Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim

    Representative Gaonim:
    Achai, Amram, Zemach, Saadiah, Sherira, Samuel, Hai.

For several centuries after the completion of the Talmud, Babylonia or Persia continued to hold the supremacy in Jewish learning. The great teachers in the Persian schools followed the same lines as their predecessors in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Their name was changed more than their character. The title Gaon ("Excellence”) was applied to the head of the school, the members of which devoted themselves mainly to the study and interpretation of the older literature. They also made original contributions to the store. Of their extensive works but little has been preserved. What has survived proves that they were gifted with the faculty of applying old precept to modern instance. They regulated the social and religious affairs of all the Jews in the diaspora. They improved educational methods, and were pioneers in the popularization of learning. By a large collection of Case Law, that is, decisions in particular cases, they brought the newer Jewish life into moral harmony with the principles formulated by the earlier Rabbis. The Gaonim were the originators or, at least, the arrangers of parts of the liturgy. They composed new hymns and invocations, fixed the order of service, and established in full vigor a system of Minhag, or Custom, whose power became more and more predominant, not only in religious, but also in social and commercial affairs.

The literary productions of the Gaonic age open with the Sheeltothwritten by Achai in the year 760. This, the first independent book composed after the close of the Talmud, was curiously enough compiled in Palestine, whither Achai had migrated from Persia. The Sheeltoth ("Inquiries”) contain nearly two hundred homilies on the Pentateuch. In the year 880 another Gaon, Amram by name, prepared a Siddur, or Prayer-Book, which includes many remarks on the history of the liturgy and the customs connected with it. A contemporary of Amram, Zemach, the son of Paltoi, found a different channel for his literary energies. He compiled an Aruch, or Talmudical Lexicon. Of the most active of the Gaonim, Saadiah, more will be said in a subsequent chapter. We will now pass on to Sherira, who in 987 wrote his famous “Letter,” containing a history of the Jewish Tradition, a work which stamps the author as at once learned and critical. It shows that the Gaonim were not afraid nor incapable of facing such problems as this: Was the Mishnah orallytransmitted to the Amoraim (or Rabbis of the Talmud), or was it written down by the compiler? Sherira accepted the former alternative. The latest Gaonim were far more productive than the earlier. Samuel, the son of Chofni, who died in 1034, and the last of the Gaonim, Hai, who flourished from 998 to 1038, were the authors of many works on the Talmud, the Bible, and other branches of Jewish literature. Hai Gaon was also a poet.

The language used by the Gaonim was at first Hebrew and Aramaic, and the latter remained the official speech of the Gaonate. In course of time, Arabic replaced the Aramean dialect, and became the lingua franca of the Jews.

The formal works of the Gaonim, with certain obvious exceptions, were not, however, the writings by which they left their mark on their age. The most original and important of the Gaonic writings were their “Letters,” or “Answers” (Teshuboth). The Gaonim, as heads of the school in the Babylonian cities Sura and Pumbeditha, enjoyed far more than local authority. The Jews of Persia were practically independent of external control. Their official heads were the Exilarchs, who reigned over the Jews as viceroys of the caliphs. The Gaonim were the religious heads of an emancipated community. The Exilarchs possessed a princely revenue, which they devoted in part to the schools over which the Gaonim presided. This position of authority, added to the world-wide repute of the two schools, gave the Gaonim an influence which extended beyond their own neighborhood. From all parts of the Jewish world their guidance was sought and their opinions solicited on a vast variety of subjects, mainly, but not exclusively, religious and literary. Amid the growing complications of ritual law, a desire was felt for terse prescriptions, clear-cut decisions, and rules of conduct. The imperfections of study outside of Persia, again, made it essential to apply to the Gaonim for authoritative expositions of difficult passages in the Bible and the Talmud. To all such enquiries the Gaonim sent responses in the form of letters, sometimes addressed to individual correspondents, sometimes to communities or groups of communities. These Letters and other compilations containing Halachic (or practical) decisions were afterwards collected into treatises, such as the “Great Rules” (Halachoth Gedoloth), originally compiled in the eighth century, but subsequently reedited. Mostly, however, the Letters were left in loose form, and were collected in much later times.

The Letters of the Gaonim have little pretence to literary form. They are the earliest specimens of what became a very characteristic branch of Jewish literature. “Questions and Answers” (Shaaloth u-Teshuboth) abound in later times in all Jewish circles, and there is no real parallel to them in any other literature. More will be said later on as to these curious works. So far as the Gaonic period is concerned, the characteristics of these thousands of letters are lucidity of thought and terseness of expression. The Gaonim never waste a word. They are rarely over-bearing in manner, but mostly use a tone which is persuasive rather than disciplinary. The Gaonim were, in this real sense, therefore, princes of letter-writing. Moreover, though their Letters deal almost entirely with contemporary affairs, they now constitute as fresh and vivid reading as when first penned. Subjected to the severe test of time, the Letters of the Gaonim emerge triumphant.



Graetz.–III, 4-8.

Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 25.


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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