Geonim (plural of גאון Gaon) (Hebrew: גאונים meaning "Excellency") were the presidents of the two great rabbinical colleges of Sura and Pumbedita, located in ancient Babylonia. They were the accepted spiritual leaders of the Jewish community world-wide in the early medieval era. The Geonim played a prominent role in the transmission and teaching of the Torah and Jewish law. As the heads of Judaism's two most important academies of the time, the Geonim decided on issues on which no ruling had been rendered during the earlier period of the Sevora'im. The authority of the Geonim began in 589 C.E. (Hebrew date: 4349) and ended in 1038 C.E. (Hebrew date: 4798) covering a period of nearly 450 years.
Maimonides sometimes used the term "Geonim" in an extended sense, to mean "leading authorities," regardless of the country in which they lived.
During the geonic period (589-1038 C.E.), the Babylonian academies were the chief centers of Jewish learning in the world. The heads of these schools, the Geonim, were recognized as the highest authorities in Jewish law. The organization of the Babylonian academies recalled the ancient Sanhedrin and functioned in a similar fashion.
The title of gaon came to be applied to the heads of the two Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita. The title became popular around the end of the sixth century. As the academies of Sura and Pumbedita were invested with judicial authority, the gaon officiated as supreme judge. In front of the presiding gaon and facing him were seated seventy members of the academy in seven rows of ten persons each, each person in the seat assigned to him, and the whole forming, with the gaon, the so-called "great sanhedrin."
Despite the difficulties hampering the irregular communications during the period, Jews living in distant countries sent their inquiries concerning religion and law to these officials in Babylonia. The Sura academy was originally dominant, but its authority waned toward the end of the Geonic period and the Pumbedita Gaonate gained ascendancy. However, in the latter centuries of the geonic period, from the middle of the tenth to the middle of the eleventh centuries, their supremacy lessened, as the study of the Talmud received care in other lands. The inhabitants of these regions gradually began to submit their questions to the heads of the schools in their own countries. Eventually, they ceased sending their questions to Babylonian Geonim.
Early in the Geonic era, the majority of the questions asked to them were sent from Babylonia and the neighboring lands. Jewish communities in these regions had religious leaders who were somewhat acquainted with the Talmud, and who could on occasion visit the Jewish academies in Babylon. A literature of questions and answers developed, known as the responsa literature.
The questions were usually limited to one or more specific cases, while the responsum to such a query gave a ruling, a concise reason for it, together with supporting citations from the Talmud, and often a refutation of any possible objection.
More discursive were the responsa of the later geonim after the first half of the ninth century, when questions began to be sent from more distant regions, where the inhabitants were less familiar with the Talmud, and were less able to visit the Babylonian academies, then the only seats of Talmudic learning.
The later geonim did not restrict themselves to the Mishnah and Talmud, but used the decisions and responsa of their predecessors, whose sayings and traditions were generally regarded as authoritative. These responsa of the later geonim were often essays on Talmudic themes, and since a single letter often answered many questions, it frequently became book-length in size. Two important examples of such books are the Siddur of Amram Gaon, addressed to the Jews of Spain in response to a question about the laws of prayer, and the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, which sets out the history of the Mishnah and the Talmud in response to a question from Tunisia.
Some of the responsa that have survived are in their original form, while others are extant only as quotations in later works. Many have been found in the Cairo Genizah.
Examples of responsa collections are:
Individual Geonim often composed treatises and commentaries. Two handbooks on Jewish law are:
The most notable author among the Geonim was Saadia Gaon, who wrote Biblical commentaries and many other works—he is best known for the philosophical work Emunoth ve-Deoth.
Two months of the year were denoted as kallah months, the Hebrew months of Adar and Elul. During this time foreign students assembled in the academy for common study.
During the first three weeks of the kallah month, the scholars seated in the first row reported on the Talmud treatise assigned for study during the preceding months; in the fourth week the other scholars and also some of the pupils were called upon. Discussions followed, and difficult passages were laid before the gaon, who also took a prominent part in the debates, and freely reproved any member of the college who was not up to the standard of scholarship. At the end of the kallah month the gaon designated the Talmudic treatise that the members of the assembly were obliged to study untill the next kallah should begin. The students who were not given seats were exempt from this task, being free to choose a subject for study according to their needs.
During the kallah, the gaon laid before the assembly a number of the questions that had been sent in during the year from all parts of the Diaspora. The requisite answers were discussed, and were finally recorded by the secretary of the academy according to the directions of the gaon. At the end of the kallah month, the questions, together with the answers, were read to the assembly, and the answers were signed by the gaon. A large number of the geonic responsa originated in this way, but many of them were written by the respective geonim without consulting the kallah assemblies convened in the spring.
Chananel Ben Chushiel (Rabbeinu Chananel) and Nissim Gaon of Kairouan, though not holders of the office of Gaon, are often ranked among the Geonim. Others, perhaps more logically, consider them as constituting the first generation of Rishonim.
Maimonides sometimes used the term "Geonim" in an extended sense, to mean "leading authorities," regardless of the country in which they lived. Thus the title lived on for centuries, most famously in the eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Gaon of Vilna.
All links retrieved May 26, 2017.
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