Tradition: Adapt or Adopt?

In Search of Hearts

Let’s now learn of the last academics and how they presided over the closing of the Talmud in Bavel. The process saw this generation's minds give way to the next generation's hearts.

The Principals

Closest to the close of the Talmud, the principals of the metivtot were called Savoraim. The next and succeeding generations were called Geonim. Tradition says Ravina (R. Abina) is the last in the line of hora'ah – the last Amora. It was he and R. Ashi who completed the work of the Amora'im. There is no real dividing line between who was a savora and who was a gaon.

The Savoraim

Rabba Yosé was the first Savora. The Talmud was sealed under his editorship in 4260 (499 CE). This concluded 311 years of efforts which began with the opening of the Mishna in 3949 (188 CE). The conluding generation of Savoraim begins in 4274 an continues until 4300. It includes Ahai, Bar-Rabba, Rabna of Umsha and Tehina and concludes with Éna and Simona. Ibn Daud lists three additional generations of Savoraim but we will assume the Geonim take over sooner rather than later.

The Savoraim added editorial shape to the Gemara and rendered some final decisions. In this sense they had the authority to render decisions on the Amora'im just as the first generation of Amora'im could challenge the Tannaim. Precisely when the transition begins and ends is unknown. Éna and Simona organised the Talmudic dialogues according to the mishnayot, though they use an order different from the Mishna’s. They also inserted the opening words of the Mishna into the main Talmudic discussion, a feature not found in the Yerushalmi.

The Geonim Only a number of geonim stand out over a 500 year period. The geonim formed a type of Sanhedrin, interpreted – even amended through taqanot – the Talmud, decided halakha in Galut, and even attempted to have their interpretations hold fast in Israel – but here they were rebuffed.

Saadia Gaon was gaon of Sura in the early10th century. He was a halakha scholar, philosopher, grammarian, and Bible translator. He was the first among the geonim to organise his numerous researches into a complete system. His efforts regenerated Jewish intellectual activities. He disputed with both Anan Ben-David, who animated an anti-Rabbinic movement which later evolved into Qaraim, and with Aaron Ben-Meir, gaon of the Jeruslaem yeshiva.

Aaron Ben-Meir’s refusal to cede authority on the Jewish calendar to the Babylonian geonim created a dispute which Saadia eventually won. Anan Ben-David’s dispute was more fundamental and the Qaraim formed a separate community because they did not accept the Rabbinic oral tradition embodied in the Talmud. Qara scholarship was superior to anything produced in Bavel to that time. Saadia need to counter their excellence in scholarship and produced stunning rebuttals to Qara studies in Hebrew grammar and Bile exegesis.

Sherira Gaon was gaon of Pumbadita in the late 10th century. He became a prolific writer of responsa and effectively changed the fortunes of Sura and Pumbadita, which were in serious decline. He undertook, at the request of a letter from Yaqov Ben-Nissim Ben-Sahin in Algeria, to write a history of Judaism. Sherira’s approach was accurate even by modern standards of historigraphy. The Iggeret Sherira Gaon traced the historical develoment of the Shelbapeh from The Anshé Khneset Hagdola to Sherira’s time. His historical perspectives led him to believe the shi’uir qoma and hékhalot mysticisms were ancient traditions.

Hai Gaon was gaon of Pumbadita in the early 11th century in succession to his father, Sherira. Hai forged strong ties with the Spanish and Turkish communities, which expanded the influence of the geonim from Middle Eastern and North African communities to Europe. His death ended the superiority of Bavel over other Galut communities. Minds have prevailed in Bavel for perhaps 1500 years. Hearts will begin to prevail, in Bavel and throughout the settled Jewish world. We will learn of this in Hearts On Fire.