Chapters on Jewish Literature eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 120 pages of information about Chapters on Jewish Literature.

CHAPTER V

THE LETTERS OF THE GAONIM

    Representative Gaonim: 
    Achai, Amram, Zemach, Saadiah, Sherira, Samuel, Hai.

For several centuries after the completion of the Talmud, Babylonia or Persia continued to hold the supremacy in Jewish learning.  The great teachers in the Persian schools followed the same lines as their predecessors in the Mishnah and the Talmud.  Their name was changed more than their character.  The title Gaon ("Excellence”) was applied to the head of the school, the members of which devoted themselves mainly to the study and interpretation of the older literature.  They also made original contributions to the store.  Of their extensive works but little has been preserved.  What has survived proves that they were gifted with the faculty of applying old precept to modern instance.  They regulated the social and religious affairs of all the Jews in the diaspora.  They improved educational methods, and were pioneers in the popularization of learning.  By a large collection of Case Law, that is, decisions in particular cases, they brought the newer Jewish life into moral harmony with the principles formulated by the earlier Rabbis.  The Gaonim were the originators or, at least, the arrangers of parts of the liturgy.  They composed new hymns and invocations, fixed the order of service, and established in full vigor a system of Minhag, or Custom, whose power became more and more predominant, not only in religious, but also in social and commercial affairs.

The literary productions of the Gaonic age open with the Sheeltoth written by Achai in the year 760.  This, the first independent book composed after the close of the Talmud, was curiously enough compiled in Palestine, whither Achai had migrated from Persia.  The Sheeltoth ("Inquiries”) contain nearly two hundred homilies on the Pentateuch.  In the year 880 another Gaon, Amram by name, prepared a Siddur, or Prayer-Book, which includes many remarks on the history of the liturgy and the customs connected with it.  A contemporary of Amram, Zemach, the son of Paltoi, found a different channel for his literary energies.  He compiled an Aruch, or Talmudical Lexicon.  Of the most active of the Gaonim, Saadiah, more will be said in a subsequent chapter.  We will now pass on to Sherira, who in 987 wrote his famous “Letter,” containing a history of the Jewish Tradition, a work which stamps the author as at once learned and critical.  It shows that the Gaonim were not afraid nor incapable of facing such problems as this:  Was the Mishnah orally transmitted to the Amoraim (or Rabbis of the Talmud), or was it written down by the compiler?  Sherira accepted the former alternative.  The latest Gaonim were far more productive than the earlier.  Samuel, the son of Chofni, who died in 1034, and the last of the Gaonim, Hai, who flourished from 998 to 1038, were the authors of many works on the Talmud, the Bible, and other branches of Jewish literature.  Hai Gaon was also a poet.

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