Gold Coins Depicting Iranian Shah Bahram V, often referred to as Bahramgur – “Bahram the Hunter”
Shushandukht (c. 380-430 CE) was born in Persia, the daughter of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), a title reserved for the chief rabbi and official leader of the Jews in the diaspora during this time period. Little is known of her early life. She went on to marry the Sasanian king Yazdegerd I, and gave him two sons, Shapur IV and Bahram V (c. 406-438 CE). Yazdegerd and Shapur were assassinated, triggering a brief civil war that ended with Bahram successfully taking the throne. Bahram V went on to reign for nearly two decades as Iran’s Shah. In that time, he held off the advancing Eastern Roman Empire and conquered Armenia. Later, a massive invasion by the feared Huns nearly destroyed his empire. However, he caught the Huns unaware in a surprise night attack, decimating their force, and bringing peace to the entire region. Bahram presided over a period of great Persian wealth. Coins with Bahram’s portrait have been found across Asia. Not surprisingly, Bahram V became one of the most legendary kings in Asian history, and is an important figure not just in Iran, but in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, and even in Islamic literature (despite the fact that the Muslims tried pretty hard to erase pre-Islamic Iranian history). Bahram V is the hero of many ancient Persian legends. One of these was translated into English under the title The Three Princes of Serendip – giving rise to the word “serendipity”. In the famous Persian epic Shahnameh, he is the king that slays two lions with his bare hands. Meanwhile, his mother Shushandukht used her position to assist the Jews of Iran (where the vast majority of the world’s Jews lived at the time). She established large and prosperous Jewish neighbourhoods in Esfahan, Susa, Hamadan, and Shushtar. During this period, the Jewish Exilarch sat on the Shah’s court. Many scholars believe that the ‘Tomb of Esther and Mordechai’ in modern-day Iran is actually the tomb of Shushandukht.
Words of the Week
It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has. – Hippocrates
Tomb of Esther and Mordechai (or Shushandukht) in present-day Hamadan, Iran (Credit: Philippe Chavin)
One of the greatest sages of all time, Shimon bar Yochai (c. 2nd century CE) lived in the era following the destruction of the Second Temple nearly two thousand years ago. He was one of just a handful of new students of the great Rabbi Akiva, whose original 24,000 students all perished, likely at the hands of the Roman Empire. Judaism was literally on the verge of extinction when Rabbi Shimon and a few others began to teach the masses once again. However, a spy informed on bar Yochai, forcing him to hide in a cave with his son for 13 years, where they did nothing but study Torah, living off a nearby carob tree and a spring of water. They attained such a level of greatness that it is said the whole universe was sustained only in their merit. After a change in the Roman government, Shimon and his son emerged from the cave. They established an academy in Tekoa where the top minds of the day studied (including Yehuda haNasi, who would later begin the process of writing down the Oral Torah). Unfortunately, a new Roman government began persecuting Jews once more. Rabbi Shimon headed a delegation to Rome. It just so happened that the Emperor’s daughter was suffering from an incurable ailment that no physician could cure. With his mystical powers, Shimon cured the girl and for his reward, asked that the edict against the Jews be rescinded. He thus saved the community, and returned to Israel spending the rest of his life re-establishing the Jewish nation. On the last day of his life – the 18th of Iyar, the 33rd day of the Omer period – he gathered his students and revealed the deepest secrets of the Torah. It is said the words were so holy the entire house erupted in flames. Legend has it that the sun delayed its descent in order for Shimon to finish his discourse, and of all the secrets he revealed, just one out of 22 parts was preserved. This one volume was later published as the famous Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah. Because of this great revelation of light, the final day of Shimon bar Yochai’s life is celebrated on Lag B’Omer (“Lag” meaning 33), with the lighting of large bonfires and many other mystical customs.
Words of the Week
There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all. – Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai