Sa‘adia Ben Joseph, Gaon
SA'ADIA BEN JOSEPH, GAON
Jewish philosopher, exegete, polemicist, and writer on religious topics; b. Dilaz in the Faijum region of Egypt, a.d. 882; d. Baghdad, 942.
Life. During his early years in Egypt, Sa‘adia received a solid education in rabbinical studies and in Arabic literature and philosophy. Later he made higher Talmudic studies in the Jewish academies of Palestine. After teaching for a time in Egypt and becoming well known as a writer, he went c. a.d. 920 to Babylonia, the center of Jewish learning in the early Middle Ages, where he became a member of the faculty at the Academy of Sura (actually transferred to Baghdad by this time). This once-famous seat of Jewish scholarship was then already in its decline, and conditions were not much better at the Academy of Pumpedita, the other well-known Jewish school in Babylonia. The ardor of the high Talmudic period was dying, for the influence of Arabic culture and education had aroused other interests, and within Judaism itself disunion had increased as the result of the schism of Karaism (see jews, post-biblical history of the).
Sa‘adia used the weapons of his towering intellect in two fields. On the one hand, he fought against the Karaites in defense of rabbinical Judaism and thus prevented a further spread of the schism. On the other, he energetically opposed every movement that might bring division within the ranks of traditional Judaism. Thus, he rose up against the head of the Jewish school of Jerusalem, Gaon Ben Meir, who with his attempt at calendar reform was sowing discord and seeking to win scholarly supremacy for his own academy. The exilarch, David ben Zakkai, recognizing Sa‘adia's merits, made him gaon, or head of the Academy of Sura in 928, even though he was not a native of Babylonia. Under Sa‘adia's leadership, this seat of Jewish learning received a new lease on life. But because he refused to connive at certain illegalities in some of the exilarch's juridical acts, a bitter quarrel arose between the two. The exilarch pronounced the gaon deposed, and the gaon declared that the exilarch had forfeited his office. But Sa‘adia got the worse of the dispute and had to spend some years in retirement at Baghdad. This, however, was really a blessing in disguise, for these were his most fruitful years in literary activity. In 937 the two were reconciled. Sa‘adia was reinstalled in his position as head of the Sura academy and remained in this office for the last five years of his life.
Works. Sa‘adia's genius lay in his many different intellectual interests, and these also found expression in his varied literary productions. Abraham ben Meïr ibn ezra could say of him that he was "the highest authority in all fields." He is said to have written 100 works in Hebrew and 200 in Arabic, but only a fraction of these has been preserved.
His principal work is the Kitāb al-Amanāt wal-I‘tiqadāt, preserved in the Hebrew translation Emūnōt weDē’ōt (Beliefs and Opinions, i.e., faith and knowledge), an exposition of the Jewish religion with the aid of philosophical principles in the manner of kalĀm in Muslim theology. This was the first attempt at such a synthesis in Judaism, and it inspired numerous subsequent religious-philosophical works. In his Tasfir, an Arabic translation of the Hebrew Bible, Sa‘adia endeavored to produce a version that would be as faithful as possible to the original, although for the sake of clarity he was not adverse to the occasional paraphrase. His biblical commentary is also characterized by clarity and conciseness. A large part of Sa‘adia's literary activity was taken up with anti-Karaite polemics. His "Refutation of Anan" was written during his early life in Egypt; his "Book of Distinctions," his "Refutation of Sakawaihi," and his "Refutation of an Arrogant Opponent" date from his Sura period. In the field of Hebrew linguistics, Sa‘adia's Agron (Lexicon) is the first Hebrew dictionary, and his "Book on the Language" (written in Arabic) is the earliest-known Hebrew grammar. He also composed many Jewish responsa, as well as a (now lost) methodological introduction to the talmud. Although devoted to rationalism, he wrote a sympathetic commentary on the cabalistic Book of yes:irah. In addition to his Hebrew religious poetry (baqqāšōt, "prayers of petition"), he also published, under the title Kitāb Jāmi'aṣ–Ṣalawāt wal-Tasābīḥ (Collection of Prayers and Praises), an Arabic work on Jewish liturgy, which was the first scientific work of its kind.
Bibliography: h. malter, Sa‘adia Gaon: His Life and Works (Philadelphia 1921). w. bacher, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 1901–06) 10:579–586. r. gordis, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 v. (New York 1939–44) 9:289–291.