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The beginnings of Jewish history in Iranmarker date back to late Biblical times. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Esther contain references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalemmarker and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was carried out "according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). This great event in Jewish history took place in the late sixth century BCE, by which time there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persiamarker.

Persian Jews have lived in the territories of today's Iranmarker for over 2,700 years, since the first Jewish diaspora when Shalmaneser V conquered the (Northern) Kingdom of Israel (722 BCE) and sent the Israelites (the Ten Lost Tribes) into captivity at Khorasan. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians expelled large populations of Jews from Judeamarker to the Babylonian captivity.

Jews who migrated to ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. The Persian Jewish communities include the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still extant) communities not only of Iran, but of parts of what is now Afghanistanmarker, Azerbaijanmarker, northwestern Indiamarker, Kirgizstanmarker, Pakistanmarker, Tajikistanmarker, Turkmenistanmarker, and Uzbekistanmarker.

Some of the communities were isolated from other Jewish communities, to the extent that their classification as "Persian Jews" is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another. During the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews are thought to have comprised as much as 20% of the population. [377223]

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: "The Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC and, like the Armenians, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity."[377224] However, a Library of Congressmarker country study on Iran states that "Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish."[377225]

Persian Jewry under Cyrus the Great

Cyrus II le Grand et les Hébreux.jpg
Three times during the sixth century BCE, the Jews (Hebrews) of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylonmarker by Nebuchadnezzar. These three separate occasions are mentioned in Jeremiah (52:28-30). The first exile was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BCE, when the Temple of Jerusalemmarker was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens exiled. After eleven years (in the reign of Zedekiah) a new Judean uprising took place; the city was razed to the ground, and a further exile ensued. Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third exile. After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BCE), and more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege, (See Jehoiakim; Ezra; Nehemiah and Jews). Cyrus also allowed them to practice their religion freely (See Cyrus Cylinder) unlike the previous Assyrian and Babylonian rulers.

The Second Temple period

Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of the Second Temple in the same place as the first but died before it was completed. Darius the Great, after the short-lived rule of Cambyses, came to power over the Persian Empire and ordered the completion of the Temple. This was undertaken with the stimulus of the earnest counsels and admonitions of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. It was ready for consecration in the spring of 515 BCE, more than twenty years after the Jews' return from exile.

Haman and the Jews

In the Book of Esther, Haman is described as an Agagite noble and vizier of the Persian Empire under Persian King Ahasuerus, generally identified by Biblical scholars as possibly being Xerxes I in 6th century BCE. Haman and his wife Zeresh instigated a plot to murder all the Jews of ancient Persiamarker. The plot was foiled by Queen Esther and Mordechai; and, as a result, Haman and his ten sons were hanged. The events of the Book of Esther are celebrated on the Jewish holiday Purim.

The Parthian Period

Jewish sources contain no mention of the Parthian influence and the name "Parthia" does not occur. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the "Small Chronicle" as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman rescript in favor of the Jews reached a Prince Arsaces as well (I Macc. xv. 22); it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after, the Partho-Babylonian country was invaded by a Jewish army. The Syrianmarker king, Antiochus Sidetes, marched against the Parthians in company with Hyrcanus I. When the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 BC) at the River Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a ceasefire of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Shavuot. In 40 BC the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II., fell into the hands of the Parthians cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for rulership. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, intended to create a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, independent of the Land of Israel. However, the reverse happened: the Judean Jews accepted a Babylonian Jew, Ananel, as their High Priest which indicates the high esteem in which the Jews of Babylonia were held. In religious matters the Babylonians, like the rest of the Diaspora, were dependent upon the Land of Israel and Jerusalemmarker in particular, to which they were expected to travel in order to observe the festivals.

The Parthian Empire was an enduring empire based on a loosely configured system of vassal kings. This lack of a rigidly centralized rule over the empire had its drawbacks, such as the rise of a Jewish bandit-state in Nehardea (see Anilai and Asinai). Yet, the tolerance of the Arsacid dynasty was as legendary as the first Persian dynasty, the Achaemenids. There is even an account that indicates the conversion of a small number of Parthian vassal kings of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances and others show not only the tolerance of Parthian kings, but is also a testament to the extent to which the Parthians saw themselves as the heir to the preceding empire of Cyrus the Great. The Parthians were very protective of the Jewish minority as reflected in old Jewish saying “When you see a Parthian charger chained to a tombstone in the Land of Israel, the hour of the Messiah will be near”.

The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Judeanmarker brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they made their hatred felt. To a large extent, the revolt of the Babylonian Jews meant that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia. Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the East for help, and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.

In the continuous struggles between the Parthians and the Romans, the Jews had every reason to hate the Romans, the destroyers of the Temple, and to side with the Parthians: their protectors. Possibly it was recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the House of David in particular, that induced the Parthian kings to elevate the princes of the Exile, who till then had been little more than mere tax collectors, to the dignity of real princes, called Resh Galuta. Thus, then, the numerous Jewish subjects were provided with a central authority which assured an undisturbed development of their own internal affairs.

Sassanid period

By the early third century, Persian influences were on the rise again. In the winter of 226 CE, Ardashir I overthrew the last Parthian king (Artabanus IV), destroyed the rule of the Arsacids, and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. While Hellenistic influence had been felt amongst the religiously tolerant Parthians, the Sassanids intensified the Persian side of life, favored the Pahlavi language, and restored the old monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism which became the official state religion. This resulted in the suppression of other religions. A priestly Zoroastrian inscription from the time of King Bahram II (276–293 CE) contains a list of religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism etc.) that Sassanid rule claimed to have "smashed".

Shapur I (Or Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was friendly to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community. Shapur II's mother was Jewish, and this gave the Jewish community relative freedom of religion and many advantages. He was also friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud named Raba , Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning "Shaput [the] King" because of his quick intellect.

Both Christians and Jews suffered occasional persecution; but the latter, dwelling in more compact masses in cities like Isfahanmarker, were not exposed to such general persecutions as broke out against the more isolated Christians. Generally, this was a period of occasional persecutions for the Jews, followed by long periods of benign neglect in which Jewish learning thrived . In the 5th century, the Jews suffered from persecution during the reigns of Yazdagerd II and Peroz.

Early Islamic period (634 to 1255)

After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, were assigned the status of dhimmis, inferior subjects of the Islamic empire. Dhimmis were allowed to practice their religion, but were forced to pay taxes (jizya, a poll tax, and initially also kharaj, a land tax) in favor of the Arab Muslim conquerors. Dhimmis were also required to submit to a number of social and legal disabilities; they were prohibited from bearing arms, riding horses, testifying in courts in cases involving a Muslim, and frequently required to wear clothes that clearly distinguished them from Muslims. Although some of these restrictions were sometimes relaxed, the overall condition of inequality remained in force until the Mongol invasion.

Mongol rule (1256 to 1318)

In 1255, Mongols led by Hulagu Khan began a charge on Persia, and in 1257 they captured Baghdadmarker, thus ending the Abbasid caliphate. In Persia and surrounding areas, the Mongols established a division of the Mongol Empire known as the Ilkhanate. The Ilkhanate considered all religions equal, and Mongol rulers abolished the unequal status of the dhimmi classes. One of the Ilkhanate rulers, Arghun Khan, even preferred Jews and Christians for administrative positions and appointed Sa'd al-Daula, a Jew, as his vizier. The appointment, however, provoked resentment from the Muslim clergy, and after Arghun's death in 1291, al-Daula was murdered and Persian Jews suffered a period of violent clergy-instigated persecutions from the Muslim populace. The contemporary Christian historian Bar Hebraeus wrote that of the violence committed against the Jews during that period "neither tongue can utter, nor the pen write down".

Ghazan Khan's conversion to Islam in 1295 heralded for Persian Jews a pronounced turn for the worse, as they were once again relegated to the status of dhimmis. Öljeitü, Ghazan Khan's successor, pressured some Jews to convert to Islam. The most famous such convert was Rashid al-Din, a physician, historian and statesman, who adopted Islam in order to advance his career at Öljeitü's court. However, in 1318 he was executed on fake charges of poisoning Öljeitü and for several days crowds carried his head around his native city of Tabrizmarker, chanting "This is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him!" About 100 years later, Miranshahmarker destroyed Rashid al-Din's tomb, and his remains were reburied at the Jewish cemetery. Rashid al-Din's case illustrates a pattern that differentiated the treatment of Jewish converts in Persia from their treatment in most other Muslim lands, where converts were welcomed and easily assimilated into the Muslim population. In Persia, however, Jewish converts were usually stigmatized on account of their Jewish ancestry for many generations.

Safavid and Qajar dynasties (1502 to 1925)

Further deterioration in the treatment of Persian Jews occurred during the reign of the Safavids who proclaimed Shi'a Islam the state religion. Shi'ism assigns great importance to the issues of ritual purity ― tahara, and non-Muslims, including Jews, are deemed to be ritually unclean ― najis ― so that physical contact with them would require Shi'as to undertake ritual purification before doing regular prayers. Thus, Persian rulers, and to an even larger extent, the populace, sought to limit physical contact between Muslims and Jews. Jews were not allowed to attend public baths with Muslims or even to go outside in rain or snow, ostensibly because some impurity could be washed from them upon a Muslim.

The reign of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629) was initially benign. Jews prospered throughout Persia and were even encouraged to settle in Isfahanmarker, which was made a new capital. However, toward the end of his rule, the treatment of Jews became harsher; upon advice from a Jewish convert and Shi'a clergy, the Shah forced Jews to wear a distinctive badge on clothing and headgear. In 1656, all Jews were expelled from Isfahan because of the common belief of their impurity and forced to convert to Islam. However, as it became known that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret and because the treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews, they were allowed to revert to Judaism in 1661. However, they were still required to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothings.

Under Sunni Muslim Nadir Shah (1736–1747), who abolished Shi'a Islam as state religion, Jews experienced a period of relative tolerance when they were allowed to settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhadmarker. Yet, the advent of a Shi'a Qajar dynasty in 1794 brought back the earlier persecutions. In the middle of the 19th century, J. J. Benjamin wrote about the life of Persian Jews: "…they are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered."


Lord Curzon described the regional differences in the situation of the Persian Jews in 19th century: "In Isfahan, where they are said to be 3,700 and where they occupy a relatively better status than elsewhere in Persia, they are not permitted to wear kolah or Persian headdress, to have shops in the bazaar, to build the walls of their houses as high as a Moslem neighbour's, or to ride in the street. In Teheranmarker and Kashanmarker they are also to be found in large numbers and enjoying a fair position. In Shirazmarker they are very badly off. In Bushire they are prosperous and free from persecution."

Another European traveller reported a degrading ritual to which Jews were subjected for public amusement:
At every public festival — even at the royal salaam [salute], before the King’s face — the Jews are collected, and a number of them are flung into the hauz or tank, that King and mob may be amused by seeing them crawl out half-drowned and covered with mud.
The same kindly ceremony is witnessed whenever a provincial governor holds high festival: there are fireworks and Jews.


In the 19th century there were many instances of forced conversions and massacres, usually inspired by the Shi'a clergy. A representative of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Jewish humanitarian and educational organization, wrote from Tehranmarker in 1894: "…every time that a priest wishes to emerge from obscurity and win a reputation for piety, he preaches war against the Jews". In 1830, the Jews of Tabrizmarker were massacred; the same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shirazmarker. In 1839, many Jews were massacred in Mashhad and survivors were forcibly converted. However, European travellers later reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret despite a fear of further persecutions. Jews of Barforushmarker were forcibly converted in 1866; when they were allowed to revert to Judaism thanks to an intervention by the Frenchmarker and Britishmarker ambassadors, a mob killed 18 Jews of Barforush, burning two of them alive. In 1910, the Jews of Shiraz were accused of ritually murdering a Muslim girl. Muslim dwellers of the city plundered the whole Jewish quarter, the first to start looting were the soldiers sent by the local governor to defend the Jews against the enraged mob. Twelve Jews, who tried to defend their property, were killed, and many others were injured. Representatives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle recorded other numerous instances of persecution and debasement of Persian Jews.

Driven by persecutions, thousands of Persian Jews emigrated to Palestine in the late 19th – early 20th century.

Pahlavi dynasty (1925 to 1979)

The Pahlavi dynasty implemented modernizing reforms, which greatly improved the life of Jews (Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin of Radio Free Europe). The influence of the Shi'a clergy was weakened, and the restrictions on Jews and other religious minorities were abolished. Reza Shah prohibited mass conversion of Jews and eliminated the Shi'ite concept of ritual uncleanness of non-Muslims.[Citation Needed] Modern Hebrew was incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were published. Jews were also allowed to hold government jobs.[377226] However, Jewish schools were closed in the 1920s. In addition, Reza Shah sympathized with Nazi Germany, making the Jewish community fearful of possible persecutions, and the public sentiment at the time was definitely anti-Jewish[377227].

A spike in anti-Jewish sentiment occurred after the establishment of the State of Israelmarker in 1948 and continued until 1953 due to the weakening of the central government and strengthening of the clergy in the course of political struggles between the Shah and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Eliz Sanasarian estimates that in 1948–1953, about one-third of Iranian Jews, most of them poor, emigrated to Israel. David Littman puts the total figure of emigrants to Israel in 1948-1978 at 70,000.

The reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after the deposition of Mossadegh in 1953, was the most prosperous era for the Jews of Iran. In 1970s, only 10 percent of Iranian Jews were classified as impoverished; 80 percent were middle class and 10 percent wealthy. Although Jews accounted for only a small percentage of Iran's population, in 1979 two of the 18 members of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, 80 of the 4,000 university lecturers, and 600 of the 10,000 physicians in Iran were Jews.

Prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran, concentrated in Teheran (60,000), Shiraz (8,000), Kermanshah (4,000), Isfahan (3,000), the cities of Khuzistanmarker, as well as Kashan, Tabriz, and Hamedan.

During the Islamic Revolution, many of the Iranian Jews, especially wealthy Jewish leaders in Tehran and many Jewish villages surrounding Esfahan and Kerman, left the country. In late 1979s, the people whom left was estimated at 50,000–90,000.

Prior to the independence of Israel in 1948, Urmiamarker was home to 700 Aramaic-speaking Jewish families. As of 2006, only two sisters remain.

Islamic Republic (since 1979)

At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were approximately 140,000–150,000 Jews living in Iranmarker, the historical center of Persian Jewry. Over 85% have since migrated to either Israel or the United Statesmarker, with the migration accelerating after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the population dropped from 100,000 to about 40,000. On March 16, 1979, Habib Elghanian, the honorary leader of the Jewish community, was arrested on charges of "corruption", "contacts with Israel and Zionism", "friendship with the enemies of God", "warring with God and his emissaries", and "economic imperialism". He was tried by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal, sentenced to death, and executed on May 8, one of 17 Iranian Jews executed as spies since the revolution.

Estimates of the Jewish population in Iran vary. In mid- and late 1980s, it was estimated at 20,000–30,000, rising to around 35,000 in mid-1990s, and estimated at less than 40,000 nowadays, with around 25,000 residing in Tehran. However, Iran's Jewish community still remains the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Opinion over the condition of Jews in Iran is divided. One Jew active in arguing on behalf of a benevolence view of the Iranian Islamic government and society toward Jews is film producer Haroun Yashyaei, who tells visitors and reporters the Ayatollah "Ruhollah Khomeini didn't mix up our community with Israel and Zionism," and "Take it from me, the Jewish community here faces no difficulties." Privately many Jews complain to foreign reporters of "discrimination, much of it of a social or bureaucratic nature." The Islamic government appoints the officials who run Jewish schools, most of these being Muslims and requires that those schools must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Criticism of this policy was the downfall of the last remaining newspaper of the Iranian Jewish community which was closed in 1991 after it criticized government control of Jewish schools.

Nevertheless the Jewish community in Iran is represented by a Jewish MP in the Iranian Parliament and have their own active community centers such as the Tehran Jewish Committee.

Further decline of Iran-Israel relations and Holocaust denial



President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and members of the Iranian government have resorted to threats against the State of Israelmarker and in Holocaust denial that have added to the precarious nature and insecurity of Iran's small remaining Jewish community.

Ahmadinejad levels charges such as "The Zionist regime is seeking baseless pretexts to invade Islamic countries and right now it is justifying its attacks with groundless excuses," he added. On Aug 3rd, 2006, in a speech during an emergency meeting of Muslim leaders, Ahmadinejad called for "the elimination of the Zionist regime". While some media outlets immediately interpreted his words as another threat to "destroy Israel", such interpretations have again been challenged. In the speech, Ahmadinejad said, "although the main solution is for the elimination of the Zionist regime, at this stage an immediate cease-fire must be implemented". He stated that the Middle East would be better off "without the existence of the Zionist regime". He called Israel an "illegitimate regime" with "no legal basis for its existence" and accused the United States of using Israel as a proxy to control the region and its oil resources; "The Zionist regime is used to reach this objective. The sole existence of this regime is for invasion and attack."

The International Holocaust Cartoon Competition (2006) was a cartoon contest sponsored by the conservative Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, to denounce what it called 'Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech'. The International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust (2006) was a two-day conference that opened on December 11, 2006 in Tehranmarker, Iranmarker. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said the conference sought "neither to deny nor prove the Holocaust ... [but] to provide an appropriate scientific atmosphere for scholars to offer their opinions in freedom about a historical issue." The 67 attendees from 30 countries included Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta; David Duke, former Republican member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Austrian Jew Moshe Aryeh Friedman and Holocaust deniers Robert Faurisson and Fredrick Töben.

See also



Notes

  1. [1] (see esp para's 3 and 5
  2. [2] (see esp para. 2)
  3. [3] (see esp para. 20)
  4. Art & Culture
  5. [4] (see esp para. 5)
  6. [5] (see esp para. 23)
  7. Ghirshman (1954), p. 300
  8. Littman (1979), pp. 2–3
  9. Littman (1979), p. 3
  10. Lewis (1984), pp. 100–101
  11. Lewis (1984), pp. 33–34
  12. Lewis (1984), pp. 181–183
  13. Lewis (1984), p. 167
  14. Willis (2002), p. 230
  15. Littman (1979), p. 10
  16. Littman (1979), p. 4.
  17. Lewis (1984), p. 168.
  18. Littman (1979), pp. 12–14
  19. Lewis (1984), p. 183.
  20. Littman (1979), p. 5.
  21. Sanasarian (2000), p. 46
  22. Sanasarian (2000), p. 47
  23. Jews in Iran Describe a Life of Freedom Despite Anti-Israel Actions by Tehran
  24. Sanasarian (2000), p. 112
  25. Sciolino, Elaine, Persian Mirrors, Touchstone, (2000), p.223
  26. Sanasarian (2000), p. 48
  27. Sciolino, Elaine, Persian Mirrors, Touchstone, (2000), p.218
  28. Personal blog of the Iranian Jewish MP
  29. Iran's Ahmadinejad compares Israel to Hitler
  30. "Nefarious agendas are evident in consistently translating "eliminating the occupation regime" as "destruction of Israel". "Regime" refers to governance, not populations or cities. "Zionist regime" is the government of Israel and its system of laws, which have annexed Palestinian land and hold millions of Palestinians under military occupation. Many mainstream human rights activists believe that Israel's "regime" must indeed be transformed, although they disagree how... [but] [n]one of [their] ideas about regime change signifies the expulsion of Jews into the sea or the ravaging of their towns and cities. All signify profound political change, necessary to creating a just peace." — Putting words into Ahmadinejad's mouth, Virginia Tilley, Counterpunch August 28 2006, accessed September 11 2007.
  31. "Holocaust deniers spread fiction in Iran. A gathering of ignorance disgraces its host nation", Times-Herald Record, December 14, 2006.


References

  • Ghirshman, R. (1954). Iran from the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books
  • "Iran. 1997" (1997). Encyclopedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition Version 1.0). Ed. Cecil Roth. Keter Publishing House. ISBN 965-07-0665-8


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