Rav Sherira Gaon, the famous Head of the Pumbeditha Yeshiva in Babylonia was born about the year 4660 (900 of the Common Era). His father, Rav Chanina (or Chananya) was the Head of that Yeshiva, as also his grandfather Rav Yehudai Gaon had been. His family was descended from Zerubabel son of Shaltiel son of King Yechonla. Yechonia was king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezar had dethroned and car,tied off in chains to exile.
Yechonya's exile began eleven years before he had destroyed the Beth Hamikdash. The Babylonian world power was later taken over by the Persians under King Koresh of Persia, who allowed the Jews to rebuild the Beth Hamikdash.
Zerubabel, who had a position in the royal court of King Darius of Persia, was appointed to be Head of the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem and had rebuilt the second Beth Hamikdash.
Rav Sherira Gaon was thus a direct descendant of the royal family of David. His official seal bore a likeness of a lion, the symbol of the Tribe of Judah, likened to a lion, from whom King David descended. As Rav Sherira Gaon states in his Iggeret (to be discussed later), his ancestors held the position of Resh Galuta (Exilarch, "Head of the Jews in Exile," a title equal to that of Nassi). But when the office of the Resh Galuta became increasingly secular and political, they relinquished the title and dedicated themselves to their position of Torah and spiritual leadership as Geonim and heads of the Yeshiva of Pumbeditha.
In the year 4727 or 4728 (about the year 968) Rav Sherira Gaon was elected as head of the Yeshiva of Pumbeditha. Thereupon he transferred the duties of Gaon to his son Rav Hai Gaon, who had already become famous as a Gaon in his own right, while Rav Sherira Gaon devoted himself completely to the affairs of the Yeshiva, which was the highest Torah academy and Torah authority of the Jewish people at that time.
Rav Sherira Gaon reached a ripe old age of about 100 years. Toward the end of his life, he and his son Rav Hai Gaon were both arrested by Caliph Al-Cadir as a result of calumnies; and false accusations; their properties were confiscated and their lives were in danger. However, they were later released and allowed to resume their high offices and activities. This sad experience evidently undermined the health of the aged Rav Sherira Gaon, and he died soon afterward. He was laid to rest in the town of Matha Mechasia.
Iggeret d'Rav Sherira Gaon
Like all the Geonim before him, Rav Sherira Gaon received inquiries from various Jewish communities near and far on various aspects of Jewish laws and customs, requests for explanations of difficult texts of the Talmud, for guidance in communal affairs, and the like. In his long life, Rav Sherira received many such requests and enquiries, but only a few of his replies and legal rulings have been preserved, as well as scholarly explanations and elucidations of difficult passages of the Mishna and, Gemara. Most of the answers were written in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, as in the case of the preceding Geonim. Some replies, however, Rav Sherira Gaon wrote in Arabic, which was used widely in those days in the many countries that were under the rule of the Arabs, whose influence had spread from Spain in the west to India in the east. Some of these have been translated into Hebrew.
The most famous work of Rav Sherira Gaon is his "Epistle" - Iggeret, which he wrote in reply to an inquiry from the Jewish community of Keiruwan, in North Africa. The inquiry was addressed to Rav Sherira Gaon by Rabbi Yaakov the son of the famed Gaon Rabbeinu Nissim in the year 986. The answer from Rav Sherira Gaon came in the form of a long letter, which became famous as the Iggeret d'Rav Sherira Gaon.
The questions which Rabbeinu Nissim ben Yaakov addressed to the Gaon of Pumbeditha in behalf of the community of Keiruwan were as follows:
(a) How was the Mishnah (the Oral Law) recorded? Was the Mishnah written down in stages, beginning from the Anshei Kenesset haGedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly, including the last Prophets and the first Tannaim) to Rabbi Yehudah haNassi (the Prince), who finally compiled and edited the Six Tractates of the Mishnah, or did Rabbi Yehudah write down for the first time all of the Mishnah as it came down to his generation from the preceding generations? In that case, why wasn't the Mishnah recorded by earlier Tannaim?
(b) What is the reason for the sequence of the Mishnaic tractates (mesichtot) as they follow one another in their respective "orders" (sedarim)?
(c) Why did not Rabbi Yehudah haNassi incorporate the Tosefta - the important additional tannaitic teachings and explanations - in the Mishnah itself, instead of grouping them in a separate additional collection? And why were the Baraitot - the hundreds of tannaitic halachot and explanations that are quoted in the Gemara - left out of the Mishnah itself, remaining "external" (which is the meaning of the word Baraita), as it were, whereas they are in fact very important in understanding the Mishnah?
(d) How was the Gemara - the vast commentary on the Mishnah - written down?
(e) In what order did the Saboraim the Talmud scholars who continued the tradition after the Amoraim (who succeeded the Tannaim) - "reign" after the Amoraim? And who, and in what order, did the scholars - the Geonim - reign after their predecessors, the Saboraim,' up to his - Rav Sherira Gaon's - time?
What prompted the Jewish community of Kairuwan to seek the above information was the presence in their midst of a significant number of Karaites; members of a Jewish sect which questioned the truth of the Torah shebe'al Peh' the Oral Law that was transmitted orally from generation to generation, from Moshe Rabbeinu, and eventually recorded in the Mishnah and Gemara. The Karaites believed only in the Written Torah - the T'NaCh - in its literal form, which is the reason why they were called Karaites. Their scholars often challenged the Rabbis to a debate, trying to defend their position. The Rabbis refuted their arguments, showed them how without the traditional interpretation of the Torah as it came down through the generations, the words, in their written form alone, often made no sense. One of the basic proofs of the fact that the Written Torah has come down together with the Oral Torah is the fact that there has never been a break in the chain of Tradition from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu to the present day. It was therefore important, indeed necessary, for the Jews of Kairuwan and elsewhere to know about the Mishnah and Talmud and related sources of the Halachah, and how all this body of knowledge was transmitted up to the closing of the Talmud, and thereafter by the Torah scholars in every generation, who continued the chain of tradition right up to Rav Sherira Gaon, the leading Torah authority of that generation.
Rav Sherira Gaon not only fully answered one by one all the questions, but also added a great deal of information, in order to present a comprehensive record that would serve as an historical work on such an important subject.
Rav Sherira Gaon begins by explaining how the Masorah (Tradition) including the Halachot (laws), was handed down from the Men of the Great Assembly (who had received it from the Prophets and Elders, and the latter direct from Moshe Rabbeinu) to the next generation, and each generation in turn handed it down to the next, in an uninterrupted chain. At first there was no need to write down the Halachot because there were the brilliant scholars who memorized everything to the letter. There was hardly any difference of opinion regarding the laws. After the destruction of the (second) Beis Hamikdosh, when the Yeshivot were dislocated, scholars dispersed, and the times became increasingly turbulent, many Halachot were forgotten, and in regard to many others, differences of opinion increased. It therefore became necessary to collect the Halachot, arrange them in proper order and write them down. This was done by Rabbi Yehuda haNassi, who was blessed with both Torah wealth and material wealth, with the aid of the leading Sages of his time - the last generation of Tannaim.
Then Rav Sherira Gaon goes on to explain the nature of the Mishnah, Tosefta and Baraita, and how earlier collections of Halachot had been preserved. He also explains the order of the tractates, and answers all the other questions related to the compiling and final editing of the Mishnah. Then hedescribes the work of the Amoraim and the order of their succession (as he did also in connection with the Tannaim).
A great deal of the information contained in the Iggeret in regard to the first four questions is already scattered in the Talmud, which, of course, is the main source of Rav Sherira Gaon. But in reconstructing the chain of Tradition in the post-Talmudic period, Rav Sherira relies mainly on the records of the Babylonian academies themselves (Neharde'a, Sura, Pumbeditha), both written records as well as those transmitted orally. In this part of the Iggeret - dealing with the fifth question regarding the order and sequence of scholars from the close of the Talmud to his own day - Rabbi Sherira's work is of particularly great importance. Here Rav Sherira becomes almost the only source for the history of the chain of Tradition and Jewish life for some 500 years, from about the year 500 to, 1000. He lists all, the leading scholars, the Saboraim and Geonim who served in the Babylonian academies, noting their time of office and other details. He also records the important events of the time, the takkanot (special rules) the Geonim instituted, and many other matters of great historical value.
Rav Sherira Gaon, as mentioned, wrote his Iggeret in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud and all the Responsa (Halachic replies) of the Geonim. It was later translated into Hebrew and other languages. We now have two versions of the Iggeret, the so-called Spanish version and the French version. The versions differ in some respects, but the Spanish version is believed to be more accurate, because the Talmud scholars in Spain were in closer touch with the Geonim, either directly or through Kairuwan, than the scholars in France. indeed, Yosef the son of Rabbi Shmuel haNagid (Ibn Nagdila), leader of the Jews of Spain, was married to the daughter of Nissim, the son of Rabbi Yaakov ben Nissim.to whom the Iggeret was sent. No doubt Rabbi Shmuel had a true copy of the original Iggeret.
Thanks to the far-sightedness of Rav Sherira Gaon, his Iggeret, written to the community of Kairuwan for their personal information, as it seemed, became an outstanding historical document for all the Jewish people for all times.