The Karaite Sect

In the mid-700s, the Resh Galusa, Shlomo, died childless. Logically, the elder of his two nephews, Anan, should have inherited the position. However, the Gaonim of the time had reason to doubt Anan's character and beliefs, and despite being intellectually superior to his younger brother, Anan was passed over. Anan then declared himself Resh Galusa, and the Muslim authorities, which had confirmed the Gaonim’s choice for Resh Galusa, imprisoned Anan for rebellion. Awaiting execution, Anan, by claiming to be a member of a breakaway Jewish sect, was able to convince the Caliph to release him. Upon release, Anan founded the Karaite movement, which basically was a resurrection of the Sadducean heresy.

The Karaites, like the Sadducees before them, only accepted the Written Torah, rejecting the Oral Torah and all rabbinic interpretation. To reinforce their position, they even took the name Karaim, Hebrew for written verses (Mikrah).Due to their literal reading of Exodus 35:3, which forbids lighting fires on the Sabbath, the Karaites spent the Sabbath in the dark, not eating hot food. In response, Jews loyal to the Torah adopted the custom of eating hot cholent on Sabbath afternoon, demonstrating that they adhered to rabbinic tradition, which taught that one may keep food warm on Sabbath if cooked beforehand. At first, Anan's movement gained a sizable following, but eventually lost much of its popularity. Nevertheless, the movement has had remarkable longevity. Small pockets of Karaites existed in Lithuania even into the early 1900s, and Israel today maintains a tiny Karaite community.

Enactments of the Gaonim

Throughout their time, the Gaonim made a number of decrees to enhance Jewish life. For example, under Talmudic law a widow or divorcee may only collect her kesubah (marriage settlement) from landed property belonging to her former husband. This decree was based on the fact that in that time virtually all Jews owned real estate, which was the best collateral for a debt. However, in Gaonic times Jews became involved less in agriculture and more in commerce. In response to the changing conditions, then, the Gaonim enacted that movable property could also be mortgaged for the kesubah. (The Gaonim's decision was based on a Talmudic statement that allows such action in exceptional localities where movables were the major source of commerce.)

When this lack of real estate became the rule rather than the exception, the Gaonim extended the Talmud's ruling to all places, a prophetic move which has served the Jewish people well through its many exiles. Another decree instituted by the Gaonim, commemorating the tragic passing of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students,is the custom of observing a level of national mourning by not allowing weddings during the Omer period, between Pesach and Shavuos. In later times, such mourning practices were expanded to restrict shaving and haircuts as well.

The Siddur Expanded

The prayer service as enacted by the Anshei Knesses Hagdolah, and as recorded in the Talmud, is relatively short. Not being satisfied with what was essentially the bare minimum, many Jews felt that the rite should be enlarged, an act permitted by the Talmud in certain areas of the service. In addition, as the long exile dragged on, with no end in sight, people desired a lengthier prayer service with which to beseech G‑d for personal and national salvation. At that time, individual chazzanim (prayer leaders), as well as great scholars, composed original prayers, some of which became accepted by the nation and assumed the status of minhag (custom), later becoming codified into law.

The most famous of these composers was Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, the son of the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, according to tradition. Writing extremely intricate compositions, Rabbi Elazar had a total command of Hebrew and Torah – and both are required to understand the prayers. Many of his pieces still exist, especially in the Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and special Sabbath and festival machzorim (seasonal prayer books). In addition, much of the Selichos, Kinnos, and Hoshanos services are also based on Rabbi Elazar HaKalir’s work. Indeed, during Gaonic times this genre of synagogue liturgy became extremely popular and the great burst of creativity in poetic prayer lasted hundreds of years. These prayers, known as piyutim, or liturgical poems, rhymed and were arranged according to the Alef-Bais, the Hebrew alphabet.Authors also encoded their names into the text of their compositions.

However, there was criticism about adding these prayers for three reasons. First, many piyutim were written to be said at points in the service where interruptions are normally forbidden, such as during the benedictions of Yotzer Or, and during the chazzan's repetition of the Amidah. Second, some scholars felt that a number of words in the piyutim, particularly those of Rabbi Elazar HaKalir, were linguistic flights of fancy which did not exist in Hebrew. Third, piyutim addressed to angels could mislead people into believing that these angels should be worshipped in their own right, which is idolatry. Regardless of the concerns and criticisms, however, piyutim became accepted by general consensus, and now form a major portion of the siddur, enriching Jewish prayer services immeasurably.

Biblical Scholarship

While most of world Jewry resided in Babylonia during the Gaonic era, a small but significant community still existed in Eretz Israel.Indeed, the town of Tiberias became renowned for its Biblical scholars, known as Masoretes. These sages worked tirelessly to record the proper punctuation and musical cantillation of all the verses in Scripture. To that point, this body of knowledge had existed as oral tradition, but due to the dispersal of Jews to far-flung areas, it was in danger of being forgotten. Indeed, because the Torah and prophetic scrolls read publicly during synagogue services have no vocalization marks, the real danger existed that conflicts in pronunciation could lead to distorted translations. Therefore, the system of vowels in use today was developed, along with the musical signs indicating the proper tune for each word. The most famous of the Masoretes was Aharon ben Asher, who lived in the 10th Century. After much research, he painstakingly compiled a codex of the Bible, considered authoritative by Maimonides, who based many of his laws regarding Torah scrolls on it.

A contemporary of ben Asher was ben Naftali, who disagreed with ben Asher in several hundred instances, almost all involving pronunciation or placement of musical signs. For example, the pronunciation of the word Issachar, one of Jacob's sons, is Yisaschar according to ben Asher, but Yisachar according to ben Naftali. While current practice regards ben Asher as authoritative in virtually every instance, ben Naftali's pronunciation of Yisachar is customarily followed. A copy of ben Asher's work was in Aleppo, Syria, for many hundreds of years. Although 25% of the manuscript was destroyed, the rest was brought to Israel, where it exists today.

Eldad Hadani

In the 800s, a traveling merchant, claiming descent from the tribe of Dan, made his rounds in many Jewish communities. Calling himself Eldad HaDani, he told of an independent Jewish kingdom in Africa consisting of four of the lost 10 tribes. He also taught previously unheard-of halachos, particularly regarding kosher slaughter of animals. Among the new laws he stated are if one slaughters without reciting a blessing beforehand or without a head covering, or if the slaughterer is under the age of 18 or over the age of 80, the animal is not kosher. (Current practice does not follow this stringent view.) While some scholars regarded Eldad as authentic, others viewed him as totally unreliable.

The Khazars

It is commonly believed that the State of Israel is the first independent Jewish country in nearly 2,000 years. However, incredibly enough, a powerful Jewish kingdom known as Khazaria flourished during the Gaonic era and lasted several hundred years. In the Eighth Century, a people known as Khazars converted to Judaism and created a nation in a large area of the Caucasus, what is today southern Russia. According to the 12th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi Judah HaLevi in his book the Kuzari, Khazar King Bulan invited representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths to debate the merits of their respective beliefs, planning to adopt the religion of the winner. Details of the debate are recorded in the Kuzari, along with Bulan's decision to convert his kingdom to Judaism.

Although differing opinions exist among historians as to whether this disputation actually took place, based on archaeological evidence all agree that a Jewish Khazar kingdom existed. The Khazars followed traditional Judaism and had contact with other Jews. The Khazar king, known as the kagan, by law had to be a Jew. The Khazars waged war with surrounding nations, frequently emerging victorious. However, by the 10th Century, constant battles with Russian tribes greatly weakened Khazaria, and the kingdom collapsed. Many Khazar Jews were killed, while others converted to their conquerors' beliefs. Nevertheless, most Khazars retained their Jewish faith and joined other Jewish communities, particularly in Poland and Ukraine. Today, the Khazars are integrated into Jewish life and are unrecognizable.

The Great Calendar Dispute

In 920 CE, a controversy erupted that threatened to tear Jewish society apart. Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Jewish community of Eretz Israel,used a technical rarity to dispute the generally accepted calendar for the year 4681 (920-921). According to his calculation, Pesach 4681 fell on a Sunday, while the prevalent opinion in Babylonia was that it fell on Tuesday. Basing his ideas on a Talmudic passage that delegates authority in calendar matters to the sages of Eretz Israel,ben Meir instructed the Jews of Eretz Israelto celebrate Pesach on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Jews of Babylonia began the holiday on Tuesday. This sorry state of affairs lasted for two years, until, realizing that the cohesiveness of the Jewish people was in danger if people would continue observing different dates for festivals, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, the leader of Babylonian Jewry, decisively proved that Rabbi Aharon ben Meir was incorrect. The matter died, and never again was there a calendar controversy in the Jewish world.

The First Pure Halachic Works

Two Gaonim wrote the first volumes dedicated solely to halachic decisions. Rabbi Yehudai Gaon authored Halachos Pesukos, which groups laws by topic. Blind and unable to write, the book was actually written by his disciples. Rabbi Shimon Kayara composed Halachos Gedolos, commonly known as the Behag, which arranges laws according to the order in the Talmud. Both works are considered the foundation of all subsequent halachic codifications.