Monday, May 22, 2017

Rav Saadia Gaon

Rabbi Saadia ben Joseph, known by the appellation Rav Saadia Gaon (Gaon was the title of the religious leader of the Jewish community in Babylon) is best known in history as a philosopher and as a powerful opponent of Karaitism.* These were, however, simply a part of his monumental scholastic achievements.

Born in the Fayyim region of Northern Egypt in 882 C.E., Rav Saadia published Ha’agron, a Hebrew reference dictionary, when he was just 20 years old. Three years later, in addition to moving to Palestine, Rav Saadia wrote his first work disputing the Karaite movement.

Rav Saadia Gaon’s rise to leadership came after he successfully refuted Rabbi Aaron ben Meir, the leader of Palestinian Jewry, when Rabbi Aaron tried to alter the calendar and have Passover observed three days earlier than determined by the calendar established by the Men of the Great Assembly. Following this incident, Rav Saadia became the head of the Talmudic Academy in Sura, Babylonia. Two years into his tenure, however, Rav Saadia had a falling out with the Exilarch (the political leader of the Babylonian community) and moved to Baghdad for seven years. While living in Baghdad, Rav Saadia continued his prolific writing and scholarship. During this time he completed his philosophical and theological masterpiece Emunoth v’Deoth,  Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma. After Rav Saadia and the Exilarch were reconciled, Rav Saadia returned to Sura and remained there until his death in 942.

Rav Saadia was an important figure in Jewish history for many reasons. He lived at a time when the world of learning focused on philosophy and so he wrote about Judaism in philosophical terms. Additionally, his use of Arabic as a language of Jewish scholarship made Torah accessible to Jews across the Medieval world both in his day and for centuries to come.

Rav Saadia Gaon’s yahrtzeit is today, 26 Iyar.

*Karaitism: a Jewish religious movement that repudiated oral tradition as a source of divine law (Encyclopedia Britanica)

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