Rabeinu Saadya Gaon
4652/892 - 26 Iyar 4702/942
by D. Sofer
The year 4652/892 was a time of confusion and
upheaval for the Jewish people. It ushered in a period
in which three major schisms occurred which could
have, chas v’sholom, devastated klal Yisroel’s religious way of
life. However in that year, a Torah giant was born - Rav
Saadya Gaon who ultimately prevented such a catastrophe.
FIGHTING THE KARAITES
Saadya ben Yosef was born in 4652/892, in the Egyptian city
of Fayum (the former name of Cairo). By the time he reached
the age of twenty, he had become a talmid chacham of the first
rank, and he wrote numerous responsa to the halachic queries
addressed to him by the Jewish community. His phenomenal
breadth of knowledge also extended to languages (including
Latin and Greek), mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. It
was in this stage of his life that he wrote Sefer HaEgron, a
scholarly work on Hebrew grammar.
Soon afterward, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, Rav
Saadya was forced to spearhead an all-out war against the
Karaites. This sect claimed that Torah Shebeal Peh was not
divinely ordained, and instead interpreted the laws of Torah
Shebichtav on a literal basis. The activity of the Karaites
achieved its pinnacle in Egypt, during Rav Saadya’s youth,
and attracted many followers, perhaps even hundreds of thousands
of Jews throughout the medieval world.
The Karaite sect was founded in the seventh century by
Anan ben David, one of the two nephews of the Exilarch, the
leader of the Jewish community of that time. Enraged that he
had not been chosen to succeed his uncle as Exilarch, Anan
decided to satisfy his desire for recognition by founding a new
sect, the Karaites, and justified attacking the rabbinic leadership
using the pretext that the Oral Torah was not divinely
Rav Saadya waged the main battle against the Karaites by
using numerous compelling arguments in droshos, pamphlets
and books, utterly refuting their claims. Rav Saadya skillfully
and sarcastically showed up the fallaciousness of their position,
whereby in order to disown Torah Shebeal Peh, they had
to compose their own "oral law."
The effects of his arguments were so powerful that thousands
of Jews who had joined the Karaites or had been considering
it, returned to the fold of Torah. To his eternal credit,
Rav Saadya accepted these baalei teshuva without reservation.
Rav Saadya’s main book on this subject was called "Kolo
Anan Vayeilech Lo" – literally, "the cloud has dispersed and
disappeared" – a play on words using the founder of the
Karaites’ name and a posuk in Iyov. The repercussions of Rav
Saadya’s direct attack were so ruinous and damaging to the
sect that the Karaites retaliated by attacking him physically
and burning his writings.
Due to Rav Saadya’s efforts, the Karaite scourge was dealt a
severe blow and became a negligible, non-influential sect. Rav
Saadya himself become famous throughout the international
Torah community, especially in Eretz Yisroel and Babylonia.
A MINOR DISPUTE
During that period, Rav Saadya also waged a battle against
Chivi HaBelchi from Afghanistan, who had written a heretical
work containing 200 critiques of the Torah. HaBelchi’s influence
was so widespread that, as attested to by Rav Saadya,
melamdim taught their young students from his books. To
counteract this trend, Rav Saadya published a book called A
Refutation of Chivi HaBelchi in which he persuasively disproved
every one of HaBelchi’s heretical claims.
JOURNEY TO A PLACE OF TORAH
In 4675/915, Rav Saadya left Egypt and moved to Tveria in
order to study Torah under the great sages of that city.
However, recognizing his greatness, the sages of the great
yeshiva of Sura in Babylonia invited him to that yeshiva.
According to Rav Sherira Gaon, he was the first non-
Babylonian so invited and was accorded the title of Aluf, an
honorary title given to the third in importance from the Gaon.
Six years after he had begun to study in Sura, in Iyar
4688/928, Rav Saadya was appointed the Gaon, the title of a
rosh hayeshiva. As Gaon of Sura yeshiva, Rav Saadya became
the acknowledged gadol hador.
Under his leadership, the yeshiva flourished and regained its
As gadol hador, one of Rav Saadya’s first steps was to dispatch
letters to Egypt’s Jews, in which he offered to help them
in whatever area required his attention.
SURA AND PUMPEDISA
When Rav Saadya arrived, the Golden Age of 1,000 years of
Babylonia as the Torah world’s center of learning seemed to
be drawing to a close. This Golden Age had comprised the
compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, the period of the
Savora’im who sealed the Talmud, and the Geonic period that
was to last 450 years, from 4349/589 - 4799/1039.
During this period, there were two main yeshivos upon
which this reputation was based: Sura, founded by the amora
(Talmudic sage) Rav, and Pumpedisa, founded a few generations
later, by Rabi bar Nachmani.
There was a constant interdependency, and sometimes rivalry,
between the yeshivos. Sura, the older yeshiva, was considered
more eminent than Pumpedisa. The roshei yeshiva of
Pumpedisa had to have studied in Sura and were appointed by
the roshei yeshiva of Sura.
However, in time, the situation changed, with Sura declining
and Pumpedisa taking over as the more prestigious yeshiva. At
a certain point, the Babylonian sages even sought to close the
yeshiva of Sura and to transfer its students to Pumpedisa.
However, in the end, it was decided to try and revive the yeshiva
of Sura and thus Rav Saadya was invited to the yeshiva.
THE CALENDAR CRISIS
As the gadol hador, Rav Saadya became embroiled in another
very significant machlokes during that period, the calendar
dispute. This argument was between him and Rav Aharon ben
Meir from Tveria. It centered on the fixing of the lunar calendar
and the determining of the leap year.
A necessary prerequisite of fixing the Jewish calendar
assumes that a viable Jewish community lives in Eretz Yisroel.
Until the time of Abaye and Rava of the Talmud, who lived in
the fourth century, the Sanhedrin in Eretz Yisroel determined
when Rosh Chodesh fell. When Hillel Hakatan saw that
Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel was declining, he publicized
the method of calculating the leap years that had, until
then, been a secret. Nonetheless, only Eretz Israel’s Jews were
permitted to determine the leap year.
In 4580/820, when the settlement in Eretz Yisroel further
declined, Babylonia’s sages went to Eretz Yisroel to learn the
secrets of determining the calendar. For the next century, the
sages of Babylonia determined it and fixed the leap years.
However, during the lifetime of Rav Aharon ben Meir, Eretz
Yisroel once more became a Torah center, while Sura and
Pumbedisa declined. As a result, Rav Aharon ben Meir sought
to contest the custom that the Babylonian sages calculated the
years and, in general, to restore the spiritual command of Eretz
Israel’s talmidei chachamim.
In 4681/921, Rav Aharon ben Meir declared that Rosh
Hashana would fall on a Wednesday (which could not occur in
our fixed calendar), while the geonim of Babylonia calculated
that it would be on a Tuesday. Rav Aharon ben Meir refused
to accept the decision of Babylonia’s sages.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE RIFT
As a result, the Jews of Eretz Yisroel and Babylonia
observed the yomim tovim, including Yom Kippur and Leil
Haseder, on different days. This meant in practice that while
Jews were fasting in one center, Jews of the other center were
eating, and that while Jews in one center were refraining from
chametz, those of the other center were already eating bread.
An untenable schism had formed in klal Yisroel.
Rav Saadya Gaon stood behind Babylonia’s sages. This rift
lasted for five years, during which Rav Saadya and Rav
Aharon ben Meir made great efforts to prove their points,
mainly through letters and piskei din that they dispatched
throughout all the Jewish communities in Eretz Yisroel and the
Eventually, using his Torah knowledge and his understanding
of the complicated mathematics involved, Rav Saadya was
decisively able to prove to klal Yisroel that Rav Aharon ben
Meir’s calculations were completely wrong. Consequently, the
rift was healed and klal Yisroel was reunited while
Babylonia’s spiritual authority was retained.
During this dispute, Rav Saadya Gaon compiled a work
called Arbaas Hashearim, which elucidates the correct order
of the leap years.
THE LEADERSHIP OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
The leadership of the Jewish community in Babylonia was
divided between the geonim of the yeshivos and the Caliph of
Baghdad’s appointed leader, the Exilarch, called the reish
The geonim appointed dayanim and rabbanim, and were
invested with the power to excommunicate transgressors.
Among the civil powers granted the reish galusa approving the
appointments of the roshei yeshivos and the permission to give
lashes to erring members of the Jewish community.
As one can imagine, during the later Geonic period, there
was much internal political strife between the roshei galusa
and the roshei yeshiva.
DISPUTE BETWEEN RAV SAADYA
AND THE REISH GALUSA
After two years as Gaon of Sura, a serious dispute began
between Rav Saadya and the reish galusa, David ben Zakai,
who had originally promoted Rav Saadya’s appointment as the
rosh yeshiva of Sura.
This argument focused on Rav Saadya’s refusal to sign a
document of the beis din endorsing one of David ben Zakai’s
decisions in a particular case.
Enraged, the reish galusa ousted Rav Saadya from his position
as rosh yeshiva and banished him from Sura, appointing
someone of lesser scholarship and stature to replace him.
Klal Yisroel was once again divided for several years, this
time between the supporters of the two leaders.
During his exile from Sura, Rav Saadya lived in Baghdad,
where he compiled most of his works.
Seven years later, David ben Zakai and Rav Saadya Gaon
made peace, and Rav Saadya was reinstated as rosh yeshiva of
Sura. The friendship of David ben Zakai resumed and lasted
until David ben Zakai’s petira.
The reconciliation was so complete that, after the passing of
both David ben Zakai and his son Yehuda, Rav Saadya Gaon
took Yehuda’s orphan into his home and raised him as his own
RAV SAADYA GAON’S WRITINGS
Rav Saadya was one of Klal Yisroel’s most eloquent and
prolific authors and commentators, poets, and his works are
Rav Saadya was the first great Jewish philosopher, paving
the way for Rav Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s
Guide for the Perplexed. This reputation is based on his most
famous work, "Ha’emunos Vehadeyos", "Beliefs and
Opinions" which he originally wrote in Arabic and was translated
in Hebrew by Rav Yehuda ibn Tibbon.
In this monumental sefer, Rav Saadya clarified all of the religious
questions that he felt might be disturbing the people of
his times. This work was intended to assist those who had,
under the influence of foreign cultures, developed doubts in
their Jewish faith.
Among the topics it discusses logically are the existence,
oneness and immutability of Hashem, free choice, good and
evil, reward and punishment, the nature of man as a composite
of body and soul, and the classification of the mitzvos.
His works on the Torah include a translation of the Chumash
into Arabic, which he wrote while he was Egypt. This translation
served Arabic speaking Jews for generations, and even
today Yemenite Jews study from it, alongside Targum
In addition to the translation of the Chumash, he prepared a
lengthy commentary on it. Many sections of this commentary
remained intact and were brought to the Cairo Geniza.
Tragically, Rav Saadya’s commentaries on the rest of the
Tanach have been lost.
Although there is no sefer of his commentaries on the Shas,
many sections of commentaries are quoted by later geonim,
appearing in Oztar Hegeonim.
Another well-known work is his Sefer Klei Hatalmud, an
introduction to the methods employed by the Gemara, as well
as a work on the 13 ways (Yud Gimmel Middos) in which the
Torah is expounded.
His halachic writings include eleven works on many aspects
of the law, among them the laws of interest, monetary affairs,
the laws of shechita and the laws of family purity.
Rav Saadya’s siddur in which he cites the Talmudic sources
for each of the prayers is also well known. He himself wrote
various piyutim for selichos and for Hoshana Raba.
His broad expanse of writing includes a number of books on
Hebrew grammar, a work listing the order of the Tana’im and
the Amorai’m, and 14 books refuting the beliefs of various
Rav Saadya Gaon passed away on Iyar 26 4702/942, five
years after he had made peace with David ben Zakai, and had
resumed his position as Rav of Sura.
HIS LASTING LEGACY
The restoration of Sura had repercussions for the entire
future of the Torah world. Students from other countries who
studied under the great geonim of Babylon eventually returned
to their homelands to establish their own yeshivos there.
Toward the end of the period of Rav Hai Gaon (4898/1038),
four students of Babylon’s yeshivos were dispatched abroad to
collect funds for maintenance of the yeshivos. These students
were kidnapped and eventually redeemed, finding themselves
in France, Spain, Egypt and North Africa, where they went on
to establish famous yeshivos.
Each of these places, which eventually became great Torah
centers, can be considered the offshoots of Sura and
Pumpedisa. Thus we could say that Rav Saadya Gaon, who
restored Sura may, among other great geonim, be credited
keeping Torah alive throughout the generations, and forging
the chain of Torah transmission throughout the world.
Rav Saadya is highly praised by the great sages who fol-
lowed him. The Meiri calls him "the first and foremost authority
on all matters." In Igeres Teiman, Rambam says: "Without
Rav Saadya Gaon, Torah might chas v’sholom have been lost
to us." In his introduction to Chovas Halevavos, Rabbenu
Bachya says that Rav Saadya’s works "enlighten our reasoning
capacities and sharpen our minds."
Due to his wisdom, fearlessness, yiras shamayim and great
scholarship, Rav Saadya Gaon succeeded in navigating klal
Yisroel through stormy seas and leading it to safe shores. His
aphorism, "Our nation is a nation only on account its Torah,"
has become a maxim which has guided us until today.
May his name be blessed forever.
Re-Printed with permission from Yated Ne'eman. All rights reserved.