1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Seadiah ben Joseph
SEADIAH (or Saadia; in Arabic Saʽid) BEN JOSEPH (892–942) was born in A.D. 892 at Dilaz in the Fayyum, whence he is often called al-Fayyurni. Although he is justly regarded as the greatest figure in the literary and political history of medieval Judaism, nothing certain is known of his father or of his early life. Even the names of his teachers, generally recorded in the case of Jewish scholars, are unknown, with the exception of a certain Abū Kathir, who is himself obscure, and left no writings. Saadia’s literary work is in fact the more remarkable since it suddenly appears at a time when learning seemed to be dead both in East and West. Since the completion of the Talmud very little of any literary importance, if we except certain midrashim, had been produced among the orthodox (Rabbanite) Jews, although the Babylonian schools at Sura and Pumbeditha continued to enjoy a somewhat intermittent prosperity. On the other hand, learning was cultivated among the Qaraites (q.v.); see also Hebrew Literature), a sect of Jews who rejected the oral tradition, restricting their practice to the ordinances of scripture (miqra). It even seemed for a time as if conservative heresy would prevail against progressive orthodoxy. In Saadia, however, the Rabbanites found a powerful champion. Almost his first work, written at the age of twenty-three, was an attack on the teaching of 'Anan, the founder of Qaraism, who lived in the 8th century. This, like most of Saadia’s polemical writings, is no longer extant, but we can gather something of its contents from references in the author's other Works, and from the statements of his opponents. The controversy turned largely on the calendar, which of course involved the dates of festivals, and, since the Rabbanite calendar had come down from ancient times, opened up the whole question of oral tradition and the authority of the Talmud. The conflict raged for many years, the chief representative of the other side being Solomon ben Yeruham, a virulent if not successful opponent. It was not, however, the only controversy in which Saadia was engaged. In 922 Ben Meir, a person of importance in Palestine, attempted to make alterations in the calendar, against the authority of the Babylonian schools. Saadia, who was then at Baghdad, warned him of his errors, refuted him in a work called Sefer ha-Mōʽadīm (the Book of the Festivals), and finally procured his excommunication by David ben Zakkai, the exilarch or head of the Jewish community in Babylonia. The vigorous action of Saadia seems to have brought him more prominently to the notice of the exilarch, and that at a time of more than usual difficulty. The honourable rivalry of the two schools of Sura and Puznbeditha, as the recognized authorities in matters of religion, had degenerated into jealousy and contention. The Gaon (q.v.) or President of Pumbeditha taking advantage of his own position and of a vacancy in the Gaonate of Sura, wished to abolish the rival school. The exilarch, however, no doubt in recognition of his recent services, appointed Saadia as Gaon of Sura, although it was against the usual custom to appoint a person who was not a member of the school. Unfortunately this step did not lead to peace. Pumbeditha was jealous: the exilarch was weak and not very scrupulous. Money had to be raised not only for the support of the schools, but also to buy immunity from the government, and Saadia was not the man to connive at the corruption and oppression practised by the exilarch to raise it. Within two years matters had come to a crisis, and the exilarch dismissed Saadia, while Saadia retorted by declaring the exilarch deposed (930), After three years of contention David succeeded in sufficiently bribing the new and needy Caliph (Qāhir, 932–934; see Caliphate, § 19), who definitely forbade Saadia to act as Gaon. The next four years, spent in retirement at Baghdad, were devoted to literary labours, which had no doubt been impossible during the previous years of trouble, and in fact it was at this time that most of Saadia's work was produced. Eventually a reconciliation was effected with David, favoured probably by the new Caliph Radi (934–940; see Caliphate, § 20), and Saadia was reinstated as Gaon of Sura in 938. Under his rule the school attained the highest reputation among the Jewish communities of East and West—but it was not of long duration. His health had been impaired by the strenuous life he had led, and in his later years he suffered from melancholia. In 942 he died, two years after the exilarch.
That some of the many works of Saadia, in 'spite of their merits, have been neglected, and others partly or entirely lost, is not as surprising as it appears at first sight. They were for the most part written in Arabic, the vernacular of the Jews in the East, so that after the break-up of the Babylonian schools in the middle of the 11th century, they would only be studied in Spain, the new centre of Jewish learning, and in Egypt. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Arabic practically ceased to be used by them for literary purposes, and in the rest of Europe (except perhaps in S. Italy) it was never understood. Even some Hebrew works, of great interest to us now, must have been regarded at the time as of purely temporary value, such as e.g. the Sefer ha-Mōʽadīm, fragments of which have only recently been recovered in the Geniza at Cairo. The anti-Qaraite works against ʽAnan, Ibn Sākawaihī and Ben Zūṭā, the Kitab at-tamyiz, Kitāb al-Shara'ī, Kitāb al-ʽIbbur (calendar) and a book on anthropomorphism's, all in Arabic, are now lost and only known from quotations. So also are the refutation of the sceptic Ḥivi of Balkh, and the Sefer ʽOrayōth (on prohibited marriage, against Qaraites). Of the Sefer ha-Mōʽadīm and Sefer ha-Galūī (against David ben Zakkai), both in Hebrew, some fragments have been recovered recently.
Closely allied to his polemical writings are his exegetical works. He translated most of the Bible into Arabic, and commented on at least some of the books. The memorial edition contains (1) the version of the Pentateuch (1893), (3) of Isaiah (1896), (5) of Job (1899), (6) of Proverbs (1894), the last three with commentary. The translation of the 5 Meghilloth, and of Daniel (with commentary), usually ascribed to Saadia, is not really by him, but a genuine translation of Daniel, with commentary, exists in manuscript. There is also ascribed to him a midrashic work on the Decalogue. These all, no doubt, exhibit the defects necessary to the time in which their author lived. But it must be remembered that Saadia was a pioneer. Ḥayyūj, the father of Hebrew grammar, was not yet born, nor had the scientific and comparative study of the language begun. In this respect Saadia contributed little to the subject. Moreover, he shows a tendency, common at all times and perhaps due to a particular theory of inspiration, to get more out of the text than it contains, and to interpret it in accordance with preconceived philosophical opinions. At the same time both translations and commentaries are remarkable for their great learning, sound sense andjan honest endeavour to arrive at the true meaning of the original. They were thus admirably suited for their purpose, which was, like the earlier Targums and the later work of Moses Mendelssohn, to render the sacred text more intelligible to the faithful generally and to check the growth of error.
The grammatical work called Agron, a sort of dictionary, is now lost, as are also the Kutub al-Lnghah and perhaps other treatises on Hebrew grammar. The explanation of the 70 (really 90) hapaxlegomena in the Bible is still extant, and a. poem on the number of letters in the Bible.
On Talmudic subjects again little is preserved beyond the Kitāb al-Mawārīth, which was published as vol. ix. of the Œuvres complètes, together with the short treatise in Hebrew on the 13 Middōth or canons of exegesis of R. Ishmael and some Responsa mostly in Hebrew. The translation of the Mishna, the introduction to the Talmud and, other works of the kind are known only by repute.
Of the Siddur or arrangement of the liturgy by Saadia, a large part exists in a single manuscript at Oxford, and several fragments have been recovered from the Cairo Geniza; Numerous other liturgical poems, or parts of them, have been obtained from the same source, and several have been published in periodicals. His Azharoth, a poetical enumeration of the 613 precepts, in Hebrew, is included in vol. ix. of the Œuvres complètes.
His philosophical works are (1) a commentary on the Sefer Yeẓīra, a mystical treatise ascribed to the patriarch Abraham, which, as the foundation of the Kabbala, had great influence on Jewish thought, and was the subject of numerous commentaries; (2) the Kitāb al-Amānāt wʽal-Ftiqādāt (Book of Beliefs and Convictions), written in 933, called, in the Hebrew translation by Judah ibn Tibbon, Emūnōth we-Dēʽōth. Its system is based on reason in conjunction with revelation, the two being not opposed, but mutually complementary. It is thus concerned, as the title implies, with the rational foundation of the. faith, and deals with creation, the nature of God, revelation, free will, the soul, the future life and the doctrine of the Messiah. It shows a thorough knowledge of Aristotle, on whom much of the argument is based, and incidentally refutes the views of Christians, Moslems, Brahmins and sceptics such as Hivi. From its nature, however, the work, although of great interest and value, never had the same wider influence as that of Ibn Gabirol (q.v.). The Arabic text was published by S. Landauer (Leiden, 1880), the Hebrew version at Constantinople in 1 562 and frequently since.
Bibliography.—Grätz, Geschichte der Juden, vol. 5 (ed. 3), cap. 10; Steinschneider, Arab. Literatur der Juden (Frankft. a. M., 1902). p. 46 ff.; W. Bacher’s art. “Saadia ben Joseph,” in the Jewish Encyclopedia; M. Friedländer in the Jewish Quarterly Review, v. 177 ff.; S. Poznański, ibid. vol. x. 238 fl.; J. Guttmann, Die Religionsphilosophie des Saadias (Göttingen, 1882); W. Engelkemper, " Die religionsphilosophische Lehre Saadja Gaons,” in Baeumker’s Beiträge, iv. 4 (Münster, 1903) (containing a German translation of part iii. of the Kitãb al-Amãnãt); A. Harkavy, Sludien, v. (St Petersburg, 1891) (in Hebrew); S. Schechter, Saadyana (Cambridge, 1903) (texts from the Geniza, repr. from the Jewish Quarterly Review). (A. Cy.)
- An excellent account of these is given by Poznański in the Jewish Quarterly Review, x. 238 ff.
- Œuvres complètes de R. Saadia, ed. by J. Derenbourg (Paris, 1893 ff.).