The order of the Amoraim, which ended with the close of the Talmud (C.E. 500), was succeeded by that of the Sabōrāīm, who merely continued and explained the work of their predecessors, and these again were followed by the Geōnīm, the heads of the schools of Sura and Pumbeditha in Babylonia. The office of Gaōn lasted for something over 400 years, beginning about C.E. 600, and varied in importance according to the ability of the holders of it.
Individual Geōnīm produced valuable works (of which later), but what is perhaps most important from the point of view of the development of Judaism is the literature of their Responsa or answers to questions, chiefly on halakhic matters, addressed to them from various countries. Some of these were actual decisions of particular Geōnīm; others were an official summary of the discussion of the subject by the members of the School.
They begin with Mar Rab Sheshna (7th century) and continue to Hai Gaon, who died in 1038, and are full of historical and literary interest.[See the edition of them in Harkavy, Studien, iv. (Berlin, 1885).] The She’iltōth (questions) of Rab Aḥai (8th century) also belong probably to the school of Pumbeditha, though their author was not Gaon. Besides the Responsa, but closely related to them, we have the lesser Halakhōth of Yehūdai Gaon of Sura (8th century) and the great Halakhōth of Simeon Qayyara of Sura (not Gaon) in the 9th century. In a different department there is the first Talmud lexicon (ʽArūkh) now lost, by Ẓemaḥ ben Palṭoi, Gaon of Pumbeditha in the 9th century. The Siddūr of Amram ben Sheshna has been already mentioned. All these writers, however, are entirely eclipsed by the commanding personality of the most famous of the Geōnīm, Seadiah ben Joseph (q.v.) of Sura, often called al-Fayyūmī (of the Fayum in Egypt), one of the greatest representatives of Jewish learning of all times, who died in 942. The last three holders of the office were also distinguished. Sherira of Pumbeditha (d. 998) was the author of the famous “Letter” (in the form of a Responsum to a question addressed to him by residents in Kairawan), an historical document of the highest value and the foundation of our knowledge of the history of tradition. His son Hai, last Gaon of Pumbeditha (d. 1038), a man of wide learning, wrote (partly in Arabic) not only numerous Responsa, but also treatises on law, commentaries on the Mishnah and the Bible, a lexicon called in Arabic al-Ḥāwī, and poems such as the Mūsar Haskel, but most of them are now lost or known only from translations or quotations. Though his teaching was largely directed against superstition, he seems to have been inclined to mysticism, and perhaps for this reason various kabbalistic works were ascribed to him in later times. His father-in-law Samuel ben Ḥophni, last Gaon of Sura (d. 1034), was a voluminous writer on law, translated the Pentateuch into Arabic, commented on much of the Bible, and composed an Arabic introduction to the Talmud, of which the existing Hebrew introduction (by Samuel the Nagid) is perhaps a translation. Most of his works are now lost.
Hebrew Literature by Arthur Ernest Cowley
Geōnīm = Geonim = Gaonim (sing. Gaon = pride – splendor) = Excellency = presidents of the two great Babylonian Talmudic Academies of Sura and Pumbedita, that flourished, with lengthy interruptions, from the 7th to the 13th century in Babylonia and Palestine. The geonim continued a tradition of scholarship begun long before by the soferim (teachers and interpreters of biblical law) and kept alive in subsequent centuries by the tannaim and amoraim (who, respectively, produced the compilation of law called the Mishna and wrote commentaries on the Mishna, called Gemara).
Sabōrā = savora (pl. Sabōrāīm = Savora’im – Sabora’im = savoraim = saboraim) = reasoner – reflector: any of a group of 6th-century-common era Jewish scholars who determined the final internal form of the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), a collection of authoritative interpretations and explanations of Jewish oral laws and religious customs.
Mar Rab Sheshna = Amram bar Sheshna = Amram Gaon =Amram ben Sheshna: pupil of Natronai ben Hilai, Gaon of Sura, and was exceptionally honoured with the title of Gaon or head of the Jewish Talmud Academy of Sura, within the lifetime of his teacher, during the 9th century.
The most important work of Amram, marking him as one of the most prominent of the geonim before the Egyptian-Babylonian Jewish philosopher and polemicist, Saʿīd ibn Yūsuf al-Fayyūmī (Saadia ben Joseph), is his “Prayer-book,” the so-called Siddur Rab Amram. Amram was the first to arrange a complete liturgy for use in synagogue and home. His book forms the foundation both of the Spanish-Portuguese (or Sephardic laws and customs) and of the German-Polish or Ashkenazi Jewish liturgies, and has exerted great influence upon Jewish religious practice and ceremonial for more than a thousand years, an influence which to some extent is still felt at the present day.
Hai ben Sherira = Hai Gaon: fourth in a direct line to occupy the gaonate of Pumbedita (Babylonia), situated in Baghdad from the late 9th century on. He assisted his father, Sherira bar Hanina (Sherira ben Ḥanina), in teaching and later as chief of court of the academy. A false accusation to the caliph by Jewish adversaries caused them both to be imprisoned briefly (997). When they were freed, Hai’s father appointed him gaon (998).
She’iltōth = Sheiltot d’Rav Achai or Sheiltos: a collection of homilies (at once learned and popular) on Jewish law and ethics, written by the leading scholar during the period of the Geonim, and 8th-century Talmudist of high renown, Rav Achai or Aḥa, Achai Gaon (also known as Ahai of Shabḥa or Aha of Shabḥa).
Rav Achai = Ahai of Shabḥa = Aha of Shabḥa = Achai Gaon: one of the geonim (rabbis of Sura and Pumbeditha) of the 8th-century, who as a Talmudist of high renown enjoys the distinction of being the first rabbinical author known to history after the completion of the Talmud. In the Land of Israel he wrote his Sheiltot (“Quæstiones” in the sense of disquisitions or scientific investigation of a matter).
His treatise indicates that besides the Babylonian Talmud (which naturally was his chief authority) he made frequent use of the Palestinian Talmud (Yerushalmī) and of Palestinian Midrashim, Leviticus Rabbah, Ecclesiastes Rabbah, and Tanḥuma, all of which at this time were quite unknown in Babylonia (indeed, even Saadia Gaon, almost two hundred years later, knew comparatively little of them).
Aḥa was the successor of Samuel Gaon and his work very soon won great esteem and found his works as a base of many other scholars, like the Jewish-Babylonian halakhist of the first half of the 8th century, Simeon Kayyara (Shimon Kiara), who was never officially appointed as a Gaon. The Halakot Gedolot, copies no less than 150 passages from the Sheiltot.
Yehūdai Gaon = Yehudai Gaon = Yehudai ben Nahman = Yehudai b. Nahman: the head of the yeshiva in Sura from 757 to 761, during the Gaonic period of Judaism and author of the book Halachot Pesukot (Decided Laws), which is an abridgement of Jewish law and discusses those halachot that were practised in the Diaspora since the destruction of the Second Temple. The text, which is generally organised along the same pattern as the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, was the subject of many abridgements and summaries. The original was lost for many years, and was only known in the form of a Hebrew paraphrase called Hilchot Re’u (published Versailles 1886), until it was discovered in a Yemenite manuscript purchased in 1911 and published in Jerusalem in 1951.
Ẓemaḥ ben Palṭoi = Rav Zemah ben Paltoi = Tzemach ben Poltoi = Zemaḥ Gaon: Pumbedita Gaon from 841-858, an office which Zemah served himself, after the death of the previous Gaon, Abba ben Ammi. Zemah is most noted for his compilation of the first Talmudic dictionary, the Arukh (Lexicon), a work listing some 300 Aramaic terms, as well as a list of names and places recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. His work became the model on which two later works were based: one compiled under the same name in 1101 CE, by the medieval Italian Hebrew lexicographer R. Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome. Alexander Kohut revised the classic ʿArukh (“Lexicon”), the Hebrew and Aramaic dictionary compiled by Nathan ben Yehiel.
Fayyūmī = Fayum = Seadiah ben Joseph = Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon = Rabbeinu Sa’adiah Gaon = Rabbi [the] Saadia Gaon = Saadia ben Joseph of Faym = Saadia ben Joseph Al-Fayyum: 10th century Egyptian-Babylonian Jewish exegete, philosopher and polemicist whose influence on Jewish literary and communal activities made him one of the most important Jewish scholars of his time.
Books, such as that of the Persian Jewish exegete and Biblical critic of the last quarter of the ninth century, the heretic Ḥiwi al-Balkhī, which denied the omnipotence, omniscience, and justice of the biblical God and pointed to biblical inconsistencies, were then popular. In the face of such challenges, Saʿadia marshalled his great talents in the defence of religion in general and Jewish tradition in particular. Employing the same manner as Ḥiwi, Saʿadia composed his refutation of him in a somewhat complicated rhymed Hebrew. Then, too, he wrote his Kitāb ar-radd ʿalā ʿAnān (“Refutation of Anan,” the founder of Karaism), a lost work that has been identified with Saʿadia’s partially extant polemical poem Essa meshali.
Sherira of Pumbeditha = Sherira of Pumbedita: the rabbi from the ancient city of the Abbasid caliphate, located near the modern-day city of Fallujah, Iraq, was the author of the famous “Letter” (in the form of a Responsum to a question addressed to him by residents in Kairawan), an historical document of the highest value and the foundation of our knowledge of the history of tradition.
The rabbi found himself in an intellectual hub for rabbinic Judaism; the influence of its academy (founded by Judah ben Ezekiel in the late third century) second only to that in Sūrā (near modern Najaf, Iraq).
The last period of Pumbedita Academy growth took place during the days of Sherira Gaon and his son, Hai Gaon. Along with Hai Gaon’s death (c. 1038), the era of the Geonim ended.