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The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture

The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture
    Book Description:

    The Geonic period from about the late sixth to mid-eleventh centuries is of crucial importance in the history of Judaism. The Geonim, for whom this era is named, were the heads of the ancient talmudic academies of Babylonia. They gained ascendancy over the older Palestinian center of Judaism and were recognized as the leading religious and spiritual authorities by most of the world's Jewish population. The Geonim and their circles enshrined the Babylonian Talmud as the central canonical work of rabbinic literature and the leading guide to religious practice, and it was a predominantly Babylonian version of Judaism that was transplanted to newer centers of Judaism in North Africa and Europe. Robert Brody's book-the first survey in English of the Geonic period in almost a century-focuses on the cultural milieu of the Geonim and on their intellectual and literary creativity.Brody describes the cultural spheres in which the Geonim were active and the historical and cultural settings within which they functioned. He emphasizes the challenges presented by other Jewish institutions and individuals, ranging from those within the Babylonian Jewish setting-especially the political leadership represented by the Exilarch-to the competing Palestinian Jewish center and to sectarian movements and freethinkers who rejected rabbinic authority altogether. He also describes the variety of ways in which the development of Geonic tradition was affected by the surrounding non-Jewish cultures, both Muslim and Christian.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14659-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface to the Paperback Edition
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)

    Strictly speaking, the Geonic period began somewhere in the second half of the sixth century c.e., thus antedating by at least half a century the great wave of Arab conquests which began near the middle of the seventh century, in the wake of Muhammad’s mission. Furthermore, the Muslim conquest of Babylonia appears to have been neither a traumatic event for the Babylonian Jewish community nor the occasion for the establishment of new leadership institutions. Nevertheless, knowledge of events in that portion of the Geonic period which preceded the Muslim conquest is virtually nil, so that thehistoryof the Geonic...

  7. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  8. Part I The Historical Setting

    • 1 Defining the Geonic Period
      (pp. 3-18)

      During the Geonic era of Jewish history, the central academies of Babylonia and Palestine were well-established, hierarchical institutions, whose heads, the Geonim,¹ fulfilled a good many roles and exerted an enormous influence over the entire Jewish world. Certain territories were officially subject to their administrative jurisdiction, while their moral authority extended to the furthest reaches of the diaspora. The origins and development of these aspects of the Geonate are, however, difficult to date. Scattered pointers may be found in the seventh and eighth centuries,² but more comprehensive documentation is available only for the ninth and especially the tenth and eleventh...

    • 2 The Primary Sources
      (pp. 19-34)

      A good deal of the background for the study of the Jewish world in the Geonic period is presented most clearly in non-Jewish sources, but the detailed picture must be drawn almost exclusively on the basis of internal Jewish sources. The writings of contemporary Muslim authors—historians and others—enable us to appreciate the political, economic, and social frameworks within which the Jewish community functioned; but these sources concern themselves with Jewish affairs to a very limited extent. When Jewish institutions and individuals are mentioned, they are usually, and not surprisingly, those which operated largely in the interface with non-Jewish...

    • 3 The Geonic Academies: Continuity and Change
      (pp. 35-53)

      The leading academies of the Geonic period, those of Sura and Pumbedita, presented themselves as the successors of corresponding institutions of the Amoraic period, which had functioned with only minor interruptions since the third century c.e.. The last third of Sherira’s Epistle is devoted to tracing the history of these academies, each of which was actually associated with two towns.¹ According to Sherira, the academy of “Sura, which is called Mata Meḥasia,” was founded by Rav, who left Palestine for Babylonia in 218/9 and died in 246/7.² His great contemporary Samuel had an academy in Nehardea. Following the death of...

    • 4 The Multifaceted Role of the Gaon
      (pp. 54-66)

      Our discussion of the role of the Gaon will proceed in a series of expanding circles, beginning with the Gaon’s role as educator.

      The role of head of the academy is at the heart of the office of Gaon. In this capacity the Gaon may be said to continue the work of predecessors in the Amoraic and Savoraic periods who headed academies or, at the very least, trained groups of disciples.¹ Furthermore, as we have seen, the titleGaonitself reflects this role. We have at our disposal only one relatively detailed account of the Gaon’s responsibilities as principal of...

    • 5 The Exilarchate
      (pp. 67-82)

      The Geonic academies shared the leadership of Babylonian Jewry with another institution of ancient vintage: the Exilarchate. The roots of this office go back hundreds of years before the Muslim conquest, probably to the Parthian period and certainly to Sasanian times. For the earlier periods we are dependent almost exclusively on Talmudic sources; for the Geonic period (and later) we have at our disposal, in addition to the Jewish sources, the evidence of a number of Islamic authors.¹

      The essence of the system developed by the Iranian monarchs and adopted by the Muslim caliphs was the designation of an official...

    • 6 The Struggle against Heresy
      (pp. 83-99)

      The leaders of Babylonian Jewry had to contend not only with internal tensions and conflicts, but also with challenges to their authority emanating from diverse sources within the Jewish world of their time. Ideologically, if perhaps not in practical terms, the most profound challenge they faced was from sectarian groups that denied not only the specific claims of the Babylonian leaders, especially the Geonim, but the deepest foundations on which their claims to authority rested: the notion of an authoritative Oral Law preserved in rabbinic tradition and constituting the necessary complement to the Written Law embodied in Scripture.

      The controversy...

    • 7 Competition with the Palestinian Center
      (pp. 100-122)

      In addition to the sometimes uneasy division of power between Exilarchs and Geonim and the challenge posed by the emergence of various sectarian groups, the leaders of Babylonian Jewry found their freedom of action restricted in yet another direction, at least with respect to the Jewish diaspora outside their specific spheres of hegemony, the reshuyot. The Babylonian center had no automatic claim on the allegiance of other Jewish communities, such as those of North Africa and Europe. These communities, even if they were not yet ready to assert their independence, might prefer to seek guidance from the other spiritual center...

    • 8 Ties with the Diaspora
      (pp. 123-134)

      We conclude our survey of the historical framework within which the Geonim operated with an overview of the ties which bound the Babylonian center to the far-flung Jewish diaspora of the time. We have already had occasion to discuss several aspects of this network of relationships but will now consider the topic from the perspective of the various Jewish communities and the particular types of relationship which prevailed in different areas. The Jewish world of the Geonic period may be viewed as a series of expanding concentric circles, with the radius of each defined culturally and politically rather than purely...

  9. Part II The Classical Geonic Period

    • 9 The Intellectual World of the Geonim
      (pp. 137-154)

      Our treatment of Geonic literature and intellectual life is divided into two parts, in order to reflect the many and far-reaching changes which date approximately to the third decade of the tenth century and are associated primarily with Se‘adyah Gaon (928–942 c.e.). In this chapter we will delineate some of the major contours of the cultural and intellectual setting of the earlier Babylonian Geonim before focusing our attention specifically on the talmudic literature and related traditions. Our data derive primarily from the responsa written by these Geonim; we will sometimes use later responsa to fill in the picture when...

    • 10 The Talmudic Sources
      (pp. 155-170)

      We may now turn to a closer examination of those portions of the talmudic literature which constituted the core of the intellectual world inhabited by the Geonim and the members of their academies. The most central text in this world was the Babylonian Talmud, which, as we have seen, was deemed to include within itself both Scripture and the Mishnah, thus obviating the need for advanced scholars to divide their time between the three corpora. The notion that the Mishnah—or, to be more precise, those parts of it encompassed by the Babylonian Talmud—is for practical purposes subsumed within...

    • 11 Extra-Talmudic Oral Traditions
      (pp. 171-184)

      In addition to utilizing large parts of the talmudic literature, the Geonim and their contemporaries were able to draw upon a body of extra-talmudic traditions which were transmitted for generations in the milieu of the Geonic academies. In these circles the talmudic literature itself was transmitted orally for the most part, although written copies were in existence by the early ninth century and were sometimes referred to—albeit in a subordinate capacity—by the later Geonim. The same situation apparently prevailed with regard to extra-talmudic traditions. When the mode of transmission is indicated, it is always oral, but one responsum...

    • 12 The Responsa Literature
      (pp. 185-201)

      In any attempt to present a synchronic picture of the early Geonate, the responsa produced by the Geonic academies must play a leading role. They represent not only the most important source of information concerning the world of the Geonim, but also the form of literary expression most characteristic of this period. They were the primary means by which the Geonim and their academies maintained ties with, and exerted influence on, the Jewish world as a whole.¹ The Talmud preserves occasional reports of halakhic questions which were submitted to distant authorities and of their responses, which in some cases were...

    • 13 The She’iltot
      (pp. 202-215)

      Another important product of the Geonic period, both more literary than the responsa and less closely connected with the Geonim themselves, was the collection of homilies known as theShe’iltot. In considering this literature, we must distinguish between two topics: the literary genre as a whole and a particular collection associated with the name of R. Aḥai (or Aḥa) of Shavḥa. In order to minimize confusion, we will refer to the individual units by the lower-caseshe’ilta(pl.she’iltot), and to R. Aḥai’s collection by the upper-case pluralShe’iltot.

      The individual units of this genre, each of which is called...

    • 14 The Earliest Legal Codes
      (pp. 216-232)

      One of the most important developments of the earlier Geonic period was the proliferation of efforts to produce codes of talmudic law, some of them fairly comprehensive. Although it was perhaps to be expected that, once the Babylonian Talmud itself was perceived as a closed corpus, a process of extra-talmudic codification would begin, this was nevertheless a crucial innovation and may be seen as marking the beginning of post-talmudic rabbinic literature in the strict sense, in contrast to the responsa and homilies.

      The new codes were written in the mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic characteristic of the period and incorporate...

  10. Part III Se‘adyah Gaon and After

    • 15 Se‘adyah Gaon, Revolutionary Champion of Tradition
      (pp. 235-248)

      While the rise of Islam was obviously the decisive political development affecting the Jews of Babylonia—and most of the Jewish world—during the Geonic period, the cultural elite associated with the Geonic academies remained largely unaffected by this development, except insofar as it facilitated the establishment of closer ties with the Jewish diaspora. In many ways, a much more important watershed in the history of the academies, and in Jewish intellectual and cultural history in general, was the career of Se‘adyah b. Joseph, Gaon of Sura in the years 928–942 c.e.¹

      The main outlines of Se‘adyah’s biography are...

    • 16 The Halakhic Monographs
      (pp. 249-266)

      Se‘adyah Gaon and his successors blazed a number of new trails in the traditional intellectual territory of the Geonic academies, in ways which were to have a profound impact on the later course of rabbinic literature. Probably the most obvious of these, and the most important from a literary-historical point of view, was the emergence of a substantial monographic literature in the related spheres of Talmud and halakhah. In this chapter we shall confine ourselves to the realm of halakhic codification, while talmudic works of a more academic nature will be the subject of the next chapter.

      The works which...

    • 17 Talmudic Exegesis and Methodology
      (pp. 267-282)

      Se‘adyah Gaon and his successors were responsible for a number of far-reaching literary innovations, even within those areas which had always attracted their predecessors’ attentions. In addition to producing systematic works of legal codification, they broke new ground with a series of more academically oriented works. These may be divided into two broad categories: commentaries on talmudic texts and treatments of talmudic methodology. Like legal issues, questions of talmudic exegesis—and, to a lesser extent, of methodology—had figured prominently in the responsa of earlier Geonim, but their treatment had been sporadic and largely dependent on the interests of the...

    • 18 Theology
      (pp. 283-299)

      Classical Judaism placed very little emphasis on dogma. While its adherents and critics might differ sharply in their attitude towards this orientation, they would have been able to agree that this was much more a religion of “works” than of “faith,” and that one’s membership in good standing in the religious community depended on practical observance rather than on formal assertions of belief. We hear of few internal debates on questions of dogma, and even someone who denied one of the few tenets which were deemed essential, such as the belief in resurrection, was only said to be denied a...

    • 19 Biblical Exegesis
      (pp. 300-315)

      Throughout the earlier part of the Geonic period, the literary activity of the Geonim was restricted to a single genre: the responsum. The overwhelming majority of the questions addressed to the Geonic academies (or at least of those which survive) are devoted to the areas of talmudic exegesis and Jewish law (halakhah). While questions concerning biblical exegesis are found already in the middle of the eighth century c.e., the earliest period from which we have significant numbers of responsa, these are few and far between.¹ Although the choice of topics was dictated by the questioners and not by the respondents,...

    • 20 Linguistics and Poetry
      (pp. 316-332)

      A concern with language was one of the intellectual factors which united legal scholars and Talmudists, theologians and biblical exegetes. Legal authorities and theologians were concerned primarily with semantic questions and devoted considerable efforts to the analysis of such terms as “gift” or “unity.”¹ Biblical exegesis included a much more prominent linguistic component. A good deal of Geonic exegesis turned on the analysis of biblical words and expressions, and the Geonic commentaries frequently incorporate fairly lengthy discussions of the various meanings of a given word, with appropriate biblical citations. This sort of exegetical endeavor demanded not only semantic but also...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 333-336)

    The Geonic period was a crucial, though often underrated, stage in the development of Jewish religion and culture. Because virtually the entire Jewish population of the world at this time was united under Islamic sovereignty, and largely subordinate to the leadership provided by the ancient centers of Babylonia and Palestine, developments which had their roots in these centers profoundly influenced the later course of Jewish history and culture. One might say that this was the last formative age of a unified (Rabbanite) Jewish culture, before the growth of relatively independent regional traditions, each of which was to develop according to...

  12. Appendix A: Did the Geonim Enjoy Governmental Recognition?
    (pp. 337-340)
  13. Appendix B: Chronology of the Geonim
    (pp. 341-346)
  14. Glossary
    (pp. 347-350)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 351-376)
  16. Supplemental Bibliography
    (pp. 377-382)
  17. Index
    (pp. 383-388)