Saadia Ben Joseph Gaon (882-942 C.E.), (Hebrew:סעדיה בן יוסף גאון ) also known by his Arabic name Said al-Fayyumi, was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the geonic period, known for his works on Hebrew linguistics, Halakha (Jewish religious law), and Jewish philosophy. Saadia was the first to present a systematized Jewish philosophy, "Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat," 2,500 years after the inception of the Jewish faith. He was also very active in opposition to Karaism, in defense of traditional Judaism. He produced the first organized Hebrew dictionary. Saadia translated the entire Bible into Arabic, along with commentaries that made the meaning of each verse clear not only for Jewish readers but for Arabs and other non-Jews. Through his writings, Arab language and culture gained a lasting influence over the history of Judaism.
Saadia was born in Dilaz, in upper Egypt in 882 c.e.. The name "Saadia" is apparently the Hebrew equivalent of his Arabic name, "Sa'id." In an acrostic of the Hebrew introduction to his first work, the Agron, he calls himself Said ben Yosef,, but he later wrote his name Saadia.
Though his enemies questioned his parentage, Saadia, in "Sefer ha-Galui," stressed his Jewish lineage, claiming to belong to the noble family of Shelah, son of Judah, and counting among his ancestors Hanina ben Dosa, the famous ascetic of the first century. Saadia emphasized this by naming his son Dosa. A statement by Ben Meïr has been preserved saying that Joseph, Saadia's father, was compelled to leave Egypt and died in Jaffa, probably during Saadia's lengthy residence in the Holy Land. The usual epithet of "Al-Fayyumi," represented in Hebrew by the similar geographical name "Pitomi," refers to Saadia's native place, the Fayum in upper Egypt.
At a young age he left his home to study with Torah scholars of Tiberias. Mas'udi, a Mohammedan author who died in 957, mentions that Saadia was a pupil of Abu Kathir. In 913, at the age of 20, Saadia completed his first great work, the Hebrew dictionary which he entitled Agron. At 23, he composed a polemic against the followers of Anan ben David, particularly Solomon ben Yeruham, his first work in defense of traditional Judaism against Karaism and other heresies. In the same year, he left Egypt and settled permanently in Palestine.
Dispute with Ben Meir
For generations there had been a power struggle between the religious authorities of the Jewish communities in Babylonia and Palestine. In 921 C.E., Aaron ben Meir, the gaon (rabbinic leader) of the Palestinian Jewish community, tried to assert his authority by reinstating the ancient lunar Jewish calendar, which had been in use until the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., instead of the rule-based calendar which had been adopted by Hillel II in 359 c.e.. The lunar calendar moved the date for the celebration of Passover back three days, so that in 921 C.E. it would be celebrated on a Sunday instead of a Tuesday. The dispute threatened to cause a major schism in the Jewish community.
Saadia was in Aleppo, on his way from the East when he learned of Ben Meïr's attempt to alter the Jewish calendar. Saadia addressed a warning to him, and in Babylon he placed his knowledge and pen at the disposal of the exilarch David ben Zakkai and the scholars of the academy, adding his own letters to those sent by them to the communities of the Diaspora (922). In Babylonia he wrote his Sefer ha-Mo'adim, or Book of Festivals, in which he refuted the assertions of Ben Meïr regarding the calendar. In the first year of ben Meir’s new calendar, some Palestinian Jews celebrated Passover on Sunday, but most of the Jewish world followed the Babylonians and adhered to the traditional calendar. Aaron ben Meir retracted his calendar and acknowledged the authority of Babylonian scholarship.
Appointment as Gaon
Saadia’s activities during the dispute with Ben Meïr attracted the notice of the exilarch David ben Zakkai, and in 928 he was made Gaon (rabbinic leader) of Sura, one of the ancient Talmudic academies in Babylonia. Although there were many, including the aged Nissim Naharwani, who opposed the appointment of a foreigner as its leader, the ancient academy, founded by Abba Arika, entered upon a new period of brilliancy.
Two years later, the exilarch David ben Zakkai was apparently involved in some dubious land transactions which came before the court. As head of the community, David ben Zakkai himself was the judge. He asked Saadia and the gaon of Pumbedita, another Babylonian Talmudic academy, to give their signatures on his verdict, verifying that it was free from prejudice. Saadia refused to sign on legal grounds. The son of the exilarch threatened Saadia with violence to secure his compliance, and was roughly handled by Saadia's servant. A furious ben Zakkai appointed Joseph b. Jacob as gaon of Sura in Saadia’s place, and in retaliation Saadia conferred the exilarchate on David’s brother Hasan. Hasan was forced to flee, and died in exile in Khorasan. The caliph of Babylonia intervened in support of David ben Zakkai, and Saadia left his post and retired to Baghdad.
During his seven years in Baghdad, Saadia continued his writing. He wrote both in Hebrew and in Arabic a work, now known only from a few fragments, entitled Sefer ha-Galui (Arabic title, Kitab al-Tarid), in which he emphasized with great but justifiable pride the services which he had rendered, especially in his opposition to heresy. His principal philosophical work, Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat, or Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma, was completed in 933. Four years later, David ben Zakkai and Saadia were reconciled and Saadia was reinstated as gaon of Sura, a post which he held until his death five years later. David b. Zakkai died before him (c. 940), followed a few months later by the exilarch's son Judah; Saadia acted as a father to ben Zakkai’s young grandson. According to a statement made by Abraham ibn Daud, Saadia himself died in Babylonia at Sura in 942, at the age of 60, of "black gall" (melancholia), repeated illnesses having undermined his health.
Thought and Works
During Saadia’s lifetime, intellectual Jews in Babylonia, North Africa, and Spain were attracted to Arab culture, particularly to the richness of the Arab language and to the rediscovered Hellenistic philosophers. Saadia perceived a cultural crisis in the Jewish community, and devoted himself to presenting the Jewish faith in philosophical terms, using the Arabic language and linking all of his explanations to Jewish texts. He also produced two translations of the Bible into Arabic, along with a commentary on the Bible (of which only fragments survive), so that the Arabic-speaking Jews could have access to the original scriptures. Through his writings, Arab language and culture gained a lasting influence over the history of Judaism.
Saadia was the first great writer of post-Biblical Judaism after Philo of Judea. His works include several philosophical and theological treatises; two Arabic translations of the Bible, along with a Biblical commentary in Arabic (of which only fragments remain); a Hebrew dictionary, Agron (913); liturgical poems; a Jewish prayer book; some rabbinical works; and writings on mathematics, grammar, and science. His scientific works, many of which were innovative, were written in both Hebrew and Arabic. They remain only as citations in the works of later writers. His philosophical work, Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat was the first systematized Jewish philosophy.
Saadia's translation of the Bible into Arabic was a landmark in the history of civilization; it served for centuries as a potent factor in the impregnation of the Jewish spirit with Arabic culture. As a means of popular religious enlightenment, Saadia's translation presented the Scriptures, even to the unlearned, in a rational form which aimed at clearness and consistency. He established a new school of Biblical exegesis, characterized by rational investigation of the contents of the Bible and scientific knowledge of the language of the holy text. His system of hermeneutics was not limited to the exegesis of individual passages, but also treated each book of the Bible as a whole, and showed the connection of its various portions with one another.
His commentary on the Bible (of which only fragments survive) contained, as Saadia stated in the introduction to his translation of the Pentateuch, not only an exact interpretation of the text, but also a defense from the criticisms raised against it by heretics.
Saadia and the Karaites
Founded in Babylonia in the eighth century by Anan Ben David, the Karaite movement reached its height during the lifetime of Saadia. Karaite Jews relied only on literal interpretation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, consisting of the Torah, or Pentateuch; the Nevi’im, Prophets, and the ketuvim, or writings), and rejected the Oral Law ( the Mishnah and the Talmud) of Rabbinic Judaism. They objected to the Mishnah, in part, because it offered contradictory opinions on the law. When interpreting the scriptures, the Karaites tried to adhere to the literal meaning of the text, while Rabbinic Jews employed three additional methods: an implied meaning, a meaning derived from breaking down individual words into their smaller components, and a deeper secret meaning drawn from the Kabbalah.
One of the ten religious articles of the Karaites was the duty to know the language of the Bible. Their intense interest in the Hebrew language and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible sparked debates with the Rabbinic Jews and stimulated scholarship on both sides in the fields of Hebrew grammar and lexicography, religious philosophy, law, and biblical exegesis. Saadia was the first to organize a Hebrew dictionary, the Agron, which became the foundation for Hebrew lexicography and was widely used by the Karaites. He also created, in part, the rules and categories used by later grammarians to develop the study of the Hebrew language.
Rabbinic Jews considered the denial of divinely inspired Oral Law (teaching of the mouth) a heresy. Saadia’s written attacks on Karaism, and his efforts to counter its teachings, have been credited with defending the hegemony of traditional Judaism, restricting the growth of Karaism, and bringing about a deep division between the Karaitic and Rabbinic Jewish communities in Babylon.
The Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat, or Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma (known in Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation as Sefer ha-'Emûnôt ve-ha-Deôt), completed in 933, was the first systematic presentation of a philosophical foundation for the teachings of Judaism. Saadia set out to remove the doubt and error surrounding the Jewish people’s understanding of the scriptures, in order that they might “live truly and with certainty.” Truth and certainty are the fruits of reason; therefore throughout the work Saadia provided explanations based on reason, working inductively from Scripture.
…my heart grieved for my race, the race of mankind, and my soul was moved on account of our own people Israel, as I saw in my time many of the believers clinging to unsound doctrine and mistaken beliefs while many of those who deny the faith boast of their unbelief and despise the men of truth, although they are themselves in error. I saw men sunk, as it were, in a sea of doubt and covered by the waters of confusion, and there was no diver to bring them up from the depths and no swimmer to come to their rescue. But as my Lord has granted unto me some knowledge which I can use for their support, and endowed me with some ability which I might employ for their benefit, I felt that to help them was my duty, and guiding them aright an obligation upon me, as the Prophet says, “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I should know how to sustain with words him that is weary” (Isa. 50.4), although I confess to the shortcomings of my knowledge… (Altmann, 29).
The "Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat" began with praise to “the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom the truth is known with absolute certainty.” Saadia distinguished between two types of laws in the Bible. “Laws of reason” (“aqliyyât” from the root “intellect”) and “laws of revelation.” Laws of reason are commandments and prohibitions whose importance could be arrived at independently by any rational human being, such as prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft and dishonesty. Saadia explained that these laws governed situations about which God had “implanted” approval or disapproval in the reason of man. The “laws of revelation” concerned matters on which reason alone passed no judgement, such as the laws about keeping the Sabbath and festival days, Jewish dietary laws, laws about purity and impurity, and rules about succession to leadership.
Throughout his work Saadia discussed the relationship between reason and revelation. He analyzed four modes of “knowing”: knowledge from sense perception, knowledge from reason, knowledge from inference and knowledge from tradition. While the first three types of knowledge came about through a gradual process, knowledge from tradition (“al-kabar”) was a reliable report or testimony, which could be understood immediately by the recipient, and which could immediately be understood as certain truth. The “truth of reliable tradition” was “based on the knowledge of sense perception and the knowledge of reason. Saadia identified scripture and rabbinic law as tradition, revealed by God to Moses and the prophets.
Saadia indicated a direct correlation between the ability to reason and the ability to receive revelation, and implied a responsibility to act ethically once the truth was understood. He also set forth a theory of a prophetic intermediary between God and man, a “second air” or “created glory,” more subtle and powerful than atmospheric “air” through which a prophet could verify the truth of his revelation.
[God] knew that His laws and the stories of His wondrous signs would, through the passage of time, require people to hand them down to posterity, so that they might become as evident to later generations as they were to the earlier ones. Therefore, He prepared in our minds a place for the acceptance of reliable tradition (al-kabar as-sâdiq) and in our souls a quiet corner for trusting it so that His Scriptures and stories should remain safely with us. (Altmann, 109)
Saadia provided a justification based on reason for each aspect of the law. He explained that, by reason, we know that man is much happier when he receives a reward earned through his hard work than an undeserved gift; therefore man will be much happier if he follows God and obeys His laws, than if he merely receives undeserved rewards through God’s grace. In this sense, it is reasonable that God would endow man with commandments and prohibitions in order to be able to give him rewards. Though “laws of reason” could be arrived at through common sense, God gives them to man in order to expedite human understanding and to give man further opportunities to earn divine rewards by following these laws. Even “laws of reason” require rabbinic interpretation and additional revelation, because they do not provide the exact details needed to put them into practice in our everyday lives. Saadia also provides justification by reason for many of the “laws of revelation;” for example, he says that by declaring some animals suitable for human consumption and others impure, we avoid equating animals with God.
Saadia based his theory of soul on a Platonic tripartite psychology, distinguishing in the soul the three faculties of discernment or knowledge (neshamah), appetite (nefesh), and courage (ruah); and adding descriptions from Jewish tradition. He cited the Scriptures’ frequent use of the phrase “heart and soul together” in support of the concept that the soul is in the heart of man.
Saadia upheld the absolute unity of God, and argued for creation ex nihilo. In the Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat he refuted twelve cosmogonic views. He gave four proofs, based on Islamic Kalam traditions, that the world was created; three reasons for the existence of an external Creator; and finally concluded that the creation could not have come from any pre-existent matter. In supporting the concept of resurrection, Saadia relied mostly on tradition.
Exegesis: Saadia translated into Arabic most, if not all, of the Bible, adding an Arabic commentary, although there is no citation from the books of Chronicles.
- Agron (dictionary)
- Kutub al-Lughah
- Tafsir al-Sab'ina Lafẓah, a list of seventy (properly ninety) Hebrew (and Aramaic) words which occur in the Bible only once or very rarely, and which may be explained from traditional literature, especially from the Neo-Hebraisms of the Mishnah. This small work has been frequently reprinted.
- Short monographs in which problems of Jewish law are systematically presented. Of these Arabic treatises of Saadia's little but the titles and extracts is known and it is only in the "Kitab al-Mawarith" that fragments of any length have survived.
- A commentary on the 13 rules of Rabbi Ishmael, preserved only in a Hebrew translation. An Arabic methodology of the Talmud is also mentioned, by Azulai, as a work of Saadia under the title Kelale ha-Talmud.
- Responsa. With few exceptions these exist only in Hebrew, some of them having been probably written in that language.
- The Siddur
- Of this synagogal poetry the most noteworthy portions are the "Azharot" on the 613 commandments, which give the author's name as "Sa'id b. Joseph," followed by the expression "Alluf," thus showing that the poems were written before he became gaon.
Philosophy of Religion:
- Emunoth ve-Deoth (Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tiḳadat)
- "Tafsir Kitab al-Mabadi," an Arabic translation of and commentary on the "Sefer Yetzirah," written while its author was still residing in Egypt (or Palestine).
- Refutations of Karaite authors, always designated by the name "Kitab al-Rudd," or "Book of Refutation." These three works are known only from scanty references to them in other works; that the third was written after 933, is proved by one of the citations.
- "Kitab al-Tamyiz" (in Hebrew, "Sefer ha-Hakkarah"), or "Book of Distinction," composed in 926, and Saadia's most extensive polemical work. It was still cited in the twelfth century; and a number of passages from it are given in a Biblical commentary of Japheth ha-Levi.
- There was perhaps a special polemic of Saadia against Ben Zuṭa, though the data regarding this controversy between is known only from the gaon's gloss on the Torah.
- A refutation directed against the rationalistic Biblical critic Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, whose views were rejected by the Karaites themselves;
- "Kitab al-Shara'i'," or "Book of the Commandments of Religion,"
- "Kitab al-'Ibbur," or "Book of the Calendar," likewise apparently containing polemics against Karaite Jews;
- "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," or "Book of Festivals," the Hebrew polemic against Ben Meïr which has been mentioned above.
- "Sefer ha-Galui," also in Hebrew and in the same Biblical style as the "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," being an apologetic work directed against David b. Zakkai and his followers.
- Saadya. Amânât wal-i‘tiqâdât (The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs), Edition translated by Alexander Altmann, and edited by H. Lewy, A. Altmann, and I. Heinemann. Three Jewish Philosophers. New York, Atheneum, 1985.
- Saadya. Perush Sefer Yezira. edited by J. Kafih. Jerusalem, 1972.
- Altmann, Alexander. “Saadya's Theory of revelation: Its Origin and Background" in Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.
- Finkelstein, L (ed.). Rav Saadia Gaon; Studies in his honor. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1944.
- Link-Salinger, Ruth (ed.). A Straight Path, Studies in Medieval Philosophy and Culture. 1 - 10. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 1988.
- Malter, H. Saadia Gaon; His Life and Works. Hermon Press, 1969.
- Sirat, Colette. s.v. "Saadiah Gaon" in A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages. 18-37, 416-418. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Wolfson, Harry Austryn. “The Kalam Arguments for Creation in Saadia, Averroes, Maimonides and St. Thomas,” reprinted in Saadia Anniversary Volume (American Academy for Jewish Research). 198 - 245. New York, 1943.
- Saadya, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Saadia Gaon, Jewish Universal Library
- Jewish Encyclopedia
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Philosophy Sources on Internet EpistemeLinks
- Guide to Philosophy on the Internet
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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