614: The Persian Conquest Of Jerusalem – OpEd


Meir Loewenberg points out the story of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 C.E. is almost unknown. Encyclopedia Judaica devotes only three lines to this event, and many Jewish history books ignore it altogether.

In the Byzantine Roman Empire, Jews and other non-Christians were objects of much discrimination and oppression. In the fifth and sixth centuries, Jewish life in the Land of Israel became unbearable. Victims of heavy taxes, property confiscation, and occasional forced conversions; only their Messianic hopes kept them going.

Then King Khosrau II (591-628) became King of Persia. King Khosrau desired to re-establish the ancient Achaemenid Empire by aggressively conquering neighboring countries. In 602 he launched an offensive toward Constantinople with the aim of annexing as much Byzantine territory as possible; invading and plundered Syria and Asia Minor and by 608 advanced close to Istanbul where they were stopped. Soon afterwards his armies besieged and captured Damascus.

Jews everywhere were eager to aid the Persian army. When they heard news that Jewish soldiers joined the Persian forces, they expected a miracle would soon occur. Jews in Antioch and Yemen rioted against their oppressors. The Persian army turned to Jerusalem, capital of the Byzantine province of Palaestina Prima. It was widely believed both at the time and in later centuries, that prior to the invasion of Palestine, King Khosrau had made an agreement with the Exilarch, official head of Babylonian Jewry, that Jews would provide 20,000 soldiers for the Persian army to participate in the capture of Jerusalem – which they did in 614. 

King Khosrau appointed Nehemiah ben Hushiel, the son of the Exilarch, as symbolic leader of Persian troops. Since Nehemiah was known to be a mystic, Khosrau was certain that he would not interfere in military or political affairs. Benjamin of Tiberias, a wealthy Jew, enlisted and armed additional Jewish soldiers for the Persian army. 

Jews from Tiberias, Nazareth, and Galilee, joined the Persian divisions south of Tiberius in the Jordan valley, for the march to Jerusalem. The united forces took Jerusalem by storm after a 21 day siege (July, 614 CE). This event is referred to in the Qur’an: The [Roman] Byzantines have been defeated in the nearest land. But they, after their defeat, will overcome within three to nine years. To Allah belongs the command before and after. [Qur’an 30:2-4 Sahih International]

Part of the deal between the Persian King and Jewish Exilarch was a Jewish governor appointed to rule over Persian Jerusalem. Nehemiah ben Hushiel, as governor of Jerusalem. had Messianic pretensions. Soon after his appointment he started to reestablished the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount. He began to make arrangements for the rebuilding of the Temple and tried to clarify the genealogies of the priests in order to appoint a new High Priest. Rabbi Elazer Kalir, one of the earliest and most prolific of Jewish liturgical poets, who lived in Israel during the Persian invasion, described these events in one of his poems (not found in our printed liturgy) as follows:

When Assyria [Persia] came to the city and pitched his tents there / the holy people [Jews] were a bit relieved / because he permitted the reestablishment of the Temple / and they built there the holy altar / and offered upon it holy sacrifices / but they did not manage to build the Temple / because the Messiah had not yet come.

The immediate results of the conquest of Jerusalem by a Persian-Jewish force filled the Jews with joy and pride. Many Christians in the Land of Israel, whose ancestors had been baptized through fear now returned to Judaism and the Jewish People. But Jewish freedom from Christian oppression would only last about fourteen years (614-628). 

The hope was that King Khosrau would become God’s anointed Messiah, and permit Jews to reestablish a Jewish commonwealth, just as King Cyrus the Great, who Prophet Isaiah (44:28) called God’s Messiah [“This is what the LORD says to his anointed (Messiah) to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him..] had done for their ancestors twelve and a half centuries earlier; but alas that did not occur. 

Three years after Nehemiah was appointed, the Persians removed the Jewish governor of Jerusalem for reasons unknown. Perhaps they feared his messianic pretensions – or they thought support of a larger Christian population was more valuable than a smaller number of Jews. After executing the Jewish governor with his sixteen top supporters, and ending the Jewish rule of the city (617), the Persians forbade Jews from settling within a three-mile radius of Jerusalem.

Persian control did not last long. Byzantine emperor Heraclitus (575-641) waged a bitter war against the Persians to regain his lost provinces of Syria, Egypt and Palestine. In 622, the same year as Prophet Muhammad’s hijra Emperor Heraclitus successfully destroyed a major Persian army and a large Persian fire-temple in Ganzak. 

Then Jerusalem was recaptured. Heraclitus had promised an amnesty to Jerusalem’s Jews, but the Christian clergy convinced him that his promise was invalid; and the Byzantines accused the Jews of Jerusalem of cooperating with the Persian conquerors and massacred them. 

I want to point out that just a few years later many Jews supported Prophet Muhammad when he arrived in Medina. One of them was Rabbi Mukhayriq, a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, who fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE.. 

But why were the majority of the Jews in the three major Jewish tribes living in Medina, who did support Prophet Muhammad, hesitant to fight for him?

It was because they were afraid that after his death, the majority of Prophet Muhammad’s ex-polytheist followers would return to polytheism, and turn Prophet Muhammad into a son of God, just as the majority of the ex-polytheist, non-Jewish followers of Prophet Jesus had done. Those ex-pagan trinitarians then persecuted Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Son of God for centuries to come. No Jews wanted to see that happen again. 

Rabbi Mukhayriq must not have believed that this would happen again, because he hoped that Prophet Muhammad was not only a Prophet, but also God’s Anointed (Messiah); and that he and his followers would enable the Jewish people to return to the land of Israel, just as the Persian King Cyrus the Great (who is called God’s Anointed by Prophet Isaiah 45:1) had done eleven centuries earlier. 

Perhaps this unorthodox rabbi saw the arrival of Prophet Muhammad in Medina, as God’s answer to his Messianic hopes, and saw fighting alongside Prophet Muhammad as his personal voluntary fight in support of monotheism, as well as a witness to his faith in the imminent arrival of one of God’s Anointed Messiahs (not the final Son of David Messiah, but Elijah, Cyrus, or the Son of Joseph Messiah) who will precede the Son of David Messiah.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

One thought on “614: The Persian Conquest Of Jerusalem – OpEd

  • February 26, 2024 at 4:04 am

    This is incredibly anti-Christian and inaccurate. The fact is that exponentially more Jews have been killed by atheists, Communists, Nazis, abortion doctors, Persians and Muslims than by Christians.


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