Saadia Gaon

From Academic Kids

Saadia Ben Joseph Gaon (892-942), the Hebrew name of Said al-Fayyumi, was a rabbi who was also a prominent Jewish exilarch, philosopher, and exegete. Born in upper Egypt in 892, he died in Babylonia at Sura in 942. The name "Saadia," is apparently the Hebrew equivalent of his Arabic name, "Sa'id." In an acrostic of the Hebrew introduction to his first work, the Agron, he calls himself Said ben Yosef, but later he wrote his name Saadia.

Saadia, in "Sefer ha-Galui", stresses his Jewish lineage, claiming to belong to the noble family of Shelah, son of Judah (see I Chron. IV. 21), and counting among his ancestors Hanina ben Dosa, the famous ascetic of the first century. Expression was given to this claim by Saadia in calling his son Dosa. Nothing else is known of the latter. Regarding Joseph, Saadia's father, a statement of Ben Mer has been preserved saying that he was compelled to leave Egypt and died in Jaffa, probably during Saadia's lengthy residence in the Holy Land. The usual epithet of "Al-Fayyumi," represented in Hebrew by the similar geographical name "Pitomi", refers to Saadia's native place, the Fayum in upper Egypt.

Little is known of his youth and education. At age 20 Saadia completed his first great work, the Hebrew dictionary which he entitled Agron. At 23 he composed a polemic against Anan ben David, thus beginning the activity which was to prove important in opposition to Karaism, in defense of traditional Judaism. In the same year he left Egypt and settled permanently in Palestine. Saadia was in Aleppo, on his way from the East when he learned of Ben Mer's regulation of the Jewish calendar, which endangered the unity of Judaism. Saadia addressed a warning to him, and in Babylon he placed his knowledge and pen at the disposal of the exilarch David ben Zakkai and the scholars of the academy, adding his own letters to those sent by them to the communities of the Diaspora (922). In Babylonia he wrote his "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," or "Book of Festivals," in which he refuted the assertions of Ben Mer regarding the calendar, and helped to avert from the Jewish community the perils of schism.

His dispute with Ben Mer was an important factor in the call to Sura which he received in 928. He was made gaon (rabbinic leader) by the exilarch David ben Zakkai; and the ancient academy, founded by Rav, entered upon a new period of brilliancy. There were many who viewed did not wish to see a foreigner as the head of the academy; and even the mighty exilarch himself, whom the aged Nissim Naharwani had vainly attempted to dissuade from appointing Saadia, found, after two years, that the personality of his appointee was far different from that of the insignificant and servile geonim whom he had succeeded, and who had done the exilarch's bidding.

In a probate case Saadia refused to sign a verdict of the exilarch which he thought unjust, although the gaon of Pumbedita had subscribed to it. When the son of the exilarch threatened Saadia with violence to secure his compliance, and was roughly handled by Saadia's servant, open war broke out between the exilarch and the gaon. Each excommunicated the other, declaring that he deposed his opponent from office; and David b. Zakkai appointed Joseph b. Jacob as gaon of Sura, while Saadia conferred the exilarchate on David's brother Ḥasan (Josiah; 930). Ḥasan was forced to flee, and died in exile in Khorasan; but the strife which divided Babylonian Judaism continued. Saadia was attacked by the exilarch and by his chief adherent, the young but learned Aaron ibn Sargado, in Hebrew pamphlets, fragments of which show a hatred on the part of the exilarch and his partizans that did not shrink from scandal. Saadia did not fail to reply.


1 See also

The Sefer ha-Galui

He wrote both in Hebrew and in Arabic a work, now known only from a few fragments, entitled "Sefer ha-Galui" (Arabic title, "Kitab al-Ṭarid"), in which he emphasized with great but justifiable pride the services which he had rendered, especially in his opposition to heresy.

The seven years which Saadia spent in Baghdad, far from the gaonate, did not interrupt his literary activity. His principal philosophical work was completed in 933; and four years later, through Ibn Sargado's father-in-law, Bishr ben Aaron, the two enemies were reconciled. Saadia was reinstated in his office; but he held it for only five years. David b. Zakkai died before him (c. 940), being followed a few months later by the exilarch's son Judah, while David's young grandson was nobly protected by Saadia as by a father. According to a statement made by Abraham ibn Daud and doubtless derived from Saadia's son Dosa, Saadia himself died, as noted above, in 942, at the age of fifty, of "black gall" (melancholia), repeated illnesses having undermined his health.



Saadia translated into Arabic most, if not all, of the Bible, adding an Arabic commentary, although there is no citation from the books of Chronicles.

Hebrew Linguistics:

(1) Agron (2) Kutub al-Lughah (3) "Tafsir al-Sab'ina Lafẓah," a list of seventy (properly ninety) Hebrew (and Aramaic) words which occur in the Bible only once or very rarely, and which may be explained from traditional literature, especially from the Neo-Hebraisms of the Mishnah. This small work has been frequently reprinted.

Halakhic Writings:

(1) Short monographs in which problems of Jewish law are systematically presented. Of these Arabic treatises of Saadia's little but the titles and extracts is known and it is only in the "Kitab al-Mawarith" that fragments of any length have survived. (2) A commentary on the thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael, preserved only in a Hebrew translation. An Arabic methodology of the Talmud is also mentioned, by Azulai, as a work of Saadia under the title "Kelale ha-Talmud". (3) Responsa. With few exceptions these exist only in Hebrew, some of them having been probably written in that language.

(1) The "Siddur"

Siddur of Saadia Gaon

(2) Of this synagogal poetry the most noteworthy portions are the "Azharot" on the 613 commandments, which give the author's name as "Sa'id b. Joseph", followed by the expression "Alluf," thus showing that the poems were written before he became gaon.

Philosophy of Religion:

The "Emunot we-De'ot."

(1) Emunoth ve-Deoth (Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tiḳadat)

(2) "Tafsir Kitab al-Mabadi," an Arabic translation of and commentary on the "Sefer Yetzirah," written while its author was still residing in Egypt (or Palestine).

Polemical Writings:

(1-3) Refutations of Karaite authors, always designated by the name "Kitab al-Rudd," or "Book of Refutation." These three works are known only from scanty references to them in other works; that the third was written after 933, is proved by one of the citations. (4) "Kitab al-Tamyiz" (in Hebrew, "Sefer ha-Hakkarah"), or "Book of Distinction," composed in 926, and Saadia's most extensive polemical work. It was still cited in the twelfth century; and a number of passages from it are given in a Biblical commentary of Japheth ha-Levi. (5) There was perhaps a special polemic of Saadia against Ben Zuṭa, though the data regarding this controversy between is known only from the gaon's gloss on the Torah. (6) A refutation directed against the rationalistic Biblical critic Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, whose views were rejected by the Karaites themselves; (7) "Kitab al-Shara'i'," or "Book of the Commandments of Religion," (8) "Kitab al-'Ibbur," or "Book of the Calendar," likewise apparently containing polemics against Karaite Jews; (9) "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," or "Book of Festivals," the Hebrew polemic against Ben Mer which has been mentioned above. (10) "Sefer ha-Galui," also in Hebrew and in the same Biblical style as the "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," being an apologetic work directed against David b. Zakkai and his followers.


Saadia Gaon was a pioneer in the fields in which he toiled. The foremost object of his work was the Bible; his importance is due primarily to his establishment of a new school of Biblical exegesis characterized by a rational investigation of the contents of the Bible and a scientific knowledge of the language of the holy text.

Saadia's Arabic translation of the Bible is of importance for the history of civilization; itself a product of the Arabization of a large portion of Judaism, it served for centuries as a potent factor in the impregnation of the Jewish spirit with Arabic culture, so that, in this respect, it may take its place beside the Greek Bible-translation of antiquity and the German translation of the Pentateuch by Moses Mendelssohn. As a means of popular religious enlightenment, Saadia's translation presented the Scriptures even to the unlearned in a rational form which aimed at the greatest possible degree of clearness and consistency.

His system of hermeneutics was not limited to the exegesis of individual passages, but treated also each book of the Bible as a whole, and showed the connection of its various portions with one another.

The commentary contained, as is stated in the author's own introduction to his translation of the Pentateuch,not only an exact interpretation of the text, but also a refutation of the cavils which the heretics raised against it. Further, it set forth the bases of the commandments of reason and the characterization of the commandments of revelation; in the case of the former the author appealed to philosophical speculation; of the latter, naturally, to tradition.

The position assigned to Saadia in the oldest list of Hebrew grammarians, which is contained in the introduction to Ibn Ezra's "Moznayim," has not been challenged even by the latest historical investigations. Here, too, he was the first; his grammatical work, now lost, gave an inspiration to further studies, which attained their most brilliant and lasting results in Spain, and he created in part the categories and rules along whose lines was developed the grammatical study of the Hebrew language. His dictionary, primitive and merely practical as it was, became the foundation of Hebrew lexicography; and the name "Agron" (literally, "collection"), which he chose and doubtless created, was long used as a designation for Hebrew lexicons, especially by the Karaites. The very categories of rhetoric, as they were found among the Arabs, were first applied by Saadia to the style of the Bible. He was likewise one of the founders of comparative philology, not only through his brief "Book of Seventy Words, "already mentioned, but especially through his explanation of the Hebrew vocabulary by the Arabic, particularly in the case of the favorite translation of Biblical words by Arabic terms having the same sound.

His Philosophy of Religion

See main article: Emunoth ve-Deoth

In his "Kitab al-Amanat wal-I'tikadat" - "Emunoth ve-Deoth" (see above) Saadia became the creator of the Jewish philosophy of religion.

Relations to Mysticism

In his commentary on the "Sefer Yetzirah" Saadia sought to render lucid and intelligible the content of this mystical work by the light of philosophy and other knowledge, especially by a system of Hebrew phonology which he himself had founded. He did not permit himself in this commentary to be influenced by the theological speculations of the Kalam, which are so important in his main works; and in his presentation of the theory of creation he made a distinction between the Bible and the book on which he commented, even omitting the theory of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" regarding the creation of the world when he discussed the various views on this subject in the first section of his "Kitab al-Amanat wal-I'tiḳadat." From this it may be concluded that he did not regard the "Sefer Yeẓirah"—which he traces ultimately to the patriarch Abraham—as a real source for a knowledge of the theory of Judaism, although he evidently considered the work worthy of deep study.

See also

Template:JewishEncyclopediahe:סעדיה גאון


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