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Irano-Talmudica I: The Three-Legged Ass and Ridyā in B. Ta‘anith: Some Observations about Mythic Hydrology in the Babylonian Talmud and in Ancient Iran

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2008

Reuven Kiperwasser
Bar-Ilan UniversityRamat-Gan, Israel
Dan D. Y. Shapira
Bar-Ilan UniversityRamat-Gan, Israel
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In this paper we shall study an aggadic tradition from the Babylonian Talmud while trying to find traces of early Iranian mythological conceptions that were absorbed by the talmudic sages as a part of their own biblically enrooted knowledge. We shall also attempt to gain a better understanding of the talmudic text by presuming that it reflects ideas absorbed from the Iranian—or, rather, “Iraqian”—environment. Occasionally, however, early Iranian myths do not always survive in their original, complete forms, and sometimes only fragmentary remains in medieval Zoroastrian literature can be used for their reconstruction. The so-called ninth-century books in Pahlavi were edited by Zoroastrian priests at a rather late date, and in a quite tendentious manner. Significantly, the bulk of the numerous “pagan” strains were excised, probably because the editing work took place in a Muslim environment, and our knowledge of the actual popular religions of Sasanian—or, for our purpose, talmudic—western Iran and Mesopotamia/Iraq is far from adequate. Thus, every piece of secondary evidence regarding the popular Iranian beliefs is precious.

Research Article
Copyright © The Association for Jewish Studies 2008

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1. The bibliography on relationships between the culture of Ancient Iran and Judaism is rich. See, e.g., E. Stave, Einfluss des Parsismus auf das Judentum (Haarlem: Bohn, 1898); A. Kohut, Über die jüdische Angelologie und Dämonologie in Ihrer Abhaengigkeit von Parsismus (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1866); and idem, “Parsic and Jewish Legends of the First Man,” Jewish Quarterly Review 3 (1891): 231–50. The skeptical approach expressed by J. Neusner, Judaism and Zoroastrianism at the Dusk of Late Antiquity: How Two Ancient Faiths Wrote Down Their Great Traditions (Atlanta: Scholars' Press, 1993), prevailed for a long time, but new interest was eventually roused by Y. Elman, “Acculturation to Elite Persian Norms and Modes of Thought in the Babylonian Jewish Community of Late Antiquity,” in Netìot le-David. Jubilee Volume for David Weiss Halivni, ed. Y. Elman, E. B. Halivni, Z. A. Steinfeld (Jerusalem: Orhot, 2004), 31–56; and idem, “‘Up to the Ears’ in Horses Necks (B.M. 108a): On Sasanian Agricultural Policy and Private ‘Eminent Domain,’” Jewish Studies: An Internet Journal 3 (2004). See also J. Gafni, “Babylonian Rabbinic Culture,” in Cultures of the Jews: A New History, ed. D. Biale (New York: Schocken, 2002), 223–65 (esp. 238–65); G. Herman, “Ahasuerus, the Former Stable-master of Belshazzar, and the Wicked Alexander of Macedon: Two Parallels between the Babylonian Talmud and Persian Sources,” AJS Review 29, no. 2 (2005): 283–97; and idem, “Iranian Epic Motifs in Josephus' Antiquities (XVIII, 314–370),” Journal of Jewish Studies 57, no. 2 (2006): 245–68.

2. See H. W. Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems in the Ninth-Century Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1943, 1971).

3. J. Naveh and S. Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1985); R. C. Zaehner, “Zoroastrian Survivals in Iranian Folklore I,” Iran 3 (1965): 87–96; idem, “Ahriman in Luristan,” in Sir J. J. Zartoshti Madressa Centenary Volume (Bombay, 1967), 26–36; idem, “Zoroastrian Survivals in Iranian Folklore II,” introduction by P. G. Kreyenbroek, Iran 30 (1992): 65–75; and P. G. Kreyenbroek, “Mithra and Ahreman, Binyamin and Malak Tawus: Traces of an Ancient Myth in the Cosmogonies of Two Modern Sects,” in Recurrent Patterns in Iranian Religions: from Mazdaism to Sufism, ed. Ph. Gignoux (Paris: Association pour l'avancement des études iraniennes, 1992), 57–79. Cf. D. Shapira, “Iazuqaiia, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Jews and Other Heretics in Mandaean Texts,” Le Muséon 117, nos. 3–4 (2004): 243–80; and Albert de Jong, “Zoroastrian Religious Polemics and Their Contexts: Interconfessional Relations in the Sasanian Empire,” in Religious Polemics in Context: Papers Presented to the Second International Conference of the Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions, ed. T. L. Hettema and A. van der Kooij (Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2004), 48–63.

4. S. Shaked, “Popular Religion in Sasanian Babylonia,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 21 (1997): 103–15; and idem, “First Man, First King: Notes on Semitic-Iranian Syncretism and Iranian Mythological Transformations,” in Gilgul: Studies in Honor of Zvi Werblovsky, ed. S. Shaked, D. Shulman, and G. Stroumsa (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 238–56. See also G. Hazan-Rokem, “Haim Chazal Haiu Mudaim Lemusag ha-Folklore?” in Higayon L′Yona, New Aspects in the Study of Midrash, Aggadah and Piyut, In Honor of Professor Yona Fraenkel, ed. Y. Levinson, J. Elbaum, and G. Hazan-Rokem (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2007), 199–229.

5. For a more detailed discussion, see R. Kiperwasser, “Masa'ot shel Rabba Bar Bar Ḥannah,” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature (forthcoming). For a full bibliography of the Rabbah bar Bar Hannah tales, see ibid., n. 2, with a partial bibliography here: D. Ben Amos, “Talmudic Tell-Tales,” in Folklore Today: A Festschrift for Richard M. Dorson, ed. L. Degh, H. Glassie, and F. J. Oinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 25–43; E. Yassif, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 206–21; G. Stemberger, “Münchhausen und die Apokalyptik: Baba Batra 73a–75b als Literarische Einheit,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 20 (1989): 61–83; and D. E. Gershenson, “Understanding Puškansa,” Acta Orientalia 55 (1994): 23–36. See also D. Stein's approach: “Devarim shero'im misham lo ro'im mipo,” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature 17 (1999): 9–27; S. Thrope, “The Alarming Lunch: Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Colonialism in Sasanian Iran,” Journal of Associated Graduates in Near Eastern Studies 12, no. 1 (2006): 23–44.

6. This sage, of Babylonian origin, spent some time in Palestine; he is generally regarded to be a third-generation Amora. In Palestinian rabbinic sources he is named “R. Abba bar Bar Ḥannah.” It is only in the Babylonian Talmud that he is the hero of travelogues and a fantastic storyteller. See Ch. Albeck, Mavo Latalmudim (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1987), 305; G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. and ed. M. Bockmuehl (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 92.

7. See nn. 11–15 herein.

8. See H. P. Schmidt, “The Sēnmurw of Birds and Dogs and Bats,” Persica 8 (1979): 1–86; and Gershenson, “Understanding Puškansa.” Cf. the recent D. Buyaner, “On the Etymology of Middle Persian baškuč (Winged Monster),” Studia Iranica 34, no. 1 (2005): 19–30.

9. See Kiperwasser, “Masa‘ot shel Rabba Bar Bar Ḥannah.”

10. See B. Ketubot 111b; on the aggadic traditions of this fragment, see J. Rubinstein, “Hitmodedut im ma‘alat 'ereẓ yisra'el,” in Merkaz Utefutzah: 'ereẓ yisra'el vehatefutzot bimei bayit sheni, hamishnah vehatalmud, ed. I. Gafni (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2004), 159–88.

11. B. Shabbat 21a.

12. See B. ‘Eruvin 55b; B. Yoma 75b; B. Gittin 4a.

13. See B. Yevamot 120b.

14. See B. Zevaḥim 113b = Bava’ Batra' 73a.

15. See B. Sanhedrin 97b; Megillah 6a.

16. Most likely, not every לדידי חזי לי included fantastic content; there are stories with uncertain hyperbolic mechanisms, such as the story about one Bedouin's immense defecation (see B. Shabbat 82a, 155b).

17. In the description of the places connected with the ancient biblical past (B. Pesaḥim 93b; Gittin 57a) and the Tiberian Sea (B. Mo‘ed Katan 18b; Bava' Kamma' 58b), and in the story about dream interpretations affirmed by oath (Berakhot 46a), the context seems hyperbolic. Sometimes the expression appears in a context that the narrator himself viewed as esoteric, such as the legendary and uncertain “Adam's book” (B. Bava' Meẓi‘a' 85b) and the pinacs (waxed tables) of Balaam (Sanhedrin 106b). On the latter, see E. E. Urbach, “The Rabbinic Sermons about the Gentile Prophets and the Story of Balaam,” in The World of the Sages (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2002), 537–55; J. R. Baskin, Pharaoh's Counselors: Job, Jethro, and Balaam in Rabbinic and Patristic Tradition (Chico, CA: Scholars' Press, 1983), 75–113; and R. Nikolsky, “Interpret Him as Much as You Want: Balaam in the Babylonian Talmud,” in The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam, ed. George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

18. On this term, see G. Hasan-Rokem, “Narratives in Dialogue: A Folk Literary Perspective on Inter-Religious Contacts in the Holy Land in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity,” in Sharing the Sacred: Religious Contacts and Conflicts in the Holy Land, ed. A. Kofsky and G. Stroumsa (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1998), 109–29.

19. The text follows the eclectic edition: H. Malter, The Treatise Ta‘anit of the Babylonian Talmud (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1930), 117–18, and Malter's translation, The Treatise Ta‘anit of the Babylonian Talmud, Critically Edited and Provided with a Translation and Notes (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967), 388–90.

20. See I. J. Stadelman, The Hebrew Conception of the World—A Philological and Literary Study (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1970), 9.

21. See R. Patai, “The ‘Control of Rain’ in Ancient Palestine,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 251–86; and idem, Mayim: meḥkar liyidi‘ath ha'aretẓ ulefolklor ’ereẓ yisra'el bitekufath hamikra’ veḥamishah (Tel Aviv: Debir, 1936).

22. Deuteronomy 28:12; Job 38:22.

23. Baruch 2 59:5; I Enoch 41:3–4; 54:1–8, 15:1, Testament of Levi 2:7.

24. As a kind of rabbinic antihero, Rabbah bar Bar Ḥannah has a reputation of one who visits places with some mythological potential; see Kiperwasser, “Masa'ot shel Rabba Bar Bar Ḥannah.”

25. ארובות (based on Genesis 7:11).

26. T. Ta‘anith 1:4 (ed. Liebermann, p. 324).

27. Bereshit Rabba 12:3 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 110).

28. B. Ta‘anith 8b. We can probably see a similar notion in another Babylonian Talmud Aggadah in which the men of the generation of the Tower of Babel (dor happallagah) want to build their edifice in order to reach this “treasure” and have free access to its contents at any time (B. Sanhedrin 109a).

29. B. Ta‘anith 9b.

30. Bereshit Rabba 13:14 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 122). The parallels are P. Ta‘anit 1:3 64b (Academy of Hebrew Language ed. [Jerusalem, 2001], 707); Bereshit Rabba 13 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 122–23), Midrash Shemuel 9:3–4 (ed. Buber, p. 74); Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 5; and Midrash Tehillim 42:5 (ed. Buber, p. 267).

31. See Patai, “Control of Rain,” 260–61.

32. B. Ta‘anith 25b.

33. Two abysses, or, according to Rashi, two libations, that of water and that of wine, on the Sukkoth festival.

34. See above, p. 105.

35. Bereshit Rabba 6:7 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 47–48).

36. B. Yoma' 20b.

37. This composition exists in two versions: the Indian one, which is abridged but became known at an earlier date and influenced the writings of Jewish scholars in the nineteenth century: F. Justi, ed. and trans., Der Bundahesh (Leipzig, 1868); and the Iranian one, which is more complete: T. D. Anklesaria, The Bûndahishn: Being a Facsimile of the TD Manuscript No. 2 Brought from Persia by Dastur Tîrandâz and Now Preserved in the Late Ervad Tahmuras' Library (Bombay, 1908); B. T. Anklesaria, Zand-Ākāsīh, Iranian or Greater Bundahišn: Transliteration and Translation in English (Bombay, 1956); P. K. Anklesaria, The Bondahesh, Being a Facsimile of the Manuscript TD 1 (Tehran, 1970); and idem, The Codex DH, Being a Facsimile Edition of Bondahesh, Zand-e Vohuman Yasht, and Parts of Denkard (Tehran, 1970).

38. To be dealt with in R. Kiperwasser and D. D. Y. Shapira, Rabbah bar Bar Ḥannah, a Jewish Traveler from Sasanian Babylonia (work in progress). The following is merely a concise summary: The first story in Bava' Batra' is about Hurmiz, son of Liliyāthā, who runs, devilishly, on the wall of the city and causes storms on the sea by his magical pouring of water from one bowl (mādag > מזגא) to another. The second story is about the immensely big newborn Aurochs (אורזילא דרימא בר יומיה), who blocks the Jordan with his droppings. The third tale is about the giant Frog (אקרוקתא) as big as the άκρα of Hagronia (Agranum). Notwithstanding its size, the Frog can be eaten by a tannin, who can be eaten by a mythical bird Bašcuč (פשקצא); this bird sits on a tree whose giant size can be seen from the sizes of the Frog, the tannin, and the bird. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stories are about the giant fish Kara (כוורא), who can be eaten by sixty towns, from whose bones booths can be built, and whose back is big enough for sailors to make a fire there and cook their food. The seventh story is about a giant bird who stands within the turbulent sea and whose head reaches the firmament.

The order of appearance of the corresponding creatures in Bundahišn 24, after references to Ōhrmazd and Ahriman, is as follows: a devilish Ahriman-shaped giant Frog who might damage the Haoma; two Ōhrmazd-created giant Kar[a]-Fish, who are constantly going around this Frog to prevent it from harming the Haoma and who also eatmēnōg; the Tree of Many Seeds that grows in the middle of the sea of Fraxvkard and contains all the seeds of all the plants; the Three-Legged Ass; the Ox Hādhayanš (Gāw ī Hādhayanš), who is also called Srisōk; the bird Camrōš, who picks people from all the non-Iranian lands as a bird (picks) grain, and Karšift, who recites the Avesta in the language of birds; the aquatic Bull, who makes sounds, all the fish become pregnant, and all the pregnant noxious creatures cast their young; the mythic birds Simurgh (Sēnmurw), Baškuc, and Ašōzušt, whom they called Zōrbarag, and others.

39. This Three-Legged Ass is also mentioned in the Indian Bundahišn, trans. West, Sacred Books of the East, vol., V, chap. XIX, pp. 1–12, 67–69; in Dādestān ī Mēnōg ī Xrad, trans. West, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XVIII, chap. LXII, pp. 26–27, 111 (xar ī sē-pāy mayān ī zrēh ī warkaš nišīnēd, ud hāmōyēn āb ī ō nasā ud daštān ud abārīg hixr ud *rēmanīh wārēd ka ō xar ī sē-pāy rasēd hāmōyēn pad wēnišn pāk ud yōjdahr kunēd); and PRDD 35a6: “when the cloud draws up water from the sea, through the power of the wind and the movement of the three-legged ass which stands in the middle of the sea, it [the water] goes up to the atmosphere …”; ka abr āb stānēd pad nērōg ī wād ud jumbišn ī hān xar ī sē pay ī andar miyān ī zrēh estēd <ō> andarway be šawēd. Cf. also PRDD 49.8 (A. V. Williams, The Pahlavi Rivāyat Accompanying the Dādestān ī Dēenīg, vols. 1–2, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 60, no. 1 [Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 1990], part I, 145–46; 192–3; Part II, 62, 89).

40. Cf. David Buyaner, “Sul senso e l'etimologia dell'iranico *axšaina-” (working paper).

41. On the range of meaning of this term, see S. Shaked, “The Notions mēnog and gētīg in the Pahlavi Texts and their Relation to Eschatology,” Acta Orientalia 33 (1971): 59–107.

42. On this star, see A. Panaino, Tištrya. Part I. The Avestan Hymn to Sirius, Serie Orientale Roma, vol. LXVIII, no. 1 (Rome, 1990); Tištrya. Part II. The Iranian Myth of the Star Sirius, Serie Orientale Roma, vol. LXVIII, no. 2 (Rome 1995), 100 (with references to our Pahlavi and Avestan passages); and P. Gignoux, “Le mécanisme de la pluie entre le mythe et l'expérimentation (Dādestān ī dēnīg 92),” Iranica Antiqua 23 (1988): 385–90.

43. We will refer later to a context in which the voice of our talmudic creature and childbirth appear together.

44. See Nathan ben Jehiel, Aruch hashalem, ed. A. Kohut (Vienna: 1878–1882 [1969]), 257; and Kohut, Über die jüdische Angelologie, 43ff.

45. On this female deity, see M. Boyce, “The Lady and the Scribe: Some Further Reflections on Anāhīt and Tīr,” in A Green Leaf: Papers in Honour of Professor Jes P. Asmussen (Hommages et Opera Minora), ed. J. Duchesne-Guillemin, W. Sundermann, and F. Vahman (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 277–82.

46. Some Iranists (and following them, R. Adin Steinsaltz [Even-Israel]) have suggested derivation from the Persian daryā, “sea”; indeed, the sea does feature in the Iranian background of the story.

47. Indeed, the Aramaic etymon of the Hebrew for “bull,” šōr, is tōr; however, the Hebrew tōr in Song of Songs has no bovine sense and means merely “turtle” (a species of dove). We should mention also I. H. Schorr, “Hattoroth,” He-Haluz 7 (1865): 16, who speculated about Ridyā as tōr (“bull” in Aramaic) < Tīr (because of the phonetic similarity), which he identified with the Iranian deity Tištrya (who, in fact, is mentioned together with the Three-Legged Ass in Bundahišn 24; see above). On the relationship between Tištrya and Tīr, see, however, Panaino, Tištrya, part II, 61–86.

48. In Jewish Eastern Aramaic one finds RDYA, “plower”; “plowing, plowing season”; “name of the angel of rain,” quoting our passage in Ta‘anith and Yoma' 21a, top; radyā, “running water” (M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature [New York: Putnam's, 1903], 1452a); “plowing” and even “ox,” as can be seen from the passages quoted (M. Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods [Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2002], 1060a); in Mandaic, the Aramaic dialect most closely related to that of the Babylonian Talmud, one finds Rida and Ridya (root RDA), “affliction, chastisement”; RDA 1: “to travel on, flow, flow a course, to impel”; RDA 2: “to cut, plough” (E. S. Drower and R. Macuch, A Mandaic Dictionary [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963], 432, 425). Cf. Syriac for “flowing waters”: rādūyā/rādwāytā, “fluid, liquid; aqua fluens”; redyā, “flow, current, running water, a stream; flux, march” (C. Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum [Berlin: Reuther & Reichard; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1895 (1995)], 714).

49. In a highly speculative vein, one may be led to think that at the first stage of adaptation of the Iranian material, the word רידיא could have been derived from the Iranian words for “flowing water” (rēzī; Parthian rēzišn), for this function is the principal one—in fact, the only one—of the Zoroastrian Three-Legged Ass. In this case, one should suggest that this Ass was known among some western Iranians by this reconstructed—or similar—epithet. The derivation from a Persian word for “defecation” (rīdan/rīy/n-), used as a substitute for the word for urination, looks improbable, although the Three-Legged Ass's defecation is mentioned in our Pahlavi text, together with his urination, as the source of ambergris (“and it is revealed about ambergris that it is the dung of the Three-Legged Ass, for even it is mostly a spiritually-eating [creature], still, the moisture and nutrition of the water enters its body through pores and it casts them away as urine and dung”).

50. See Sokoloff, Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 1198b; see also Aruch, 257a.

51. E.g., the different copyist's errors and the mistakes in the dialogue of the abysses, such as חשור/אבע.

52. The main textual versions of our passage from B. Ta‘anith: (G) Göttingen, thirteenth-century Spanish; (V487) thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Spanish; (V134) Vatican 134, thirteenth-century Italo-Ashkenazic; (H) Jerusalem Yad R. Herzog; (M95) Munich 95, thirteenth-century Spanish; (M140) Munich 140, thirteenth-century Spanish; (L) London 400, thirteenth-century Spanish; (P) Pesaro print, edition fifteenth century; and (O) Oxford 366, thirteenth-century Spanish.

53. See n. 50 herein.

54. For this explanatory model, see J. M. Lotman et al., “Thesis on the Semiotic Study of Cultures,” in The Tell-Tale Sign, ed. T. A. Sebeok (Lisse: Peter De Ridder Press, 1975), 58–59; see also Kiperwasser, “Masa‘oth shel Rabbah Bar Bar Ḥannah.”

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