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Saadia Gaon

Saadia Gaon (892-942), the Hebrew name of Said al-Fayyumi, was a prominent Jewish exilarch, philosopher, and exegete. Born in Upper Egypt in 892 CE, he died in Babylonia at Sura in 942 CE. 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 later he wrote his name Saadia.

Saadia, in "Sefer ha-Galui", stresses his Jewish lineage, claiming to belong to the noble family of Shelah, son of Judah (I Chron. iv. 21), and counting among his ancestors Hanina ben Dosa, the famous ascetic of the first century. Expression was given to this claim by Saadia in calling his son Dosa. (Nothing else is known of the latter.) Regarding Joseph, Saadia's father, a statement of Ben Mer has been preserved saying that he 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.

Little is known of his youth and education. At age 20 Saadia completed his first great work, the Hebrew dictionary which he entitled "Agron." At 23 he composed a polemic against Anan ben David, thus beginning the activity which was to prove important in opposition to Karaism, in defense of traditional Judaism. In the same year he left Egypt and settled permanently in Palestine. Saadia was in Aleppo, on his way from the East when he learned of Ben Mer's regulation of the Jewish calendar, which endangered the unity of Judaism. 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 CE). In Babylonia he wrote his "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," or "Book of Festivals," in which he refuted the assertions of Ben Mer regarding the calendar, and helped to avert from the Jewish community the perils of schism.

His dispute with Ben Mer was an important factor in the call to Sura which he received in 928. He was made gaon (rabbinic leader) by the exilarch David ben Zakkai; and the ancient academy, founded by Rav, entered upon a new period of brilliancy. There were many who viewed did not wish to see a foreigner as the head of the academy; and even the mighty exilarch himself, whom the aged Nissim Naharwani had vainly attempted to dissuade from appointing Saadia, found, after two years, that the personality of his appointee was far different from that of the insignificant and servile geonim whom he had succeeded, and who had done the exilarch's bidding.

In a probate case Saadia refused to sign a verdict of the exilarch which he thought unjust, although the gaon of Pumbedita, had subscribed to it. When the son of the exilarch threatened Saadia with violence to secure his compliance, and was roughly handled by Saadia's servant, open war broke out between the exilarch and the gaon. Each excommunicated the other, declaring that he deposed his opponent from office; and David b. Zakkai appointed Joseph b. Jacob as gaon of Sura, while Saadia conferred the exilarchate on David's brother Ḥasan (Josiah; 930). Ḥasan was forced to flee, and died in exile in Khorasan; but the strife which divided Babylonian Judaism continued. Saadia was attacked by the exilarch and by his chief adherent, the young but learned Aaron ibn Sargado, in Hebrew pamphlets, fragments of which show a hatred on the part of the exilarch and his partizans that did not shrink from scandal. Saadia did not fail to reply.

Table of contents
1 The Sefer ha-Galui
2 Works
3 Significance
4 His Philosophy of Religion
5 Relations to Mysticism

The Sefer ha-Galui

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-Ṭarid"), in which he emphasized with great but justifiable pride the services which he had rendered, especially in his opposition to heresy.

The seven years which Saadia spent in Bagdad, far from the gaonate, did not interrupt his literary activity. His principal philosophical work was completed in 933; and four years later, through Ibn Sargado's father-in-law, Bishr ben Aaron, the two enemies were reconciled. Saadia was reinstated in his office; but he held it for only five years. David b. Zakkai died before him (c. 940), being followed a few months later by the exilarch's son Judah, while David's young grandson was nobly protected by Saadia as by a father. According to a statement made by Abraham ibn Daud and doubtless derived from Saadia's son Dosa, Saadia himself died, as noted above, in 942, at the age of fifty, of "black gall" (melancholia), repeated illnesses having undermined his health.



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.

Hebrew Linguistics:

(1) Agron (2) Kutub al-Lughah (3) "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.

Halakhic Writings:

(1) 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. (2) A commentary on the thirteen 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". (3) Responsa. With few exceptions these exist only in Hebrew, some of them having been probably written in that language.

(1) The "Siddur"

Siddur of Saadia Gaon

(2) 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:

The "Emunot we-De'ot."

(1) Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tiḳadat

(2) "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).

Polemical Writings:

(1-3) 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. (4) "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. (5) 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. (6) A refutation directed against the rationalistic Biblical critic Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, whose views were rejected by the Karaites themselves; (7) "Kitab al-Shara'i'," or "Book of the Commandments of Religion," (8) "Kitab al-'Ibbur," or "Book of the Calendar," likewise apparently containing polemics against Karaite Jews; (9) "Sefer ha-Mo'adim," or "Book of Festivals," the Hebrew polemic against Ben Mer which has been mentioned above. (10) "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.


Saadia Gaon was a pioneer in the fields in which he toiled. The foremost object of his work was the Bible; his importance is due primarily to his establishment of a new school of Biblical exegesis characterized by a rational investigation of the contents of the Bible and a scientific knowledge of the language of the holy text.

Saadia's Arabic translation of the Bible is of importance for the history of civilization; itself a product of the Arabization of a large portion of Judaism, it served for centuries as a potent factor in the impregnation of the Jewish spirit with Arabic culture, so that, in this respect, it may take its place beside the Greek Bible-translation of antiquity and the German translation of the Pentateuch by Moses Mendelssohn. As a means of popular religious enlightenment, Saadia's translation presented the Scriptures even to the unlearned in a rational form which aimed at the greatest possible degree of clearness and consistency.

His system of hermeneutics was not limited to the exegesis of individual passages, but treated also each book of the Bible as a whole, and showed the connection of its various portions with one another.

The commentary contained, as is stated in the author's own introduction to his translation of the Pentateuch,not only an exact interpretation of the text, but also a refutation of the cavils which the heretics raised against it. Further, it set forth the bases of the commandments of reason and the characterization of the commandments of revelation; in the case of the former the author appealed to philosophical speculation; of the latter, naturally, to tradition.

The position assigned to Saadia in the oldest list of Hebrew grammarians, which is contained in the introduction to Ibn Ezra's "Moznayim," has not been challenged even by the latest historical investigations. Here, too, he was the first; his grammatical work, now lost, gave an inspiration to further studies, which attained their most brilliant and lasting results in Spain, and he created in part the categories and rules along whose lines was developed the grammatical study of the Hebrew language. His dictionary, primitive and merely practical as it was, became the foundation of Hebrew lexicography; and the name "Agron" (literally, "collection"), which he chose and doubtless created, was long used as a designation for Hebrew lexicons, especially by the Karaites. The very categories of rhetoric, as they were found among the Arabs, were first applied by Saadia to the style of the Bible. He was likewise one of the founders of comparative philology, not only through his brief "Book of Seventy Words, "already mentioned, but especially through his explanation of the Hebrew vocabulary by the Arabic, particularly in the case of the favorite translation of Biblical words by Arabic terms having the same sound.

His Philosophy of Religion

In his "Kitab al-Amanat wal-I'tiḳadat." (see above) Saadia became the creator of the Jewish philosophy of religion. His detailed introduction to the work speaks of the reasons which led him to compose it. His heart was grieved when he saw the confusion concerning matters of religion which prevailed among his contemporaries, finding an unintelligent belief and unenlightened views current among those who professed Judaism, while those who denied the faith triumphantly vaunted their errors. Men were sunken in the sea of doubt and overwhelmed by the waves of spiritual error, andthere was none to help them; so that Saadia felt himself called and in duty bound to save them from their peril by strengthening the faithful in their belief and by removing the fears of those who were in doubt.

After a general presentation of the causes of infidelity and the essence of belief, Saadia describes the three natural sources of knowledge; namely, the perceptions of the senses, the light of reason, and logical necessity, as well as the fourth source of knowledge possessed by those that fear God, the "veritable revelation" contained in the Scriptures. He shows that a belief in the teachings of revelation does not exclude an independent search for knowledge, but that speculation on religious subjects rather endeavors to prove the truth of the teachings received from the Prophets and to refute attacks upon revealed doctrine, which must be raised by philosophic investigation to the plane of actual knowledge.

In the scheme of his work Saadia closely followed the rules of the Motazilites (the rationalistic dogmatists of Islam, to whom he owed in part also his thesis and arguments), adhering most frequently, as Guttmann has shown, to the Motazilite school of Al-Jubbai. He followed the Motazilite Kalam, especially in this respect, that in the first two sections he discussed the metaphysical problems of the creation of the world (i.) and the unity of the Creator(ii.), while in the following sections he treated of the Jewish theory of revelation (iii.) and of the doctrines of belief based upon divine justice, including obedience and disobedience (iv.), as well as merit and demerit (v.). Closely connected with these sections are those which treat of the soul and of death (vi.), and of the resurrection of the dead (vii.), which, according to the author, forms part of the theory of the Messianic redemption (viii.). The work concludes with a section on the rewards and punishments of the future life (ix.). The tenth section, on the best mode of life for mankind in this world, must be regarded as an appendix, since its admonitions to moral conduct supplement the exhortations to right thought and right belief contained in the main body of the book.

The most important points contained in the individual sections are as follows: Special Views.

(i.) For the doctrine of the creation of the world Saadia offers four proofs; three of these show the influence of Aristotelian philosophy, which may be traced also elsewhere in this author's writings. After his speculation has led him to the conclusion that the world was created ex nihilo, he proceeds to state and refute the twelve theories of the origin of the world. This part of the first section gives a most interesting insight into Saadia's knowledge of the Greek philosophers, which he probably derived from reading Aristotle. At the end of the section Saadia refutes certain objections to the Jewish doctrine of Creation, especially those which proceed from the concepts of time and space.

(ii.) The theory of God is prefaced by a development of the view that human knowledge arises by degrees from the merest sensuous impressions to the most subtle concepts; so that the idea of the divine, which transcends all other knowledge in subtlety, is itself a proof of its verity. The concept of God as a creator necessarily implies the attributes of life, power, and knowledge. In like manner the concept of the Creator demonstrates the unity of God. For this view three direct and three indirect proofs are offered by Saadia, the latter consisting in demonstrating that dualism is absurd. The thesis of the absolute unity of God is established by a refutation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which arises, in Saadia's opinion, from a misinterpretation of the three attributes of God already named—life, power, and knowledge. Connected with the refutation of the dogma of the Trinity is an outline of the various theories respecting the person of Jesus which reveals an accurate knowledge of Christian controversies. To render possible an understanding of the monotheistic concept of God in all its purity, and to free the statements of the Scriptures from their apparent contradictions of the spirituality of the absolute idea of God, Saadia interprets all the difficulties of the Bible which bear upon this problem, using the scheme of the ten Aristotelian categories, none of which, he shows, may be applied to God. At the conclusion of this section the author pictures with deep religious feeling the relation to the Deity sustained by the human soul when permeated by the true knowledge of God.

(iii.) The divine commandments revealed in the Holy Scriptures have been given to man by the grace of God as a means to attain the highest blessedness. According to a classification borrowed by Saadia from the Motazilites but based upon an essentially Jewish view, the commandments are divided into those of reason and of revelation, although even the latter may be explained rationally, as is shown by numerous examples. An excursus, in which Saadia attacks the view of the Hindu sect of the "Barahima" (Brahmans) to the effect that man needs no prophets, introduces his account of prophecy and his apology for the Prophets. This is followed by theses on the essential content of the Bible and the credibility of Biblical tradition, by a detailed refutation of the Christian and Islamic view that the Law revealed in Israel has been abrogated, and by a polemic against a series of Ḥiwi's objections to the authority of the Scriptures.

(iv.) The foundation of this section is the theory of the freedom of the will and its reconciliation with the omnipotence and omniscience of God. In its opening portion Saadia postulates the anthropocentric doctrine which regards man as the object of all creation; and at its close he explains under eight headings those passages of the Bible which might cause doubt regarding the freedom of the acts of man.

(v.) Men fall into ten classes with regard to merit and demerit, and their religious and moral bearings. In his description of the first two, the pious and the impious, Saadia devotes himself in the main to the problem of the sufferings of the pious and the good fortune of the impious, while the description of the last class, that of the contrite, leads him to detailed considerations, based upon the Bible, of repentance, prayer, and other evidences of human piety.

(vi.) His view on the soul is prefaced by a survey of six other theories. He states the relation of the soul to the body, the basis of their union, their cooperation in human activity, their coexistence or the appointed term of life, their separation or death, and the state of the soul after death. The section concludes with a refutation of the doctrine of metempsychosis.

(vii.) Here Saadia refutes the objections made, on the basis of nature, reason, and the Bible, to the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and presents the proof for it contained in tradition. He then discusses ten questions bearing on this doctrine, which are of interest as "affording an insight into popular views which then prevailed, and which, despite their singularity, could not be ignored even by such a man as Saadia" (Guttmann).

(viii.) The teachings regarding Messianic redemption are based almost entirely on statements of the Bible and the Talmud, the definite year of salvation being fixed by an interpretation of well-known passages in the Book of Daniel. In the concluding portion the author refutes those who assume that the Messianic prophecies refer to the time of the Second Temple; and he argues also against the Christian doctrine of the Messiah.

(ix.) Saadia demonstrates that the recompenses of the world to come are proved by reason, the Bible, and tradition, and answers various questions bearing upon this subject.

(x.) The system of ethics contained in the appendix is based for the most part on a description and criticism of thirteen different objects of life, to which Saadia adds his own counsels for rational and moral living. He adds also that in the case of each of the five senses only the concordant union of sensuous impressions is beneficial, thus showing how great is the need of a harmonious combination of the qualities and the impulses of the soul of man. He concludes with the statement that he intends his book only to purify and ennoble the hearts of his readers.

Relations to Mysticism

In his commentary on the "Sefer Yetzirah" Saadia sought to render lucid and intelligible the content of this mystical work by the light of philosophy and other knowledge, especially by a system of Hebrew phonology which he himself had founded. He did not permit himself in this commentary to be influenced by the theological speculations of the Kalam, which are so important in his main works; and in his presentation of the theory of creation he made a distinction between the Bible and the book on which he commented, even omitting the theory of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" regarding the creation of the world when he discussed the various views on this subject in the first section of his "Kitab al-Amanat wal-I'tiḳadat." From this it may be concluded that he did not regard the "Sefer Yeẓirah"—which he traces ultimately to the patriarch Abraham—as a real source for a knowledge of the theory of Judaism, although he evidently considered the work worthy of deep study.

See also: Rabbi, Jewish philosophy, Judaism

This article has been taken from the 1906 public domain Jewish Encyclopedia. It needs updating, a lot of work, and Wikifying.