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Sherira ben Ḥanina Gaon

SHERIRA BEN ḤANINA GAON

SHERIRA BEN ḤANINA GAON (c. 906–1006), gaon of Pumbedita from 968–1006. Sherira belonged to the family of the exilarchs, who claimed descent from David. His teachers were his father R. Ḥanina and his grandfather R. Judah, both of whom he mentions frequently in his responsa and who preceded him as geonim in Pumbedita. On the death of Nehemiah Gaon, who had been his opponent, Sherira was appointed to succeed him. This was a critical period for the two academies of Sura and Pumbedita. Financial contributions and the addressing of queries to the academies had practically ceased and the number of students was small. Sherira renewed the academy's ties with the communities, whose leadership he strongly rebuked for their indifference. Sherira's personality and fame as a scholar turned the tide for a while. Despite the great expansion of rabbinic learning in Kairouan in North Africa, in Spain, and in Franco-Germany, students came to Sherira from near and far. Although Sura declined, the leadership of Pumbedita not only regained its former prestige, but claimed supreme authority, and Sherira played a key role in making the Babylonian Talmud the supreme source of authority in the Jewish world.

Sherira was among the most prolific writers of responsa. One inquiry addressed to him by *Jacob b. Nissim b. Shahin in the name of the community of Kairouan led to the writing in 987 of his famous epistle, Iggeret Rav Sherira Ga'on, a classic of Jewish historiography. Jacob sought information as to when and how the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the beraitot, and the Talmud had been compiled. He inquired "whether the men of the Great Synagogue had really begun the writing of the Mishnah, and the Sages of each generation had written [more] parts of it until Rabbi [Judah] ha-Nasi came and compiled it." Sherira deals with the question in a scholarly manner, revealing himself a practical and accurate historian (with the possible reservation that his opinions on the exilarchs, descended from *Bustanai, from whom he claimed descent, may be colored). He discusses the activity of the savoraim in revising and compiling the Talmud, and continues the sequence of tradition to the geonic authorities. Under Sherirah and his son *Hai, the volume of geonic correspondence swelled to unprecedented proportions. Nearly half of the geonic responsa are attributed to them. Through their writings (in large part composed jointly), they greatly influenced the exegetical and judicial work of later ages. They frequently formulate rules which are of the highest importance for the interpretation of the Talmud. The majority of the responsa deal with questions of religious practice but some contain expositions and comments on passages of the Talmud and the Mishnah. Passages from a Bible commentary by Sherira are quoted by Jonah *Ibn Janaḥ and David *Kimḥi. It is unknown whether these encompassed all the books of the Bible. In addition to a glossary on the first and last orders of the Mishnah, Sherira wrote a commentary on several talmudic tractates, including Berakhot, Shabbat, and Bava Batra. Only a fragment of the last, apparently written in 972, has come to light (in: Ginzei Kedem, 5 (1934), 17–23). Sherira was less interested than his son Hai in Arabic literature, though he wrote in Arabic to communities in Muslim countries. Generally, he preferred to use Hebrew or Aramaic. In his decisions Sherira endeavored to decide in strict conformity with the law.

Sherira, who was interested in Kabbalah, believed that the mystical works Shiʿur Komah and Heikhalot contained ancient traditions, and that the anthropomorphic elements of the former work were to be interpreted symbolically as representations of profound mysteries. He seems to have explained the aggadah, however, in a non-mystical manner. Sherira wrote a work, Megillat Setarim, which apparently discusses the importance of the aggadah, but that part of the work is not extant. Two years before his death, Sherira appointed his son Hai as Gaon. He died at the age of 100 (Sefer ha-Kabbalah by Abraham Ibn Daud), and on the Sabbath following his death, a special scriptural passage, "Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation" (Num. 27:16) was read, and in the prophetic reading (i Kings 2:1–12) the last verse was changed to: "and Hai sat on the seat of Sherira, his father, and his kingdom was established greatly."

bibliography:

A. Harkavy (ed.), Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1887), 188, no. 373; J. Mueller, Mafte'aḥ li-Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1891), 178–201; Mann, Texts, 1 (1931), 109 n.2; Baron, Social2, 6 (1958), 340–1, no. 46; H. Tykoczynski, Takkanot ha-Ge'onim (1959), passim; M. Havazelet, Ha-Rambam ve-ha-Ge'onim (1967), passim; Abramson, Merkazim, 46–57.

[Meir Havazelet]

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