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Modern Jewish History: Great Rabbis of the Muslim Empire

by Dr. Ezra Chwat

In 657, when Ali ibn Abu Talib — the fourth Caliph to rule after the death of Mohammed — extended the Muslim conquest into Iraq, he was greeted wholeheartedly by the Jews there, then the most important of the world's Jewish communities. Ali saw the Jews of Iraq as a natural ally and granted them autonomy. This was the dawn of a new era of Jewish cultural creativity, one that lasted almost 600 years and was central in the development of Judaism.

The Academies of Babylon

Jewish life in Iraq (Babylon) focused on the yeshivot (religious academies). At the beginning of the new era, the academies were in the final process of editing the Babylonian Talmud — a colossal work of discourses on almost every discipline, accumulated over the previous four centuries. From this point on, the Rabbis would relate to the Talmud as a closed text (even though, for the most part, it did not appear as a written book for some centuries). The headmasters of these yeshivot were called Geonim, and their eminence was such that the first half of the classic Muslim era is referred to as the Geonic period (mid-7th century to mid-11th century) in Jewish history, a period which spans the entire Abbasid dynasty.

It was through the Abbasid empire that the Geonim disseminated the Talmud to the increasing Jewish communities. They started by moving their yeshivot to Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. From there they sent rabbis to other Diaspora communities, who would convene in Baghdad for the semi-annual yarhei-callah (month-long Talmud study sessions during agricultural off-seasons). These rabbinic emissaries brought with them religious issues which had come up in their communities, as well as funds raised for the maintenance of the yeshivot. The issues would be dealt with by the hierarchy of the yeshiva, up to the Gaon. The answers to these inquiries would be immediately published and had the effect of religious decree. Thus, the Geonim used the new technologies of communication and travel which had developed in the Muslim Empire for transmitting knowledge over a vast area, reaching as far as the frontier of the Empire in Spain, and, to a limited degree, as far as Northern Europe. They were the first to publish the Oral Law in book form, primarily as Talmud digests. The Talmud itself was disseminated in written form, along with glossaries and basic commentaries. Thus, the Geonim retained religious centrality to a degree reminiscent of the sages in the ancient Land of Israel.

The Land of Israel

In fact, the only rival to the supremacy of the Geonim were the yeshivot in the Land of Israel. In the Muslim period, this community was smaller than the one in Babylon, and poorly organized due to centuries of persecution at the hands of the Byzantine rulers, who regarded the Oral Law as the antithesis of Christian dogma and severely punished anyone who studied it. Thus the Jerusalem Talmud (referred to as "the Jerusalemite Discourse") appears "crippled" and fossilized in comparison to the Babylonian Talmud, which is composed in a flowing dialectic style. Because the Jerusalem Talmud lacked the continuity of the Babylonian Talmud, the Geonim in Babylon considered their Talmud to be the exclusive carrier of Jewish tradition.

Nonetheless, the Jews of the Land of Israel never relinquished their local traditions, nor their Talmud, even when it differed from the Babylonian tradition. While the Babylonian academies took advantage of their seat at the hub of the Muslim Empire, the Jews in the Land of Israel were far from the center of influence. Consequently their yeshivot were relatively small. They maintained some of the international ties they had established in the pre-Muslim era, such as those with Italian Jewry, whose descendants founded the Northern European communities and created a religious heritage known as the Ashkenazic tradition. Some customs, particularly of the synagogue service, can be traced to this line. The religious culture in the Land of Israel flourished at the end of the Geonic period (10th-11th centuries), during the peak of the Fatimid Caliphate, when the Land of Israel became an important center of trade. The Fatimids considered the Jews of the Land of Israel one of their non-Sunni cultural allies. At that point, the Babylonian yeshivot lost their centrality, as well as their exclusivity in Jewish tradition.


For the most part the two parallel traditions — that of Babylon and that of the Land of Israel — lived side by side. An harmonic symbiosis was generally maintained between the two central communities, which emphasized the strengths of each. All Jews continued to consider the Land of Israel as the source of Divine wisdom, even when normative Jewish Law was decreed in Babylon. The Babylonian Jews recognized that they were a temporary Diaspora, and that Judaism could formally function as a nation only in the Land of Israel, regardless of how small or uninfluential the community there was. Decisions regarding the Jewish calendar, for example, were relegated exclusively to the rabbinic authorities in the Land of Israel.

The Muslim conquest enabled Jewish life to flourish anew in the Land of Israel, and many Babylonian Jews emigrated to what they still considered to be their homeland. They brought with them their Talmud and religious heritage, which created a process of cross-pollination between the two traditions. The first Gaon to publish a post-Talmudic work — R. Ahai of Shabha — was one such immigrant. Although his work, the She'iltot (Inquiries), largely consists of excerpts from the Babylonian Talmud, it was disseminated exclusively along the same path as other works of the tradition of the Land of Israel — in Europe.

Because the Talmudic development of the scholars in the Land of Israel had been stunted in the pre-Muslim era, they compensated by developing other cultural fields, such as mysticism, poetic liturgy and a uniquely creative biblical historiography called the Midrash All of these flourished in the Land of Israel in the early Muslim era, while they were relatively neglected in Babylon, where scholars concentrated primarily on the Talmud and religious law. The poetry of Yose ben Yose, the earliest liturgical poet known by name, who lived in the Land of Israel in the 4th or 5th century, and Eleazar Kallir, who lived in the eighth century in Tiberias, ultimately became an integral part of the Jewish festival liturgy. To this day, much of the source material for rabbinical sermons is taken from the Midrashim composed in Israel in the period immediately following the Muslim conquest. Some, such as Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (Sermons of R. Eliezer), deal quite favorably with Ishmael — the father of the Arab nations, as opposed to the Esau — father of the Roman-Christian nations. These works, as well as the early mystic works Sefer HaYetzirah (Book of Creation) and Hechalot (Temples), were to become the basis for the Kabbalah, and many centuries later inspired modern Hassidism.


In the academies of Babylon, however, the Talmud — the most expansive treasury of Jewish wisdom, knowledge, folklore and law — remained the focus of study and discourse. For the Geonim throughout this period the Talmud served as the exclusive basis for decision-making in halacha. Yet, ironically, as the influence of the Babylonian academies spread, it became clear that the Talmud was simply too vast to transmit. To address this problem, the Geonim employed a technique newly developed in the Muslim world: codification. Of the innovations that the rabbinic world inherited from the Muslim empire, this probably had the greatest impact.

Essentially, the Talmud discourse is structured not in topical order, but in an associative order, which rambles from one item to the next. The Geonim considered the ancient sages of Israel who composed this esoteric structure to be of so high a spiritual and mystical level that their work could no longer be understood by most scholars of later years. So, while at the central yeshivot the Talmud retained its original structure, to the rest of the Diaspora it was transmitted in condensed or encyclopedic form. The original 50 volumes were reduced to a codex that dealt only with the laws pertinent to day-to-day life. Thus the commandments and laws that related to the Temple, for example, were not included. For the first time, the Oral Tradition was arranged in the textual form suitable for a written book. This codex was the first non-biblical text that could be easily copied and distributed, easily mastered by a novice rabbi far from the yeshiva and without the direct tutelage of the Geonim.

This revolutionary step could only have been taken by a Gaon with the stature of absolute rabbinic authority. Such was the position of R. Yehudai ben Nahman (Yehudai Gaon) in the 8th century, whose students published the first such codex 'Halakhot Pesukot' (Decided Laws). Blind from birth, R. Yehudai was the universally acclaimed Talmud authority. He served as headmaster of both of the major yeshivot, and was virtually unopposed: a rare phenomenon in rabbinical history. Only such an authoritative figure could publish a law book which decisively presented only one opinion on each issue. True to the its title, Halakhot Pesukot differs drastically from the Talmud in that it contains very little dialectic deliberation. The text is based on the Talmud, but the Talmud passages are rearranged in vernacular Aramaic in a structure manageable to the layman. Subsequent generations produced numerous editions of Halakhot Pesukot that differ in style and order. Hilkhot Riu ('Riu' Lawbook) is an edition translated into Hebrew. Some editions had Arabic translations interspersed between paragraphs of the original text, or glossaries in the margins.

The most popular version, Halakhot Gedolot (Great Law Book), was published two generations later, by R. Shimon Kiara. This edition contains extensive additional material, including passages of R. Ahai's She'iltot previously mentioned. Kiara's Halakhot contains more Talmud passages than the original Halakhot, and they are presented in a form that is closer to the original Talmud language and dialectic structure. In later editions of Halakhot Gedolot, the encyclopedic order is integrated with the original Talmud order. This pattern continues over the years until the final version of HalakhotHilkhot Rabbati (Great Lawbook) by R. Yitzhak Alfasi in the 11th century, which is a condensed Talmud interspersed with latter-day decisions. This reversion can be explained in different ways. The later versions were distributed among a public more erudite and familiar with the original Talmud, including the newly established Jewish communities of Germany and France. Another explanation is that the Halakhot books actually dethroned the Talmud as the standard text used by law-makers, to the extent that they evolved into texts that could function as an updated Talmud.

Geonic Monographs

The adaptation of the prevalent method of codification became more complete in another genre of Rabbinic literature — the Geonic monographs. These topical codes evolved in later generations, starting with the works of R. Saadiah AlFayumi (Saadiah Gaon) in the 10th century. Each book analyzes just one subject of Jewish law, by dividing it into pre-arranged numbered categories and devoting one succinct chapter to each. The author supplies the reader with a detailed introduction and table of contents. The most interesting feature of this genre is its language — Arabic in Hebrew letters. Apparently this had become the vernacular of study, in lay circles, and among rabbis who functioned outside the central yeshivot. Saadiah's monographs provided halachic knowledge even to students who had only a shallow Talmudic background — a phenomena which had become more common as the rabbinic world continued to grow away from the central yeshivot. Saadiah and his students also composed glossaries, translating and explaining difficult terms in the Mishna (the code of law which acts as the skeletal basis of Talmudic discourse) and in the Halakhot Pesukot, both of which were apparently more commonly studied than the Talmud.

R. Saadiah, as opposed to most other Geonim, was unique in that his expertise was not limited to the field of Talmud and halacha. He was raised in the West, and from there he brought to Babylon knowledge in Biblical exegesis, poetic liturgy, Hebrew grammar and Kabbalah ( Jewish mysticism). In addition to halachic monographs, Saadiah wrote essays and books, also in the Judeo-Arabic vernacular, in each of these fields. His erudition in the Midrash (produced in the Land of Israel), supplementing his Talmudic knowledge, equipped Saadiah with the tools to master a field completely new to the rabbinic world — philosophy. This was largely neglected prior to the Muslim era, when the Rabbis considered themselves the intellectual superiors of the surrounding pagan and Christian cultures. By now though, the Jews had been reduced to a small minority, spread in a vast empire of rival monotheists. R. Saadiah answered this challenge in his masterpiece Kitab alA'manat wall'tikadat (Book of Beliefs and Opinions) by describing Judaism as a belief (not only a nation). His Western upbringing also brought him into contact with the Karaite sect — Jews who rejected the tradition of the Oral Law. While still a youngster, Saadiah debated against the elders of this sect, proving the direct chain of legal and cultural derivation from the Judaism of the Bible to rabbinic Judaism.

R. Saadiah was also a pioneer in the field of rabbinic poetry. Familiar with the classics produced in the Land of Israel in the previous generation, R. Saadiah added poetry to his prayer book, Kitab Jami' al-Salawat wa al-Tasibih' (The Book of Collected Prayers and Praise). This was against the rulings of the Babylonian Geonim restricting additions to the prayer book. Unlike the classical Hebrew poets, Saadiah employed the Arabic rules of poetry and wrote at great length on the application of these rules to Hebrew poetry. This legacy was continued not in Babylon, but by Saadiah's disciples in Andalusia, Spain, especially by the leader of this rising community, Hisdai ibn Shaprut. The early Andalusian school, centered in Cordoba and Granada, took great interest in the application of the Arabic method of analyzing grammar and conjugation to biblical Hebrew. The most famous works in this field were written by the poet Dunash ibn Labret and by Menachem ibn Saruk. These works were to become central elements in the biblical commentaries of Abraham ibn Ezra of 12th century Spain.

Ironically, because R. Saadiah wrote in Arabic, most of his works have been virtually forgotten. By the end of the Middle Ages, when rabbinical classics were committed to print, few people read literature in Arabic. But in his time, R. Saadiah's writings were crucial for Jewish survival.

Some of the paths that were first tread by R. Saadiah were continued by his disciples in the academy of Sura, primarily R. Shmuel ben Hophni (d. 1013). Like R. Saadiah, R. Shmuel too wrote a commentary on the Bible. He also wrote the first detailed introduction to the Talmud, Madkal Ali AlMishna walTalmud (Introduction to the Talmud and the Talmud), containing over 145 chapters. It became the scientific methodology of Talmud study. But it was in the field of legal monographs that R. Shmuel was most prolific. Scores of his books are listed in the library catalogues of his era, in all imaginable fields of Jewish law. R. Shmuel listed and analyzed virtually all the Talmudic statements on any given topic, and codified them in so manageable a way that they rival even today's modern Jewish encyclopedias. For example, his Kitab Ahkam A-Zujia (Book of Marital Law) covers the stages of the marital ceremony in some 35 chapters, not including topics like changes in legal status, marital financial law and divorce; on these he wrote other volumes. He employed R. Saadiah's method of precise topical composition, but made one major change. Whereas R. Saadiah paraphrased the Talmud in Arabic, R. Shmuel was the first to quote the Talmud in the original Aramaic or Hebrew. This change is historically significant: for the first time, the Talmud was related to as an iconoclastic, written literary text, not as a loosely worded oral tradition. This innovation was also utilized in the works of R. Sherira ben Hanina Gaon (906-1006) and his son R. Hai Gaon (939-1038), who headed the rival yeshiva of Pumpedita. There are many manuscript copies of these works that have survived, testifying to their popularity. Nonetheless they were forgotten, for the most part, doomed as other texts written in Arabic. Only a few books merited a Hebrew translation.

This is not to say that the 10-11th century Geonim had little effect on Jewish tradition. They played an immeasurable role in Jewish law, through the hundreds of responsa that they published. Here they addressed specific issues raised by the ever-expanding Jewish communities.

Yet, dominant as these Geonim were, they were to be the last generation of centralized Jewish lawmakers. By the end of the 10th century, the Fatimid dynasty had moved the center of world power, trade and influence westward to North Africa, thereby also diminishing the centrality of Baghdad for Jews. For the first time in seven centuries, the study of the Talmud, and the attendant dynamic development of the Jewish legal heritage, were no longer exclusive to Babylon. This shift was instrumental in the opening of a new stage in the history of Talmud study.

Exegesis of the Talmud

The style, language and structure of the Talmud had now become archaic, due to geographic and cultural factors, not to mention the passing of time since its production. The academy of Kairouan (in present-day Tunisia) produced the first commentaries that were written, as separate books — of exegesis — external to the Talmud itself.

R. Hananel ben Hushiel (990-c.1053) and R. Nissim ben Ya'akov ibn Shahin (990-1062), both of whose parents were disciples of R. Hai, wrote these first commentaries. The commentaries furthered the ability of students to handle the literary peculiarities of the Talmud. In Fatimid North Africa, the Babylonian Talmud shared equal stature with the Jerusalem Talmud. Thus, an important nuance in the works of R. Hananel and R. Nissim is their side-by-side comparison of the two Talmuds, often using the Jerusalem Talmud to supplement the Babylonian.

Though lacking an authoritative center, the new academies of North Africa did not lack means of distribution of knowledge: Jewish traders, who were instrumental to the Fatimid caliphs in their contacts with ports around the Mediterranean, even as far as Barcelona and Marseilles. Thus, unlike the Arabic texts of the Geonim, these new works had great influence on the new academies in Spain, Provence and the Rhine Basin. Previously, these communities had no local yeshivot, and were dependent on Babylon and the Land of Israel for their knowledge, either through the Halakhot texts published there or through direct correspondence. The Kairouanin commentaries were instrumental in the ability of new yeshivot to study the Talmud and decide new laws independent of central authority.

Muslim Andalusia

In 10th-12th century Muslim Andalusia (in southern Spain), the cross-cultural interaction between the rabbinic world and the Muslim surroundings reached its summit. The society was rich in knowledge and the sciences. Their religious leadership followed in the path of R. Saadiah and delved into all possible fields of knowledge, including the arts, in addition to the Talmud.

Their interest and activity in linguistics may have been an answer to the linguistically-pure Koran. Shmuel ibn Nagrela (Abu Ishak Ismail) (993-1056) was one scholar who studied these subjects. He is known to have debated with the Muslim theologian Ibn Hazzam about the relative merits of the Bible and the Koran. He was appointed Rais alYehud (Head of the Jews), for which he is better known by the Hebrew title Shmuel Hanagid. He served the Berber King Habus for 19 years as Foreign and Interior Minister, and commanded the army of Granada, which became the dominant power in Andalusia. He corresponded with R. Hai Gaon and with the masters of the Kairouan school. In addition to books of poetry and Hebrew grammar, Shmuel Hanagid published a code of Talmudic law oft-cited by subsequent Spanish Talmudic authorities.

But it was not until the arrival of R. Yitzhak Alfasi (1013-1103) that Andalusia developed a yeshiva of the magnitude reminiscent of the ancient yeshivot of Babylon. A disciple of R. Hananel, he arrived at Lucena, an exclusively Jewish town near Cordoba, around 1078. The academy founded there was to become the world center of Talmudic activity until it was destroyed in the Almohad uprising in 1148. Alfasi's Hilkhot Rabbati (Great Lawbook) became the final work of this genre, giving him the historical stature of `batrai' — the bottom line of Talmudic law. Knowledge of the Alfasi code was a standard requirement for rabbinical ordination throughout the Jewish world for the next five centuries. In fact, it was copied and studied more often than the Talmud itself. This masterpiece combines an abridged Talmud updated with latter-day decisions of the Geonim and the commentaries of R. Hananel. Alfasi's outstanding longevity bridged the last generation of the Geonim with the generation of the great European commentators.

One of Alfasi's most famous disciples at Lucena was Yehudah Halevi Abu-al-Hassan (c. 1075-1141). Halevi's contribution to Jewish life was not in the area of halacha, but in poetry. He is probably the best known Jewish poet, biblical and classical liturgists from the Land of Israel included. Some 750 of his poems are extant; many have found their way into the standard Jewish prayer book, particularly his festival hymns. Among these hymns are poems portraying the innermost yearnings of Jews to return to the Land of Israel. Some 35 of these poems are known to us; many are recorded in the Tisha Be'Av service. They reflect a rekindling of the Zionist spirit at a time when Jews watched the struggle between the Crusaders and the Muslims over the Jewish homeland. According to legend, Halevi achieved his highest aspiration by immigrating to Israel towards the end of his life. Zionism was also a central motif in Halevi's philosophical treatise Kitab alHujja waDlil fi Nsar aDin Aldh'lil (Book in Defense of the Downtrodden Religion). Here, the basic tenets of Jewish belief and worship are set in a polemic drama, recounting how the King of the Asian Kuzari tribe chose Judaism over Christianity and Islam.


In the mid-12th century the Andalusian-Jewish civilization was demolished at the peak of its creativity by the Almohad uprisings and the Christian reconquisita. But scions from this great era resettled, primarily in Christian Northern Spain. The most outstanding of them was Moshe ibn Maimon (1135-1204) — Maimonides — who fled eastwards to Egypt and the Land of Israel. Like his predecessors, Maimonides was well versed in the most advanced studies of the Muslim world — the sciences of mathematics, astrology and medicine, as well as the physics and astrophysics of Aristotle. He served as court physician of the Sultan of Egypt and held the office of Rais alYehud. However, despite his public service, he also produced three important classics that are found to this day in virtually every Jewish library. Each reflects the turbulence of the times, which required innovative literature.

In Dalalat al-Ha'rin (Guide for the Perplexed), Maimonides conveys Jewish philosophy in Aristotelian terms. The study of Greek philosophy was then at a peak in the Arab intellectual world as well, in the wake of Averroes. Maimonides' confrontation with and adaptation of rationalism and philosophy was to earn him much criticism, primarily in Europe, where the rabbinic leadership preferred inward-looking Jewish mysticism to the study of universal philosophy.

Maimonides completed A-Siraj (The `Beacon' — clarification), his commentary on the Talmud, before he was 20. Written in Arabic, it is essentially a summary of the Talmudic understanding of the Talmud — the primary code of halacha, codified in the Land of Israel in the third century. Talmud study had become uncommon in Muslim lands, in the wake of persecution and religious turbulence. Maimonides felt that the study of his annotated Talmud, supplemented by the study of the Alfasi code, would lead to continuity of Jewish study.

It was towards this same goal — the continuity of Jewish study — that Maimonides created his magnum opus — the 14-volume Mishneh Torah (Restatement of the Torah). Like R. Saadiah's monographs, each topic is methodically codified in usable order, and the archaic Talmudic language and debate are avoided. The Mishneh Torah is written in clear, precise Hebrew. In fact, of all Maimonides' major productions, this is the only one written in Hebrew, because it was intended to replace the entire Oral Law not only for his disciples but for the entire Jewish world, and not only for his generation, but for generations to come.

This also explains why Maimonides' code covers virtually every field of Jewish law, for the first time since the Talmud. Over a third of the code deals with laws that only apply in the Land of Israel in the presence of the Temple. Clearly, he intended to present the Jewish people with an immortal code, for he felt that he lived at the end of an era. It was no longer enough, in his time, to enhance Talmud study; instead it was his stated aim to replace the Talmud. It is no accident that the final volume of the Mishneh Torah ends with the laws regarding the arrival of the Messiah. Maimonides' work was to give the Jews a legacy of hope, that even as they were fluttering on the waves of history, they were approaching the gates of redemption.

The Cairo Genizah

Most of our knowledge of this era is not recorded by historians, but gleaned from material written by the rabbis themselves, or copyists of their times. Though most of the written material was no longer in existence by the time the first Jewish books were printed, they have been preserved for the modern researcher in manuscript form in the Genizah of Fustat in Cairo. Jewish law requires that written material which includes texts from the holy scriptures be buried or entombed, not destroyed. At the time, this applied to everything written in Hebrew characters, even if the language was Arabic. Fustat was the central station from which the rabbinic literature and correspondence was transmitted in this era, and local scribes often made a copy for themselves before sending the material to its destination. These copies were preserved in the Genizah.

In the early 20th century, most of the Genizah was plundered or taken out of Egypt by collectors and the documents can now be found in various centers of learning, mostly in Europe or America. The largest collections of Genizah material can be found in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Russian National Library and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

The Lasting Contribution of the Jews of the Muslim Empire

For over 500 years, the Jews of the Muslim Empire enjoyed stability, prosperity and religious autonomy. As opposed to the oppressive atmosphere in Northern Europe, the Jews lived, for the most part, in a tolerant civilization, one that valued excellence in the arts, the sciences and trade. In these fields the Jews were welcome participants. Thus Judaism developed as part of society, not as a secluded ghetto-culture as was the case in Christian Europe. The cultural cross-pollination benefitted both sides. Because of the dialogue with Islam, the Jews became more aware of their philosophic and linguistic heritage. The new methods that developed in the vast Muslim Empire for the communication of knowledge and the codification of law were employed by the Rabbis in order to keep in contact with the ever-expanding Jewish Diaspora. Thus, they could preserve and sustain Talmudic Law, while creating new vistas of Jewish literature and thought which were instrumental in forming the structure of Judaism as it is today.

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs