The Gaonim and Their Times

The leaders of the two major Babylonian yeshivas at Sura and Pumbeditha were known as Gaonim, Hebrew for "magnificent." The Gaonic period spanned nearly 450 years, from Rabbi Chanan of Ashkaya, the first Gaon, in 589, to Rabbi Hai Gaon, the last Gaon, in 1038. Throughout the Jewish world, these two Gaonim were universally regarded as the final halachic authorities. All told, there were more than 80 Gaonim during this period, about most of whom there is little or no information, other than their names.

Not much is also known about Jewish life in general during these several hundred years, either, as no historical records were kept and no archaeological evidence has been unearthed in Babylonia (Iraq). Similarly, secular history is scanty, this being the so-called Dark Ages. While most of the world's Jews still lived in Babylonia, there began a gradual but very significant emigration to Europe, North Africa, and other parts of Asia. Such a migration is unique in Jewish history, for it marks the only time that large numbers of Jews left a country without a sudden reason to emigrate, such as from Egypt at the Exodus, Eretz Israel at Churban Bayis Rishon, Spain at the Expulsion, Russia during the pogroms of 1880-1920, and Europe after the Holocaust.

In Babylonia, rabbinic power was concentrated in the hands of the Gaonim, while political power was under the domain of the government-approved Resh Galusa. This arrangement led to frequent conflict, as the Rashei Galusa would often attempt to encroach upon the prerogatives of the Gaonim, and the Gaonim would try to curb the harmful influences of the Rashei Galusa. On rare occasions, there also was disagreement between Sura and Pumbeditha regarding who should have the preeminent role in halachic matters. However, the vast majority of the time cordial relations existed between the two academies.

Accomplishments of the Gaonim

Even after the Talmud was completed, its understanding still remained largely inaccessible to all but accomplished scholars. Often, the Talmud debates an issue at length without reaching a definite conclusion. The Gaonim filled a vital need by developing new forms of Torah scholarship, including anthologies of laws grouped by subject matter culled from all over the Talmud, with all debates and reasoning removed, thus making it easy to locate a halacha. In addition, the Gaonim published responses to halachic questions posed from all over the Jewish world, thereby demonstrating the application of Talmudic law to new situations. These Gaonic correspondences became known as Shaalos Uteshuvos, questions and answers, and greatly popularized this new genre of Torah study. Many thousands of compilations of Shaalos Uteshuvos have been published since Gaonic times. A direct descendant of these Gaonic masterpieces is the famous eight volumes of Shaalos Uteshuvos Igros Moshe by the world-renowned halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory. Such contemporary issues as the halachic permissibility of heart transplants and the use on the Sabbath of lenses that darken in sunlight are discussed in detail, all based on principles enunciated in the Talmud.

The Gaonim also wrote the first authorized siddur, prayer book, replacing what had been an oral transmission of the service. They also authored works explaining basic Jewish philosophy and belief, making this important area of learning accessible to all. Previously, these concepts were scattered throughout the Scriptures and Talmud, and were very difficult to approach in a systematic manner. So great was their scholarship, in fact, that there is a discussion among later rabbinic authorities as to whether the rulings of the Gaonim are considered unimpeachable such as those of the Talmud.