An Israelite in Nineveh

The Book of Tuvia documents some features of Jewish life in their first-ever exile.

Tuvia 311 (photo credit: Salvatore Castiglione)
Tuvia 311
(photo credit: Salvatore Castiglione)
No sooner had Israel won her independence in 1948 than the surrounding Arab States forced their Jewish citizens to leave the countries where they had lived for generations, abandoning all their properties. Over 120,000 Jews left Iraq, a country they had first settled 2,500 years earlier, upon their exile from the Kingdom of Israel. The ancient, extrabiblical Book of Tobit (Tuvia) recalls how Jews were forced to abandon their many prosperous Galilean farming communities and settle at Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital.
The Book of Tuvia, one of the most precious apocryphal gems of early Hebrew literature, documents some features of Jewish life in their first-ever exile. At least a major part of the book was written by a traditional Jew, possibly in Aramaic, after the Assyrian king Shalmaneser the Fifth, had “carried Israel out of its own land” to Nineveh (2 Kings).
The book is also a personal confession of a man of experience and great faith who risked his life in order to bury his less-fortunate brothers with dignity when their corpses were exposed to the vultures in Nineveh’s city market.
Denounced by his fearful neighbors, Tuvia had to escape and became a pauper and a fugitive once more.
A number of scholars assume that the book was written under the influence of the Egyptian story of “The Grateful Dead” and the Aramean tale of “Ahikar,” which were current at the time. In the Egyptian story, the ghost of the buried man saves the life of his benefactor. But Tuvia’s story is much more meaningful – the saga of a once-prosperous Galilean farmer, heavily tested by destiny, who preserves his faith whatever the circumstances.
The story may not be very accurate as far as historical research is concerned, but it remains true in its details of Jewish existence in exile. Scholars believe that this book, popular at the time of the Second Temple and in some later midrashim, was written some time in the third century BCE. But there can be little doubt that it was based on earlier versions and memories. The book is part of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canon, according to the Council of Cartage in 397 CE and Council of Trent in 1546. It is also listed as a book of Apocrypha in Article VI of the 39 Articles of the Church of England. The Aramaic and Hebrew fragments of Tuvia, generally in agreement with the extant Greek translation, were discovered in Cave IV at Qumran in 1952.
TUVIA, THE son of Tobiel, lived inThishbe, close to Kadesh Naphtali in Upper Galilee in the ancient Kingdom of Israel. After the death of his father, who like the entire tribe of Naphtali “fell away” from the House of David, he had defied his own tribe by refusing to sacrifice to the golden calf set up by Jerobeam king of Israel. He chose instead to go to Jerusalem for Succot, Passover and Shavuot, bringing with him the first fruits, the tenth of his cattle, the first shearing of his sheep, and a tenth of his corn, wine and pomegranates for the Temple’s altar. Carried away to Nineveh by Assyrians, he became a court agent who used to travel to Media on business but continued to live “in the ways of truth and in the acts of righteousness” Burying the abandoned, poor Jewish dead was one of his voluntary preoccupations.
The ancients believed that a corpse, like that of Jezebel’s left for the dogs to lick, carried the victim’s punishment into the nether world, exposing the victim to eternal suffering. Thus in ancient Greece, Antigone, the daughter of Achilles, buried her brother and performed funeral rites against the order of Creon, and was punished by being buried alive. To Tobit, the burial of an abandoned Jew was the ultimate holy obligation, and a step toward Redemption. Throughout the centuries, every Jewish community honored its dead by carefully preparing bodies for burial and perforing the tahara, or ritual washing. This selfless act of respect is one of the greatest mitzvot in the Torah.
It was Tuvia’s misfortune that the new Assyrian king, Senancherib, who succeeded Shalmanasar, failed to capture Jerusalem and had to retreat from Judea.
He took his revenge by persecuting and murdering the Jews of Nineveh, and forbidding their burial. Tuvia buried them all, but had to escape the king’s wrath, again leaving all his wealth behind. He returned to Nineveh only after Ezerhaddon succeeded Senancherib, but had lost everything and became entirely dependent on his wife, Hana, who worked “in the tasks of women.” His eyes had dimmed, and he pleaded to the Almighty to grant him a speedy death.
He had, however, recalled that in the old good days he had left 10 silver talents with another Jew, Gabael, who lived in far-away Ectabana. He therefore asked his son Tobias to recover this treasure.
The prayer for the speedy death of the blind and frequently hungry Tuvia had reached the Almighty together with a similar plea by Gabael’s daughter, Sara, who on her wedding night lost seven of her best men and also didn’t wish to live any more. Both prayers reached the Almighty and the angel Raphael was sent to help Tuvia.
Raphael helped Tobias reach Ectabana, retrieve his father’s money, marry Sara, and fight the demon Asmodeus on his wedding night. Eventually the young pair returned home to Nineveh, bringing with them the fat of the fish which cured Tobit’s blindness. Hana found Sara to be a worthy wife for her son and everybody lived happily ever after, their great faith having overcome all difficulties.
THE BOOK of Tobit is a delightful tale, full of Eastern charm and ideas, written by someone who belonged to the tribe of Naphtali, one of the 10 Israeli tribes deported by Assyrians. Tobit’s experiences show us how Jews, exiled from their native land, adjusted to their changed circumstances. Stress is laid upon the Fatherhood of the transcendent God who hears mortals’ prayers and sends angels like Raphael, Azaria and Ananiah to help them.
There is belief in a judgment beyond the grave, a Gehenna, and “the eternal home.” Tuvia teaches his son how to be a good Jew and avoid the snares of everyday existence. The book is thus an inseparable part of ancient Jewish “Wisdom Literature” – a guide for all Jews in a world where slavery and cruelty ruled supreme.
While the book passed through the hands of numerous editors and copyists, it retains its original flavor. This is the world which our prophet Nahum condemned and Yona went to save: “A bloody city full of lies and robbery… and the voice of a whip… a cruel world of suffering, witchcraft and whoredom.”
But it is in this ugly exile that Jews preserved their values and trust in heaven’s mercy.
After the Assyria and Babylonian empires fell and ancient Persia ruled liberally, many exiles like Tuvia returned to Jerusalem, but just as many had stayed on and lived normal, prosperous lives until cruelly expelled and deprived of all their properties in 1948. It is their twoand- a-half millennia history that deserves our consideration.
A famous painting: “Tuvia burying the dead in Babylon,” by Salvatore Castiglione (who painted for the Duke of Mantua) was only one of the many renaissance paintings illustrating the “Book of Tuvia.”
(I would like to comment that as far as Tuvia’s miraculous recovery of his eyesight is concerned, I recall from my own Gulag experience that prisoners, suffering from hunger and avitaminosis, were frequently affected by the so-called “chicken disease” – the partial loss of eyesight, especially in the evening. But a single application of fish fat was usually sufficient to effect a complete cure. This might have been how Tuvia recovered his eyesight).