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Gaon

GAON (pl. Geonim), formal title of the heads of the academies of Sura and Pumbedita in Babylonia. The geonim were recognized by the Jews as the highest authority of instruction from the end of the sixth century or somewhat later to the middle of the 11th. In the 10th and 11th centuries this title was also used by the heads of academies in Ereẓ Israel. In the 12th and 13th centuries – after the geonic period in the exact sense of the term – the title gaon was also used by the heads of academies in Baghdad, Damascus, and Egypt. It eventually became an honorific title for any rabbi or anyone who had a great knowledge of Torah. Apparently, the term gaon was shortened from rosh yeshivat ge'on Ya'akov (cf. "the pride of Jacob," Ps. 47:4). Other explanations of the origin of the term offered by modern scholars are not acceptable.

The Geonim of Sura and Pumbedita

The exact time when the title of gaon came into use cannot be established. *Sherira and later rabbis automatically designated as gaon the heads of the two academies from the year 900 according to the Seleucid calendar (589 C.E.), when the academies renewed their normal activity. But Sherira also mentions a tradition that Ravai, of Pumbedita (c. 540–560), was already gaon. However, some hold that this title and the special privileges of the academies were not granted until after the Arab conquest of Babylonia (657 C.E.), Sura receiving them first and later Pumbedita. Together with the title gaon they also used the titles resh metivta or rosh yeshivah ("head of the academy") as was customary in the talmudic period, and the title rosh yeshivah shel ha-golah ("head of the academy of the exile"), which is not found in the Talmud. According to a tradition that originated in the Sura academy (Neubauer, Chronicles, 2 (1895), 78), only the heads at Sura were called gaon and not their counterparts in Pumbedita. This was accepted by some historians but is contradicted by R. Sherira's account and other sources. The existence of separate traditions, one in Sura that enumerates "the qualities in which Sura is superior to Pumbedita" (ibid.), and that of Pumbedita which emphasizes that "the rabbis of Pumbedita are the leaders of the Diaspora from the time of the Second Temple" (Iggeret Rav Sherira Ga'on, ed. B.M. Lewin (1921), 82), emphasizes the competition between the two. Hints of tension and even open quarrels are found in other sources. Nevertheless, Sura and Pumbedita dominated the intellectual landscape of the period to the extent that little or nothing is known about other scholars or academies.

In the talmudic period the heads of the academies were chosen by the scholars of the academies (BB 12b) while in the geonic period they were appointed by the exilarchs. Geonim usually (although not always) rose through the hierarchy of positions in the academies until they attained this highest office. Persons of average ability therefore also attained the gaonate, and in the entire period of 400 years only a few geonim were outstanding men who made a lasting impact on Judaism. These included *Yehudai, *Amram, *Saadiah, Sherira, *Samuel b. Hophni, and *Hai. At times the exilarchs misused their authority and appointed geonim whom they expected to be subservient to them and who were not outstanding scholars. For example, it is related that an exilarch rejected *Aḥa of Shabḥa, author of the She'iltot, and appointed his disciple Natronai Kahana to the gaonate in Pumbedita (Ibn Daud, Sefer ha-Kabbalah, 47–49). Thus, the academy in Sura was generally disturbed by the interference of the exilarchs. Sherira (Iggeret Sherira Ga'on, 105) argues that because of the interference of the exilarchs he could not exactly record the names of the geonim of Sura until the year 1000 of the Seleucid calendar (689 C.E.). After the authority of the exilarchs had weakened under *David b. Judah (ibid. 93) in the times of the caliph al-Ma'mun, from 825, the influence of the group of scholars on the appointment of the gaon increased, especially in Pumbedita. Traditionally, the gaon had multiple roles. First and foremost, the gaon was the head of the academy, teaching privately and publicly, especially during the kallah months (see below). In addition, he served as judge and the head of the equivalent of a supreme court. He also was empowered to administer the courts and appoint judges. The leading geonim also wrote numerous responsa, i.e., correspondence answering halakhic questions from near and from far. As an arbiter of Halakhah, the gaon was also responsible for legal innovation when the situation warranted it. Numerous geonim were authors of commentaries, legal codes, and works of theology (see *Geonic Literature). Finally, some of the geonim were involved in politics beyond the Jewish community. They represented the community to the local and state Muslim governments.

There were cases when the exilarch and the group of scholars could not agree on the appointment of the gaon and each side appointed its own candidate. If the two sides did not reach a compromise as a result of the pressure of public opinion, the quarrel might last until the death of one of the candidates. Generally, assistants to the heads of academies were appointed gaon and were called dayyanei de-bava or av (abbreviation of av bet din). Distinguished geonim, such as Sherira, Samuel b. Hophni, and Hai had first served as av bet din; a deviation from this practice was considered derogatory. Because only those who already possessed such honorific titles as *aluf and *resh kallah and who had formerly served as scribes or assistants to heads of yeshivot, were appointed to the gaonate, the choice often fell on old men who could fill the position for only a few years.

In this period the academies in Babylonia served as the cultural center for world Jewry, and not only Babylonian-Persian Jewry as was the case in talmudic times. Hence, the influence of the geonim was now all-important. The geonim viewed themselves as the heirs to the Babylonian talmudic tradition. They continued the work of the Babylonian *amoraim as passed on by the *savoraim. This in turn was the source of their supreme authority in matters of halakhah. During the geonic period the Babylonian Talmud existed as both oral law and as written texts. Indeed, the geonim always quoted the oral tradition before citing the written texts. Since their knowledge of the Talmud was the result of an unbroken tradition, the text had a certain fluidity. The gaon would often quote from differing oral versions of the Talmud, even without determining the "correct" version. The geonim had a three-fold responsibility regarding the Talmud: (a) They were part of the chain of tradition, transmitting the Talmud to the next generation. (b) They endeavored to provide the correct interpretation of the Talmud. (c) They actively facilitated the practice of Judaism according to the Talmud. Until the second half of the 10th century, very few of their interpretations were written down. They were simply taught in the academies. Since the geonim spoke an Aramaic dialect very similar to that of the Babylonian amoraim, they had an added advantage of correctly understanding the Talmud. They clearly were intimately aware of the spirit of talmudic discourse and enjoyed a sensitivity to its literary nature. This profoundly influenced their interpretations in general and greatly affected the practical application of the Talmud text. The geonim became skilled at utilizing the advanced communication and travel technologies developed by the Muslim Empire to get their message to far-flung Jewish communities in North Africa and in Spain.

The geonim made the academies a supreme court and source of instruction for all Jewry. Thousands of persons, occupied with their personal affairs for most of the year, would assemble in the academies in the *kallah months of Elul and Adar to hear lectures on halakhah. During those months, three types of study took place: (a) A specific tractate of Talmud was studied in depth; (b) individual students were tested to see if they were worthy of the stipend; and (c) the assembly would discuss questions in halakhah, many of which were sent from throughout the Diaspora. The floor was open to all scholars. However the gaon made the final decision. The academies were actually filled with students only during the kallah months. Throughout the rest of the year, only a small group of serious students remained. These students received stipends from the academies.

While the Talmud and Talmud study were the center of the geonic universe, the geonim engaged in other areas of Jewish study. One such area is biblical exegesis. The innovator was Saadiah Gaon. Other geonim followed Saadiah's lead in writing biblical commentary; the most important of them was Samuel ben Hophni. Saadiah was the first gaon to write monographs on specific topics, a number of which he devoted to biblical translation and commentary. Saadiah translated the entire Pentateuch, as well as the books of Isaiah, Proverbs, Psalms, Job, and Daniel. He wrote commentaries on all of these books, with the exception of the latter half of the Pentateuch. Samuel ben Hophni translated and wrote commentaries on three of the five books of the Pentateuch. Each monograph begins with a lengthy and elaborate introduction in which the gaon describes the biblical text and explains the methodology of his commentary. On the whole, the commentaries emphasize the linguistic components of the text, the conflict between the literal and metaphoric meaning of the text, and theological and polemical concerns. The geonim commented on the non-legal portions of the Bible, leaving the legal sections to be dealt with in their halakhic works. At the same time, their commentaries are more disciplined and far less imaginative than earlier rabbinic exegesis. Samuel ben Hophni's commentaries do include homilies but they are not based on a specific text. Rather, they derive from the overall thrust of the whole portion of the text.

There were two major courts in Sura and two in Pumbedita. In each academy there was the gaon's court and that of the av bet din. In addition, the gaonate had jurisdiction over the organization of the courts in all the districts of Babylonia. However, the judges were appointed by the exilarch with the assent of the geonim. Only under Hai Gaon did the supreme court (bet din ha-gadol) of Pumbedita appoint the judges (Neubauer, Chronicles, 2 (1887), 85; Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim, ed. Harkavy, no. 180). The geonim were not satisfied with halakhic conclusions derived from the Talmud; they also made new regulations regarding contemporary needs. Their takkanot ("ordinances") had legal validity because the geonim considered themselves presidents of the Sanhedrin of their generation. The halakhic decisions of the geonim were not made without influence from the general, non-Jewish legal environment. It has been demonstrated that a number of geoniccustoms had their origins in Islamic practice. For example, the question arose as to how a widow who lost her *ketubbah would receive payment. Ẓemah Gaon suggested that the determination should be made by consulting the ketubbot of her relatives. Both Sherirah and Hai disagreed with this ruling because it had no basis in the Talmud. However, a similar practice existed in Islamic law. Interestingly, the custom was accepted by later authorities, including Solomon *Duran, Solomon *Aderet and *Asher ben Jeḥiel.

All these tasks required a large establishment; therefore, the academies employed scribes, directors of the kallah assemblies, and other officials. Their expenditure was covered by taxes levied on districts, which were directly subject to their authority. In addition, the communities which addressed their questions to the geonim sent them contributions. In isolated instances the geonim would turn to the communities in the Diaspora with a request for financial support and usually their request was answered. Real estate also served as a source of income for the academies. The requests for support of the academies increased, especially, toward the end of the geonic period. Thus, the candidates for the office of head of the academies had to be not only learned, but they also had to possess administrative talents. Descent was also a factor; six or seven families provided most of the geonim of Sura and Pumbedita. Three of these were priestly, while Sherira traced his ancestry to King David (Iggeret Sherira Ga'on, 92). His family produced several geonim, many assistant heads of academies, and other important officials in Pumbedita. In Sura positions were held for 200 years by three families. The geonim Jacob, Ivomai, Moses, and *Kohen Ẓedek (b. Ivomai) belonged to one priestly family; another such family produced the geonim *Hilai (788), *Natronai b. Hilai (853), Jacob, and Joseph (942), while a third priestly family produced the geonim Kohen Ẓedek of Pumbedita, his son *Nehemiah, Samuel b. Ḥophni grandson of Kohen Zedek, his son *Israel, and his grandson Azariah of Sura. The geonim Zadok, Kimoi, *Nahshon, *Zemah b. Ḥayyim, and Hai b. Nahshon were members of one family. However, the position of gaon was not hereditary. Although Hai attained the gaonate immediately after his father Sherira, Nahshon did not become gaon until 53 years after the death of his father Zadok, seven members of other families serving as geonim in the interim. The difference in time between the death of Hilai and the appointment of his son Natronai was similar. *Dosa did not attain the gaonate until 71 years after the death of his father Saadiah and when he was more than 80 years old.

On the appointment of a new gaon a festive ceremony was held, in which participated the scholars of the two academies and the dignitaries of all the communities in Babylonia, headed by the exilarch. According to *Nathan ben Isaac ha-Bavli (Neubauer, Chronicles 2 (1895), 86), the ceremony resembled the installation of the exilarch and the people honored the geonim royally. Following the method of talmudic references to heads of academies, Sherira throughout used the word "malakh" ("reigned") to designate the term of service of the gaon.

The geonim were considered the intellectual leaders of the entire Diaspora and their decisions and responsa had absolute legal validity in most Jewish communities. It cannot be assumed that they attained their influence without a struggle and conflict with other centers, especially Ereẓ Israel. Ben Baboi (see *Pirkoi Ben Baboi) the pupil of Yehudai Gaon, attested to the intervention of the geonim in the affairs of Ereẓ Israel, "and he wrote to Ereẓ Israel regarding… all the mitzvot which are not observed properly according to the halakhah but according to practice in times of persecution and they did not accept his intervention and they replied to him: 'a custom suspends a halakhah'" (Ginzberg, Ginzei Schechter, 2 (1929), 559). Baboi attacked practices of Ereẓ Israel (Tarbiz, 2 (1931), 396–7). He claimed that only the Babylonian customs and practices were valid. To follow the customs of Ereẓ Israel was a sin. Seventy years later, Amram polemized against those who followed the customs of the westerners who deviated from the right path. The aim of the Babylonian geonim was to impose the Babylonian Talmud and the doctrines of their academies also in Ereẓ Israel and in this way to lessen the attachment of the Diaspora to Ereẓ Israel.

The gaonate had a specific political, communal function at the side of the exilarch. The recognition of the gaonate as a political representation of the Jewish community is attested by the fact that on the death of the exilarch his income was given to the gaon of Sura until the appointment of a new exilarch. The geonim also attempted to influence the policy of the government toward the Jews via Baghdad Jewry, who had representatives in the court of the caliphs. However, the particular achievement of the geonim was their success in giving legal validity to the laws of the Talmud and spreading the knowledge of the Talmud among the thousands of people who came to Babylonia from all parts of the world. Their writings in the fields of commentary and halakhah made an impact on the entire period which is named after them. Their great importance to Jewry is attested by the paragraph in the *Kaddish where the geonim are mentioned together with the exilarch (Gedenkbuch… D. Kaufmann (1900), Hebrew section, 52ff.; Ginzei Kedem, 2 (1923), 46; 3 (1925), 54). They and other high officials in the academies are also mentioned with the exilarch in the prayer Yekum Purkan. R. *Ẓemaḥ b. Ḥayyim, the gaon of Sura, expressed this feeling of authority in his responsa to the community in Kairouan: "And when Eldad said that they pray for the scholars of Babylonia and then for those in the Diaspora, they are right. For the major scholars and prophets were exiled to Babylonia, and they established the Torah and founded the academy on the Euphrates under Jehoiachin, king of Judah until this day, and they were the dynasty of wisdom and prophecy and the source of Torah for the entire people…" (Eldad ha-Dani, ed. by Abraham Epstein (1891), 8).

Even though the leading geonim were those of the later generations, the gaonate already had declined as the cultural, religious center of Judaism far before it had ceased to exist. This was as a result of a combination of internal and external causes. A sign of its public decline was that from the late ninth century most geonim no longer lived in the cities of the two academies. They lived in Baghdad, the center of the authorities and the residence of the exilarch. On the one hand, the decline of the academies in the eyes of the Diaspora was caused by the competition between Sura and Pumbedita and the quarrels in the academies regarding the appointment of the gaon. On the other hand, the essence of the fulfillment of the mission of the geonim– the spread of the Talmud – lessened its importance. With the emergence of new centers for talmudic studies and the appearance of great scholars throughout the Diaspora, its dependence on the two academies and on the geonim ceased and its attachment to them weakened. Independent-minded scholars stopped sending questions to the academies and their geonim, and even important geonim such as Sherira and Hai expressed their anger at the weakening of the links with North Africa and with Spain (Mann, Texts, 1 (1931), 109, 120–1). *Ḥanokh b. Moses of Cordoba did not even answer the letters of *Sherira. The scholars of Spain found encouragement from the authorities in their tendency to break their dependence on the geonim of Babylonia. The Umayyad caliphs in Cordoba did not approve the Jewish attachment to the academies in Babylonia which were under the Abbasids (cf. Abraham ibn Daud's statement, "The king was delighted by the fact that the Jews in his domain no longer had need of the people of Babylon," Ibn Daud, Sefer ha-Kabbalah, 66).

The decline of the Baghdad caliphate, the impoverishment of Babylonian Jewry which caused the academies to depend completely on contributions from abroad, the greatness and the independent intellectual development of the Diaspora, and the persecutions by the Abbasid and Seljuk rulers put an end to the institution of the gaonate in about 1040.

List of the Geonim of Sura and Pumbedita

Because of the dearth of sources the exact chronology of the geonim cannot be established. The letter of R. Sherira serves asthe basis for the list but it contains contradictions and many variant versions. (See Table: Chronological List of Geonim in Sura and Pumbedita.) The list of Abraham *Ibn Daud in the Sefer ha-Kabbalah does not clarify these contradictions. Nonetheless, the letter of Sherira remains the major source for the chronology of the Babylonian geonim. But there is much material on the history of their period, both in Babylonia and in other countries, in the collections of the responsa of the geonim (see bibliography).

Chronological List of the Geonim in Sura and Pumbedita (dates according to year of appointment) Chronological List of the Geonim in Sura and Pumbedita (dates according to year of appointment)

Sura Pumbedita
589 Hanan of Iskiya
Mar bar Huna 591 (?) Mari b. Dimi (formerly of Firuz-Shapur and Nehardea)
Ḥanina 614 Ḥanina of Bei-Gihara (Firuz-Shapur)
Ḥana (or Huna)
Huna 650
Sheshna (called also
Mesharsheya b. Taḥlifa)
651 Rabbah
Bosai
Ḥanina of Nehar-Pekod 689 Huna Mari b. Joseph
Ḥiyya of Meshan
Ravya (or Mar Yanka)
Hilai ha-Levi of Naresh 694
Jacob ha-Kohen of Nehar- 712
Pekod
719 Natronai b. Nehemiah
Judah
Samuel 730
739 Joseph
Mari Kohen of Nehar- 748 Samuel b. Mar
Pekod
752 (?) Natroi Kahana b. Mar
Amunah
Abraham Kahana
Aḥa 756
Yehudai b. Naḥman 757

Gaon

Aḥunai Kahana b. Papa 761 Dodai b. Naḥman (brother of Yehudai the gaon of Sura)
764 Hananiah b. Mesharsheya
Ḥaninai Kahana b. Huna 769
771 Malkha b. Aḥa
773 Rabbah (Abba) b. Dodai
Mari ha-Levi b. 774
Mesharsheya
Bebai, (Bivoi, Bivi) ha-Levi 777
b. Abba of Nehar-Pekod
781 Shinoi
782 Ḥaninai Kahana b. Abraham
785 Huna ha-Levi b. Isaac
Hilai b. Mari 788 Manasseh b. Mar Joseph
796 Isaiah ha-Levi b. Mar Abba
Jacob ha-Kohen b. 797
Mordecai
798 Joseph b. Shila
804 Kahana b. Ḥaninai
810 Ivomai (in both academies)
Ivomai, uncle of his predecessor 811
814 Joseph b. Abba
Zadok b. Jesse (or Ashi) 816 Abraham b. Sherira
Hilai b. Ḥanina 818
Kimoi b. Ashi 822
Moses (Mesharsheya) 825
Kahana b. Jacob
828 Joseph b. Hiyya
833 Isaac b. Hananiah
836¹
Kohen Ẓedek b. Ivomai 838
839 Joseph b. Ravi
842 Paltoi b. Abbaye
Sar Shalom b. Boaz 848
Natronai b. Hilai 853
857 Aḥa Kahana b. Rav
Amram b. Sheshna² 858 Menahem b. Joseph b. Ḥiyya
860 Mattathias b. Mar Ravi
869 Abba (Rabbah) b. Ammi
Nahshon b. Zadok 871
872 Ẓemaḥ b. Paltoi
Ẓemah b. Ḥayyim 879
Malkha 885
Hai b. Nahshon 885
890³ Hai b. David
Hilai b. Natronai 896
898 Kimoi b. Ahai
Shalom b. Mishael 904
906 Judah b. Samuel (grandfather of Sherira)
Jacob b. Natronai 911
917–926 Mevasser Kahana b. Kimoi
Yom Tov Kahana b. Jacob 924
926–936 Kohen Ẓedek b. Joseph (appointed during the lifetime of his predecessor)

Gaon

1. Until 838 position not filled in Sura.
2. Ruled with above 853–858.
3. The first of the geonim who lived in Baghdad (R. Isaac ibn Ghayyat, Sha'arei Simhah, pt. 1 no. 64).
4. The academy was closed for about 45 years. However, several teachers and pupils apparently remained.
Saadiah b. Joseph 928
936 Zemah b. Kafnai
938 Hananiah b. Judah
Joseph b. Jacob 942–944
943 Aaron b. Joseph haKohen Sargado
960 Nehemiah b. Kohen Ẓedek
968 Sherira b. Hananiah
Ẓemaḥ b. Isaac 988
(descendant of Paltoi)
(?) Samuel b. Hophni ha-Kohen 997
998 Hai b. Sherira
Dosa b. Saadiah 1013
Israel b. Samuel b. Hophni 1017
Azariah ha-Kohen (son of Israel?) 1034
(?) Isaac 1037
1038–(1058) Hezekiah b. David (exilarch and head of the academy)

[Simha Assaf and

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

GENERAL:

Assaf, Ge'onim; Abramson, Merka zim; Mann, Egypt; Mann, Texts. BABYLONIA: L. Ginzberg, Geonica, 2 vols. (1909, repr. 1968); idem, Ginzei Schechter, 2 (1929); J. Mueller, Mafte'aḥ li-Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1891); B.M. Lewin, Meḥkarim Shonim bi-Tekufat ha-Ge'onim (1926); V. Aptowitzer, Meḥkarim be-Sifrut ha-Ge'onim (1941); M. Ḥavaẓẓelet, Ha-Rambam veha-Ge'onim (1967); H. Tykocinski, Die gaonaeischen Verordnungen (1929); S.D. Goitein, Sidrei Ḥinnukh (1962); Iggeret Rav Sherira Ga'on, ed. by B.M. Lewin (1921); S. Abramson, in: Sinai, 54 (1963/64), 20–32; 56 (1964/65), 303–17; Epstein, in: Festschrift… A. Harkavy (1908), 164–74 (Heb. sect.); Y.L. Fishman (Maimon), in: Sefer ha-Yovel… B.M. Lewin (1940), 132–59; Krauss, in: HḤY, 7 (1923), 229–77; J. Mann, in: JQR, 7 (1916/17), 457–90; 8 (1917/18), 339–66; 9 (1918/19), 139–79; 10 (1919/20), 121–51, 309–65; 11 (1920/21), 409–71; idem, in: Hebrew Union College Jubilee