Saadia Gaon

Sa'adiah ben Yosef Gaon (Arabic: سعيد بن يوسف الفيومي‎ / Saʻīd bin Yūsuf al-Fayyūmi, Sa'id ibn Yusuf al-Dilasi, Saadia ben Yosef aluf, Sa'id ben Yusuf ra's al-Kull;[1] Hebrew: רבי סעדיה בן יוסף אלפיומי גאון'; alternative English Names: Rabbeinu Sa'adiah Gaon ("our Rabbi [the] Saadia Gaon"), often abbreviated RSG (RaSaG), Saadia b. Joseph,[2] Saadia ben Joseph or Saadia ben Joseph of Faym or Saadia ben Joseph Al-Fayyumi; (882/892 – 942)[3][4] was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Geonic period who was active in the Abbasid Caliphate.

The first important rabbinic figure to write extensively in Arabic, he is considered the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature.[5] Known for his works on Hebrew linguistics, Halakha, and Jewish philosophy, he was one of the more sophisticated practitioners of the philosophical school known as the "Jewish Kalam" (Stroumsa 2003). In this capacity, his philosophical work The Book of Beliefs and Opinions represents the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with components of Greek philosophy. Saadia was also very active in opposition to Karaism, in defense of rabbinic Judaism.


Early life

Saadia, in "Sefer ha-Galui", stresses his Jewish lineage, claiming to belong to the noble family of Shelah, son of Judah,[6] 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 (this son later served as Gaon of Sura from 1013–1017). Regarding Joseph, Saadia's father, a statement of Aaron ben Meir 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" refers to Saadia's native place, the Fayum in upper Egypt; in Hebrew it is often given as "Pitomi," derived from a contemporary identification of Fayum with the Biblical Pithom (an identification found in Saadia's own works).

At a young age he left his home to study under the Torah scholars of Tiberias. At age 20 Saadia began composing his first great work, the Hebrew dictionary which he entitled Agron.[7] At 23 he composed a polemic against the followers of Anan ben David, particularly Solomon ben Yeruham, thus beginning the activity which was to prove important in opposition to Karaism, in defense of rabbinic Judaism. In the same year he left Egypt and settled permanently in the Land of Israel.

Dispute with Ben Meir

In 922 a controversy arose concerning the Hebrew calendar, that threatened the entire Jewish community. Since Hillel II (around 359 CE), the calendar had been based on a series of rules (described more fully in Maimonides' Code[8]) rather than on observation of the moon's phases. One of these rules required the date of Rosh Hashanah to be postponed if the calculated lunar conjunction occurred at noon or later. Rabbi Aaron ben Meir, the Gaon of the leading Talmudic academy in Israel (then located in Ramle), claimed a tradition according to which the cutoff point was 642/1080 of an hour (approximately 35 minutes) after noon.[9] In that particular year, this change would result in a two-day schism with the major Jewish communities in Babylonia: according to Ben Meir the first day of Passover would be on a Sunday, while according to the generally accepted rule it would be on Tuesday.

Saadia was in Aleppo, on his way from the East, when he learned of Ben Meir's regulation of the Jewish calendar. 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 Meir regarding the calendar, and helped to avert from the Jewish community the perils of schism.

Appointment as Gaon

His dispute with Ben Meir was an important factor in the call to Sura which he received in 928. The exilarch David ben Zakkai insisted on appointing him as Gaon (head of the academy), despite the weight of precedent (no foreigner had ever served as Gaon before), and against the advice of the aged Nissim Nahrwani, a Resh Kallah at Sura, who feared a confrontation between the two strong-willed personalities, David and Saadia. (Nissim declared, however, that if David was determined to see Saadia in the position, then he would be ready to become the first of Saadia's followers.[10])

Under his leadership, the ancient academy, founded by Rav, entered upon a new period of brilliancy.[11] This renaissance was cut short, though, by a clash between Saadia and David, much as Nissim had predicted.

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 Hassan (Josiah; 930). Hassan 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 (later Gaon of Pumbedita, 943-960), in Hebrew pamphlets, fragments of which show a hatred on the part of the exilarch and his partisans that did not shrink from scandal. Saadia did not fail to reply.

Method of translation

As much as Saadia's Judeo-Arabic translation of the Pentateuch (Tafsīr) has brought relief and succor to Jews living in Arabic-speaking countries, his identification of places, fauna and flora, and the stones of the breastplate, has found him at variance with some scholars. Abraham ibn Ezra, in his own commentary of the Pentateuch, wrote scathing remarks on Saadia's commentary,[12] saying: "He doesn't have an oral tradition […] perhaps he has a vision in a dream, while he has already erred with respect to certain places […]; therefore, we will not rely on his dreams." However, Saadia assures his readers elsewhere that when he rendered translations for the twenty odd unclean fowl that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 11:13–19; Deuteronomy 14:12–18), his translation was based on an oral tradition received by him.[13] In fact, Saadia's method of conveying names for the fowls based on what he had received by way of an oral tradition, prompted him to add in his defense: "Every detail about them, had one of them merely come unto us [for identification], we would not have been able to identify it for certain, much less recognize their related kinds."[14] The question often asked by scholars now is whether Saadia applied this principle in his other translations. Re'em (Heb. ראם), as in Deut. 33:17, improperly translated as "unicorn" in some English translations, is a word that is now used in Modern Hebrew to represent the "oryx," although Saadia understood the same word to mean "rhinoceros", and writes there the Judeo-Arabic word אלכרכדאן for the creature. He interprets the zamer (Heb. זמר) in Deuteronomy 14:5 as meaning the giraffe.

Comparative study of Saadia's translations for the Eight Creeping Things of Leviticus, ch. 11
Leviticus 11:29–30
Hebrew Word Saadia Gaon
(Old French)
Leviticus 11:29 החֹלד
Mole (Spalax ehrenbergi)[15]
Weasel (Mustela spp.)[16]
Leviticus 11:29 העכבּר
Mouse (Mus musculus)[15][19]
xxx μυς
Leviticus 11:29 הצב
Spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx aegyptius)[15]
Toad (Bufo spp.)[16][20]
Big lizard[17][21]
Leviticus 11:30 האנקה
Monitor lizard (Varanus spp.)[15]
Hedgehog (Erinaceus concolor)[16]
Shrew (Crocidura spp.)[17]
Leviticus 11:30 הכח
Agama lizard (Agama spp.)[15]
xxx χαμαιλέων
Leviticus 11:30 הלטאה
Fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus spp.)
(Lacerta spp.)[15]
Lizard (Lacerta spp.)[16]
Leviticus 11:30 החמט
Chameleon lizard (Chamaeleo spp.)[15]
Slug (Limax spp.)[16]
Leviticus 11:30 התנשמת
Gecko lizard (Hemidactylus turcicus)[15]
Mole (Talpa spp.)[16]

In Saadia's translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms (Kitāb al-Tasābiḥ), he has done what no other medieval writer has done before him, bringing down a biblical exegesis and noting where the verse is to be read as a rhetorical question, and where the verse itself derides the question with good humor:

הַר אֱלהִים הַר בָּשָׁן. הַר גַּבְנֻנִּים הַר בָּשָׁן
לָמָּה תְּרַצְדוּן הָרִים גַּבְנֻנִּים
הָהָר חָמַד אֱלהִים לְשִׁבְתּוֹ. אַף יי' יִשְׁכּן לָנֶצַח

Is the hill of God the hill of Bashan? A hunchback mountain is the hill of Bashan! (Meaning, it is unfit for God's Divine Presence).
Why leap ye, ye hunchback mountains?
That mountain wherein God desires to dwell (i.e. Mount Moriah in Jerusalem), even the Lord shall dwell [therein] forever more.

— Saadia Gaon's Commentary[25]

Later years

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 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 more 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 in Babylonia at Sura in 942, at the age of sixty, of "black gall" (melancholia), repeated illnesses having undermined his health.

Mention in Sefer Hasidim

An anecdote is reported in Sefer Hasidim about Saadia ben Yosef "the sage," in which he ends a dispute between a servant who claims to be the heir of his deceased master and the man's true son and heir by having them both draw blood into separate vessels. He then took a bone from the deceased man and placed it into each of the cups. The bone in the cup of the true heir absorbed the blood, while the servant's blood was not absorbed in the bone. Using this as genetic proof of the son's true inheritance, Saadia had the servant return the man's property to his son.[26]