Natronai bar Hilai

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NATRONAI BAR HILAI (ninth cent.), gaon of Sura from 853 to 858. Natronai's father Hilai, who died in 797, was also gaon of Sura. One of the most prolific writers of responsa among the geonim of the ninth century, Natronai always replied in the language in which he was addressed, whether Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic. He is said to have been the first to use Arabic for scholarly correspondence. He had strong ties with all parts of the Diaspora, especially Spain, and in particular Lucena, of whose Jews he was especially demanding, "since there is no non-Jew among you." His responsa deal largely with matters pertaining to liturgy, and his responsum to a query from the Lucena community as to how to fulfill the rabbinic dictum to recite 100 benedictions daily, constitutes the nucleus of the Jewish prayer book. He gave a historical explanation of Rav's statement (Shab. 24a) that it is necessary to recite the *haftarah after the reading of the Pentateuch portion at the Sabbath afternoon service. According to him the Persians objected to this custom. This practice was abolished and never reinstated. He is the author of the earliest responsum regarding the geonic ordinance that debts may be collected from movable property. In another responsum, he stresses the importance of the study of the Babylonian Talmud for the unlearned since it includes both Bible and Mishnah.

Natronai did not insist that his questioners act in accordance with the customs prevailing in the two Babylonian academies. Only where he suspected Karaite influence, did his tone become authoritarian, and he declared that he who omitted the midrashic sections in the Passover Haggadah should be considered a heretic and liable to excommunication. Natronai once even denounced a Palestinian law which differed from the Babylonian, maintaining, "They err and have gone astray." Natronai insisted on regular congregational recitation of the Aramaic Targum, a decision which was incorporated in R. *Amram's prayer book. He prohibited recitation from vocalized scrolls in the synagogue, a practice encouraged by the Karaites. Natronai also included in his responsa commentaries to various tractates of the Talmud. A collection of halakhot similar to the *Ḥalakhot Keẓuvot which has been ascribed to him is probably a condensation from his responsa, and some of the responsa attributed to Natronai bar Hilai are probably those of Natronai bar Nehemiah, Gaon of Pumbedita.

Natronai was also stated to practice mysticism, through the agency of which he caused himself to be transported to Spain, where he taught the people and, just as mysteriously, to have transported himself back to Babylon. Hai Gaon denied this, suggesting that some adventurer may have impersonated Natronai in Spain. Natronai became a legendary personality and many fictitious and fanciful decisions were attributed to him, particularly in Yemenite Midrashim.


L. Ginzberg, Geonica, 2 (1909), 415; S. Assaf, Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1928), 267; A.L. Frumkin (ed.), Seder R. Amram, 1 (1912), 25a–b; Lewin, Oẓar, 2 pt. 2 (1930), 110; 4 pt. 2 (1931), 20; H. Tykocinski, Takkanot ha-Ge'onim (1959), passim; M. Havazelet, Ha-Rambam ve-ha-Ge'onim (1967), 35 n. 25; S. Liebermann, Midreshei Teiman (1940), 39; Baron, Social2, 3 (1958), index.

[Meir Havazelet]