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Rabbi Saadia Gaon

Rabbi Saadia Gaon

(4642-4702; 882-942)

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Rabbi Saadia ben Joseph, one of the last and most famous Gaonim, a great Talmudic scholar, Jewish philosopher and inspiring leader, was born in a small village near Fayyum, in Egypt (the site of the ancient city Pithom which together with Raamses was built by Jewish slaves under the Pharaohs). His family traced its origin from Judah, the son of Jacob.

His father, Rabbi Joseph, was a learned man and he was Saadia's first teacher. Saadia had excellent qualities and was a brilliant student. Before he reached the age of twenty years, he already wrote his first work, the Agron, the first Hebrew dictionary and grammar. It was a great help to Hebrew poets and writers of sacred poems. The famous poet and commentator on the Torah, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived about two hundred years later, praised this work highly, and considered its author as the earliest authority on the Hebrew language.

Rabbi Saadia became even more famous when he began his writings against the Karaites. The Karaites,were a sect of Jews which came into being many years before Saadia. Which denied the authority of the Talmud, believing only in the T'NaCh, had become very strong and influential in Saadia's time, especially in Egypt.

The founder of the sect was Anan ben David, a member of the princely family of the Resh Galuta ("Head of the Exile," or "Exilarch"). Who lived in Babylon about 130 years before Saadia was born. When Anan's uncle, the Resh Galuta, died childless, Anan was next in line to inherit the high position. But because he was not as pious and G‑d-fearing as the position demanded, the Gaonim (heads of the great Yeshivoth of Sura and Pumbaditha) and most of the Jews in Babylon, refused to recognize him as their leader, and elected a younger heir, Rabbi Shlomo ben Hasdai, in his place. Anan then rebelled against the authority of the Gaonim and of the Jewish tradition as taught and transmitted by the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud. He then founded a sect of Jews who accepted only the Written Law, that of the Holy Scriptures (Mikra). In many respects they were followers of the sect of Saducees who lived in the period before the destruction of the Second Beth Hamikdosh. Anan ben David began to interpret the Torah in his own way and completely broke with Jewish tradition, thus placing himself and his followers outside the Jewish fold. Moreover, he carried on a bitter fight against the Sages and Rabbis, trying to undermine their authority.

With the spread of the new religion founded by Muhammad, and the rise of various sects among the Muslims, the Karaite sect gained strength. Many rich Jews, influenced by the new Arab culture, became more and more influenced by the Karaites. As the true and faithful Jews would have nothing to do with them, the Karaites organized their own communities and established a "tradition" of their own. During the time of Saadia they had become quite numerous and influential. Young Saadia took up the cudgels against them. His scholarly and logical arguments against the beliefs and customs of the Karaites, dealt a serious blow to their prestige. It required a great deal of courage on the part of young Rav Saadia - he was barely twenty three years old when he declared "war", against the powerful Karaites. Indeed, Saadia's writings which proved the falsity of the whole Karaite doctrine, had a tremendous impact, and many Karaites or would-be Karaites, began to see the light. The leaders of the Karaites, seeing that they could not defeat the young scholar in a battle of wit and scholarship, began to persecute him by open hostility. Fanatical Karaites broke into his home, and ransacked and destroyed his writings and books. Rabbi Saadia's very life was in peril, and he could no longer remain in his native land. Soabbi Saadia left Egypt and went to the Holy Land, from there he continued his relentless fight against the Karaite.

Saadia set out to translate and interpret the Torah into Arabic, which was the spoken language of most Jews in the Arab lands. In all his books and writings he endeavored to strengthen the foundations of the Jewish religion and tradition.

2.

While Rabbi Saadia lived in the Holy Land, there arose another crisis which threatened to split the Jewish community. This time it was not a case of an outside attack, but something that came from within.

It came about when Rabbi Aaron ben Meir, the leading Talmud scholar and Rosh Yeshivah in the Holy Land, and a descendant of the princely family which headed the Jewish people in the Holy Land for many generations, decided to reclaim the leadership which had passed on to the Jewish community of Babylon. It happened to be a time when the Jewish community in Babylon, especially that of Sura, had suffered a serious relapse. A dispute raged there between the Resh Galuta David ben Zakkai, and the leading Talmud scholars, as to the appointment of the Rosh Yeshivah- in Pumbaditha. The great Yeshivah at Sura had dwindled down, and the rest were about to be transferred to Pumbaditha, which had become the center of Jewish life and learning.

Ben Meir took advantage of the trouble in Babylon, and decided to declare himself the leading authority. The issue was the fixing of the Jewish calendar, which was determined by the Babylonian Sages and accepted by all Jews everywhere. Ben Meir made his own calculations and wished to have it accepted by the Jews There was the danger of some Jews following one calendar and others another, of some Jews observing the festival on certain dates, and others a day later. It is easy to imagine the confusion that that would have caused.

Rav Saadia was on a visit to Aleppo at that time. He was a great authority on the question of the Jewish calendar having debated the question with the Karaites, and being also well versed in astronomy. Rav Saadia communicated with Rabbi Aaron ben Meir and pointed out to him his error in calculation, upholding the calculations of the Babylonian Rabbis. At the same time, Rabbi Saadia began to receive inquiries from various Jewish communities who had been confused by the dispute. He replied to each inquiry so clearly and convincingly, that the authority of the Babylonian Rabbis was completely restored. When Ben Meir refused to give in, he was left without a following and the dispute was thus resolved, thanks to Rabbi Saadia's intervention.

3.

The dispute with Ben Meir had one good effect. It united the Babylonian Rabbinical authorities in their effort to maintain the central authority of the Babylonian Rabbinate. Rabbi Saadia was now more famous than ever, and he was considered as a candidate to become the Head (Gaon) of the great Yeshivah of Sura. This was a very distinct honor to be bestowed upon one who was not himself a disciple of that Yeshivah. But the Resh Galuta, David ben Zakkai, was very much in favor of it. To be sure, the Resh Galuta first offered the post to Rabbi Nissim Nehorai, one of the older Sages of Babylon, who was greatly respected for his learning, piety and fine character. But Rabbi Nissim was blind, and he declined the honor. "The Rosh Yeshivah has to be the light of the Jewish world, and it is not right that the position should be held by one who had lost the light of his eyes," he said.

Then the Resh Galuta asked his opinion about the candidacy of Rabbi Saadia. Rabbi Nissim knew the Resh Galuta well, as a man of strong character, strong-willed and unyielding, being very conscious of his position and princely descent. On the other hand, the old Rabbi also knew that Rav Saadia was a person of equally strong will, who jealously guarded the honor of the Torah, and would not yield to the Resh Galuta. Therefore, he offered his advice frankly and sincerely. He told the Resh Galuta that, as far as scholarship and piety was concerned, there was none greater than Rabbi Saadia. However, he warned him that he could not impose his will and influence upon him.

Nevertheless, the Resh Galuta decided that it would suit him best to see Rabbi Saadia occupy the chair of the Gaon of Sura. He thought that Rabbi Saadia would yield to him, since he would be a newcomer to the country, without influential friends and connections in local circles. Surely the young Gaon would be grateful to him for the appointment!

Thus, Rabbi Saadia, who had returned to Egypt in the meantime, received an invitation to become the Gaon of Sura, which he accepted. This was in the year 4687, when Rabbi Saadia was only 45 years old.

The Yeshivah of Sura began to grow and flourish anew under the leadership of Rav Saadia Gaon. Many were the young scholars who were attracted to this famous Yeshivah headed by so famous a man.

Before long, however, Rav Nissim's prediction came true. Only two years after Saadia's election to the Gaonate of Sura, a serious conflict arose between him and the Resh Galutha. The circumstances were as follows:

A dispute had developed among heirs to a large fortune concerning the will of their father. That will happened to provide a substantial benefit also for the exilarch. The parties to the dispute came before the Resh Galutha for arbitration. Being himself a beneficiary, the Resh Galutha should have disqualified himself, but he did not.

It was the custom that such verdicts by the exilarch required the signatures of the two Gaonim to make it final. The exilarch sent his son to Saadia to obtain his signature. Saadia sent him to the Gaon of Pumbaditha, Rav Kohen Tzedek. The latter signed it, but when the young prince returned to Saadia and pressed him for his signature, the Gaon of Sura told him, "Tell your father that the Torah commands, "You shall not respect persons in judgment.'" The young prince angrily raised his hand against the Gaon, and the Gaon's servants threw the prince out of the house.

Stung by Rav Saadia's action, the exilarch declared him no longer Gaon of Sura, and in his stead appointed a young scholar, Joseph ben Jacob. The exilarch did everything to make life difficult for Saadia. In his turn, Rav Saadia declared the exilarch no longer fit for his post, and appointed a young brother of David ben Zakkai, Josiah Hasan, as the rightful Resh Galutha. In this bitter struggle Rav Saadia had the support of most of the scholars and of the community at large. But the exilarch could influence the court of the Caliph in his favor. As a result, Rav Saadia was compelled to leave Sura.

Rav Saadia settled in Baghdad. For the next four or five years his personal life was difficult, though he was supported by his many friends. However, being free from his manifold duties as Gaon of Sura, he was able to devote more time to his literary work, in defense of the Jewish faith against attacks and dangers from various quarters. During this time Rav Saadia wrote his famous philosophical work Emunoth v'Deoth ("Beliefs and Opinions"). He wrote it in Arabic, so that it would reach the "cultured" Jews, and perhaps also the non-Jewish world. He was particularly anxious to help those Jews, who, under the influence of Arabic culture, had fallen into confusion, doubt and error about their own faith.

"It pains my heart," Rav Saadia writes in the preface to his work, "to see many Jews engulfed in oceans of doubt and struggling in the raging waters of error; and there is no diver to help them out of their depths, nor a swimmer to lend them a hand. And as the Almighty had taught me the way to help them, I consider it my duty to extend a helping hand to them...

The book itself is divided into ten sections, each subdivided into chapters. In his book, the author discusses the fundamental principles of our faith, and emphasizes the close bonds between the Jewish people and G‑d by means of the Torah and its commandments, both of the Written Law and of the Oral Law (the Mishnah and Talmud), which form the very basis of existence of the Jewish people as a whole, and of Jews as individuals.

The Emunoth v'Deoth of Saadia has had a tremendous influence on Jewish thought to this very day. In its own day this work was even of greater importance in refuting the false beliefs and opinions which threatened to undermine the pure Jewish faith under the influence of Muslim and Christian writers.

Rav Saadia Gaon wrote numerous other important works, including a translation of the T'NaCh into Arabic, with a very valuable commentary. This great masterpiece is called Tafsir. Many other works in almost every branch of knowledge and wisdom, earned him the title (bestowed upon him by the great Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra), "the chief authority in every field" (rosh ha-medabrim b'chol mokom). Unfortunately, many of his works were lost.

During his stay in Baghdad, and as a result of his important writings, Saadia's name became even more famous than before. During all this time his friends tried to bring about a reconciliation between Rav Saadia and the Resh Galutha. Mutual friends finally succeeded in bringing Rav Saadia and David ben Zakkai together, and Saadia once again could take up his post as the Gaon of Sura. Soon David ben Zakkai died, and Rav Saadia supported David's son Judah, the very prince who had once raised his hand against him, to succeed his father. But Judah, too, died soon afterwards, leaving behind him a very young son. Rav Saadia took the young orphan into his house, and raised him as if he were his own son. He taught him personally and prepared him for the distinguished position of Resh Galutha.

Saadia lived for 60 years. He died on the 26th of Iyar, in the year 4702 (942). His sons, especially Rav Dosa Gaon, were great Torah scholars.

Rav Saadia lived and worked in a very critical time in Jewish history, when the unity and pure faith of the Jewish people were threatened from within and without. His personality and leadership, coupled with his brilliant scholarship and endless love for his people, reunited the Jewish people in the spirit of the Torah and tradition. The great Maimonides, who lived some 200 years later, and who was greatly influenced by Rav Saadia, said of him: "Were it not for Rav Saadia Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from Jewish people. For it was he who shed light on that which was obscure strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.

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Anonymous Brunoy December 3, 2011

I have a homework in Jewish History on Rabbi Saadia Gaon and one of the books that he wrote "Emunot VeDeot".
This article was a great help but I can hardly find anything on the book can someone please help me and give me a link on chabad.org or anywhere else
Thank you very much! Reply

Kevin Mitchells London, England November 30, 2011

This has been really helpful on my Jewish History homework at school, this is one of the only good websites with information on famous Jewish people that I have been able to find. Reply

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