FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS the Jews of Babylonia lived in peace and quiet and knew nothing of persecution. They made their living from agriculture and trade. And since they lacked for nothing and the government protected their lives, they were able to devote themselvs to learning and observe the commandments of the Torah. The Jews were especially well off under the rule of the Parthians who defeated the Chaldeans and conquered their land. But even later under the Persians only the early years were bad, when the Persians were still religious fanatics and had not learned to be tolerant to people of other faiths. Later the situation changed and the Jews entrenched themselves in complete security as a “nation within a nation.” The cities where the great academies were to be found, were purely Jewish cities and governed themselves. The Jews lived in Babylonia as though in their own state, which had only to pay taxes to the central government and had the right to protection from outside enemies in return.
Those good times suddenly changed, and the former difficulties with king Sapor the Second were made to seem like mere sport by the troubles which the Jews suffered later. Since the scholars decided that the government had resolved to destroy the Jewish people and its religion, they felt that the time had come finally to colect all the documents of Jewish tradition, and save them from oblivion and all mischances. The Babylonian Talmud was created which contained all the creations of the Jewish spirit and everything the Jews had thought from the last prophets to Rav Ashi and Ravina.
It is a revealing fact that about thirty years after the death of Rav Ashi the leaders of the academy in Matha Mechasia near Sura were merely nominal leaders, for their work made no impression upon the life of the Jews, and in Pumbeditha conditions were still worse. One of the most prominent among those heads of the academy was Rav Nachman bar Huna, a student of Rav Ashi’s. After his death they were about to choose for his successor a son of Rav Ashi by the name Tavyomi, who had long deserved to occupy that position. This son is known in the Talmud as “Mar bar Rav Ashi.” Various elements interfered with the choice of Tavyomi with their intrigues. Then another Amora, named Rav Acha Midifto, who was related to the Exilarch, was chosen as head of the academy in Matha Mechasia. While this was happening Mar bar Rav Ashi was away on a trip to Mechoza. The news hurt him very much for he had set his heart on filling his father’s post.
When it became known that Mar bar Rav Ashi had returned from his trip, the scholars in Matha Mechasia realized that they should have asked his opinion about the man whom they had chosen to fill the post that should rightly have been his. They sent two scholars to meet him and tell him whom they had chosen as head of the academy. Tavyomi kept the two scholars and would not let them depart. They sent two other scholars. Tavyomi kept them also. The same thing was repeated until Tavyomi had ten scholars with him. Then he answered their report of the election of a new head of the academy with a lecture which so enthralled them that they ended by begging him to become the head of their academy, and he accepted the post.
This happened in the year 456 C. E. In the same year the terrible persecutions of the Jews broke out, unparalleled in the previous history of Babylonia. The persecutions were carried out by a concerted campaign of slaughter and murder which aimed at the total extinction of the Jews.
Mar bar Rav Ashi was the greatest of the later “Amoraim” and his contemporaries were fully aware of his importance so that his opinions were law. Nevertheless he was unable to restore the academy in Sura to its former importance. He continued the work of his father in the compilation of the Talmud. He also gathered all the legal rulings of his father and cleared up some obscure points in his father’s teachings. Beyond this very little is known of him. Because of the troubles of that time there is no record of the accomplishments of a whole series of important scholars who lived then.
The Jews suffered particularly at that time from the hand of king Yezdigerd (Harmizdas) the Third who was a very evil person and bore a special hatred to the Jews. His first step was to prohibit the observance of the Sabbath. At the same time he shut down the academies.
There are various legends which purport to explain the reasons which caused this sudden wrath of the Persian kings against the Jews who had always been loyal and true to them. The true reason is simply religious fanaticism. Since the Persian priests had a strong desire to convert the Jews to their faith, they sought every opportunity for religious debates; in these contests the Jews did not spare the religious beliefs of the Persians and insulted them together with their idols. The priests were terribly enraged and began to persecute the Jews as enemies of their faith.
In one such debate between a Persian priest and the head of the academy of Nehardea, Amemar, the priest was determined to prove that the universe was ruled by two divinities, Ormuzd, who was the god of light and life, and Ahriman who was the god of darkness and destruction. Seeing that Amemar would not be convinced, he tried to argue on the analogy of the human body, the upper half of which belonged to Ormuzd because it is the seat of the understanding and all good sensations, and the lower half belonged to Ahriman, because the beastly part lies there. Amemar answered that the analogy with the human body would not hold, because a god like Ahriman should not have allowed the whole of human filth to be borne through the canals of his kingdom. Amemar said further that in the universe too there was no boundary between good and evil for they were both derived from the same God.1)סנהדרין ל״ט א׳.