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Geonic Literature

This entry includes the basic books of geonic literature, which were compiled during the geonic period – from the year 600 to 1040, approximately. Geonic literature includes several types of works:

  1. Commentaries on the Bible
  2. Commentaries on the Mishnah and Talmud
  3. Books of Halakhah
  4. Jewish Thought and Ethics
  5. Prayers (prayer-books) and Liturgical Poetry
  6. Responsa
  7. Documents and Letters
  8. Language and Grammar

Commentaries on the Bible


*Saadiah Gaon. Torah with Arabic translation (Constantinople, 1546); Tafsir al-Torah bi-al-Arabiya (Paris, 1893); Keter Torah, known as Taj (Jerusalem, 1894–1901); Commentary on the Torah, Kafah edition (1963); Torah Commentary on Genesis (Zucker edition 1984).

Samuel ben Hophni Gaon. Commentary on the book of Genesis, A. Greenbaum (ed.), 1978. Selections of his commentary on other parts of the Torah have also been published.


From Saadiah's translation of biblical books, Tafsir, there remain those of the Pentateuch, Isaiah, Proverbs, Job, the Five Scrolls, and Psalms, all with commentary. They were published from 1546 to 1970, with new sections of his commentaries on Isaiah, Lamentations, and the Book of Esther appearing more recently.

Saadiah's introduction to his Pitron Shivim Millim was printed in N. Allony's Studies in Medieval Philosophy and Literature I: Saadiah Works (1986). Various geonic commentaries on the Bible are scattered throughout the geonic responsa and referred to in geonic essays; they were collected in various anthologies.

Commentaries on the Mishnah and Talmud


(1) The only geonic commentary on the Mishnah extant in its entirety is on the order Tohorot (J.N. Epstein edition by E.Z. Melammed, 1982); it is attributed to *Hai Gaon and may be an adaptation of Saadiah's commentary. (2) Geonic commentaries on the Mishnah collected from various sources appear in OẒar ha-Geonim ("The Treasure of the Geonim," 13 vols., 1928–62) by Benjamin M. *Lewin. (3) Saadiah's Millot ha-Mishnah ("Words of the Mishnah") appeared in various journals.


(1) Talmud commentaries of the early geonim were incorporated into the Talmud. For a long time the geonic commentaries were found among those of the French and Spanish commentators. Some of these were thought irretrievably lost, with fragments being rediscovered only during the past 100 years. They were published in various articles, anthologies, and in Lewin's Oẓar ha-Geonim. (2) Talmud commentaries by *Paltoi Gaon, *Sherira Gaon, and *Hai Gaon, mentioned in various sources, have not reached us in their entirety. (3) The Talmudic dictionary of the gaon *Samuel ben Ḥophni was published by S. Abramson in A. Even Shoshan (1985), 13–65.


These works include material dealing with methodology as well as with history. (1) Seder Tannaim ve-Amoraim, compiled c. 884–886, was first published in Leghorn in 1796; an edition by Kalman Kahana appeared in 1935. The author's name is unknown. It contains a summary of the chain of tradition of the oral Law up to the *savoraim, including regulations for passing halakhic judgments. (2) Saadiah Gaon's Introduction to the Talmud, which has been lost. (3) Samuel ben Hophni's "Introduction to the Talmud" – selected chapters of this work with the Arabic source and Hebrew translation, accompanied by an introduction and notes, were published by S. Abramson (1990). This volume is the second part of the work Samuel b. Hophni called Mevo li-yedi'at ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud. Extant from the first part are most of the book's index and several sections from the text (see S. Abramson, in: Sinai 88 (1980), 193). (4) Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon was published by B.M. Lewin (1921) in both known versions, the so-called "nosaḥ Sefarad" and "nosaḥ Ẓarefat," i.e., a "version from Spain" and a "version from France" (in which there is a difference of opinion as to whether the Mishnah was already written down in the time of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi or merely remembered orally), on the basis of manuscripts and Genizah fragments.

Books of Halakhah

(1) SHE'ILTOT (Venice, 1566), by *Aḥa of Shabḥa (680–752), gaon of Pumbedita. Robert Brody's The Textual History of the She'iltot (1991) is a study aimed at reconstructing as closely as possible the original text of Sefer ha-She'iltot. This work prepares the way for a new edition of the She'iltot which will contain additional textual vestiges, particularly from the Cairo Genizah. (2) The book Ve-Hizhir, an imitation of She'iltot. (3) Legal decisions by Yehudai *Gaon (head of Sura academy, 757–761), to whom the book Halakhot Pesukot is attributed. He is the first gaon whose responsa have been preserved. (4) Halakhot de-Rab Abba, a student of Yehudai Gaon, excerpts of which were published by J.N. Epstein in Madda'ei he-Yehadut (1927). (5) *Halakhot Gedolot. In addition to the 1548 and 1885 editions, a new edition according to a manuscript in the Ambrosiana Library, Milan, was edited by A. Hildesheimer (grandson of the 1885-edition editor): (a) Seder Mo'ed (1972); (b) Seder Nashim (first three tractates, 1980), part 3, edited by E. Hildesheimer, introduction, 11–26, and Hakdamat Halakhot Gedolot, edited by N.Z. Hildesheimer (1987), 9–52. (See also Halakhot Gedolot-Halakhot Pesukot). (6) *Halakhot Pesukot or Hilkhot Re'u, attributed to the disciples of Yehudai Gaon, published in 1886 and in the Sasson Edition (1951). (7) *Halakhot Keẓuvot, published by M. Margaliot in 1942. (8) Books of Halakhah by Saadiah Gaon. Saadiah wrote monographs on various halakhic subjects, but only a small part has reached us in its entirety. A study on Saadiah's Sefer ha-Edut ve-ha-Shetarot by M. Ben-Sasson appeared in the Annual of Jewish Law (1984–86), 135–278. A new edition of Sefer ha-Miẓvot, with commentary by Y.Y.F. Perla, pts. 1–3 appeared 1989. (9) Sherira Gaon who is famous for his Iggeret mentioned above. Approximately half of the geonic responsa in our possession were written by Sherira and his son Hai Gaon. Parts of Sherira's commentaries on certain Talmudic tractates have also been preserved. (10) Hai Gaon did not compile any book of halakhah on all the Talmudic laws, but devoted a separate composition to each subject, as did Saadiah and Samuel ben Hophni. Five additional chapters of Sefer ha-Mekkaḥ ve-ha-Mimkar ("Treatise on Commercial Transactions") were published by S. Abramson in the Joseph Dov Soloveitchik Festschrift, vol. 2 (1984), 1312–1379. There is also mention of a Book of Oaths in verse. Chapters of monetary laws of commerce and chapters of oaths in verse have appeared in part in various collections. (11) *Samuel ben Hophni. Of his many works, only a few have reached us. In recent years excerpts have been published of his books from the Genizah. He wrote monographs on halakhah which are still being published. Mention should be made of the following: Chapters on Blessings (in Oẓar ha-Geonim, tractate Berakhot, commentaries, pp. 65–77), the Book of Gifts, divorce laws, obligations of religious judges and the Book of Pledge, etc.

Other halakhic essays from the period of the Geonim include (a) Sefer Metivot: a book of laws arranged according to the order of tractates of the Talmud. B.M. Levin collected all the citations from the book which were mentioned in earlier books and arranged them in the Talmudic order in this book Metivot (1934). (b) Sefer Ḥefeẓ: There are many speculations concerning the authorship and place of origin of this book. Many of the early authorities discussing halakhic matters use Sefer Ḥefeẓ as their source. Levin is of the opinion that Metivot served as an example for Sefer Ḥefeẓ. (c) The Book of Mitzvot of Ḥefetz ben Yatzliaḥ (B. Halper edition 1915): This book includes all the laws of the Torah, and it is "a treasury of halakhah, philology and philosophy as they were in the time of the author."


In recent years, there were discovered in the Genizah, Hilkhot Tereifot shel Ereẓ Israel – in the style of Halakhot Pesukot. An important find was remnants of Sefer ha-Ma'asim li-Venei Ereẓ Yisrael, and parts of this book were published by Levin, Epstein, Mann, and Aptowitzer, between the years 1930–1974. It is assumed that Sefer ha-Ma'asim served as a source for the compiler of Halakhot Gedolot, and possibly also for Sefer ha-She'iltot. There is a theory that Sefer ha-Ma'asim is another title for Sefer ha-She'iltot. During the Geonic period, important literary activities were undertaken in Ereẓ Israel, such as the translation of works from Aramaic to Hebrew: Rav Yehudai's Halakhot Pesukot was translated into Hebrew under the title Hilkhot Re'u, taken from the opening words of the book "Re'u ki Adonai natan lakhem et yom ha-Shabbat…."


The Geonim set down various legal decisions and customs. At the beginning of the Geonic period, an essay was written by a sage in Erez Israel, under the title: "Controversies between Easterners and those who dwell in Ereẓ Israel" (pub. M. Margaliot, 1938). It includes a list of 55 customs upon which Jews in Babylonia disagreed with Jews in Ereẓ Israel, and this book formed the foundations for all subsequent books of customs. "The Book of Change of Customs" (Müller, 1878) and the "Treasury of Differences of Custom between Babylonian and Palestinian Jewries" (ed. Levin, 1942) are also available.


Geonim sought to issue decrees based on Talmudic conclusions, and to establish regulations to cover all aspects of Jewish life. In the course of time, it became necessary to supplement Talmudic regulations and to introduce new laws according to the requirements of the period. These laws encompass various areas, and in particular deal with laws of personal status, money matters, oaths, and evidence. The sources for these ordinances are the geonic literature and they are collected in H. Tykocinski's The Gaonic Ordinances, translation and notes by H. Ḥavazelet (1959). I. Schipansky's The Takkanot of Israel, v. 3, Geonic Enactments (1992) contains takkanot by sages from Israel and geonim of Babylonian yeshivot from the close of the Talmud to the period of the rishonim presented in three sections: introduction to geonic takkanot by famous geonim of Sura and Pumbedita, and other takkanot from the same period.

Jewish Thought and Ethics

In this sphere mention must be made of Saadiah Gaon's Emunot ve-De'ot, translated from Arabic by Judah Ibn Tibbon (Constantinople, 1562) under the title Sefer ha-Nivḥar ve-Emunot ve-De'ot (J. Kappaḥ edition, 1970). Other works are Rhymes on Moral Instruction attributed to R. Hai Gaon (ed. H. Gollancz, 1922); Saadiah's "Epistle on Ethics to the Jewish Communities of Spain" (in Saadiah's Bible Commentary, Pt. 2, 1960), and Ethics of the Dayyanim by Hai Gaon. Other works by Saadiah Gaon: Esa Meshali, a rhymed polemic devoted against the teaching of Anan b. David, in: Devir, 1 (1923), 180ff; and a polemic against *Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, published by I. Davidson, in the introduction to his edition of this work (1915), 11–37.

Prayers and Liturgical Poetry

Of note are two prayerbooks; the Siddur of *Amram Gaon, of which a scientific edition by D. Goldschmidt appeared in 1972, and the Siddur of Saadiah Gaon, published 1941.

Geonic Responsa

Scores of collections of geonic responsa exist, comprising thousands of answers sent by the geonim to queries received from correspondents throughout the geonic period. A large number of responsa were discovered in the Genizah and several excerpts have been published. The first collection of geonic responsa appeared in 1516 in Constantinople. G. Harpnas's Teshuvot ha-Geonim she-Heishivu Ge'onei Sura u-Pumbedita ("Responsa of Geonim of Sura and Pumbedita," 1992) has the responsa arranged topically and provides cross references.

Documents and Letters

Many documents and letters of the Geonim have reached us. These were written in answer to specific questions which were addressed to them, or which the Geonim wished to make known among Jewish communities outside Ereẓ Israel – especially as regards specific subjects related to religious fundamentals to taking a stand on current matters. In this connection the Iggeret ("Epistle") of *Pirkoi ben Baboi (turn of the ninth century) should be mentioned as it is one of the earliest literary writings from the geonic period and is also the first known instance in the literature advocating the dissemination of the Babylonian Talmud. In this connection, see also the Iggeret of Sherira Gaon mentioned above.

Among the many sources of geonic letters are J. Mann, Texts and Studies I (1931); L. Ginzberg, Genizah Studies II (1929), which contains a collection of all the letters of the Babylonian geonim; S. Abramson, Be-Merkazim u-va-Tefuẓot (1965).

Throughout the Geonic period, the Geonim occupied themselves with prayerbooks, establishing the versions of prayers, and dealing with the obligation and value of prayer. *Natronai bar Hilai (mid-ninth century) compiled a prayer book, Me'ah Berakhot ("Prayer Book of the Hundred Benedictions"), and *Israel ben Samuel bar Hophni (gaon of Sura from about 1017 to 1033) deals with the "obligation to pray." Many liturgical hymns have reached us from the time of the Geonim. Saadiah's Siddur contains bakkashot (petitions) and azharot; "Otiyyot Rav Saadiah" contains rhymes on the letters of the alphabet with annotations by Elijah (Baḥur) *Levita at the end of his book Masoret ha-Masoret (1538).

Many liturgical hymns of the geonim were discovered in the Genizah and have appeared in various publications and anthologies.

Language and Grammar

The geonim also engaged in the study of Hebrew language and grammar. Saadiah wrote Ha-Egron (edition N. Allony, 1969), containing a Hebrew dictionary, with Hebrew grammar rules, and also a summary of the basis of Hebrew poetry. Additional information on geonic Hebrew is in Ẓaḥut ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit in: Allony Studies, (1986), 20–31.


Ginzberg, Geonica II. The Halakhic Literature of the Geonim (1909), 72–200; I.H. Weiss, Dor Dor ve-Doreshav, 4 (1911), 1–41, 99–184; I. Halevy, Dorot ha-Rishonim, (1923), 147–305; M. Waxman, History of Jewish Literature, (1936), 182–86, 253–55, 310–312; H. Graetz. History of the Jews, 3 (1939), 86–126, 177–179; on Saadiah, 187–250; on Sherira. 231–33; on Hai, 233–253; V. Aptowitzer, Meḥkarim be-Sifrut ha-Geonim (1941); M. Margolis and A. Marx, History of the Jewish People (1945), 264–76; H. Tchernowitz (Rav Ẓa'ir), Toledot ha-Posekim, 1 (1946), 18–130; S. Assaf, Tekufat ha-Geonim ve-Sifrutah (1955); S.W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vols. 5–7 (1957/58); see Baron, Index, Geonim and also under individual geonim; B. Dinur, Yisrael ba-Golah, 1, Bk. 2 (1961), chp. 9, 78–151; chp. 13 (Saadiah), 380–469; Sefer ha-Mekorot shel ha-Milon ha-Histori le-Lashon ha-Ivrit, 1 (1963), Sifrut ha-Geonim, 76–90; Z. Jawitz, Toledot Yisrael, 9 (1963), 82–115; 1–174; M. Elon, Jewish Law, 2 (1973), 528–46; 3, 949–64; S. Abramson, Inyanut be-Sifrut ha-Geonim (1974); M. Kasher and J. Mandelbaum (eds.) Sarei ha-Elef (2 pts.; 1978); A. Kimmelman, "A Guide to commentaries in the Geonic Period," in: Annual of the Institute for Research in Jewish Law, 11–12 (1984–86), 463–587; S.Z. Havlin, Toratan shel Geonim, 7 vols. (1993). COMMENTARIES ON THE PENTATEUCH (Torah): Saadiah: I. Ta-Shema, in: KS, 44 (1969), 442, Y. Ratzaby, in: Sinai, 91 (1982), 196–222; idem in Sinai, 94 (1984), 4–27; idem in Sinai, 95 (1984), 1–26; idem in Sinai, 96 (1985), 1–17; idem, in: Sinai, 107 (1991), 97–126; A. Kimmelman, in: Guide, 475–507. Samuel b. Hophni: A. Greenbaum, in the Yechiel Jacob Weinberg Memorial Book (1970), 257–83; idem in: Areshet, 5 (1972). 7–33; idem, in: Ha-Darom, 3 (1980), 139–41; idem, in: Introduction to the Commentary on Genesis (1978), 11–115; idem, in: Sinai Jubilee Volume, 100 (1987), 273–90; M. Sokolof, in: Alei Sefer, 8 (1980), 137–39; N. Allony, in: Beth Mikra, 25 (1980), 85–90; G. Vajda, in: REJ, 139 (1980), 143–47; N. Allony, in: Immanuel, 12 (1981), 96–101. COMMENTARIES ON PROPHETS AND HAGIOGRAPHA: Saadiah: H. Avenari, in: HUCA, 39 (1968), 145–62; I. Tobi, in: KS, 50 (1975), 654–62; B.Z. Kedar, in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages (1979), 107–2; L.E. Gordon, in: Studies in Jewish Philosophy, 3 (1982); N. Allony, in: Studies in Medieval Philology, I. Saadia Works (1986), 9–23; Y. Ratzaby, in: Sinai, 89 (1981), 193–216; idem, in: Sinai, 90 (1982) 193–231; idem, in: Sinai, 93 (1983), 1–116, idem, in: Sinai, 105 (1990), 193–211; idem, in Bar-Ilan, 20–21 (1983), 349–81; idem, in: J.B. Soloveitchik Jubilee Volume, II (1984), 1153–78, Saadiah: Hapax Legomena: S. Buber, in: Oẓar ha-Sifrut, I (1887), 33–52; B. Klar, in: Saadiah COMMENTARIES ON THE MISHNAH: I.N. Epstein, Introduction to commentary on Seder Tohorot (1982), 10–146; S. Assaf, Tekufat ha-Geonim ve-Sifruta (1955), 137–46; 294–322. Millot ha-Mishnah – Saadiah: N. Allony, in: Leshonenu, 18 (1953), 176–78, 22 (1958), 147–72; S. Abramson, Leshonenu, 19 (1954), 49–50; Y. Ratzaby, Leshonenu, 20 (1956), 41–44; 23 (1959) 125–26, Milon ha-Mishnah – Saadiah: N. Allony, in: Studies (1986), 137–50; A. Kimmelmann, "Guide to Commentaries in the Geonic Period," in: Annual Jewish Law, 11–12 (1984–86), 509–87. COMMENTARIES ON THE TALMUD: Commentary of Saadia to tractate Berakhot, ed. Wertheimer (1908); I.L. Sachs, in: Sinai 13 (1943), 49–54; S.D. Goitein, in: KS, 31 (1956), 368–70; B.M. Lewin, Marei Makomavur OẒar ha-Geonim le-Massekhet Bava Batra u-Ḥullin, in: Jewish Law Annual, A. Kimelmann (ed.), 543–56; 565–77. INTRODUCTORY BOOKS TO TALMUD: (1) Seder Tanaim ve-Amoraim: S. Assaf, Tekufat ha-Geonim, 147–48; Waxmann, 1:315–16; Sarei ha-Elef, M. Kasher, J. Mandelbaum (eds.), 1 (1978), 163; 2 (79), 582; S. Abramson, in: E.Z. Melammed Jubilee; BOOKS OF HALAKHAH: (1) Sheiltot: Aḥa of Shabḥa, Sarei ha-Elef, 96–97; II, 573; A. Kaminka, in: A. Schwarz Jubilee; RULES, REGULATIONS, AND CUSTOMS: Controversies… M. Margalioth. in: Mavo to the book, Assaf, 179; S.H. Kook, Iyyunim ve-Mehkarim, I (1959), 286. TAKKANOT: I.H. Weiss, Dor Dor we-Dorshav, 4:177–84; Assaf, 62–64; I. Shzipanski, in: Ha-Darom, 24 (1967), 135–97; 26 (1968), 203–10; M. Elon, Jewish Law, 2 (1973), 531–46; Y. Brody, in: Annual of Jewish Law, 11–12 (1984–86), 279–315; A. Shochetman, in: Annual, 655–86. PRAYERS AND LITURGICAL POETRY: (1) Siddur of Amram Gaon: D. Goldschmidt, Introduction to his edition of this siddur, G. Orman, in: KS, 47 (1972), 376–81; Assaf, 180–184; H.J. Zimmels, in: Sinai, 18 (1946), 362–73; Sarei ha-Elef, 2 (1979), 394–95. (2) Prayer Book of Saadiah Gaon: Introduction to the ed. of Siddur (1941), S. Bernstein, in: Bizaron (1942), 845–57; Review of D. Goldschmidt, B. Klar, in: KS, 18 (1942), 336–48; L. Ginzberg, in: JQR, 33 (1942/3), 315–63; H.J. Zimmels-H. Yalon, in: Saadia; LITURGICAL POETRY: Otiyyot R. Saadiah: Sarei ha-Elef, 2:420, 659; Baron, Index, 53, 119; 7:63ff, 78, 103, 111f, 132f, 274f. H. Brody, Yedi'ot ha-Makhon le-Heker ha-Shirah ha-Ivrit, 3 (1937), 5ff.; idem, in: Sinai, 2 (1938), 516ff; Y. Rafael, in: Sinai, 12 (1938), 592–676; Habermann, in: Tarbiz, 13 (1942), 52–59; M. Zulai, Ha-Eskolah ha-Paytanit shel R. Saadiah Gaon (Rasag) (1964); idem, in: Tarbiz, 23 (1952), 112–19; I. Tobi, in: Tarbiz, 53 (1984), 221–53. RESPONSA: Geonic Period; Assaf, 211–20; Baron, 5:52; 6:29, 115, 339, 385, 8:229; Z. Groner, in: Sinai, 79 (1976), 42–229; idem, in: Alei Sefer, 8 (1980), 5–22; idem, in: Alei Sefer, 13 (1986), contains a list of Hai Gaon's Responsa: M. A Friedmann, in: Mehkarim be-Sifrut ha-Talmud (1983), 71f; J. Lipschitz, in: Moria, 7 (1978), 4–5; A. Eisenbach, Tzefunot, 1–3 (1989), 4–7; M.A. Friedman, in: Sinai, 109 (1992), 125–44. DOCUMENTS AND LETTERS: See Pirkoi B. Baboi, Bibliography; Rav Ẓair, 1:109–12; Baron 5:32; 6:29, 109–116, 339, 381–85. LANGUAGE AND GRAMMAR: Saadiah's Grammatical Work: S. Abramson, in: Tarbiz, 19 (1948), 104; S.L. Skoss, in: JQR, 23 (1932/33), 329–36; 33 (1942/3), 171–212; 42 (1952), 283–317; idem, in: Proceedings, 21 (1952), 75–100; 22 (1953), 65–90; 23 (1954), 59–73; idem, Saadia Gaon, the Earliest Hebrew Grammarian (1955); Review in N. Allony, Studies, 381–84; N. Allony, Introduction to ha-Egron (1969); D. Tene, in: KS, 47 (1972), 545–53; A. Goldenberg, in: Leshonenu, 37 (1973), 117–36, 275–90; 38 (1974), 78–90; Y. Eldor, in: Leshonenu, 45 (1981), 105–32: N. Allony, Studies (1986), 205–31; 233–281; 325–34; Baron, 7:15, 26, 32, 39; S. Abramson, "Sefer ha-Me'assef le-Rav Hai Gaon," in: Leshonenu, 41 (1977), 108–16. RESEARCH ON GEONIC LITERATURE: Ḥayyim Loven, in: The Young Israel Rabbinical Council in Israel Annual, 2 (1988), 87–123; Y. Blumberg in: Hebrew Law Annual, 14–15 (1988/89), 61–87; D. Groner, Pe'amim, 38 (1989), 49–57; Y. Horowitz, Meḥkarei Ḥag, 1 (1988), 49–56; idem, 3 (1992), 6–14. RESEARCH ON SAADIAH GAON AND HAI GAON: Saadiah Gaon, A. Schlossberg, in: Shema'tin (1988), 18–23; idem, in: Meḥkarei Ḥag, 4 (1992), 74–82; H. Ben Shammai, Sefer ha-Yovel li-Shelomo Pines, 1 (1988), 127–46; Y. Horowitz, in: Meḥkarei Ḥag, 2 (1990), 54–62; idem, Meḥkarei Ḥag, 4 (1992), 83–87; A. Lasker and D. Lasker, in: Tarbiz, 61 (1991), 119–28; Y. Ratzaby, in: Sinai, 109 (1992), 97–117; E. Fleischer, in: Sefer Zikkaron Pagis (1988), 661–681; Z. Rothstein, in: Esh Tamid (1989), 21–30; Y. Gertner, in: Sinai, 107 (1991), 202–12.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.