Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon and Jewish Tradition

            October/November 2012    
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Saadia Gaon

By Avi Lazerson

The Hebrew word 'Gaon' is today given to people of remarkable intelligence. But once it was reserved for a special group of people who headed the great Torah institutions in Babylon.

The period of time when the title 'gaon' was used to give distinction to great teachers stretches for several hundred years. During the time of the Mishna, the teachers of that period were called Tanahs (singular: Tanah). This period was from approximately 20 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) to approximately 210 C.E. (Common Era). After the close of the Mishnaic period came the Talmudic period (Hebrew: gemora). The teachers in the talmud were known as Amoras (singular: amora). The Amoriac period was from about 200 CE to 500 CE. After the close of the period of the gemora, there followed a period of approximately a hundred years in which those who taught and explained the talmud were called Rabban Savoriyim or Savoriyim (alternately: Saboraim). The Savariyam edited and spread the talmud's influence. After this came the period of time called the Gaonic period which extended from 600 CE to 1050 CE.

Who Were the Goanim?

The heads of the acadamies of the large Babylonian Talmudic schools located in the cities of Sura and Pumbadista (alternately: Pumbedita), which were the main learning institutions in Babylonia, were crowned with the title of Gaon. Some of the great men of distinction from this period were Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Amram Gaon, Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Sa'adia Gaon. It was the Gaonim who taught and extracted the laws from the talmud and made all Jewish legal rulings based on the talmud. It was these great men who cemented the Talmudic tradition into the fiber of Judaism.

The goanim existed independently from the head community leader who was known as the 'resh galuta' which is Hebrew meaning the head of the exile and sometimes referred to as the Exilarch. The resh galuta was an office that was given to a descendant from the royal house of David. The resh galuta was responsible for civil matters and commanded respect both from the Jews and the Babylonia government.

Rabbi Saadia Goan and the Karaites

Rabbi Saadia ben Joseph (882-942) lived near the end of the Gaonic period. He was born in a small village in Egypt. He father was his teacher and already at an early age (20 years) was recognized for his great abilities in learning. He composed a book while still young called the Agron, a dictionary of Hebrew and Grammar that proved indispensable to later Hebrew poets and grammaticians. But it was not this that brought him fame, rather it was his battle with the Karaites. To understand this we must review a bit of history:

The Karaites

The Karaites, whose name is derived from the Hebrew word kora, meaning to read, were a Jewish movement that only recognized the authority of the written Hebrew Torah. They did not accept the authority of the Oral law which is the oral traditions together with the legal decisions of the Sanhedrin as brought down in the Talmud. The Karaites based their actions, customs and observance of Judaism purely on their interpretation and understanding of the written Hebrew Torah.

The Karaites were a group of Jews which came into being many years before Saadia. The Karaites believed only in the written Torah and the prophet and the holy writings. They were a very large and influential group especially in Egypt. The problem was that they denied the authority of the Talmud. The Karites were similar to the earlier sect of Saducees who lived in the period before the destruction of the Second Temple. The principle here was the credibility of the Oral tradition (talmud) as opposed to constant reinterpretation of the Torah; would there be a stability to interpretation of the Torah or would interpretation change from generation to generation based upon the whims of the readers.

One of the more important leaders of the Karaites at that time was Anan ben David. He was related to the family of the Resh Galuta. When the Resh Galuta died, Anan was next in line to inherit the high position. The Gaonim and the Jews in Babylon refused to recognize him since he had his own ideas of Torah interpretation which clashed with the traditional interpretation as taught in the Talmud and spread by the Goanim through their academies. Therefore they elected a younger heir, Rabbi Shlomo ben Hasdai, to be the new resh galuta. Anan ben David did not take this rejection lightly and he embarked on a bitter fight against the Goanim and the talmudic influence on the Jews.

Rav Sa'adia was a young twenty three years old when he began to write against the Karaites. Rav Saadia through his logic in his very influential writings showed the error of the Karaite approach. Many Jews at that time were influenced by his writings to either stay far from the Karaites and even many Karaites abandoned the Karaite approach and returnws to the Talmudic approach to Jewish life. After seeing this young man's written ideas influencing so many to turn away from the Karaite approach to Judaism, and unable to counter his ideas with logic, they tried a violent approach. Vandals from the Karaite sect vandalized Rav Saadia's home and destroyed his books and property. He felt his life was in danger, so he left Egypt and went to the land of Israel. Here he continued to fight against the Karaites.

In Israel, Rav Saadia began to translate and interpret the Torah into Arabic, which was the spoken language of most Jews in the Arab lands at that time. He continued his work to strengthen the Talmudic interpretations and lend support to their influences to shape the Jewish religion and tradition.

Dispute with Aaron ben Meir

During Rav Sa'adia's stay in Israel another dispute arose. This time it was not a dispute regarding a sect but rather a dispute regarding the calendar and authority of the gaonim.

Rabbi Aaron ben Meir was a Rosh Yeshivah and one of the leading Talmud scholars in Israel at that time. He was a descendant of a family which headed the Jewish people in the Holy Land for many generations. At that time the leadership of world wide Jewry was in the hands of the Goanim in Bayblonia. Rabbi Aaron ben Meir decided to claim back the mantle of leadership which he felt belonged to him and his family.

At this time, the great Yeshivah at Sura had dwindled down, and the mantle of learning were about to be transferred to Pumbadita, which had become the center of Jewish life and learning. A dispute raged there between the Resh Galuta David ben Zakkai and the leading Talmud scholars regarding the appointment of the Rosh Yeshivah in Pumbaditha.

Rabbi Aaron ben Meir decided at this time to declare himself the leading authority using the issue of fixing of the Jewish calendar to promote himself. Up to this time, the Hebrew calendar was determined by the Babylonian Sages and accepted by all Jews everywhere. Ben Meir made his own calculations and wished to have it accepted by the Jews There was a clear danger of some Jews following one calendar and others following another calendar which would result in some Jews observing the festival on certain dates, and others a day later. Having two calendars brought a very real danger of splitting Jews in half and thereby causing more internal strife.

It was Rav Saadia Goan who pointed out the error of Rabbi Aaron ben Meir calculation to him and caused him to retract his calender. This affair caused the great rabbis of Babylonia to unite and brought out the genius of Rabbi Saadia to every one.


Based on this, the rabbis of Babylonia decided to invite Rav Sa'adia to become the head of the failing yeshiva in Sura. Rav Sa'adia accepted and traveled to Babylonia. There he embarked on the tedious project of resurrecting the great academy of Sura to its former glory.

However this did not last long for a dispute arose between Rav Saadia and the resh geluta. The circumstance were that the resh geluta had made a monetary ruling in which he was a party. He wanted Rav Saadia's signature, but since it was not according to the Torah to accept a judge in a case where he has a vested interest, Rav Saadia refused. This angered the resh geluta who appointed another person to be the head of the yeshiva in Sura ending Rav Saadia's term.

Beliefs and Opinions, Emunot v'Deot

Rav Saadia then resettled in Baghdad and devoted more time to his writings. During this time Rav Saadia wrote his famous philosophical work Emunot v'Deot (Beliefs and Opinions). It was written in Arabic in order that it reach all Jews since Arabic was the most common language of the Jews at that time. He wanted to help those Jews who lived in the Arabic culture and had many questions concerning their own faith.

The book discusses the fundamental principles of our faith, and emphasizes the close relationship between the Jewish people and G-d that are manifested through the Torah and its commandments. The book also speaks of the importance of the Written Torah and of the oral tradition as means for shaping our relationship with G-d. Emunot v'Deot of Rav Saadia had a tremendous influence on Jewish thought and was important in refuting the false beliefs and influences of Muslim and Christian theologians.

Rav Saadia Gaon died at the age of sixty years. The great Rambam who lived 200 years later is known to have said that if it were not for Rav Saadia's influence, the Torah may have disappeared from the Jews. He prevented Judaism from having split and fallen into the Karaite camp and the Christian/Muslim groups. Our own Jewish traditions owe this man much.

In summation, it can be said that he was responsible for keeping Judaism based on its traditional interpretations and not falling whim to each person who wished to re-interpret the Torah.


from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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