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Saadiah (ben Joseph) Gaon


SAADIAH (Ben Joseph ) GAON (882–942), greatest scholar and author of the geonic period and important leader of Babylonian Jewry. Saadiah was born in Pithom (Abu Suweir), in the Faiyum district in Egypt. Little is known about his family except that his opponents slandered his father because he was not a scholar and earned his living from manual labor. Perhaps there is some truth to his opponents' claim that his father was banished from Egypt and died in Jaffa, but no reason for this expulsion is given. It is noteworthy that Sherira Gaon refers to Saadiah's father with respect (Iggeret Rav Sherira Ga'on, ed. by B.M. Lewin (1921), 112). The information given on the members of his family, apart from his wife and children, is mere speculation. While there is no doubt that in his youth he already displayed outstanding talents both as an author and in communal activity, there is scant information about his teachers, whether in Jewish studies or in Greco-Arabic philosophy. The Arab writer Mas'udi states that when Saadiah was in Ereẓ Israel, he studied under Abu Kathir Yaḥya b. Zechariah al-Katib of Tiberias. However, earlier than that, when he still lived in Egypt, he had already written two books (see below) and corresponded with R. Isaac b. Solomon *Israeli of Kairouan. It is therefore certain that when he left Egypt he was already a learned scholar of Torah and secular sciences, and had left behind many disciples. There is no information about him between the years 905, when he wrote his responsum to Anan (see below), and 921; nor are the reasons for his departure from Egypt clear. From a fragment of a letter written in the summer of that year it is known that he was then in Aleppo, from where he proceeded to Baghdad, and, as stated above, it is known that he had been in Ereẓ Israel.

From 921 Saadiah appears as the leading protagonist in an ongoing bitter struggle between Aaron *Ben Meir, head of the Jerusalem academy, and the leaders of the Jewish communities in Babylonia. In 922 (4682) Ben Meir announced that Passover that year would fall on Sunday, and not on Tuesday as accepted according to the Babylonian calendar, and therefore that Rosh Ha-Shanah would fall on Tuesday and not Thursday. These changes would also affect the fixing of the days of the other holidays during the year 923/4 (see *Calendar). Ben Meir also deviated from accepted practice of midday as the deciding line for the declaration of the new moon. Scholars agree that the head of the Jerusalem academy did not deviate from the norm willingly. It is not clear on what or whose authority he based this deviation and he upheld a tradition that recognized the sole right of Ereẓ Israel to declare new moons and holidays. Ben Meir sincerely believed in the halakhic rightness of his acts. In his demand that the Babylonian authorities accept his view, he claimed the prerogative both of halakhah and of Ereẓ Israel; perhaps he hoped to magnify the importance of the academy which he headed. Saadiah and his followers, however, denied the validity of Ben Meir's arguments. Possibly while he was still in Ereẓ Israel, Saadiah became aware that he and Ben Meir differed with regard to the calendar and he consequently wrote to Yehudai b. Naḥman Gaon regarding the fixing of the calendar.

While Saadiah was still in Aleppo, he was informed by some students who came from Baghdad of Ben Meir's intentions, and he attempted to dissuade him from implementing it. Ben Meir, however, did not heed his advice. He considered his intended act as being of supreme importance and refused to heed demands that he abandon it. On the contrary, he felt obliged at all costs to defend the sole right of Jerusalem to establish the new moon and fix the calendar; he thus demanded that Babylonian Jewry act in accordance with his instructions, as all previous generations had depended on Jerusalem for the necessary information on this matter. The Babylonian authorities had in fact acknowledged the authority of the Jerusalem academy in this matter in 855 (Mann, Egypt, 1 (1920), 52–53; 2 (1922), 41–47). On his instructions his son declared from the Mount of Olives that in 4682 (921) Rosh Ha-Shanah would fall on Thursday, and Passover on Sunday. The leaders of the Jewish community in Babylonia were shaken by the danger of an impending schism in the Jewish community. In spite of their previous differences, the exilarch and the geonim agreed that Ben Meir must be prevented from carrying out his plan. Saadiah, who had returned to Babylonia, sent letters to Ben Meir and his colleagues, which at first were couched in conciliatory language, but to no avail. In a letter full of bitterness Ben Meir accused his former supporters of abandoning him to submit to the Babylonian authorities, and stated that under no circumstances would he change his mind. The controversy continued and the schism materialized. From a statement by the Karaite *Sahl b. Maẓli'aḥ, who gleefully recorded the occasion, and by a Christian who mentions it in passing, it is known that the Jews in Ereẓ Israel observed Rosh Ha-Shanah in 4683 (922) on Tuesday, and the Jews in Babylonia, on Thursday, and it can be assumed that in both countries there were those who adhered to different days. The controversy grew in bitterness and invective and Ben Meir lost ground. The action of the Babylonian scholars in defending their tradition prevented people from following the head of the Palestinian academy, and caused some who had previously followed him to desert him. Saadiah was requested to compose a detailed account on the event which would serve as a reminder to Jews, and accordingly wrote Sefer ha-Zikkaron, which was read in public in Elul 922. The duration of the schism after 923 and the manner in which it was resolved cannot be determined. Ben Meir continued as head of the academy but Saadiah and the Babylonian leaders had achieved victory, and he was considered one of the greatest authorities in the field of fixing the calendar. He wrote Sefer ha-Mo'adim, which gives a complete account of the dispute.

It would appear that immediately on his arrival in Babylonia in 922, Saadiah was appointed to the yeshivah of Pumbedita, as from that year his letters bear his signature along with the title *resh ("head of ") kallah or *alluf. After the Ben Meir controversy had subsided, Saadiah found time for literary work and several of his works were written in the 920s. His talents and personality attracted many, and some of the important leaders in Baghdad were his colleagues and aides, among them Sahl b. Netira, a wealthy merchant esteemed by the authorities. When the question of the continuation of the academy of Sura was under discussion, Saadiah's name was proposed. The famous academy had been through a difficult period. The honor in which it had been held had declined. His predecessor, R. Yom Tov Kahana b. Mar Rav Jacob, who headed it for ten years, was a weaver by calling, and after his death it was suggested that the academy be closed down completely and the students transferred to Pumbedita. The exilarch *David b. Zakkai, however, decided to maintain the Sura academy. At first, however, R. Nathan the son of Yehudai Gaon was appointed alluf, but he died before he could take up the office (Iggeret Ray Sherira Ga'on, 112). The exilarch then wished to appoint Saadiah. According to *Nathan ha-Bavli, there were other candidates, and perhaps there is a historical basis to the report that the exilarch had to decide whether to appoint R. Ẓemaḥ b. Shahin ("because he was wellborn and learned") or Saadiah (Neubauer, Chronicles, 2 (1895), 80). The family connections of the former certainly were taken into consideration. Most of the geonim came from a limited number of families and it was not easy to deviate from this tradition. Saadiah was a stranger, apparently not well connected. Although it was conceded that Saadiah was the greater scholar, it was difficult to ignore the characteristics enumerated by *Nissi b. Berechiah al-Nahrwani which appear in Nathan ha-Bavli's report: "Although he [Saadiah] is a great man and a profound scholar, he is not afraid of any man and does not show favor to anyone because of his great knowledge, eloquence, and piety" (ibid.). Saadiah's virtues, however, determined the exilarch's decision.

His conflict with Ben Meir and his writings against heretics such as *Ḥiwi al-Balkhi and against the Karaites had proved his fearlessness, his dedication to the Torah, and his loyalty to the exilarch. It could certainly be hoped that under Saadiah's leadership the academy of Sura would be revived. His standing and his firmness would counterbalance *Kohen Ẓedek b. Joseph, the gaon of Pumbedita. David b. Zakkai thereupon appointed Saadiah head of the Sura academy in the spring of 928. As a precaution, the exilarch administered the oath to the new gaon "that he do not disobey me, or plot against me, or regard anyone but me as exilarch, or associate with any of my opponents" (A.E. Harkavy, Zikkaron la-Rishonim, 1 pt. 5 (1832), 232).

Saadiah immediately embarked upon his administrative work with energy and dedication. He set himself two tasks: to increase the number of students in the academy, and to secure the financial needs of the institution. To achieve the latter, he employed the methods of his predecessors (and to an even greater extent of his successors), of requesting aid from the Jewish communities far and near. Abraham *Ibn Daud reports in the name of R. Meir ibn Bibas that Saadiah sent a letter to Spain, "to the communities of Cordoba, Elvira, Lucena… and all the Jewish communities in its vicinity" (Sefer ha-Qabbalah (G.D. Cohen, ed., 1967), 79). Of special significance are the two successive requests he sent to Egypt, "to the Jewish communities in the city of Fostat" (B.M. Lewin, in: Ginzei Kedem, 2 (1963) 34, 35), the first containing the greetings of the head of the academy, his son She'erit, and the allufim, as well as the rest of the scholars of the academy and the "important and esteemed burghers of Baghdad." He further says that the aforesaid "burghers," "the sons of Mar Rav Netira and Mar Rav Aaron," will help him in obtaining any request from the government. Saadiah also urged the Jews in Egypt to maintain contact with him, in order that he could regard himself as the acknowledged leader of all Jewry. The second letter refers with satisfaction to his early leadership of the academy; it is composed entirely of admonitions and moral instruction to the people (every verse begins with the phrase "the children of Israel") and is written in a tone of authority. Saadiah openly requested support for the academy in both letters. He also gathered the members of the academy who had left or had moved to Pumbedita during Sura's decline and restored it to its former glory. Saadiah's character aided him in his energetic fulfillment of his task. Whatever one thinks of the grave accusations against him leveled by David b. Zakkai, it must be conceded that while Saadiah was Gaon he was not intimidated by those in power and did not show favoritism.

His ways and deeds probably stimulated envy and complaints on the part of the exilarch. Only on the assumption that there already existed tension between Saadiah and the exilarch prior to their final quarrel is it possible to understand how a single incident could have provoked a bitter and difficult dispute. According to Nathan ha-Bavli (Neubauer, ibid., 80–81), Saadiah refused to confirm the terms of settlement of a will which would greatly benefit the exilarch. At first Saadiah was evasive and requested that Kohen Ẓedek, the head of the Pumbedita academy, should first append his signature, anticipating that he would not sign. When, however, Kohen Ẓedek did sign, Saadiah announced his refusal to confirm the inheritance. There is no doubt that Saadiah acted in accordance with the law; his answer to the son of the exilarch, "ye shall not respect persons in judgment" (Deut. 1.17), showed that he was conscious of his high office as an impartial judge. On the other hand, from the fact that Kohen Ẓedek confirmed the decision, it may be assumed that there was no definite miscarriage of justice, but that it was a controversial issue, which was difficult to decide. David b. Zakkai's anger at Saadiah was boundless and the quarrel came out in the open. He deposed Saadiah, appointing *Joseph b. Jacob bar Satia as Gaon. Saadiah in his turn appointed another exilarch, Josiah Hasan, the brother of David b. Zakkai. Apparently, when the quarrel started, the gaon was certain of his victory. Close to the wealthy classes in the city, he hoped that with their influence he would prevail in his dispute with the exilarch. Nonetheless, it seems that those interested in the quarrel, i.e., the members of the academy and the elite of the community, were divided into two camps. Nathan ha-Bavli's statement that "all the wealthy in Babylonia, the academy students, and prominent members of the community were on Saadiah's side," assisting him financially in presenting his case to the caliph, his officers, and advisors (Neubauer, ibid., 80) is probably exaggerated. He himself states earlier that Khalaf b. Sarjado (*Aaron b. Joseph Sargado; Sarjado) had assisted the exilarch and that the head of the Pumbedita academy supported him. Until 932, Saadiah was in a strong, if not a dominant, position. At that time he wrote the first version of Sefer ha-Galui in flowery Hebrew. The work exudes self-confidence. In a letter attacking Saadiah (Harkavy, ibid., 227), the gaon's conduct during those years is criticized. However, when the caliph al-Kahir (932–934) assumed the throne, his fortune changed. The caliph needed money badly and Aaron Sarjado's contribution decided the issue. The sons of Netira and the sons of Aaron did not wish to become involved in the issue, as their influence had waned, especially after Aaron Sarjado appeared as the leading antagonist of the gaon. The reasons for his deep hatred of the gaon are not known. It is possible that it stemmed from his own ambitions to become gaon, which he did not attain until 943, or he was hurt by Saadiah's arrogance. In any case, he became Saadiah's inveterate enemy, and his invective and insults were harsher than those of David b. Zakkai and Kohen Ẓedek. Aaron Sarjado's open support of David b. Zakkai and the fact that the other wealthy members of the community were either unable or unwilling to become involved, resulted in Josiah Hasan's banishment to Khurasan, where, apparently, he died shortly afterward. Saadiah was forced to relinquish the gaonate and take refuge from the wrath of his opponents. It was a blessing in disguise, since as a result Saadiah was free to pursue his creative work. During this period he wrote his philosophic work, Emunot ve-De'ot ("Beliefs and Opinions"), and a second version of Sefer ha-Galui, with a long introduction in Arabic and an Arabic commentary on the original.

According to Nathan ha-Bavli (Neubauer, ibid., 81–82), the opponents were reconciled in 937 when Bishr b. Aaron b. Amram, the father-in-law of Aaron Sarjado, was persuaded to intervene in this matter and make peace between the two sides. Bishr undoubtedly found the entire quarrel tiresome, and complied. He had supported Saadiah, as the Gaon testifies, and the differences between himself and his son-in-law did not please him. The disputants were also weary of the quarrel and were prepared for reconciliation. Saadiah again headed the academy in Sura, despite the fact that David b. Zakkai's candidate, Joseph b. Mar Rav Jacob, continued to receive a salary. Sarjado's stand regarding this change is not known. He apparently acquiesced in the face of a situation which he could not prevent. In the meantime he was busy with his own affairs. R. Kohen Ẓedek died early in 936; and Aaron Sarjado, to his dismay, was not appointed his successor. It was only in 943 that he succeeded to the position; according to Sherira Gaon, he took it by force. Saadiah's last years were peaceful. The exilarch died in 942, while he was on good terms with the gaon. It is exemplified by the fact that when David's son Judah died shortly after his father, Saadiah took Judah's son into his home and brought him up.

[Abraham Solomon Halkin]

As Halakhist

Saadiah's halakhic works are still largely in manuscript, particularly in thousands of scattered Genizah fragments, and although not even a small part has so far been assembled and investigated, the general picture nevertheless is gradually becoming clearer. From the little that has been published, as well as from the various evidences of Saadiah himself and of other geonim, the dimensions of his halakhic work can be reconstructed. It is clear that the largest and most important part of it consists of monographs on halakhic decisions, which covered most of what is at present included in the Ḥoshen Mishpat of the Shulḥan Arukh, as well as books on Ritual Purity and Impurity (Niddah, Sheḥitah, Terefot), Incest, Festivals, and the proclamation of the new month. Saadiah was one of the creators of rabbinic literature, if not the actual pioneer in this field, and the first to write "books" in the modern sense of the word. He was also the first to give his halakhic works the form of monographs, assigning a separate one to each topic of Hebrew law: a book on the Laws of Gifts, another on the Laws of Commercial Transactions, and so on. He was likewise the first to set a standard pattern for his books of halakhic decisions by dividing each one into sections and subsections. Every subject begins with a brief definition of the topic under discussion, followed by various details and talmudic proofs of them. Saadiah goes into the fullest details of every halakhic topic he touches on, but he frequently omits entire halakhot which have a direct bearing on the subject at issue, either because he thought of dealing with them within the context of some other halakhic monograph, or because he regarded them as too unimportant to be included in the discussion. Saadiah's halakhic books are thus distinguished by their systematic structure and logical order and by a lengthy detailed introduction which he prefaced to each book of halakhic decisions. One exception to all this is his Book of Inheritance, which omits the talmudic proofs of the halakhot mentioned in it. This gave rise to the conjecture among scholars that at first Saadiah's procedure was not to state the sources but that after complaints from rabbis he changed his method. There is, however, no support for this supposition. It is more probable that the extant Book of Inheritance is an abbreviated version of the original work, which contained the sources. Saadiah's books of halakhic decisions represent a complete revolution when compared to other similar lengthy works that preceded it, *Halakhot Gedolot and *Halakhot Pesukot, which, following the pattern of talmudic themes, lack the structure of a code. Saadiah was the first to write halakhic works in Arabic, which had in his days replaced Aramaic as the principal language spoken by the Jews in Babylonia. This constituted something of a revolution. Following him, various geonim also wrote extensively in this language. Saadiah's halakhic writings exercised a great influence on succeeding geonim, although this is not superficially apparent since the geonim seldom quoted the names of their geonic predecessors.

Several of Saadiah's halakhic works were collected and edited by J. Mueller and published in Paris in 1897. These consist of The Book of Inheritance; The Book of the 613 Commandments; An Interpretation of the Thirteen Hermeneutic Rules; collected responsa; and statements in his name collected from various sources. The Book of the 613 Commandments was republished with a very extensive commentary by Jeroham Fischel *Perla. The collected responsa ascribed to Saadiah require to be examined to authenticate their authorship. Extracts from Sefer ha-Shetarot, his book on documents and deeds, which had a unique structure and arrangement, were published by S. Assaf in: J.L. Fishman (ed.), Rav Sa'adyah Gaon (1957; see bibliography); further extracts appeared in Tarbiz, 9 (1938). The commentary on Berakhot, published by S.A. Wertheimer (1908) and attributed to Saadiah, is not by him. In addition, many of Saadiah's halakhic statements have been preserved in his siddur (see below). He also wrote on the methodology of the Talmud, apparently in a general introduction to it, of which a few extracts were quoted in a similar work of Bezalel *Ashkenazi that was published by A. Marx in Festschrift… David Hoffmann (1914) and in other writings of this scholar.

[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]

Saadiah's Philosophy

Although Saadiah was not the first medieval Jewish philosopher, in light of his public standing, the scope of his philosophical oeuvre, and the influence it had on subsequent generations, he can be considered the founding father of medieval Jewish philosophy.

Saadiah's major philosophic work, written in Arabic, Kitāb al-Amānāt wa-al-Iʿtiqādāt (ed. by S. Landauer, 1880; tr. by S. Rosenblatt, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 1948; abridged version, tr. by A. Altmann, in: Three Jewish Philosophers, 1965), is the earliest Jewish philosophic work from medieval times to have survived intact. It was translated into Hebrew by Judah ibn *Tibbon in 1186 under the title Sefer ha-Emunot ve-ha-De'ot (Constantinople, 1562), and in this version exercised a profound influence on Jewish thought. A new Hebrew translation was prepared by Y. Kafiḥ and published together with the Arabic original (1970).

There exist several manuscripts of an earlier anonymous Hebrew paraphrase of the work, Pitron Sefer ha-Emunah, which was probably written by an author who lived within the boundaries of Byzantine culture in the 11–12th century (critical edition: Hebrew paraphrase of Saadiah Gaon's Kitāb al-Amānāt wa-al-Iʿtiqādāt, ed. R.C. Kiener, Ph.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania (1984); idem, in: ajs Review, 11:1 (1986), 1–25). Saadiah also wrote an Arabic commentary on the Sefer Yeẓirah ("The Book of Creation"), titled Tafsīr Kitāb al-Mabādi (ed. and tr. into French under the title Commentaire sur le Sefer Yesira par le Gaon Saadya, by M. Lambert, 1891), which was translated into Hebrew by Moses b. Joseph of Lucena, probably sometime during the 12th century (Ms. Munich, no. 92). A new Hebrew translation was prepared by Y. Kafiḥ and published together with the Arabic original (1972). References to other Hebrew translations of this work are found in the commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah by *Judah ben Barzillai al-Bargeloni (ed. by S.J. Halberstam, 1885), and in Berechiah ha-Nakdan's Meẓaref (ed. by Gollancz, 1902). Saadiah's philosophical views are also contained in some of his introductions to the Pentateuch (see Y. Kafiḥ, Perushei Rabbenu Sa'adyah Ga'on al ha-Torah, 1963). Exegetical works, especially introductions to commentaries, also served as a vehicle for Saadiah to expound his philosophical system, e.g., in the introduction to Job he discusses at length divine justice and the suffering of the righteous, in the introduction to Daniel he refutes the validity of divination in general, and astrology in particular, to forecast the future, as opposed to prophecy, which is the only true source for knowing future events (notably the ultimate redemption), because of its divine origin.

Saadiah was close to the school of the Muʿtazilites (see *Kalām), but it is evident that he was also influenced by Aristotelianism, Platonism, and Stoicism. He, in turn, influenced Jewish Neoplatonists, such as *Baḥya ibn Paquda, Moses *Ibn Ezra, and *Abraham ibn Ezra. Jewish Aristotelians such as Abraham *Ibn Daud also borrowed some of his ideas. The influence of Saadiah declined with the appearance of the Guide of the Perplexed, in which Maimonides attacks Kalām philosophy, alluding to Saadiah, although never mentioning him by name. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Maimonides' philosophical opponents drew upon Saadiah's work, and Sefer ha-Emunot ve-ha-De'ot was influential until the *Haskalah period.

In line with Muʿtazilite thought, Saadiah in Sefer ha-Emunot ve-ha-De'ot did not attempt to establish a complete philosophical system resting upon an independent foundation, but rather set out to find a rational basis for the dogmas of the Oral and Written Law. Saadiah explains that he wrote this work in order to provide his fellow Jews with spiritual guidance in the face of the confusion which the multiple sects and religious disputes of the tenth century had created among the people, and to combat heretical views, such as those of Ḥiwi al-Balkhi. The Emunot ve-De'ot (as it is usually referred to) is a polemical work, in which Saadiah, in addition to clarifying and expounding his own views, devoted much space to disproving opposing theories. Saadiah believed that it was a religious obligation to provide a rational basis for the Law and the Jewish faith, in order to dispel doubts and refute views at variance with those which he accepts. Saadiah's importance lies in his being the first medieval Jewish philosopher to attempt to reconcile the Bible and rabbinic tradition with philosophy, reason with revelation and tradition. Unlike his predecessor *Al-Muqammis, Saadiah related his system of religious thought directly to the Jewish sources, and he did it with the authority of his position as gaon.

Saadiah was one of the earliest thinkers (though not the first) to establish a list of normative beliefs ("articles of faith," ten in number). Although he did not include this list in any halakhic work, and so did not give them any legally binding status, it seems that they had some influence, and may have paved the way for Maimonides in establishing his 13 articles of faith.

theory of knowledge

In the introduction to the Emunot ve-De'ot, in an attempt to refute the skeptics and to show that one can achieve a knowledge of the truth by means of speculation, Saadiah presents a psychological and epistemological account of the reasons for doubt, and explains why men in their search for the truth become involved in error. He identifies three sources of knowledge: (1) sense perception; (2) self-evident principles, such as the approval of telling the truth and the disapproval of lying, and (3) inferential knowledge gained by syllogistic reasoning.

He attacks the claim of the skeptics that these sources of knowledge are not to be relied upon, but at the same time discusses the errors that one may make in utilizing them, and the steps that one must take in order to insure their reliability. There is, in addition, a fourth source of knowledge, reliable tradition, i.e., confidence in the truth of the reports of others, which is indispensable for the functioning of human society. In Judaism reliable tradition has special significance in that it refers to the transmission, through Scripture and the oral tradition, of God's revelation to the prophets, and subsequently to the sages. Saadiah maintains that while one can arrive at a knowledge of the truth by means of speculation, revelation is necessary in order to impart the truth to those who are incapable of rational investigation, as well as to provide guidance for those who are involved in speculation. In the division between the three sources of rational knowledge and the reliable tradition Saadiah is part of the Muʿtazilite tradition. This division in turn is the basis for the distinction between rational laws and revealed ones. Even while engaged in speculation one must not set aside the doctrines contained in Scripture.

Saadiah believes that there is a correspondence between reason and revelation, and that one cannot refute the other. Therefore, one must reject the validity of any prophet whose teachings contradict reason, even if he accompanies his teachings with miracles. Those biblical statements which appear to contradict the results of rational investigation (e.g., anthropomorphic descriptions of God) must be interpreted metaphorically. The establishment of a systematic exegetical methodology is for Saadiah an essential means for the correct rational interpretation of the Bible. Saadiah points out that in interpreting anthropomorphic expressions metaphorically he is not subordinating revelation to reason, but is actually following revelation, which teaches that God is incorporeal.


In typical Muʿtazilite fashion, Saadiah opens the body of his work with a discussion of creation. He maintains that the world was created in time, that its creator was other than itself, and that it was created ex nihilo. He presents four proofs for creation, the first based indirectly (probably through an Arabic version of the writings of John Philoponus) on Aristotelian premises, the other three drawn from the Kalām. In the first proof, invoking the principles that the world is finite in its dimension, and that a finite body cannot possess an infinite force, Saadiah concludes that the force preserving the world is finite and consequently that the world itself must be finite, i.e., must have a beginning and an end. In the second proof, on the basis of the fact that whatever is composed must have been put together at some point in time, Saadiah argues that the world, which is composed of various elements, must have been created at some point in time. In the third proof Saadiah argues that the world is composed of various substances all of which are the bearers of accidents. Since accidents originate in time, and since substances cannot exist actually without accidents, the world itself must have originated in time. The fourth argument is taken from the nature of time. Were the world uncreated, time would be infinite. But infinite time cannot be traversed, and hence the present (or any other finite) moment could never have come to be. But the present clearly exists, and hence time cannot be infinite. It follows that the world must have had a beginning.

Following these four proofs for creation, thus refuting the eternity of the world, Saadiah adduces three arguments that prove that the world did not create itself, i.e., that it has a creator who is other than the world itself. Another set of five (unnumbered) arguments is then brought forward by Saadiah to prove that the Creator of the world made it out of nothing (ex nihilo). This set establishes the important principle that while the Creator is eternal everything else is generated in time.

Having advanced these three sets of proofs for creation in time by the Creator, Saadiah proceeds to refute 12 other cosmogonic theories which differ from his own. These range from theories which, while accepting the principle that a creator created the world in time, deny that it was created out of nothing, through that which upholds the eternity of the world, to theories which are skeptical about the possibility of human knowledge and hence about demonstrating either the creation or eternity of the world (Emunot ve-De'ot, 1:3).

nature of god

Saadiah's concept of the nature of God is based upon his view of God as creator. God is the cause of all corporeal existence, He cannot Himself be corporeal, for if He were corporeal, there would have to be something beyond Him which was the cause of His existence. Since God is incorporeal, He cannot be subject to the corporeal attributes of quantity and number (or any other property which may be defined by Aristotle's Categories, Emunot ve-De'ot, 2:9–12), and hence cannot be more than one. Turning to the question of divine attributes, Saadiah demonstrates that an analysis of the concept of God as creator leads to distinguishing three attributes of essence in Him: life, power, and wisdom. The attribution of these qualities to God does not imply a plurality in God. In reality all these qualities are united in Him, but we are forced to speak of them as separate because of the limitation of human language (Emunot ve-De'ot, ch. 2). Other scriptural descriptions of God have to be interpreted as referring to his actions, or otherwise to his revelations (Shekhinah) or messengers (notably angels). All Jewish thinkers who followed the system of Kalām accepted the distinction between attributes of the essence of God and attributes of His actions, which was typical of that system. Similarly to the Muʿtazilite position, the question thus turns into a linguistic-exegetical one rather than an ontological one. The creation of the world was not the result of a need or compulsion on the part of God, but an act of free will. In creating the world God wished to benefit His creatures by giving them the opportunity of serving Him through the observance of His commandments, by means of which they could attain true happiness (Emunot ve-De'ot 1:4).

classification of commandments

The laws given by God to Israel may be divided into two categories: the rational laws (mitzvot sikhliyyot), which have their basis in reason and which man would have discovered by means of reason even if they had not been revealed, because God planted them in the minds of human beings from their birth, and the traditional laws (mitzvot shimiyyot), ritual and ceremonial laws, such as the dietary laws, which do not have their basis in reason. This classification, which results from Saadiah's theory of knowledge (inspired by the Muʿtazila and which crystallized in Muʿtazilite thought about a generation before Saadiah), had a deep and enduring influence on Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages. The acts to which the traditional laws refer are neither good nor evil from the point of view of reason, but are made so by the fact that they are commanded or prohibited by God. All the rational laws can be subsumed under three basic rational principles: First, reason demands that one express gratitude to one's benefactor. Hence, it is reasonable that God should demand that man render thanks to Him through worship. Second, reason demands that a wise person not permit himself to be insulted. Hence, it is reasonable that God should prohibit man from insulting Him, i.e., should prohibit man from taking His name in vain, or from describing Him in human terms. Third, reason demands that creatures should not harm one another. Hence, it is reasonable that God prohibit men from stealing, murdering, and committing adultery, and harming one another in various other ways. While the individual traditional laws do not have their basis in reason, these laws as a class can also be subsumed under a principle of reason. It is reasonable for a wise man to give unnecessary employment to a poor man merely in order to be able to pay him and thereby confer a benefit upon him. Thus, it is reasonable that God should present man with various ceremonial laws in order to be able to reward man for observing them. While the basis of the traditional laws is the fact that they are commanded by God, it is possible upon careful examination to discern even in these laws a certain intrinsic value and rationality, or rather usefulness, which is termed by Saadiah as God's wisdom (Ar. ḥikma). For example, the commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath provides man with an opportunity to devote himself to spiritual matters. Revelation is obviously necessary in order for man to arrive at the knowledge of the traditional laws. It is also necessary in the case of the rational laws, for reason grasps only abstract principles and general norms. The details necessary for the concrete application of these principles are communicated by means of revelation (Emunot ve-De'ot, ch. 3).

nature of man and divine justice

Saadiah views man as a composite of body and soul. The soul is made of very fine material (comparable to the material of which the celestial spheres are made, and even finer than they are), and has three essential faculties: appetite, which controls growth and reproduction; spirit, which controls the emotions; and reason, which controls knowledge, and is ideally supposed to govern the other two faculties. The soul cannot act on its own, and is therefore placed in the body, which serves as its instrument. By means of his actions, i.e., by means of the performance of the divine commandments, man can attain true happiness. One may ask why God does not reward man without his having to undergo hardship and suffering in this world. Saadiah explains that the only real reward is that which man wins for himself through actions for which he is responsible. It is precisely the quality of infinite goodness in God which demands that man be given the opportunity to win his own reward (Emunot ve-De'ot 6:4). It follows that man must have freedom of choice, for if he did not, he would not be responsible for his actions, and God's rewarding and punishing him would be unjust. A further indication that man possesses freedom of choice is the fact that he feels that he is free to act, and does not feel anything preventing him from acting. Saadiah attempts to reconcile the paradox of free choice with God's foreknowledge by stating simply that God's knowledge is not a cause of man's actions, and hence does not restrict his freedom of choice. God merely knows what the outcome of man's deliberation will be (Emunot ve-De'ot 4:3, 4). The problem which troubles Saadiah more is the question of theodicy – why the evil prosper and the good suffer. The solution, according to Saadiah, lies in the balance between suffering in this world and the reward in the next. The righteous who suffer in this world will be rewarded in the *olam ha-ba. In the latter part of Emunot ve-De'ot Saadiah discusses extensively problems of Jewish eschatology such as resurrection of the dead, the Messiah, and redemption. He concludes with a long ethical treatise describing how man should conduct himself in this world in order to achieve true happiness. The Golden Mean is a leading principle in this treatise.

As Grammarian

Saadiah devoted much attention to the Hebrew language. In addition to many linguistic annotations in his biblical commentary he wrote three separate works on the subject. His first work on the Hebrew language was Sefer ha-Agron (ed. by N. Allony, 1969), which he wrote at the age of 20, in vocalized, accented, and flowery Hebrew. After several years he issued a second edition with an introduction in Arabic, as well as an Arabic translation of the Hebrew text. His purpose was to provide a dictionary of a large part of the Hebrew language and in particular to help poets in writing Hebrew poetry by giving a rhyming dictionary of word-endings. In his work he also sought to teach the principles of grammar. In its Hebrew preface, of which only a fragment has survived, he explained the differences between the root letters and the affixes, enumerating the letters used as the latter. In the second edition he added a discussion, with examples, of some of the characteristic features of a poem. In the Arabic introduction he explicitly stated that he was prompted to compose the work through the influence of an Arab writer, but following in his footsteps he aimed only at what would promote the Hebrew language, a brief historical survey of which he embodied in the Hebrew preface to the book. Only fragments have been published.

His second linguistic work, Pitron Shiv`im Millim, ed. by Dukes in zkm, 5 (1844) 115–36 and subsequent editions, contains an incomplete list of the *hapax legomena in the Bible, which are explained from the language of the Mishnah. The form of the work, as extant in manuscripts and in printed versions, gives the impression of being a fragment of a much larger book from which it was detached to constitute a separate treatise. The aim of the work was polemical, in that it set out to prove that the Oral Law is indispensable, since it is impossible to comprehend these biblical words without the help of the Mishnah. Saadiah explicitly said: "They [that is, the *Karaites] are unaware of the fact that they have come to know the sense of these words only from what I have adduced as proof and thus revealed their meaning from the Mishnah." For their part, the Karaites accused him of distorting the truth so as to invent proof of the indispensability of the Mishnah.

Saadiah's third work, Sefer Ẓaḥut ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit, deals with Hebrew grammar; only fragments of it were discovered in recent times. The work is divided into 12 sections, each of which treats of a grammatical problem. From these fragments it would appear that he replied to questions, and in doing so dealt with the letters and the vowels and their combinations, the inflection of the noun and of the verb, the formative letters, the dagesh and the rafeh, the rules of the sheva, and metathesis. He established the conjugation in Hebrew and illustrated it by kal and hifil. Like all his other writings, Saadiah's work on grammar attests to his extensive knowledge and the great vigor with which he applied himself to whatever task he undertook. His detailed knowledge of the Hebrew language as preserved in the masorah, extending even to the vowels, is astonishingly precise. It is still more astonishing to read his "Shir shel ha-Otiyyot," which he wrote on each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, including the final letters. On each he composed two couplets which, by words and biblical allusions, give the number of times that particular letter occurs in the Bible. Each poem, in addition to giving the precise figure, conveys an idea. The lines written on alef will serve as an illustration:

אהל מכון בניני ששם עלו זקני הקהל עשו קרבני ולזבח תודה באו בני

… the meaning of which is as follows: "The Temple, the foundation of all buildings, To which the elders of Israel went on pilgrimage, And where the people offered sacrifices, And the children of Israel came to sacrifice a thanksgiving offering." The number of times the letter alef (אֹהל) occurs in the Bible corresponds to the numerical value of the initial letters of the words following אהל, that is, מ״ב (אלף) שע״ז (= 42,377), the mnemonics for which are הקהל (Neh. 7:66, "The whole congregation [הקהל] together was forty and two thousand three hundred and three score") and ולזבח (Num. 7:17, "And for the sacrifice [ולזבח] of peace-offerings, two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five he-lambs of the first year," making a total of 42,360+17.

[Abraham Solomon Halkin /

Haggai Ben-Shammai (2nd ed.)]

Saadiah's Translation of the Bible

All Saadiah's grammatical work was ancillary to his activity as an exegete, and his most enduring and comprehensive work in the field of exegesis is his Arabic translation of, and partial commentary to, the Bible. This was the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Arabic, and has remained the standard Bible for Arabic-speaking Jews. He first prepared a translation, probably of all books of the Bible with an extensive commentary designed for learned readers, and then proceeded to write a popular translation which, as its name Tafsir (commentary) indicates, was both translation and commentary. In order to make it accessible and intelligible to the ordinary reader, he did not confine himself to a literal translation, but translated freely, sometimes disregarding syntax or paraphrasing the whole chapter. The Tafsir is rational, and Saadiah goes out of his way to eliminate all anthropomorphisms. One of the peculiarities is that he follows the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum (not, as would appear from Malter, the Targum Onkelos) in translating the proper names in the Bible, for which he was severely taken to task by Abraham ibn Ezra (to Gen. 2:21). Ibn Ezra, however, excuses him on the grounds that he probably did so in order to avoid criticism by those Muslims who might read the work that the Jews did not know the meaning of many words in their own Scriptures. Unlike many other Jewish scholars who wrote in Arabic, he used the Arabic and not the Hebrew alphabet (see also *Bible, Translations, Arabic).

As Liturgist and Paytan

Saadiah devoted considerable attention to all matters appertaining to liturgy. Since in his time there did not yet exist a methodically arranged prayer book, he made a systematic compilation in Arabic of the prayers for the whole year. Titled Kitāb Jamʿī al-Ṣalawāt wa al-Tasabīh ("Collection of All Prayers and Praises"), the book was very well known in Egypt and in other countries where Arabic was the vernacular. With the passage of time, however, it was forgotten and was published only in recent times by I. Davidson, S. Assaf, and B.I. Joel under the name of Siddur Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on (1941) in the Arabic original, with a Hebrew translation, and with many additional piyyutim.

Saddiah was a great innovator in the sphere of *piyyut, in language, form, and content. His *bakkashot received high praise from Abraham ibn Ezra; in his commentary to Ecclesiastes (5:1) he said of them "that no author had composed their like." Maimonides was asked whether it was necessary to stand when reciting the bakkashot of the Gaon (Responsa Maimonides, ed. by Blau, no. 14). Because of their importance and interest, they were translated into Arabic and circulated in many communities. In addition to the bakkashot, scholars through the generations also mention Saadiah's *azharot and his *hoshanot. (His "Shir shel ha-Otiyyot," "The Poems of the Letters," belongs rather to grammar than to liturgy, and is dealt with in the appropriate section above.) Many of his piyyutim were found in the Cairo *Genizah and edited by Menahem *Zulay; they reveal Saadiah as a prolific writer of piyyutim, deft in the use of language and the devices of the piyyut form. Today it is known that besides the piyyutim already mentioned, Saadiah composed *kerovot, *seliḥot, *kinot and philosophical poems. In his tokheḥah (poem of reproof) "Im Lefi Beḥirkha" ("If by your Choice"), Saadiah gave expression to many of the philosophical ideas which are also found in his Emunot ve-De'ot. There are similar ideas in some of his bakkashot, and also in his hymn for the Day of Atonement Barekhi Nafshi ("Let My Soul Bless") and there is no doubt that he was the first to compose philosophical piyyutim. These were later to serve as a model for such Spanish paytanim as Solomon ibn *Gabirol and *Judah Halevi.

[Abraham Meir Habermann]

Saadiah's Influence

Saadiah is one of the dominant figures in the development of Judaism and its literature. Although he had predecessors in some of the branches of that literature in which he engaged, he was the first to weld these numerous and diverse studies into a complete system. He provided a powerful impetus to all those who followed in his footsteps in the various branches of that literature, and there is hardly one of the outstanding figures in them who does not pay generous and laudatory tribute to his pioneering work. In philology, *Menahem b. Jacob ibn Saruq speaks of "the accuracy of his interpretations and the comprehensiveness of his linguistics"; the renowned grammarian Jonah *Ibn Janaḥ praises his great work in that field; the mathematician and astronomer Isaac b. Baruch ibn Abbatio states that "he was greater in science than I am"; to Abraham ibn Ezra in his biblical commentary he is "the Gaon" par excellence, and in his devastating criticism of the paytanim (to Eccles. 5:1), he singles out Saadiah as an exception. Maimonides disagreed with his philosophical views in many fundamental points, but states "were it not for Saadiah the Torah would have well-nigh disappeared from the midst of Israel" (Iggeret Teiman). His halakhic works penetrated to the Franco-German center and to the tosafists. He is the most authoritative geonic source, a fact which incidentally is evidence that his Arabic works were early translated into Hebrew, in versions which are no longer extant. "Taken all in all" says Malter, "Saadiah must be considered a remarkable milestone on the long road of Israel's development as a 'people of the book.'"


J.L. Fishman (ed.), Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on – Koveẓ Torani Madda'i (1924); Saadiah Anniversary Volume (1943), incl. bibl. compiled by A. Freimann; E.I.J. Rosenthal (ed.), Saadya Studies (1943); L. Finkelstein (ed.), Rab Saadia Gaon, Studies in his Honor (1944), incl. selected bibl. by Boaz Cohen; A. Marx, ibid., 53–95; H. Malter, Life and Works of Saadiah Gaon (1921, 1970); S.W. Baron, in: Saadiah Anniversary Volume (1943), 9–74; N. Lamm, in: jqr, 55 (1964/65), 208–34; Z. Broshi, Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on, Ḥayyav Mishnato u-Mifalav (1942); S. Bernfeld, Rabbenu Sa'adyah Ga'on (1892); A. Hollaender, Sa'adyah Ga'on ben Yosef Ge'on Sura (1958); D. Kahana, Sefer le-Toledot Rasag (1892); S.K. Mirsky, Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on (1912); A. Marmorstein, Le-Toledot Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on, Parashah bi-Tekufat ha-Ge'onim (1951); M. Zuker, Al Targum Rasag la-Torah (1959, with Eng. summary); S.L. Skoss, Saadia Gaon, the Earliest Hebrew Grammarian (1955). As philosopher: Guttman, Philosophies, 61–73; Husik, Philosophy, 23–41; Jacob Guttmann, Die Religionsphilosophie des Saadiah (1882); I. Efros, in: jqr, 33 (1942/43), 33–70; A. Heschel, ibid., 265–313; H.A. Wolfson, in: Saadiah Anniversary Volume (1943), 197–245; G. Vajda, in: rej, 126 (1967), 135–89, 375–397; M. Ventura, La Philosophie de Saadia Gaon (1934); A. Altmann, Saadya's Conception of the Law (1944); Z. Diesendruck, Saadya's Formulation of the Time Argument for Creation (1935); D. Druck, Saadya Gaon, Scholar Philosopher, Champion of Judaism (1942); L. Klaperman, The Scholar-Fighter, The Story of Saadia Gaon (1961); S.B. Urbach, Ammudei ha-MaḤashavah ha-Yisre'elit, 1 (1953). As liturgist and paytan: M. Zulay, Ha-Askolah ha-Paytanit shel Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on (1969); A. Firkowitsch, in: Ha-Meliẓ (1868); n. 26–27. add. bibliography: H. Ben-Shammai, in: Pe`amim, 54 (1993), 63–81 (Heb.); idem, in: Da'at, 37 (1996) 11–26 (Heb.); idem, in: D.H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), History of Jewish Philosophy (1997), 115–48; in: Aleph, 4 (2004), 11–87; H.A. Davidson, in A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 75–94; idem, in: S.D. Goitein (ed.), Religion in a Religious Age (1974), 53–68; idem, Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (1987), passim; G. Freudenthal, in: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 6,1 (1996) 113–36; L.E. Goodman (tr.), The Book of Theodicy: Translationand Commentary on the Book of Job by Saadiah ben Joseph al-Fayyumi (1988); Y.T. Langermann, in: The Jews and the Sciences in the Middle Ages (1999), ch. 2; S. Stroumsa, in: D.H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2003) 71–90; H.A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (1979), passim.

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