(882 - 942)
Saadia Gaon lived in Babylonia
from 882-942 CE under Muslim
rule. Much of what we know about his work comes
from letters and materials found in the Cairo Geniza.
Saadia was apparently one of the only geonim successful
in proving that world Jewry viewed Babylonia's religious
leader as more authoritative than Israel's. There had
been tension between Babylonia and Palestine for generations with Babylonia obviously
gaining ascendency because of their Talmud scholarship.
Aaron ben Meir, the gaon of the Palestinian Jewish
community, tried reclaiming some of that authority in 921 CE by
introducing a new three-year Jewish calendar which changed the date
of both Passover and Rosh
HaShanah. This was a real challenge to Saadia's authority
Saadia wrote a civil letter asking
that ben Meir not go changing things which had worked so well for the
past 400 years and were not of Palestine's business anyway. Ben Meir,
feeling that his authority was being threatened, restated the change
in stronger language: all true Jews would celebrate Passover on
Sunday in 921 CE, not Tuesday. Saadia, always ready for a fight,
blasted him. Letters flew back and forth between Sura and the rest of
the Jewish world, each hotter and angrier. Tension mounted, literally
around the world as Passover approached.
On Sunday of the first year of ben
Meir's new calendar, many Jews in Palestine and some Jews outside of
Babylonia held their Passover festival. The Jews of Babylonia did
not. On Tuesday, the Jews of Babylonia held their Passover Seder, and
most of the Jewish world followed their lead including some Jews in
Palestine. That Rosh HaShanah, the vast majority of the Jewish world
accepted Babylonia's calendar.
Aaron ben Meir knew when he was
beaten, and he retracted his calendar. This marked the high point of
the Babylonian gaonate's world authority.
During Saadia's life, the Jewish
intelligentsia of Babylonia spoke Arabic and were fairly easily
accepted into the Arab culture. They found the Arab world very
attractive, and Saadia had the job of keeping upper-class Jews
Jewish. This was not an easy task.
Think about America today. We
dress, speak, and think American Western culture. We know some Jewish
tradition, but not much. Our primary concentration is on American
Wealthy Jews in Babylonia, North
Africa, and Spain in the tenth
century had a comparable situation. Like the Jews of Alexandria, they
were attracted to the rediscovered Greek philosophers and many were
considering rejecting their Jewish practices.
Saadia met this cultural crisis
head-on and won. The high points of Muslim culture were its beautiful
use of Arabic and its fondness for the Greek philosophers. Saadia
wrote a philosophic work, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, in
magnificent flowing Arabic. In it, he defended the rational
underpinnings of Judaism and showed logically that every rational Jew
could believe in the Torah as well as Aristotle and Plato.
By applying both the accepted
philosophical methodology and the language revered by the Muslim
culture, Saadia succeeded in refocusing many semi-assimilated Jews
back on Torah and Halachah.
However, it was a radical change in
Babylonian Jewish tradition. Previously, the gaon had limited his
work to Talmud and
halachic teachings. Saadia's book of philosophy caused quite a stir.
Saadia didn't stop there. He wrote
the first Hebrew grammar book which explained how the holy language
worked. He provided a Hebrew dictionary plus a compendium of rhyming
words for Hebrew poets. He was the first to write an Arabic
translation of the Bible. He
included commentaries, explanations, and grammatical notes as well.
His translation continues to be the authoritative Bible for Jews in
Saadia thus brought a new rich
understanding of Jewish tradition to the Babylonian academies and the
Jews living in the Muslim world. His philosophical work paved the way
for future Jewish thinkers, and his approach to Torah influenced a
century of Jews.
His most important accomplishment,
however, was his confrontation with the Karaities.
He issued articles, letters, and
responsa attacking the doctrine of the Karaites, and even declared
that they were not Jews. One of his primary targets was Aaron ben
Asher. The fury of his attack must have shocked the Karaites. They
responded with their own letters and attacks, but their Arabic wasn't
as good as Saadia's, and their defenses were less convincing. Saadia
successfully defended rabbinic authority against the Karaite
Saadia didn't win all of his
fights. The Exilarch during Saadia's youth was David ben Zakkai (no
relation to Yochanan ben Zakkai). David
ben Zakkai was involved in some (apparently shifty) land deals which
came to court. He, as head of the community, was expected to judge
the case. He asked for the signatures of the gaon and his colleague
to make his decision appear legitimate and free from prejudice.
Saadia suspected that something was not right, and, on legal grounds,
he refused to sign. David ben Zakkai was furious. He wrote angry
letters, threatening to have Saadia's position taken away from him.
He went so far as to assign another scholar to Saadia's post.
Saadia proceeded to name a new
exilarch, an incredibly chutzpadik thing to do. News of the
controversy came to the ears of the caliph. Not liking to see splits
in his community, he took matters into his own hands. He informed
Saadia that the exilarch had right of way. Saadia quietly obeyed and
was dismissed from his post.
He was still considered the
authority in the Jewish world on Talmud and Halachah,
and continued to answer legal questions.
to Jewish Heritage