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May 16: Saadia Gaon

May 16, 2014

fall-2012-lecture-series-2The preeminent Talmudic scholar of Babylon in the 9th century, Egyptian-born Saadia ben Joseph, known as Saadia Gaon (“Gaon” is an honorific meaning one of splendor or genius), is thought to have died at age 60 in Sura on this date in 942. He was the first rabbinic authority to translate the Bible into Arabic, with commentary, grammatical notes, and more; it remains the authoritative Arabic Bible today. He also wrote the first Hebrew grammar book that explained how the loshn kodesh worked, and created a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary and a Hebrew rhyming dictionary. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “During Saadia’s life, the Jewish intelligentsia of Babylon spoke Arabic and were fairly easily accepted into the Arab culture. . . . Saadia had the job of keeping upper-class Jews Jewish.” He did so by engaging with the Greek philosophers in a philosophical book, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, “in magnificent flowing Arabic,” in which he “defended the rational underpinnings of Judaism and showed logically that every rational Jew could believe in the Torah as well as Aristotle and Plato.” The Gaon was a key opponent of the Karaites and defender of rabbinic Judaism, and firmly established Babylon as the world’s preeminent center of Jewish scholarship, dominant over Palestine. He is mostly known to the modern world through letters found in the Cairo genizah.

“Were it not for Rav Saadia Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from Jewish people. For it was he who shed light on that which was obscure, strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.” -Maimonides