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Saʿadyah Gaon


SAʿADYAH GAON (882942), properly Saʿadyah ben Yosef al-Fayyumī, was a Jewish theologian, jurist, scholar, and gaon ("head, eminence") of the rabbinic academy at Sura, Babylonia. Saʿadyah was born in Dila (modern Abu Suwayr) in the Faiyūm district of Upper Egypt. Virtually nothing is known about his family and early education. By age twenty-three, however, he had corresponded with the noted Jewish Neoplatonist Yitsaq Israeli (c. 855955), published the first Hebrew dictionary (Sefer ha-agron ), and composed a polemic against the Karaite schismatic ʿAnan ben David (fl. 760). After leaving Egypt, Saʿadyah spent time in both Palestine and Syria but eventually, in 921 or 922, settled in Babylonia. There he championed the cause of the Babylonian rabbis in a dispute with Palestinian authorities over fixing the religious calendar and published his views in two treatises, Sefer ha-zikkaron and Sefer ha-moʿadim. Recognizing his ability, the exilarch, or hereditary leader of the Jewish community, awarded Saʿadyah with an academic appointment in 922 and subsequently elevated him to the gaonate of Sura. Soon afterward, in 930, a legal dispute between the two developed into a bitter political struggle in which each deposed the other from office. Saʿadyah was driven into formal retirement in Baghdad, but, ultimately, reconciliation led to his reinstatement in 937.

A versatile and prolific author, Saʿadyah pioneered in many areas of Jewish scholarship. He translated the Hebrew Bible into Arabic, wrote commentaries on most of its books, assembled the first authorized siddur, or Jewish prayerbook, and composed numerous other works in the fields of jurisprudence, grammar, lexicography, liturgical poetry, and theology. His most famous work, Sefer emunot ve-deʿot (933; The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 1948), was the first systematic exposition and defense of the tenets of Judaism and contains a detailed account of his views.

The Book of Beliefs and Opinions reflects both the cosmopolitanism and the sectarian rivalries characteristic of tenth-century Baghdad. Saʿadyah indicates that the intense competition between adherents of the various religious and philosophical creeds had produced an atmosphere of spiritual confusion in which believers were either mistaken or in doubt about the inherited doctrines of their religion, whereas unbelievers boasted of their unbelief. Seeking to dispel such doubt and establish a common basis for achieving religious certainty, Saʿadyah adopted the methods of kalām (Islamic speculative theology) current in his day. He aimed to defend the doctrines of his faith and to refute errors by using rational arguments that could convince any reasonable person. Thus, from mere acceptance of traditional doctrines, itself always open to doubt, the reader would arrive at rationally established beliefs or convictions, just as the book's title suggests.

To facilitate this transition, Saʿadyah begins by identifying the causes of error and doubt. He then analyzes three sources of truth and certainty and illustrates their proper use: (1) sense perception, (2) rational intuition of self-evident principles, and (3) valid inference. To these he adds a fourth source based on the other three, reliable tradition, which is both indispensable to civilized life and the medium in which God's revelation to the prophets is transmitted. While Saʿadyah confidently believes human speculation can arrive at the truth of everything disclosed in prophecy, revelation is still necessary to teach the truth to those incapable of speculation and to guide the fallible inquiries of those who are capable, since only God's knowledge is complete. Because verification of revealed truths confirms faith, Saʿadyah considers such verification a religious obligation.

Saʿadyah's organization of the rest of the treatise likewise reflects kalām, especially the preoccupation of the Muʿtazilī school with establishing God's unity and justice. To prove the existence of the one God, Saʿadyah employs four standard kalām arguments showing that the world was created and must therefore have a creator.

  1. Since the world is spatially finite, the power within it that maintains it in existence must also be finite. But then the world's existence over time must likewise be finite, indicating that it was created.
  2. Everything composite is created by some cause. Since the whole world displays skillful composition, it must have been created.
  3. All bodies in the world are inseparably linked to accidental characteristics that are created in time. But whatever is inseparably linked to something created is itself created.
  4. If the world were eternal, an infinite period of time would have to have elapsed for the present to be reached. But since an infinity cannot be traversed and the present has been reached, the world must have existed for only a finite period after being created.

Saʿadyah offers further arguments to show that the world could only have been created out of nothing and by a single deity.

Saʿadyah's discussion of God's nature and attributes traces the implications of his being a creator. For God to have created a world such as ours at a point in the past, he must be alive, powerful, and wise. But insofar as God is creator and not creature, he cannot possess the characteristics of creatures. Hence, he must be incorporeal and absolutely simple in nature. Moreover, the essential attributes of life, power, and wisdom should not be understood as separate features of God's nature but as identical with it. Only a deficiency of language necessitates speaking about distinct attributes. Similarly, reason dictates that whenever scripture depicts God with creaturely characteristics, these terms should be understood metaphorically.

In accounting for God's relation to his creatures, Saʿadyah takes up various questions about divine justice. By creating the world out of nothing, God wished to endow creatures with the gift of existence. He further sought to provide them with the means for attaining perfect bliss by giving them the commandments of the Torah. By thus requiring human effort to attain happiness rather than bestowing it by grace, God assured that such happiness would be all the greater. The commandments themselves fall into two classes: rational commandments, such as the prohibitions against murder and theft, and traditional commandments, such as the dietary and Sabbath laws. The authority of the former lies in reason itself, while that of the latter lies in the will of the commander. God revealed both types of law, because without revelation not even perfectly rational men would agree on the precise application of the rational laws, much less discover the traditional laws, on both of which their salvation depends.

For Saʿadyah, the fact of revelation is confirmed by the occurrence of publicly witnessed miracles, announced in advance, that could have been performed only by God's omnipotence. They are to be accepted as proof of the authenticity of the revelation, unless the revealed teaching is contrary to reason.

Once God holds humanity responsible for fulfilling his commandments, justice requires that people be able to choose to obey or disobey. Saʿadyah argues that sense experience attests to this ability in us and that reason shows that God does not interfere with its exercise. While God foreknows exactly what one shall choose, his knowledge in no way causes one's choices. One can always choose otherwise, although he would foreknow that choice too.

Rewards and punishments are determined according to the majority of one's actions, and for Saʿadyah the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked also conform to this rule. For either such experiences represent immediate retribution in this world for the minority of one's evil or good actions (with eternal reward or punishment for the rest to follow in the world to come), or they are temporary trials whereby God may increase one's reward in the hereafter. These latter are "sufferings of love," and bearing them bravely counts as a righteous act deserving reward. Indeed, Saʿadyah's commentary on Job interprets it as a debate designed to show that undeserved suffering really is a trial. For Job erroneously thought that God's justice consists simply in doing as he wishes, a position reminiscent of the rival Ashʿarī school of kalām, while the friends mistakenly supposed all suffering is a penalty. Only Elihu claims that Job's afflictions are a trial that divine justice will repay, and God confirms this by reasserting his providence over all creation and restoring Job's material fortunes prior to rewarding his soul in the hereafter.

Saʿadyah defines the soul as a pure, luminous substance that can act only through the body. Because the body and the soul are jointly responsible for one's behavior, God's justice requires that retribution affect both together. Accordingly, he will resurrect the bodies of Israel's righteous from the dust with the same power he used to create them ex nihilo. This event heralds Israel's messianic age and universal peace. It occurs either when all Israel repents or when God's foreordained end arrives, whichever is first. However, when God finishes creating the appointed number of souls, there will be a general resurrection and judgment, and a new heaven and earth. In this final retribution, the righteous will bask, and the wicked will burn, in the light of a miraculous divine radiance.

Saʿadyah concludes the treatise by describing the kind of conduct worthy of reward. Since humans are composite creatures with many conflicting tendencies, they should not devote themselves to one above all others. Rather, they should strive for a balance and blending of preoccupations determined by reason and Torah.

Aside from offering the first systematic exposition of Judaism in rational terms, Saʿadyah laid the foundation for all later medieval Jewish philosophy by asserting the complete accord of reason and revelation. Although Saʿadyah was far more confident than his successors about what reason could prove, his commitment to investigation and proof in all areas of Jewish scholarship gave rationalism a legitimacy in Judaism that it might not otherwise have enjoyed. He is rightly recalled as "the first of those who speak reason in every area."


Still the best general survey of Saʿadyah's life and oeuvre is Henry Malter's Saadia Gaon: His Life and Works (1921; reprint, Philadelphia, 1978). The only complete English translation of Saʿadyah's main theological work is Samuel Rosenblatt's Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (New Haven, 1948), with an analytical table of contents and a useful index. An abridged translation of the same work with an excellent introduction and notes is Alexander Altmann's Saadia Gaon: Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, available in Three Jewish Philosophers, edited by Hans Lewy et al. (New York, 1960). The most comprehensive discussion in English of Saʿadyah's entire worldview is Israel I. Efros's "The Philosophy of Saadia Gaon," in his Studies in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (New York, 1974), since it draws from a variety of Saʿadyah's works. A shorter but still valuable discussion remains Julius Guttmann's "Saadia Gaon," in Philosophies of Judaism (New York, 1964). A basic resource for understanding Saʿadyah's relation to kalām is Harry A. Wolfson's The Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1979). Useful individual studies of Saʿadyah's communal activities as well as different aspects of his literary, scholarly, and theological work may still be found in the Saadia Anniversary Volume, edited by Boaz Cohen for the American Academy for Jewish Research (New York, 1943); Abraham Neuman and Solomon Zeitlin's Saadia Studies (Philadelphia, 1943); and Steven T. Katz's Saadiah Gaon (New York, 1980).

New Sources

Aizenberg, Yehudah. Ha-Derekh li-shelemut: e-mishnato shel Rav Seʿadyah Gaʾon. Jerusalem, 1985.

Eisen, Robert. "Job as a Symbol of Israel in the Thought of Saadiah Gaon." Daat 41 (1998): 525.

Simon, Uriel. Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra. Translated by Lenn J. Schramm. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Weiss, Roslyn. "Saadiah on Divine Grace and Human Suffering." Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 9 (2000): 155171.

Zewi, Tamar. "Biblical Hebrew Word Order and Saadya Gaon's Translation of the Pentateuch." Ancient Near Eastern Studies 38 (2001): 4257.

Barry S. Kogan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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