Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi

views updated Jun 27 2018

Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi

The Jewish scholar Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi (882-942) ranks as the most important medieval Jewish scholar of literature and history.

Little is known of the early life of Saadia ben Joseph except that he was born in Egypt, lived for sometime in Palestine, and finally settled in the Jewish communities of Babylonia. Saadia became affiliated with the academy at Sura, Babylonia, and became the gaon (head) of the academy in 928. Deposed in 930, he again became gaon in 936, holding this office until his death in 942. During this period the academy became the highest seat of learning among the Jews.

Saadia's numerous works were written for the most part in Arabic, which had become the vernacular and literary language of eastern Jews. When the Babylonian schools ceased to function in the middle of the 11th century and the Jews were expelled from Spain, Saadia's works ceased to be widely known until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their importance, however, cannot be exaggerated. In bulk, in range of interest, in breadth of knowledge, and in pioneer thinking, his works are a monument between the close of the Talmudic period in the 6th century and the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment in the 18th century.

At least 20 major works, apart from Saadia's translations and commentaries, exist. Saadia translated the Bible into Arabic and added a commentary. He composed a Midrashic work on the Decalogue, translated the five Megilloth (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), and also translated the Book of Daniel and added a commentary.

Saadia's major works divide into five categories: polemical tracts, exegetical writings, grammatical treatises, works on Talmudic subjects, and philosophic works. His polemical writings arose principally from his position in Sura. His Book of the Festivals was written against Ben Meir of Palestine in 922, when the latter attempted to make alterations in the Jewish calendar. Other writings were directed against the Karaite sect and against the skeptic Hivi of Balkh, David ben Zakkai, and others.

Of Saadia's grammatical works, only his treatise on the hapax legomena (words used once in the Bible) and a poem on the letters of the alphabet survive. His liturgical writings and poems survive in greater quantity. One poem, Azharoth, is a practical enunciation of the 613 Precepts. Saadia's philosophical works display his wide knowledge of Aristotle and of Christian, Moslem, and Brahmin teachings. In his Kitab al-Amanat wal-Itiqadat (933) Saadia expressed his views of religion and human destiny. He maintained that revealed religion and human reason do not clash but complement each other.

Saadia's health was broken by the continual controversies which surrounded his leadership of the Sura Academy, and he died in 942. His importance can be measured by the fact that without his extant works there would be no direct knowledge of the inner development of Judaism and Jewish literature between the 7th and the 10th century.

Further Reading

David Druck, Saadya Gaon: Scholar, Philosopher, Champion of Judaism (trans. 1942), and Solomon Leon Skoss, Saadia Gaon: The Earliest Hebrew Grammarian (1955), are biographical studies. Various aspects of Saadia's life and career are discussed in two studies published on the thousandth anniversary of his death by the American Academy for Jewish Research, Saadia Anniversary Volume, edited by Boaz Cohen (1943), and by the Jewish Quarterly Review, Saadia Studies, edited by Abraham A. Neuman and Solomon Zeitlin (1943). Background information is in Heinrich H. Graetz, History of the Jews (trans. 1891-1898), and the highly technical work by Paul Ernst Kahle, The Cairo Geniza (1947; 2d ed. 1959). □

Saʿadiah Gaon

views updated May 21 2018

Saʿadiah Gaon (882–942). Leader of Babylonian Jewry in the geonic period. Saʿadiah grew up in Egypt, but eventually settled in Baghdād. From 921, he became involved in a struggle between the Jerusalem academy and the Babylonian authorities on the dating of the festivals—in his Sefer ha-Moʿadim, he gives an account of the affair. In 928, he became head of the academy at Sura. With extraordinary energy he revived the academy, but he quickly came into conflict with the exilarch David b. Zakkai, who deposed him. Saʿadiah in his turn appointed an alternative exilarch. Ultimately the two were reconciled, but not until a bitter and long-drawn-out quarrel had taken place. Saʿadiah is remembered as a halakhist, a philosopher, a grammarian, and a liturgist. He wrote several halakhic books, most of which are still in manuscript. Those in print were collected and edited by J. Mueller (1897). His major philosophic work was his Kitab al-Amanat wʾal-lʾtiqadat (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 1948). The Hebrew translation by Judah ibn Tibbon, Sefer ha-Emunot ve-ha-Deʾot (1562) was extremely influential and was drawn on by the opponents of Maimonides.