Yehudai ben Naḥman

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YEHUDAI BEN NAḤMAN (Yehudai Gaon ) head of the academy of Sura c. 757–61. Yehudai was one of the scholars of Pumbedita, but the Exilarch Solomon b. Ḥasdai transferred him to Sura, because "there was no scholar in Sura who was his peer in knowledge" (Iggeret Sherira Ga'on, ed. by B.M. Lewin (1921), 107) – despite his advanced age, the fact that he was blind, and as an exception to the tradition of Sura not to appoint as its head anyone who had not been educated there. During his period at Sura, his brother Dudai served as Gaon of the Pumbedita academy. Yehudai is referred to as "light of the world, holy and pure" and *Sherira states that "we may not do what Yehudai refrained from doing" (Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim, ed. by J. Mussafia (1864), no. 43). His pupils included Ḥaninai b. Huna and Natronai Nasi b. Ḥakhinai; the most distinguished was Ray Abba (Rabbah), the author of a collection of halakhot. Yehudai is the first in the geonic period to whom or to whose pupils is attributed the authorship of a book, the *Halakhot Pesukot. In halakhah Yehudai based himself entirely upon the Babylonian Talmud and the traditions of the *savora'im and merely gave the final ruling of the Talmud, omitting the halakhic discussion. He attempted to reestablish talmudic law and averred that he had always replied to halakhic questions with proof from the Talmud as interpreted by his teachers in practice (Ginzei Schechter, 2 (1929), 558). He was the first gaon to compile responsa, 131 of which are extant; these are distinguished by their brevity, merely giving the ruling without quoting the sources or the reasons for his decision. In consequence of his ambition to make the Babylonian Talmud and the customs of the Babylonian academies authoritative throughout the Diaspora, Yehudai was the first gaon to establish contact with the Jewish communities of North Africa. He protested to the Jews of Ereẓ Israel that their customs were "customs due to persecution" which originated in the religious persecutions in that country at the close of the Byzantine era, and demanded that they accept the customs of Babylon. Some scholars assert that these opinions of Yehudai were very much a matter of conjecture and exaggeration. According to *Pirkoi ben Baboi, a pupil of Yehudai's pupil, Rav Abba, who reproduced certain passages of Yehudai's in his own work, the scholars of Ereẓ Israel opposed him and continued to rely upon their ancient custom and traditions. In some cases Yehudai's rulings did not accord with the custom of Sura. Thanks to his activity, however, the influence of the Babylonian academies spread and the Babylonian Talmud became the sole authority for halakhic ruling. Yehudai and his pupils fought fiercely against the spread of *Karaism in Babylonia, and succeeded in defending the Oral Law by stressing the importance of the Talmud and the especial authority of the scholars in these areas (e.g., family law) challenged by the Karaites. According to some, however, Yehudai's aim in his work was not to combat Karaism since *Anan effected the communal schism only during the last years of Yehudai, and the need to consolidate and summarize halakhic material is understandable even without the rise of Karaism. In consequence of his blindness, Yehudai's rulings and directives were written by his pupils and as a result many interpolations by his pupils found their way into his works. Yehudai is described by Pirkoi b. Baboi as "great in sanctity and purity, in piety and in humility, and meticulous in the observance of all the precepts. He dedicated himself to Heaven, and brought people nearer to the Torah and its precepts" (Ginzei Schechter, 2 (1929), 556f.).


Mann, in: rej, 70 (1920), 113–48; Mann, Egypt, 1 (1920), 280; Mann, Texts, index; L. Ginzberg (Ginzburg), Ginzei Schechter, 2 (1929), index; Lewin, in: Tarbiz (1930/31), 392f., 398; V. Aptowitzer, in: huca, 8–9 (1931–32), 397–400; idem, Meḥkarim be-Sifrut ha-Ge'onim (1941), 13–17, 26f., 91–93; M. Margalioth (ed.), Halakhot Keẓuvot (1942), 11f. (introd.); idem (ed.), Hilkhot ha-Nagid (1962), 3, 17 (introd.); S. Assaf, Tekufat ha-Ge'onim ve-Sifrutah (1955), 48f.; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), 136, 226–28; Baron, Social2, index; Dinur, Golah, 1, pt. 2 (19612), index; pt. 3 (19612) 52, 113, 249; pt. 4 (19622), 474f., 478f.

[Yehoshua Horowitz]