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India, Israel and the Jewish People

It is the Jews of Babylon, living on the way between the Land of Israel and India, who had the first historically palpable, pragmatic encounters with Indian people and goods. No longer is India a remote, unnamed place which sends spices to the Temple and fairy-tale animals to the king as in the First Temple period, nor is it the mythical home of moral heroes who prefer to kill themselves rather than betray their beliefs, as reported in Hellenistic stories. For the Jews of Babylon, who elaborated the Babylonian Talmud, India is real and it is near.

In Talmudic times, Babylonian Jews knew the location of India. However, some of the Sages still argued about the location of the two countries when they commented on the phrase me-hodu-ve-od-kush (from India to Ethiopa), which is found early in the Book of Esther – the only mention of India in the Hebrew Bible. Some did understand that India was “at one end of the world, Kush at the other,” but others thought they were neighbors.38 Some of this confusion is probably due to the powerful Kushan Empire, which rose in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE and collapsed in the 3rd and 4th centuries, exactly when the Mishnah and Talmud were written. Kushan comprised a large part of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the Hindu-Kush mountain range, and, hence, was indeed adjacent to Persia and India.

The Talmud has many direct and indirect Indian references, but the Indian origin of particular goods is purely incidental. The Talmud knows three categories of products from India. The first and most important includes products indispensable for religious services. The second is luxury foodstuffs the Jews could not do without. The third includes staple products of daily necessity.

To the first category belongs a precious Indian textile. The Mishnah discusses the immersions of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. When he emerged from the immersion in the afternoon, he would don the finest, expensive Hinduyin, that is Indian or Hindu, linen.39 Also, we find again, as in the Bible, the spices and fragrances necessary for Temple services. The Talmud gives the exact recipe for the required spice mixture, many of them Indian.40 Among these, the Temple fragrance cinnamon, produced from an Indian tree bark, had a magic reputation that spawned nostalgia “When they would burn some of these, their fragrances would waft through all of the Land of Israel. But when Jerusalem was destroyed they were hidden and only the size of a barley grain remained.”41 Of comparable religious importance was and is the Etrog fruit, necessary for the Sukkot celebrations. The Etrog appears in the Mishnah. It is not a Semitic word. Rabin was convinced that the word, as well as the fruit itself, came from South India.42

The second category contains two Indian luxury foodstuffs for which there was apparently great Jewish demand in Babylon: pepper and ginger. The Jews, like the Romans, loved pepper, pilpalta in Aramaic and pilpel in Hebrew, both derived from Sanskrit pippali. Those “earlier ones (the generations before the start of the pepper trade) who did not have pepper” had to be content with a less delicious spice.43 Pepper even appears in popular proverbs: “One sharp pepper (sharp argument) is better than a basketful of pumpkins (weak arguments).”44 From ancient to early modern times, India was the only source of pepper reaching the Middle East and Europe, and the Jews must have been aware of its origin, no less than the Greeks and Romans. Indian ginger, zangvila in Aramaic and zangvil in Hebrew, a name of ancient Indian origin, was equally popular – particularly when it was used for a sweet Indian delicacy called in Aramaic hamalta, made of ground ginger and honey. However, hamalta raised issues of religious law, which is the only reason why it is mentioned. Was it allowed or forbidden? “The hamalta that comes from the land of the Hindus is allowed?,” asks the Talmud. Is it not forbidden to eat food cooked by gentiles? Yes, but ginger can be eaten raw, hence hamalta is not considered “food cooked by gentiles.”45 Hamalta is again raised in the context of the laws of fasting on Yom Kippur. One authority reports that it is allowed. How is this possible? Is not ginger proper food? “No problem,” says the Talmud. Forbidden is fresh ginger, but here we speak of dry ginger, which is allowed (to be tasted).46 It seems the rabbis made special efforts to accommodate the Jewish addiction to this Indian delicacy.

Among the staple products that the Jews imported from India were rice and iron. Chaim Rabin argued for a South Indian origin of rice and found an apparent root for the Talmudic word for rice, ores, in the Tamil arici, peeled rice.47 Rice was an important Jewish food staple for many centuries. It came by sea to South Arabia and Babylon, and from there, by land to Israel. Again, its consumption raised religious questions. What type of cereal is it, and therefore, which religious blessings have to be said before consuming rice? Such questions fill several pages in the Talmud.48 The Talmud does not mention the Indian origin of rice, but it does so for Indian raw iron. Why is there a problem with trading in Indian iron? Because idolaters could hammer it into weapons in order to commit murder, and Jews are forbidden to facilitate murder. This should not be a problem, states the Talmud: “Said Raw Ashi: to the Persians who protect us (we sell the iron)!”49 Apparently, the alliance between the Jews and their Persian protectors initiated by King Cyrus eight centuries earlier was still intact.

The Talmud tells two fascinating anecdotes about an Indian convert to Judaism. “Rabbi Yehuda Hinduyi” the Indian or Hindu, was a storyteller; like other rabbis, he, too, used fables to convey moral messages. “Once we were going on a ship and we saw a certain precious stone (meaning human wisdom or intellect) which was surrounded by a sea monster. A diver descended to bring it up. Then the monster approached with the purpose of swallowing the ship, when a raven came to bit off its head.”50 The monster is a metaphor for the yetzer harah, evil inclination or craving for forbidden pleasure, explain some of the traditional Talmudic commentators. The “evil inclination” was and is indeed a Rabbinic preoccupation. Did Rabbi Yehuda infuse his adopted Judaism with Hindu principles of asceticism and abstinence, which were familiar to him? Did he regard them as comparable to Rabbinic teaching? The hypothesis is tempting but impossible to verify. Later, when Rabbi Yehudah lay on his deathbed, Mar Zutra visited him. Three sages have the name Mar Zutra. The one in question here was either Mar Zutra I, the head of the famous Talmud academy of Pumpedita (4th century CE) or Mar Zutra II, the Resh Galuta, or “Exilarch,” the political and spiritual leader of Babylonian Jewry (ca. 500 CE). Mar Zutra started a proceeding to ensure he would inherit his friend’s slave. In Talmudic law, the property of a convert who did not father children after becoming a Jew is free for all to take at the owner’s death. As Rabbi Yehudah had no Jewish children, his slave would have become a freeman and a Jew – except that Mar Zutra had other ideas about the man’s future.51 The impending death of the Indian convert was an opportunity for the Talmud to raise some legal fine points in regard to the inheritance of a convert’s estate. From Mar Zutra’s friendship we can infer that Rabbi Yehudah was himself a highly respected personality. Mar Zutra’s endeavors to keep the convert’s slave should be seen as a sign of affection, not of greed. Mar Zutra wanted this man, who would soon be the only living memory of his dying friend, to remain near to him.

Again, a great Jewish scholar looked for spiritual impacts of ancient India on Judaism’s sacred scriptures. Prof. Chaim Rabin’s effort to prove that King Solomon’s “Song of Songs” had roots in ancient South Indian love poetry was mentioned above. Rabin’s contemporary, Prof. David Flusser, tried to show that the Upanishads influenced the early Rabbinic legends, which describe how Abraham discovered the one true God. The Upanishads are philosophical texts that provide a basis for Hinduism. They were likely composed between the 6th and 2nd centuries BCE (although this is still an unsettled matter of academic debate). A monotheistic streak can be read into many of these texts. The Upanishads speak of Brahman as the omniscient, omnipresent, eternal and absolute principle, which can be interpreted as the “Highest God.” “Abraham’s search for God is a central concept in Upanishadic religiosity,” writes Flusser.52 He shows similarities between Upanishadic texts and post-Biblical Rabbinic texts that speak of Abraham. Although he knows his hypothesis is “adventurous,” he argues that India’s old monotheistic theme may have reached the Jews through ancient Persia. Flusser does not try to hide his a priori approach: “I hope … the hero of the story of Abraham’s discovery of God changed from the Biblical patriarch to an Indian sage.”53 It seems Flusser had a strong drive to “Indianize” Judaism. Raphael Patai, who was teaching history and Jewish studies in various American universities, analyzed similarities between certain schools of Hinduism and the Kabbalah. He, too, believed to see a direct influence and concluded “Hindu concepts were known to some Kabbalists in 13th century Spain, just as certain Yoga-practices were.”54

Great civilizations can develop spiritual similarities accruing from a shared humanity or from similar historical experiences, not from influences. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers warned against the temptation to look for “influences” between the great “Axial Age” civilizations. Flusser, Rabin, Patai, and others could not resist the temptation.