Copyright
Louis Ginzberg.

Geonica (Volume 1) online

. (page 2 of 20)
Online LibraryLouis GinzbergGeonica (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the grandson, but the great-grandson of Rabbi Paltoi, as was surmised
by the present writer, before the publication of the fragment containing
the letter, J. Q. R., XVIII, 225, which now establishes the true relation-
ship. Whether this Rabbi Hezekiah wrote Responsa is questionable.
However, as the words nmbir nm':^, in G. S., p. 59, would seem to indicate,
he sent his essays on certain Talmud passages unsolicited to Rabbi
Bahlul ben Joseph. But even if questions had been addressed to him,
this would not have disproved my opinion ; it was to be expected
in the condition of the Academies at his time. Sura had no Gaon, and
Pumbedita was divided between two factions, the adherents of Rabbi
Aaron and those of Rabbi Nehemiah. The congregations that desired
to keep aloof from the dispute had no choice but to address their
questions to some distinguished scholar like Rabbi Hezekiah. The same
explanation applies to Rabbi Hofni, the father of Rabbi Samuel, Gaon of
Sura, to whom a Responsum is ascribed in 'Ittur, 1, 3 b. Rabbi Hofni's
activity as Ab Bet Din (of Pumbedita?) coincides with the time of
Rabbi Hezekiah's. It is, however, very doubtful whether the passage
in the 'Ithir should not read ^:rn pb instead of >3Dn 11=:. Comp. Harkavy,
Hofni, note 2. It should be noted that the remark made by Rabbi
Hezekiah, J.Q.R., XVIII, 401, bottom .... c'^pi 'in3, refers, not to
questions addressed to his grandfather, the Ab Bet Din Tob, but to a
friendly correspondence. He speaks first of the mav submitted to the
Geonim Rabbi Paltoi and Rabbi Zemah, and then of the 'inD addressed
to Rabbi Tob. With regard to Rabbi Zemah ben Solomon, the Ab Bet
Din of the Exilarchate who wrote Responsa, comp. G. S., p. 303. Of
Rabbenu Hai we have Responsa dating from the time when he was
i"25^ ; the reason he was called upon to write them was because his
father, in his advanced years, transferred some of his duties to his son.
The Responsa bearing the name of Rabbi Eleazar Alluf were not written
by him ; they are decisions of the Geonim transmitted by him to his



8 THE GEONIM

not an institution vested with rights and authority, it was
only a gathering-place for scholars. But during the Gaonate
the Academy grew into a power, conferring dignity upon
the presiding officer, and authority as well, while the
influence of the outside scholar, who did not represent
the Academy, was purely individual, effectual only in
the measure of his personality.

The point can be proved by more positive evidence
than a mere argumentum ex silentio. From the remark
about to be quoted it appears unmistakably that it was
the exclusive right of the Gaon to reply to the questions
addressed to the Academies. Not even the ^<7D c^n, the
third in rank \ enjoyed the privilege. In a Responsum,
probably from the hand of Rabbi Natronai^, printed in
G. S., p. 31, we have the following: NB^n i6l n:h nn3 x^m
n^i? nim i6:i K^n xi^N — " That he [Rabbi Simonai] did not
write you regarding this question is due to the circum-
stance that he was not the head [of the Academy], but
only the Resh Kalla^." Even in a case like the one dealt
with in the Responsum under consideration, in which the

countrymen in Spain ; comp. z"r^, 130, and y"xL\ 26 b, 23. Rabbi ** Asaph ''
(J. Q. R., IX, 689, top) is not to be emended to Joseph ; he is the Rabbi
Asaph who was the "iid 't during the Gaonale of Rabbenu Hai ; comp.
R.E.J., LV, 50. His opinion was probably given orally to Rabbi Elhanan.
Notice that in J.Q.R., I.e., he is called simply no, while the authorities
preceding and following him bear the title Gaon.

^ Besides "the seven mb3 ■•u.\v">" (Rabbi Nathan, in his report, 87, 16),
the title of the seven most prominent members of the Academy, there
must have been also " the n^d Mjn," who took an active part in the
instruction given at the Academy. It seems that Rabbi Hai occupied
this office before becoming i"i« ; comp. Saadijana, 118. I do not know
whence Harkavy, Saadia^ 144, note 7, derived his statement that Rabbi
Hananiah, the father of R. Sherira, became Gaon only after having
occupied the offices of d'^t and Y'a«.

* Comp. /n, 15, and "ji^irx, III, 49.

^ The subject of ins may possibly be Rabbi Haninah, so that the
passage would read, "that he [Rabbi Haninah] did not write it to j'ou
[that the xbs 'i was of his opinion] is due to the fact that, &c." In any
event, the inference to be drawn from the passage is that the d't replied
to no question, and even in a case like the one under consideration, the
Gaon made no mention of him.



THE GAONATE 9

testimony of the Resh Kalla was of importance, the Gaon
does not refer to him with a single word. The Amoraim
had found it unbecoming conduct in the Patriarch Rabbi
Simon ben Gamaliel that, using the singular in a formal
announcement, he failed to include his colleagues (Sanhedrin,
iia-b). What would they have thought of the official
style of their successors, the Geonim ? Personal arrogance,
it need not be said, can be charged neither against Rabbi
Simon nor against the Geonim. In a college of scholars,
the presiding officer is ^^rimus inter jxires, but the Patriarch
in early times, and later the Gaon, were the representatives
of an institution that acknowledged one head alone \

In attempting to appraise the Gaonate, the transmission
of the office from member to member in a limited number of
families, is a most suggestive feature^. During the last
three centuries of the Geonic period, or what was the
Geonic period properly so called, we have, for example, the
following data concerning the Gaonate of Pumbedita. The
Gaon Dodai (761), brother of the celebrated Gaon Jehudai,
bequeathed his office to his son Rabba, and no less than
six of Rabba's descendants occupied the position after him
— his grandson Joseph ben Mar Rabbi and his great-
grandson Mattathias in one line, and in another line four
of his descendants belonging to successive generations,
Judah, Hananiah, Sherira, and Hai, the first of them
representing the fourth, or perhaps the fifth generation
removed from Rabba ^. Out of a total of 277 years, Dodai
and these descendants of his enumerated here occupied the
Gaonate 102.

> There are cases on record which the Geonim decided in opposition
to the opinion of the Academies, see Nahmanides, Milhemet, Kiddushin, 9,
and n"j, 82, 226. The frequent references made by the Geonim to the
customs of the Academies are to be taken not as marks of respect shown
to colleagues and disciples, but rather to the institution as such.

2 The data upon the Geonim families that follow, unless other references
are given, are taken from the Letter of Kabbi Sherira as their sole source.

2 Comp. below, pp. 70-1, on the de ree of kinship between Rabbi Judah
and Rabba.



lO THE GEONIM

Besides this prominent famil^^, claiming Davidic descent,
there was another family of Geonim of great influence,
the priestly family ^ to which belonged Rabbi Abraham
Kahana (about 750), in all probability the successor to
his brother Natronai -. Rabbi Abraham himself was fol-
lowed first by his son Hanina and his grandson Kahana,
and then by his other son Abumai. Furthermore, the
Geonim Ahai^, his son Kimvi, and his grandson Mebasser,
seem to have been descendants of the same Rabbi Abraham.

Sherira, our only source, was not interested in family
relations, except as his own were aff'ected, and whatever
information we glean from him upon the subject he gives
incidentally. There is no telling, therefore, to what extent
the above Geonim families were interrelated among them-
selves'^, or how^ those Geonim who now appear isolated,
outside of the charmed circle, are really connected with it.
For instance, we are not acquainted w^ith Rabbi Zemah ben
Paltoi's relation to the Geonim families, but Sherira tells
us by the way that he gave his daughter in marriage to
Rabbi Judah Gaon, the grandfather of Sherira.

In Sura the Gaonate was in the almost exclusive pos-
session of three families for a period of about two centuries.
The Geonim Mari (777), Hilai, Natronai, Hilai, Jacob, and
Joseph^ (942)5 belonged to one family ; Zadok (823), Kimoi,
Nahshon, Zemah, and Hai (889), to the second ; and the third

^ In connexion with this, it may be mentioned that the Palestinian
Gaonate also was in the hands of a single priestly family.

^ Comp. below, pp. 21, 41, where arguments are given in favour of this
conjecture.

3 Perhaps Kabbi Kohen-Zedek and his son Eabbi Nehemiah, Geonim
of Pumbedita, as well as the grandson of the former, Rabbi Samuel ben
Hofni, belong to the same family as Rabbi Mebasser, so that the quarrel
between the last and Rabbi Kohen-Zedek, both of whom are described
as Kohanim, was between two branches of the same family. Rabbi
Nehemiah (J. Q. B., XIX, 105) seems to allude to his origin from a Geonim
family in the words irrncTrn biian .

* Rabbi Hezekiah ben Samuel {J.Q.R., XVIII, 402) reports that he
was descended from a Sura as well as a Pumbedita Geonim family.

^ In Harkavy, Saaclia, 228, he is called c':wj p p><: .



THE GAONATE II

was the priestly family which furnished the Gaonate with
four incumbents, Jacob (8oi), Abimi, Moses ^, and Kohen-
Zedek (845).

Whatever view may be held on the subject of hereditary
genius, it cannot be applied to the case in hand. Among
the Geonim it must be admitted that it was not always
intellectual force, but rather the office, that was transmitted
from one member of a family to another. What explana-
tion could otherwise be offered of the circumstance that
during the whole extent of the Amoraic period a single
instance occurs of father and son, Rab Ashi and Mar, being
presidents of an Academy, while the Gaonate was controlled
by a few families throughout its whole history ? There is
no intention of blinking the fact that the claims of sons
upon the offices and dignities of fathers have always received
somewhat more than due consideration among the Jews
since the most ancient times ^. But this would still leave
the frequent succession of the Gaonate from brother to
brother unexplained^. For instance, Jacob and Abimi,
brothers, were Geonim, and so were Zadok and Kimoi,
though the father of neither pair had been in office. It
remains, then, to explain the close transmission of the
Gaonate only by the assumption that it came to be looked
upon as the prescriptive right of certain influential families.
The same explanation would cover the phenomenon that
the Ab Bet Din, the Resh Kalla, and the secretary of the
Academy, so far as we know about them, also belonged to
the Geonim families mentioned above *.

^ That Rabbi Moses was a son of the Gaon Rabbi Jacob is obvious from
the Genizali fragment published in G. S,, p. 214.

2 Comp. Sifra, Ahare, 83 b, ed. Weiss, and Midrash Tannaim, ed. Hoff-
mann, 106.

^ An interesting analogue to this succession by brothers is offered by
that of the high priests in the Herodian time ; comp. Biichler, Priester
und Ciilius, 107 et seq.

* Of the Y2ii, we know only six by name : Rabbi Joseph ben Mar Rab
(Letter of Rabbi Sherira, 38, 12), Rabbi Zemah (comp. G. S., p. 203),
Rabbi Tob (•/. Q. B., XVIII, 402), Rabbi Hofni, father of Rabbi Samuel



12 THE GEONIM

In this respect the Gaonate approached the institutions of
the Patriarchate and Exilarchate, which were the preroga-

(J. Q. R., 1. c), Rabbenu Hai, and Rabbi Abraham {R. E. J., LV, 52). All
these, with the exception of the last, of whom we know nothing, were
members of Geonim families, and three of them became Geonim them-
selves—in view of which it is hard to understand how Halevy, 1. c, 266,
can maintain that the n"2^< succeeded to the office of Gaon only in
extremely rare instances. The three w^hom we may be said actually to
know, Rabbi Joseph, Rabbi Zemah, and Rabbenu Hai, occupied the Gaonate.
Indeed, in two passages. Rabbi Sherira (38, 12 and 15) remarks how
extraordinary it was that the i"i« Rabbi Joseph was disregarded in filling
the Gaonate, upon which he had a claim by virtue of being -i"2«.— What
the duties and the nature of the office of the Y'2« were, it is difficult
to determine now. Its importance is attested by the fact that certain
announcements and regulations were provided with the official seal of
the Exilarch, the two Geonim, and the two ■i"i«, as we know through
Rabbi Natronai, 'Ittur, I, 44 d. Another Geonic Responsum by Rabbi
Natronai, or by his colleague of Pumbedita, Rabbi Paltoi, in /n , 20, also
speaks of the '^yw tiummj y:''i \i2 nyaiK, "the four courts of justice of
the two Academies," that is, the courts of the Geonim and of the i"2ii,
and in Harkavy, 187, we find the two courts presided over by Sherira as
Gaon, and Hai, his son, as Ab Bet Din, described as hsD u'bn: □"•ri 'ni ••re
'tktvD^ ; while from the Genizah fragment published in G. S., p. 386, we
see that only the court presided over by the Gaon was called the r\''2
Viun yi. Apparently it was a courtesy extended to Rabbenu Hai
personally, to give the appellation to his court in spite of its lower
rank. The expression m'-^^rT -^VT, or its Aramaic equivalent, «n2\'^m Nil,
is identical with 'iM^n yt r'-i, as can be seen from Harkavy, 156 and 215,
and ">"irn, II, 31. The i"iiS was, as is well known, i^ii n N:n, which
stands for ^nrno": Nil n N:n. The chief judge of the Exilarch was also
called Nil n N:n, in his case shortened from smioi Nil n Nn, which
office, it is needless to say, has nothing in common with the other in
spite of the similarity in the names of the two offices. — We are equally
at sea as to the position of the n^d 'i. Apparently the n"?! '^^^ Y'lN pN3
of the Geonic time have some sort of correspondence to the triad of
directors presiding over the Tannaitic Sanhedrin, Din "I'^iN N't::, and
the '''CJ'hxt:^ i"in p^?:) in the Palestinian Gaonate. But as we have no
definite information about the office of the Din (see the present
writer's article upon the svibject, "Jewish Encyclopedia," s. v. Hakam),
this correspondence gives us no clue to that of the N7i 'i. As will
be shown below, pp. 47-50, the title l"-i was conferred upon the heads
of the Pumbedita Academy, in the time before they were called
Geonim. Besides these, we know the i"-i Rabbi Samuel, the great-
grandfather of Rabbi Sherira, and Rabbi Amram, the maternal uncle
of Rabbi Sherira. The rp'^N 'lu;''^ mentioned in Harkavy, 201, the



THE GAONATE



13



tive each of a family. Another common point characterising
the three institutions is a fiscal system. The Gaon received
moneys like the Exilarch, and like the Patriarch in earlier
times. In the Judaism of ancient days, and for hundreds
of years after the extinction of the Gaonate, no fees were
attached to the office of a teacher, especially a teacher of
advanced disciples, and still more especially if the teacher's
office was connected with the exercise of judicial authority^.
Now, we know from Nathan ha-Babli (82, 5 from below),
that the Gaon received a fixed salary for his personal use, and
also Kab Amram, in the Introduction to his Seder, tells us
that one-half, or, according to another reading, one-fourth,

grandfather of Kabbi Sherira (end of his Letter ; not the grandfather
of Eabbi Hai, as Harkavy, 409, calls him), was not a «S3 '"), but secretary
to the Academy, as we are informed explicitly in a Genizah fragment
(J. Q.i?., XVIII, 402). The same office was filled by the great-grandfather
of Eabbi Sherira, Kabbi Judah, before he was appointed Gaon, the
Genizah fragment just cited being authority for this statement, too.
Again, the grandfather of this Eabbi Judah occupied the same position
of secretary to the Academy, as we are told by Eabbi Sherira in his
Letter (comp. below, p. 71). What the position of Eabbi Nathan was,
the paternal uncle of Eabbi Sherira, it is hard to say. The latter calls
him r|i\v, which may stand for sb^ 'i (comp. G. S., p. 237), but as his
father, Eabbi Judah, was secretary to the Academy, it is probable that
the son may have occupied the same office. In a Genizah fragment
{Saadyana, 60) a na^^^'rr i« p] 21 is mentioned, whom Professor Schechter
is disposed to identify with Eabbi Sherira's uncle (great-uncle is probably
a printer's error). But this identification is opposed to the fact that
Eabbi Sherira calls him ?]V7X, and not -|"2i^. Perhaps this Eabbi Nathan
is identical with the Egyptian scholar Eabbi Nathan, Saadyana, 113.
The 'TD' 'i mentioned in a Eesponsum by Eabbi Hai, in Harkavy, 137,
may be a «bD 'i or an -i"2«. He is probably identical with >\ui< S, the
father of the two Geonim, Eabbi Zadok and Eabbi Kimoi, who is the
author of a Eesponsum transmitted to us in biauTN, II, 77, as the present
writer has proved in the Revis. Israel., V, 11. The reading in biDir^x
should be ]'i^?: r|DV . . . -nn ••oDn . This is Eabbi Joseph ben Abba, Gaon
of Pumbedita in 814. A son of Eabbi Samuel ben Hofni, Israel (?),
likewise was secretary to the Academy (J". Q. R., 1. c, 404, where "':Tnm
means ''our young son," as in Saadyana, 118). Perhaps Israel is to be
read instead of Samuel in Neubauer, Chronicles, 198, end. In the fragment
in the J. Q.R. just cited, as well as in J. Q. R., XIX, 106, the sons of the
Geonim appear " as an estate by themselves."

^ Comp. Maimonides, Commentary on Abot, IV, 5.



14 THE GEONIM

of all donations sent to the Academy fell to the share of
the Gaon ^. Rabbi Nehemiah, in a letter addressed to the
communities, begs them to send money for himself and the
Academy ^ Thus we have three witnesses, independent each
of the others, testifying to the relatively large revenues
of the Geonim. The same Nathan informs us that Babylonia
and the adjacent countries were divided into parishes, a part
of them under the jurisdiction of the Exilarchate, a second
part of them under the Academy of Sura, and a third part
under the Academy of Pumbedita. In their respective
parishes the Exilarchs and the Geonim exercised the right
of appointing the judges and other communal officers, and
in acknowledgment of their sovereign rights a fixed annual
revenue was exacted and delivered into the coffers of each ^.

Fkictlon between the Exilarchate and the Gaonate
OF Pumbedita.

These three points — roughly stated, the pre-eminence of
the Gaon within the Academy, the quasi-hereditary character
of his office, and the equipment of the Academy with power
to levy taxes and appoint communal officers — prove abun-
dantly that the Gaonate was by no means a purely scholarly

* Comp. Marx, Untersiichungen zum Seder des Gaon Rah Amram, I, ii.

^ J.Q R., XIX, io6 ; D1h^ i:b. He speaks of mn;, free-will offerings,
mp^cE, fixed dues (comp. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud, 68, 4, bottom, npTC),
and D'^roin, "fifths." What is meant by the last cannot readily be
determined. Perhaps the name originated in the fact that the con-
gregations had five kinds of taxes to pay, viz. for the Exilarch, each of
the two Geonim, and each of the two Academies. Dr. Poznanski's
conjecture ;1. c, 401), that a fifth part of the whole income of the members
of the congregations was paid to the Academies, is very improbable, if
only for the reason that the Rabbinical law does not permit more than
a fifth of one's income to be set aside for alms and related purposes.
If the members of the congregations had sent one-fifth of their income
to the Academies, there would have been nothing left for the home
needs. Comp. also Saadyana, 118, w^here "iipbno probably means "the
portion duo us."

^ Concerning 1
J. Q. R., XIV, 389, an 1 XVIII, 402.



THE GAONATE I5

institution. What has been adduced enables us also to reach
a better understanding of the continual friction between
the Exilarchate and the Gaonate, and the not infrequent
conflicts that arose among the pretenders to the Geonic
office. Scholarly zeal, family pride, and material interests
are factors of too great potency in the life of individuals
not to leave their impress upon the course of history. In
the Talmudic time, while the Exilarchate was supreme,
without a rival, dissensions might happen to occur now
and again between the temporal power and a scholar here
and there, but with the Academies as such the Exilarchs
had nothing to do. The whole aspect of affairs changed
in the period of the Geonim, when the influence of the body
of scholars found concrete expression in the Yeshibot, the
vested privileges of which constituted them dangerous rivals
of the Exilarchs. The only historian of the Geonic time,
Rabbi Sherira {^6, 13), has this to say regarding the older
epoch of his period : " The succession of the Geonim at
Sura, up to the year one thousand (689), is not quite clear
to us, by reason of the disorders and revolutions caused by
the Exilarchs, who depose Geonim and install them again ^."
This statement of Rabbi Sherira's, regarding the relation
between the Exilarchs and the Geonim of Sura, is rather
startling, for, leaving out of account the quarrel between
Rabbi Saadia and the Exilarch David, which sprang from
personal opposition rather than a conflict of powers, Rabbi
Sherira himself makes no mention of any sort of discord
between the Geonim of Sura and the Exilarchate for the
three centuries following the date given by him. The
appointment of Rabbi Samuel and Rabbi Jehudai, scholars
of Pumbedita, to office at the Sura Academy (Letter of
Sherira, 36, end, 37, 5), is surely not to be taken as an act of
hostility on the part of the Exilarch Solomon ben Hisdai
against the Academy at Sura. It appears, on the con-

^ i<nt<DiEn = ^nsiDnn, ''revolutions" ; this passage is badly corrupted in
some versions of the text, and many an error has been caused by the
confused reading.



l6 THE GEONIM

trary, that the Exilarch was desirous of securing the most
prominent scholars of the day for the Sura Gaonate, as
Sherira himself observes. The vacancy at Sura in 843-4,
caused by dissensions (Letter, 39, 10), cannot be set to the
account of the Exilarch ; Rabbi Sherira would not have
kept us in the dark had it been so. It must have been
due to some internal disturbance in the Academy, which,
it seems, was divided into two factions, partisans of the
family of Rabbi Zadok and partisans of the family of
Rabbi Jacob. The end was that Rabbi Moses, the son
of Rabbi Jacob, gained the upper hand, while the son of
Rabbi Zadok, a younger man than Rabbi Moses, assumed
the Gaonate fifty years later.

On the other hand, Rabbi Sherira records a number
of conflicts between the Exilarchs and the Geonim of
Pumbedita. About Rabbi Natronai I {719), Sherira says
(^^, 6, below), that, encouraged by his kinship with the
family of the Exilarch ^, he ruled the Academy so
vigorously that the scholars of Pumbedita took refuge
in Sura, and did not return to Pumbedita until after
his death. A generation later (about 755) we hear again
that the Exilarch, actuated by personal animosity ^, passed
by the claims of Rabbi Aha, later famous on account of
his work Sheeltot, and instead installed his secretary^,
Rabbi Natroi Kahana, as Gaon of Pumbedita.

A serious conflict broke out in 771 between the Exilarch
and the Gaon of Pumbedita, Rabbi Malka. Rabbi Sherira
(36, 4) writes: \sn^nn nn >wnt2ji? n^nnwS— s^i^D m— N"im
HDD '■27] ^np nim i^^m ^^^:1^s* 21 nro nn \s'3T hv i<n3ii?sn ^<^:i•J

nnyo^ bli^ S^t^o \XJnDil ]1V pi'. In view of the historical

^ The exact relationship is not given by Rabbi Sherira. He probably
was a son-in-law of the Exilarch.

2 Ibn Daud, 63, 14 : mb: u^i«?T ni<:^ ':30. Rabbi Sherira must have
meant the same, though he does not express it in so many words.

' n^yot:, comp. 'EruUn, n b, and Yebamot, 42 a, where Amoraim are
called iii'-ov:, which naturally cannot mean house sers^ants, &c.



THE GAONATE I 7

importance of this passage — it is the only instance trans-
mitted to posterity of the Geonim interfering in a contest
about the Exilarchate — it is worth while discussing it
thoroughly, all the more as it has been completely
misunderstood heretofore.

Graetz renders Rabbi Sherira's account in the following
words (GescJdchte, Y^, p. 386) : "[Rabbi Malka] had deposed
Natronai ben Habibai, when he [Natronai] was about to
usurp the dignity from Zakkai ben Ahunai, who had been
in possession of the office of Exilarch for some years past.
The two Academies united in supporting Zakkai ; they
deposed Natronai, and he had to flee to Maghreb." Weiss,
in his Loi' Dor lue-Doreshaw, IV, 29, goes a step farther.
He gives the following description of the incident: "In
the time of Rabbi Malka a dispute occurred between him
and the Exilarch Natronai ben Zabinai ^, by reason of the


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryLouis GinzbergGeonica (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 20)