Rav Saadia Gaon: In our Gaonic era


You may have heard of some of the greats of rabbinic history. But even if you’ve heard of Rav Saadia Gaon, you probably don’t know his wild story. Join Yael and Schwab as they dive into the Gaonic era and explore the story of one of Judaism’s most brilliant and influential figures.

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Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Nerds, where we do exactly what it sounds like, nerd out on awesome stories in Jewish history.

Yael: I’m Yael Steiner and my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.

Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab and I am in school forever. Yael, this week it’s your turn to tell me a story and I hope you have a good one for me.

Yael: I believe that I do. We’re gonna be talking about someone who I am 99.99999% sure that you’ve heard of, but hopefully I can present his story to you in a unique way. We are going to be talking about Rav Saadia Gaon.

Artist’s rendition of what Saadia Gaon may have looked like.

Schwab: Yes, I definitely have heard of him and I think I’m slightly embarrassed to say I really don’t know much about him or his story.

Yael: I knew nothing about him until I started preparing for this week’s episode. I knew his name certainly because he is upheld as one of the greatest sages in Jewish history. But I definitely didn’t know why. And now that I’ve learned a lot about him, I can tell you that he absolutely is an astounding individual.

Schwab: Wow, great. I love the episodes like this, where afterwards I’m inspired to say, okay, here’s this thing that I should have known more about and now let me really look into this more.

Yael: Well, hopefully I’ll even be able to convey a little bit about what he’s about, because even before we start to talk about him biographically, I want to talk a little bit about the way that we chart history. I think when you were teaching me about Graetz, we talked then about marking milestones in Jewish history by tragedy or by turns of fortune. But there have also been many other ways to track Jewish history and all of history.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yes. Yep. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yael:  By chronology, by king, by major natural disaster or event, by religion. Much of the way that we talk about Saadia Gaon is going to be colored by the way we think about dividing eras in history.

Schwab: Hmm, cool. Okay, I didn’t think we were gonna go there.

Yael: Well, I don’t know how much of this is colored by the fact that we’re recording this two days before the Super Bowl, and there’s a certain blonde superstar who has been everywhere in the news and maybe is associated with the word eras or maybe has been charting her own history by era. And today we’re going to be in our Gaonic era.

Schwab: Great, I feel like we’re probably breaking ground here. I don’t think that Rav Saadia Gaon and Taylor Swift have been compared before.

Yael: Yes, so we’re in our Gaonic era. And when I say that, it is actually something that is a fairly standard subdivision in Jewish history, the Gaonic era. There are several eras of Jewish learning that we often talk about when we map the history of the people of the book.

Schwab: I remember a poster on the wall of one of my classrooms that was literally, like, I love the metaphor of mapping time, but it was literally a map of time and it was, and it divided very neatly, year this to year this was the age of this group.

Yael: Do you remember any of the groups from that poster?

Schwab: Oh yeah.

Yael: Of course you memorized it.

Schwab: I definitely did. First, there’s, I think, the biblical periods, right? But then post-biblical times, there’s the Tanaim, the authors of the Mishnah, and then the Amoraim, who are the authors of the Gemara. And then I think after that is the Geonim, right? Which Saadia is part of.

Yael: You are spot on. Saadia is probably the most well-known and likely the most brilliant of the Geonim. There is a tiny 100-year period between the Amoraim and the Geonim that I had not remembered existed called the Savoraim. And they’re really a bridge and maybe a hybrid between the Amoraim and the Geonim, which is why we don’t talk about them. And then we get to the Geonim, where we’re gonna spend our time today.

The word gaon has a few different meanings, but it is mostly ascribed to people who are brilliant beyond brilliant. It is, I think, oftentimes translated as pride, like this person is the pride of our community, the glittering gem, but, you know, even almost a thousand years later, after Saadia Gaon, who I probably should tell you, was likely born in 882 and died in 942 at approximately the age of 60. We don’t have 100% confirmation on the birth year. But I think what I was about to say was that almost a thousand years later when we get to the Vilna Gaon, who was one of the greatest scholars of the 18th century in Europe, he is called a Gaon. He’s not from that era, but the reason why we ascribe that word to him is because he was so lofty and he was so far above anyone else of his day.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. But he’s not from that period at all. That it’s almost like he’s a throwback to this earlier.

Yael: Yes. And the word Gaon in the time of Rav Saadia was given as a title to the people, the very few people who headed the large esteemed academies of Torah at Sura and Pumbedita, which were located in Babylonia and what we believe to be modern day Iraq and Kuwait. A lot of the Jewish community at this time is centered in Baghdad or what we know today is Baghdad.

Schwab: Sura and Pumbedita. Mm-hmm.

Yael: I don’t know about you, but my entire life I’ve heard about Sura and Pumbedita and never really conceptualized what they were except that I always think of Pumbedita as pumpernickel. But for the sake of accuracy and for the sake of our audience, I will use the real name, Pumbedita. So there were these large academies there and the individuals who headed each of those academies were known as Geonim. So that’s the plural of the word Gaon. So if Schwab was the head of Sura, he would be Rav Schwab Gaon, for example.

Schwab: So it’s not just that he was very learned or very prolific in his writings, but it’s an actual position.

Yael: Correct, it is an actual position, and I think that he as an individual exceeded the expectations of that position. And I think that is part of the reason why when we hear the word Gaon now, it takes on such a lofty status, because even though it was technically an administrative position that someone could be appointed to, it was more than that, or he made it more than that. And he does ultimately in his life become the gaon of both Sura and Pumbedita.

Schwab: Oh, okay, that was gonna be my next question.

Yael: So he was, yeah, he was in both of them. We’ll go back to his biography in one second, but he’s appointed to Pumpedita, and then ultimately he is brought over to Sura because Sura is a little bit on the downswing. And if anybody can revive Sura, it was thought to be him, and he did just that. And he really brought the academy at Sura back up, not only to the level of Pumbedita, but to really a shining status.

But we’ll get to that in a little while. He was born in Egypt. We know very little to almost nothing about his family life. He does not come from a dynastic Jewish family. To our knowledge, his father was not a rabbi or a scholar or certainly not a revered one. And ultimately later on in his life, when he is appointed as the Gaon of Pumbedita, one of the questions that’s asked around the time of his appointment is, should we really appoint this guy? I know he’s smart and I know he seems to be brilliant, but he really doesn’t have the lineage.

And up until that point, the people appointing the leaders of these academies were very concerned with lineage as until today many Jewish organizations are.

Schwab: Hmm. Yeah, as I say, has not gone out of style in the Jewish community.

Yael: Correct. And if you think about it, and it’s not only the Jewish community, I mean, Nepo babies have been out and about these days. When you think about it, think about how much better someone has to be to ascend to a level like that without a foot in the door.

Schwab: Right, ike you have to really be extraordinary to be more impressive than the people who don’t just have the lineage, but also that means grow up with the resources and the support.

Yael: And the political touch, which arguably he may not have had, which we’ll get to in a little while. So he’s born in Egypt. We believe that he may have written his first book as early as age 11, though some say it may have been closer to age 20, which obviously is not impressive at all.

Schwab: Either way, very impressive.

Yael: He makes his way to the land of Israel. He ultimately then makes his way to Aleppo. He travels within Syria and Jordan before he makes his way to Pumbedita. While he is in that peripatetic time of his life, he makes a name for himself as a tremendous scholar. He is not only a scholar of Torah, he is a philosopher. He writes beautiful literature. He is a lexicographer. He writes the first Hebrew dictionary. He translates the Bible into Arabic for the first time. And that translation of the Bible in Arabic becomes the most widely used among Jews in Muslim lands. He writes a rhyming dictionary, which he takes from the style of the Muslim community around him. He’s really just a fascinating and incredibly prolific person.

One thing that I wanted to mention earlier, when we were talking about eras, is that we often now chart Jewish history in a binary fashion where we talk about the life of Jews under Muslim rule versus the life of Jews under Christian rule. Often that split takes us to a split between the Ashkenazi and the Sfardi communities elements of that split that really have nothing to do with the different traditions of Jews in the Eastern European lands and Jews in the Spanish or Mesopotamian lands, as you might want to call it.

So Jews at this time, at the time of Saadia Gaon, this is sort of an in-between time when it’s after Roman rule, but it’s before the Crusades and it’s before the medieval Christian rule that really impacted a lot of Jews in Europe. And as I think we talked about, as you probably talked about in our episode about the Spanish Golden Age, Jews really flourished under Muslim rule for a long time.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I was like, oh, that sounds so like the things we were talking about in the Spanish Golden Age episode of, being involved in poetry and being incorporated into, you know, the style of the surrounding Arabic poetry, sort of being fluent in both of those languages and moving back and forth between them is a very like ‘Jews under Muslim rule’ thing I’ve learned.

Yael: Yes. And some of the names that came up in the Spanish Golden Age episode definitely came up multiple times in my research for this episode, including Ibn Nagrallah. I believe we talked about how he adopted an Arabic style of poetry and brought it to the Jewish community for the first time. Sav Saadia Gaon did that as well, particularly with his halakhic works. He uses the Mu’tazilite style, which-

Schwab: You know, when you said peripatetic earlier, I was like, oh, we’re getting some good words in here, but I have never heard of Mu’tazilite.

Yael: Apparently that is according to the internet an English word, it is the anglicization of an Arabic word and it is a style of writing and a style of literature that was adopted around this time by Muslim scholars and writers. And what makes it different than what came before, particularly in Jewish literature, is that it is highly organized, has headings and subheadings and subsections. And that is not a structure that had ever been used prior in Jewish literature.

If you think about the structure of the Talmud, or the non-structure of the Talmud, it has no punctuation. It has some colons, but they’re not helpful. It’s a lot of stream of consciousness, and there is a bit of an art to it. And some, including my 12th grade Talmud teacher, would argue a bit of a science to it. But it is really hard to bifurcate and to parse, and certainly to put into neat subsections. And Saadia Gaon is the first person to use that type of structure in any Jewish literature whatsoever. And that structure is then adopted by Maimonides later down the line.

Schwab: I was going to say that the person who that reminds me of is Maimonides, who also does this extremely structured thing where he takes a lot of what the Talmud has said and says, let me literally codify this, that’s what he becomes really known for, is the intense organization of it.

Yael: The Karaites were people who did not believe that the oral Torah, the Talmud and the Mishnah and anything that came after had any divine inspiration and just didn’t have the theological standing of the written Torah.

Schwab: So they follow very literally things that are said in the Torah. That, yeah, which I don’t know, sometimes I think about it and it does feel a little strange to me that there are things that are literal verses that’s not what we actually do, but there’s a different group of people who do follow, you know, what it literally says.

Yael: Well, it is really hard to practice because there are certainly omissions. I don’t know, I don’t mean to call them omissions in the way that they’re things that have accidentally been lost, but there are commandments in the written Torah that we don’t know how to follow without the oral Torah explaining them. And there are also certainly things in the written Torah that are very challenging like an eye for an eye, for example.

Schwab: And I think that’s one of the most famous examples, right? It’s just like that it clearly can’t mean that. And we have this whole other very, very lengthy explanation in the Talmud of how damages actually work.

Yael: So there was a large community of Karaites in Egypt at the time that Rav Saadia Gaon was there. In my mind, I often think of them as this tiny little sect on the top of a mountain somewhere, but they were a fairly mainstream Jewish community in Egypt, and according to history that we’ve gleaned from the Cairo Geniza, another excellent past episode of ours.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I was gonna say before, maybe we’ll find more of Saadia Gaon’s writings in the Cairo Genizah as we sift through all of those things. Maybe we’ll find some of the missing texts there.

Yael: That would be cool, we’re still waiting for our benefactors to pour lots of money into this podcast so we can go to Cairo and recover the rest of the Geniza. But there was actually a lot of social intermingling among the Karaites and the Rabbinic Jews in Egypt, which is not something that I would have expected. But because this happened, Rav Saadia Gaon saw them up close and experienced their lives up close, and he was really not a fan and he developed a pretty famous feud with the Karaites.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. How not a fan was he? How far did that go for him? Is he like, you can’t count them towards ritual observances, you can’t marry them.

Yael: An excellent question to which I don’t have an answer. But he was not as politically adept. I don’t even want to say adept because I think that maybe he could have been adept. He couldn’t be swayed by money and power. He was really just a truly upright individual who would not kiss the ring. But that was a reason why he couldn’t really coexist with the Karaites in Egypt. And it was certainly a reason why he left Sura for a small period of time in his life, because the exilarch, the Reish Galuta, who was the political head of the Jewish community in Babylonia, asked Rav Saadia Gaon to decide a will probate case in his favor. And Rav Saadia Gaon stood on principle and said, I’m gonna decide it the way it’s supposed to be decided, and did not give that individual, David Ben Zakkai, the satisfaction of being able to sway the head of the academy. And because of that, Rav Saadia Gaon is fired from Sura. First, David Ben Zakkai tries to fire Rav Saadia. And then Rav Saadia says, you can’t fire me, I’m gonna fire you. Because there was not clarity as to whether or not it was the political head of the community who was really at the top, or the rabbinic head of the community who was really at the top. And I think that’s something that we still understand today. So he says, I’m going to fire you as the exilarch. That doesn’t really work. And then Rav Saadia Gaon leaves Sura for about 20 years, but those 20 years are among his most prolific with respect to his writings and his works, so maybe a blessing in disguise.

Schwab: So he retreats and sort of just writes, without an administrative position during this time. All right.

Yael: Yes. Correct. And he ultimately does come back. Actually, David Ben Zakkai’s father brings him back. And when David Ben Zakkai passes, shortly after his own father had passed, Rav Saadia Gaon adopts David Ben Zakkai’s son and raises him in his own home. So that just goes to show you what type of person he was. So quite an astounding man.

Schwab: Whoa. Mm-hmm.

Yael: Aside from his feud with the Karaites, which I apologize I didn’t really get into, but we are running out of time, I want to make sure that we cover something he was very famous for, which is the calendar controversy of 921 to 924.

Schwab: One of the most famous calendar controversies of all time, yeah.

Yael: Exactly. As some of our listeners may know, the Jewish calendar follows the lunar calendar, which does not always have a set number of days in the month. Sometimes there are 29 days, sometimes there are 30 days. The Jewish calendar often uses a leap year system in which we double the month of Adar to make sure that the holiday of Passover is always in the spring.

At the time of Rav Saadia Gaon, or from 921 to 924, there is an individual in Jerusalem named Aharon Ben Meir who decides to mess with this calendar and who decides that the time in Jerusalem is the time for the Jewish calendar. We are not going to make any adjustments to that. The way that they used to set the calendar was they would light fires from mountaintops and.

Different communities would see the fires and then they would establish the day of Rosh Chodesh or the first day of the month.

Schwab: It’s a topic that’s discussed in the Talmud and nobody understood until I think it’s the third Lord of the Rings movie came out in 2003 and they use, I think it’s the third one, they use fires to send signals from one land to another and all of a sudden everyone said, oh now we understand what they’re talking about.

Yael: So, exactly.

Schwab: Mm-hmm. He’s like fire signaling, yeah. So Aaron Ben Meir changes the calendar.

Yael: Yeah, we think that it’s a bit of a power struggle move where he’s trying to establish Jerusalem as the center of Jewish life, which obviously Jerusalem is, you know, the center of Jewish life and in a very important city, but at that time, the learning and the academic center of Jewish life was in Babylonia. It was in Sura and Pumbedita. And who gets to, so are we gonna yield the power to the people there or are we gonna keep it here in Jerusalem even though we might not be as learned?

Rav Saadia Gaon tries to address this with letters and kindly at first. Ultimately, it turns into a bit more of a fight.

Schwab: A calendar controversy. Mmm, yeah.

Yael: A calendar controversy, until one year the community in Jerusalem actually celebrated their holidays on different days than the communities elsewhere. The reason why this is a problem, is that once you’re off by a day or two, and that was the distinction that caused this controversy in the first place, the people in Jerusalem celebrated Rosh Hashanah on a Tuesday and the people elsewhere celebrated it on a Thursday, is that when you get specifically to Passover, it’s not such a problem to start it early, but if you end it early, then you are eating leavened bread on days when you’re truly not allowed to, and that is a major transgression, halakhically.

Schwab: Yeah, that’s a huge deal. Yeah. Mm-hmm. Right. The Torah is quite clear that is one of the most serious transgressions you can possibly do, is eating bread during this time.

Yael: So ultimately, Rav Saadia Gaon prevails in this controversy, and he demonstrates his intellectual superiority and the superiority of the other communities. And that is when he is invited, in the middle of that time, in 922, in the middle of this 921 to 924 controversy, is when he is invited to be the head of Pumbedita. And then shortly later, he goes to Sura because he needs to revive Sura, which he does with amazing acts of administrative prowess and fundraising, which is often not a strength of the people who are literary geniuses and halakhic geniuses.

Schwab: Yeah. It’s interesting because you said he doesn’t have the political savvy, but it sounds like he does have some of it. He is able to do some of the things he needs to do to really cement the power in some places.

Yael: So we’ve been talking about him for a while, and I know that I’ve missed a lot, because he is just incredibly, incredibly prolific. He actually, I didn’t even mention this yet, he composed the first siddur. He was integral in our liturgy. And there are some communities today that still use his exact composition of the siddur. And so we see his influence in almost everything that we do without even knowing it. And though, you and I, many of us know his name, I don’t think we really truly understand his impact. And I know I just threw a ton of random facts at you without even getting into some of the more amazing things that he did because he took a stand when he needed to, as with David Ben Zakkai, as in the calendar controversy. But as we see with him taking David Ben Zakkai’s son into his own home, he also had a huge, huge heart and measure of humanity.

Schwab: Yeah. Wow. It sounds like just an extraordinary scope of knowledge and intelligence.

Yael: Learning about him is a good way to feel really inadequate.

Schwab: Yeah, well look maybe his first book was only written at the age of 20 So, you know don’t oversell him.

Yael: So I’m, yeah, and I’m not 20 yet, so what do I have to worry about?

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