Iranian Jewish Culure
Mullah Morad Aghalar

Mullah Morad Aghalar

Religious Figure, Scholar, Translator

The Jewish community of Mash-had, Iran, feel indebted to the invaluable selfless services of the Jewish philanthropist and activist cleric, Ha-Rav Mullah Mordecai Aghalar. Ha-Rav Mordecai Aghalar, nicknamed Mullah Morad, was born in 1850 C.E., 5610 of the Hebrew calendar, to a religious Jewish family of Mash-had, merely 11 years after the tragic Allah-Dadi pogrom of the Jews of that city.

Surviving documents indicate that Mullah Morad Aghalar’s ancestors [1] were among the Spanish immigrants who came to Iran in the middle of the 17th century and settled in the city of Kashan, until the reign of Nader-Shah Afshar, when they left Kashan for Mash-had.

His father A-Refael Aghalar [2] was a well-known businessman and a trusted citizen of Mash-had. Following the traditions of the time, he sent Mordecai to a traditional Islamic school called maktab to pursue his Persian studies, while as with the other Jews, he was homeschooled in their ancestral Jewish customs and traditions, Hebrew language, and the Holy Torah.

At the maktab, even as he mastered Persian and Arabic languages, the young Mullah Morad Aghalar also learned about such Islamic subjects as the primary and secondary commands of that religion, Islamic traditions and customs, and the entire Quran. Given his deep knowledge of the Islamic subjects and the Quranic commentaries, he managed to translate Quran to Persian. The feat made this erudite young man recognized as the leader of the religious minorities of Mash-had, respected more than ever before by the Islamic scholars and the Shiite chief clerics. He was invited on a regular basis to their meetings and was asked to offer speeches. Moreover, the respect that he’d earned himself was extended further to the other Jews of the city.

His eloquence, educated mind, unique sermons, and wise and sound policies, allowed Morad Aghalar to improve the relationship between the Jews of Mash-had and the majority population especially amid those sensitive and critical times. This helped provide more moderate conditions for his fellow Jews, even as he effected a turning point in preserving the Jewish faith and maintaining the cultural continuity of the Jewish community.

Mullah Morad Aghalar, parallel to his Islamic studies, studied seriously the Jewish Holy Books and other scripture including the halacha, i.e. the Jewish law and principles. Ever since a young man, he aimed to study the Babylonian Talmud, a quest that drove him to persist in learning the Aramaic language. To learn Aramaic, he used an edition of the Torah which offered the original Hebrew side by side its well-known Aramaic translation by Onkelos. Before long, he achieved his greatest dream to learn the entire Babylonian Talmud, even as he’d mastered Aramaic, besides Persian, Hebrew and Arabic. This opened a new chapter in his cultural endeavors, as he set out to translate a large number of religious texts, and even using the Onkelos translation, he prepared a revised Aramaic translation of the Torah.

His talents in writing, speech and religious research had no equals, all of which he carried out with particular craft. Soon enough, as a teacher of Talmud Torah, or the Jewish religious studies, he earned himself the rank of a religious referee within the Jewish community of Mash-had. This was the most sensitive period in the history of the Jews of Mash-had, who could no more endure the torments of the Diaspora. With relentless industry, Mullah Morad Aghalar took the helm of the Jewish community in his strong hands, guided the troubled ship past tempestuous seas to calm shores, and protected and revived Jewish beliefs and traditions.

In those days of the Diaspora, there was no way for the Jews of Mash-had to learn and write in Hebrew or study their religious subjects. Thus, Aghalar did his greatest service to the Jewish community and its culture and religion when he translated to Persian the weekly prayer book, as well as those of the Shabbats and High Holidays, under the title Olat Shabbat. He had these published in the Judeo-Persian alphabet, that is, in Persian using Hebrew letters, and he distributed them for free among the Jews of Mash-Had and other Iranian cities, such as Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, etc., even among those Mash-hadis who by then had moved and lived in Jerusalem. As such, he spread a bedrock that facilitated the reading and understanding of the Jewish prayers for the Persian-speaking communities.

Moreover, Mullah Morad Aghalar translated a large selection of Jewish scripture and other texts, including The Psalms, The Book of Esther, and The Song of Songs, besidesthe aforementioned Prayer Book for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He alsoprepared the poetry of two Persian Jewish poets, Shāhin Shirazi and Babayi Lotf, and he had them published out of his own pocket. Later on, many of these books would be published or republished in Jerusalem. Among these, his translations of the prayer book The Olat Shabbat Siddur and The Selichut Prayer Book were published in 1927, followed in 1929 by his translations of Pirkey Avot or“The Chapters of the Fathers” from Mishnah, and The Prayer Songs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the High Holidays, and in 1930, by his translation of Haggadah Shel Pessach, “The Story Book of Passover”. The clarity and eloquence of his literary writings and translations, and especially his attention to the rhyme, speak of his talents as a poet.

While most of Mullah Morad’s writings have so far been printed, a limited number of his unpublished surviving manuscripts have been preserved in the Tel Aviv Museum.

The significant social and cultural services of Mullah Morad Aghalar, for both the Anusim (coerced) Jews of Mash-had and the other Jewish communities, are simply praiseworthy. As an example of the wise leadership of this activist cleric, let’s consider that in 1871, when educational facilities were in short supply or unavailable to the Jews, he was the one to emphasize that families should form private Torah classes at their homes every Shabbat afternoon to teach the truth of Judaism to their children, lest their cultural heritage be forgotten.

Thus, he dedicated a room in his own house every Saturday afternoon as a synagogue and as a Talmud Torah classroom for little children. He obligated his fellow Jews to fulfill well all of the commands of the Torah, to practice their religion devoutly, so that the geoula, “the redemption”, would arrive the sooner. As a pro-active spiritual leader, Mullah Mordecai “Morad” Aghalar fought against ignorance, and as a religious leader, he achieved some remarkable success in preserving religious dignities and spreading the Jewish religion and tradition among his fellow Jews.

Mullah Morad Aghalar succeeded to organize and unite the Mash-hadi community, even as he paid particular attention to three principles that were crucial to this matter:

a) To ban marrying outside the religion;

b) To bury the Jews in their own cemetery;

c) To perform the Brith Milah, the Jewish circumcision, on the 8th day of the birth of a son.

His main profession was the trade of skin and leather, garments and silk. Out of his generous pocket, he paid to build a large synagogue in Mash-had, which he himself directed.

In 1927, at the age of 77, he traveled to Jerusalem via India, while he had entrusted his entire 

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