SHERIRAʾ GAON (c. 906–1006), Babylonian halakhist and head of the academy at Pumbedita for some thirty years. Sheriraʾ was a major league authority whose many responsa circulated throughout the whole Jewish Diaspora. He combined his legal preeminence with a rational attitude toward Talmudic legend, thus setting the pattern that was followed by his son and successor, Hʾai.
The single most influential work by Sheriraʾ is the book-length Iggeret (Epistle), sent as a response to the community of Kairouan in North Africa. Yaʿaqov bar Nissim had asked on behalf of his co-religionists that the gaon explain how the oral law had reached its present form in the Talmud, how and when the various rabbinic works had been compiled and edited, and what was the import of the frequent disagreements among the Talmudic rabbis. This series of questions doubtless reflected the anxiety felt among rabbinites confronted by the Karaite claim that the Talmud was a human product anchored in history rather than a divine oral law. In the Epistle, which Salo Baron has called the "outstanding historiographic contribution of the geonic era," Sheriraʾ provided indispensable literary and historical data on the process by which the Talmud evolved; indeed, he defined the terms of much future discussion of this topic, both medieval and modern. The Epistle divides into two parts: the first traces the history of Talmudic literature through the pioneering inductive use of selected source materials, while the second is a history of exilarchic and geonic leadership probably based on the academy's archives. The basic ideological position of Sheriraʾ is that the oral law had a literary history but did not substantively develop through the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods. The Mishnah and the Talmud are authoritative crystallizations of the law possessed by the earlier generations, and even Talmudic discussion simply recaptures, on the whole, the knowledge of the ancients. This conservative theory of Talmudic law, much of it based on statements and materials found in the Talmud itself, has remained the ideological basis of Orthodox Judaism until present times.
Isaac Hirsch Weiss's Dor dor ve-dorshav, vol. 4 (New York, 1924), pp. 106–174, remains the best overall treatment of the career and achievement of Sheriraʾ. Salo W. Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 6, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (New York, 1958), pp. 204–206, 425–427, provides ample bibliographic and comparative data on the Epistle. In my article "Raʿayon Torah she-beʿal peh beiggeret Rav Sheriraʾ Gaʾon," Daʿat 4 (1980): 5–17, I discuss the ideological import of the Epistle.
Gerald J. Blidstein (1987)