HĒRBED (or Hērbad, Ērvad), a Zoroastrian priestly title, at present used for a “priest in minor orders,” that is, a man of priestly family who has undergone the initiatory Nāwar ceremony and is qualified to officiate at lower rituals.

The Middle Persian form hērbed derives from Av. aēθrapaiti, which denoted a priest who taught his students (hāuuišta, aēθriia) to recite the sacred texts (Y. 65.9; Yt. 10.116). The evidence of the Avestan part of the Hērbedestān (chaps. 12, 13, 14, 15) shows that a hāuuišta was expected to study for three years, ideally with three teachers (four if one of the first three proved unsatisfactory). The memory of the ancient aēθrapaitis was clearly revered (Yt. 13.105; Vd. 4.45), and their role was essential for the transmission of religious knowledge in a non-literate society. The teacher is said to be as responsible for faults in his pupil’s recitation as the student himself (Hērbedestān 14.5). A boy’s nearest kinsman had a religious duty to act as his teacher if asked to do so, and committed a sin if he refused (Hērbedestān 15.2).

In the Pahlavi books the word hērbed could also be used for one who teaches religious subjects. The Sasanian inscriptions show, however, that the high priest Kirdēr initially bore the title of hērbed (kltyl ZY ʾyhlpt, “Kirdēr the hērbed”; Kirdēr’s inscription at Kaʿba-ye Zardošt, l. 8)when he already held an important position at court. This suggests that by early Sasanian times the word was no longer used exclusively to denote those who actually worked as priestly teachers, but had become a title for priests who were qualified to teach religious matters. This is confirmed by the Dēnkard (ed. Madan, I, p. 406, l. 6), which gives the early high priest Tansar the title of hērbed. There is some evidence to suggest that a “Grand hērbed” (hērbedān hērbed) existed in later Sasanian times (Chaumont). In Sasanian, as in early post-Sasanian times, (see below), hērbeds were probably no longer responsible for teaching their pupils to recite Avesta (which may have been done at home by family members), but taught more advanced branches of religious learning, such as the Middle Persian translation of the Avestan texts (Zand), and the essentials of exegesis.

While in Sasanian times society was evidently wealthy enough to support a considerable group of hērbeds for the sake of their scholarship and teaching activities alone, the impoverished Zoroastrian community of later times found it increasingly difficult to do so. We learn from the 9th century Dādestān ī dēnīg that there was active rivalry between hērbeds and hāwišts, that is scholar-priests and ritual priests. The former group evidently supplemented their income by accepting commissions from laymen to have rituals performed, and arranged and directed religious ceremonies without necessarily taking part in their performance; some, it is said, could not perform even a single nask as chief priests in their own right (Dādestān ī dēnīg 65). The hāwišts, on the other hand, were ritual priests; their prestige was lower, but their experience of performing rituals was such that they felt capable of “cutting out the middleman,” at times accepting commissions for two ceremonies for the price of one (Dāde-stān ī dēnīg 87.3; see Kreyenbroek, 1987b, pp. 191-92). Manuščihr, the traditionalist author of the Dādestān ī dēnīg, frowned on such practices and pointed out that the hērbeds’ status was higher; and, since they had knowledge of the Zand, they were better qualified to direct ceremonies.

While, in the 9th century, the difference between hērbeds and hāwišts was still clear to the high priest Manuščihr, ordinary Zoroastrians no longer understood this distinction and asked Manuščihr to explain it (Dādestān ī dēnīg 44). Elsewhere (Dādestān ī dēnīg 45), Manuščihr is asked if “a hērbed who cannot make a living from his activities as a hērbed may leave his profession and do other work . . .” The answer is that, if the faithful fail to provide for him, a hērbedmay engage in such priestly activities as celebrating and arranging rituals. In practice, in other words, the community’s increasing poverty led to a blurring of the distinctions between scholar and ritual priests, forcing all priests to accept what work they could find.

In the Rivāyat ī Ēmēd ī Ašawahištān, which was written in the mid-10th century, less than a century after the Dādestān ī dēnīg, the term hērbed seems to have lost all associations of scholarship, the main task of a hērbed being defined as “performing the ritual for God” (yazišn ī yazdān kardan; Rivāyat ī Ēmēd ī Ašawahištān 12.12). Generally speaking, the Rivāyat ī Ēmēd ī Ašawahištān divides the priesthood into two groups: priests who were in authority and those who were under authority; the latter group included the hērbeds.

For the centuries that followed, our main source of information is the Rivāyat literature, which is on the whole vague about the distinctions between dasturs and hērbeds: the same persons are all called dastur in one letter and hērbed in another (Dhabhar, pp. 603, 607; Kreyenbroek, 1987a, p. 164). In one Rivāyat it is said that a hērbed is a priest who knows the Avesta and has undergone the Nāwar ceremony, and it is implied that he is lower in rank than a mōbad or dastur (Dhabhar, p. 334). However, high ceremonies, which in modern Parsee practice can only be performed by more highly qualified priests, are repeatedly said to be carried out by hērbeds (Dhabhar, pp. 325, 397, 403).

It seems likely that the modern, more or less rigid distinction between hērbed/ērvad, mōbad, and dastur came into being when the Vendīdād ceremony was (re)introduced to the Parsee community at the insistence of the Iranian Zoroastrians, some time after the 16th century C.E. (Kreyenbroek, 1987a). A priest who was capable of performing this ceremony came to be known by the title of mōbad. As the number of fire temples of the highest status (Ātaš Bahrām) increased in India in the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the title of dastur came to be used predominantly for the directors of these temples. Thus the title of hērbed, which once denoted a learned priestly teacher, came to be used specifically for a priest of the lowest grade.



Bahramgore Tahmuras Anklesaria, Rivāyat-ī Hēmīt-ī Ašavahištān I, Pahlavi text, Bombay, 1962.

Idem, The Dātistān-ī Dīnīk, part 1, Pursišn I-XL, Bombay, n.d. Marie Louise Chaumont, “Recherches sur le Clergé zoroastrien: le hērbed,” RHR 158, 1960, pp. 55-80, 161-79.

Bamanji Nasarvanji Dhabhar, The Persian Rivâyat of Hormazyâr Framarz, Bombay, 1932.

Firoze M. Kotwal and James W. Boyd, eds., Ērbadistān ud Nīrangistān, Facsimile Edition of the Manuscript TD, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1980.

Firoze M. Kotwal and Philip G. Kreyenbroek, The Hērbedestān and Nērangestān I: Hērbedestān, St. Iranica, Cahier 10, Paris, 1992.

[Philip] G. Kreyenbroek, “The Zoroastrian Priesthood after the Fall of the Sasanian Empire,” in Philippe Gignoux, ed., Transition Periods in Iranian History, Actes du Symposium de Fribourg-en-Brisgau, Louvain, 1987a, pp. 151-66.

Idem,"The Dādestān ī Dēnīg on Priests,” Indo-Iranian Journal 30, 1987b, pp. 185-208.

D. M. Madan, ed., The Complete Text of the Pahlavi Dēnkard, 2 vols., Bombay, 1911.

Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees, Bombay, 1922.

(Philip G. Kreyenbroek)

Originally Published: December 15, 2003

Last Updated: March 22, 2012

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Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 226-227