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History Highlights: Baghdad

Rabbi Meir Goldberg

When most people think of Baghdad, they think of wars and armies fighting over it. But for thousands of years, Baghdad was home to many Jews

Thursday, February 02, 2017

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T his week we take you halfway around the world to the ancient city of Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq. When most people think of Baghdad, they think of wars and armies fighting over it. But for thousands of years, Baghdad was home to many Jews, including some of the greatest leaders of Klal Yisrael.

Days of Old

Jews have lived in Iraq since before the end of the first Beis Hamikdash, almost 2,500 years ago. In those days, Iraq was called Bavel (Babylon, in English). When Ezra encouraged Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael to build the Second Beis Hamikdash, he made sure that the Jews who stayed in Bavel had proper respect for halachah and everyone knew which family they came from. Eventually, three great yeshivos were started in Bavel in the area close to Baghdad. They were in the cities of Sura, Nehardea, and Pumbedisa. The Gemara even mentions that one of the Amoraim, Rav Chana, was from Baghdad. Eventually the two great yeshivos of Sura and Pumbedisa moved to Baghdad, because it was such an important city. It was like the New York of those days.


In Bavel, the Jewish community leader, who represented the Jews to the non-Jewish king was called the reish galusa (the leader of the galus). Each yeshivah had a rosh yeshivah who was called the Gaon. One of the great Gaonim was called Rav Saadia Gaon. Rav Saadia was so outstanding that he’s one of our Chachmei Hamesorah, one of those we rely upon for our basic understanding of Torah and through whom Torah was passed down to us. The reish galusa of the time wanted Rav Saadia to sign a certain psak that was against halachah. When Rav Saadia refused, the reish galusa banished him. Rav Saadia moved to Baghdad to continue spreading Torah. And when this reish galusa died, Rav Saadia adopted and raised the reish galusa’s son — such tzidkus.

Prominent Place

Baghdad was such an important city in the middle ages (about 800 years ago), that it was the first city to have one million people living in it. The people there were very educated. There were poets, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, etc. But many of the wealthy Jews of the city wanted to be like the non-Jews, so Rav Saadia wrote a book called Emunos V’deios, which we still learn today. It was written in Arabic, the language Jews spoke at that time. Rav Saadia also translated the Chumash into Arabic, so Jews could understand it.

A Light in the Darkness

Baghdad was much more advanced at that time than Europe. The numbers we use (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) are taken from the Arabs. Europeans of the time still used Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, etc.). Doctors in cities like Baghdad had to take tests to be allowed to practice medicine. They knew you had to be clean to treat sick patients and even had medicine to ease pain during surgery. At that time, Europeans (the Crusaders) were attacking Eretz Yisrael. If they needed a doctor, they preferred an Arab doctor to a European one.

Heading to Shul

When the Jews were exiled near the end of the First Beis Hamikdash, the Jewish King Yechonya built a shul. Many say that this shul was in Baghdad and the Great Synagogue of Baghdad was eventually built on that very spot.

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