife in good condition that is not serrated—one sticks it in the ground ten times.
אמ’ רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע ולאכול בה את הצונן.
Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua said: (Only) to eat cold foods with it,
כי הא דמר יהודה ובאטי בר טובי הוו יתבי קמיה דשבור מלכא אייתו לקמייהו אתרוגא פסק אכל פסק והב ליה לבאטי בר טובי
as in the case when Rav Yehudah and Bati bar Tovi were sitting in front of King Shapur (and) an etrog was brought before them. (King Shapur) cut off (a slice of the etrog) and ate it. He cut off (another slice) and gave it to Bati bar Tovi.
הדר דצה עשרה זימני בארעא פסק הב ליה למר יהודה
(King Shapur then) stuck the knife into the ground ten times, cut off (a slice) and gave it to Rav Yehudah.
א”ל באטי בר טובי וההוא גברא לאו בר ישראל הוא
Bati bar Tovi said to (King Shapur): And is that man (i.e. Bati bar Tovi himself) not a Jew?
א”ל מר קים לי בגויה ומר לא קים לי בגויה
(King Shapur) said to (Bati bar Tovi): Regarding this mater, I am certain of his (nature), but regarding this master, I am uncertain of his (nature).
איכא דאמרי א”ל אידכר מאי עבדת באורתא:
Others say thus(King Shapur) said to (Bati bar Tovi): Remember what you did last night![7]

The Talmud has King Shapur following the Jewish purification law by sticking the knife into the ground ten times before cutting off a piece for Rav Yehudah to make it “kosher” for use. Remarkably, Rav Huna offers the king’s actions as evidence for his position that the mishnah’s rite is applicable to a cold food.

In my view, it is also not a coincidence that b.  Avodah Zarah, a tractate that deals with laws of how Jews should interact with non-Jews, ends with a story about a non-Jewish king who determines who is a Jew and who is not.  The editors of the Bavli invoke the Sasanian king Shapur I as an imperial voice that shapes and determines Jewishness. The Bavli thus acknowledges that Jewish identity is not solely a product of the rabbis’ halakhah, but also the outside world of the Sasanian Empire.

Judaism the in the Sasanian Empire

These two tractates’ emphasis on the Persian kings’ positive attitudes toward Jewish law, in fact, makes sense given the realities of the rabbis’ lives in the Sasanian empire. As Irano-Talmudists such as Yaakov Elman and Shai Secunda continue to demonstrate, the Babylonian rabbis understood many of their laws from within a cultural context beyond the walls of the rabbinic academies.[8]

Living under the Persian-Sasanian empire alongside Zoroastrians, Syriac-speaking Christians, Manichaeans, and other ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, the Babylonian rabbis had partial legal autonomy.  This forced them to ponder the relationship between rabbinic laws and Persian imperial and Zoroastrian laws. The acknowledgment of the central role that Persian imperial law plays in Jewish life—and its ultimate authority over it—is exactly what is expressed at the conclusion of b. Bava Metzia and b. Avodah Zarah.

The  Siyum as a Teaching Moment

The fact that the Sasanian are mentioned at the end of two sizable tractates—Bava Metzia and Avodah Zarah—is no accident. Just as we today celebrate the completion of a tractate, the editors of the Bavli understood that completing the study of a tractate was a teachable moment that carried significance for the audience. As citizens of the Persian empire, the rabbis invoke Shapur I as an authoritative figure who praises the rabbis’ laws regarding disputed ownership and performs a Jewish rite of purification, taking it upon himself to identify who is a Jew and who is not. The redactors of these tractates had no problems with identifying the ruling empire—the Persians—as praising, authorizing, and even practicing rabbinic law.



Dr. Jason Sion Mokhtarian is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University and the author of the book Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests: The Culture of the Talmud in Ancient Iran (University of California Press, 2015).