Babylonian Talmud, Book 10: History of the Talmud, tr. by Michael L. Rodkinson, , at sacred-texts.com
THE VICTORY OF KARAISM OVER THE SPIRITUAL DOMINION OF THE TALMUD AND THE MIND OF THE JEWISH NATION--THE LAST GAONIM AT SURA AND PUMBEDITHA--THE CENTRE OF TALMUDIC STUDY TRANSFERRED FROM MESOPOTAMIA TO SPAIN--THE SCHOLARS OF KAIRUBAN--THE PERIOD OF THE GREATEST DIFFUSION OF TALMUDIC STUDY.
Though Rabbinism came out victorious from the struggle with Karaism, it can not be denied that in one respect the latter triumphed. The unlimited dominion which the Talmudic spirit of the colleges of Sura and Pumbeditha had at that time on the minds of the nation of Israel in general in all places of
their abode--this spiritual dominion waned greatly. The glory of these colleges irresistibly declined, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, even of a supreme man like Saadiah the Gaon. The spirit of investigation and free thought at Bagdad induced the disciples, to whom the religious teachings of their master Saadiah gave the example, to engage in the study of philosophy, grammar and the interpretations of the text of the Scripture, and to abandon the hard and exhausting studies of Sura. A slight cause, the voyage of the four scholars mentioned above to Europe, sufficed to hasten the end of this college, which did not exist long after the death of R. Saadiah the Gaon, so that it was closed forever after centuries of its existence.
The college at Pumbeditha continued some time longer; it put forth its last efforts, before the lights of its Gaonim and Exilarchs were extinguished, before the glory and religious and spiritual pre-eminence of Babylon departed from there to honor Spain; and as the light of a candle blazes up before it is extinguished, so there shone on the Babylonian horizon three Gaonim, Sherira b. Hanina, Hai his son, and Samuel b. Hophni the father-in-law of the latter (960-1038). The activity of these men in the field of Talmudic literature persists and exercise their influence yet.
R. Sherira placed the Talmudic studies too much above all other studies, whereas in the college at Sura, in accordance with the spirit of Saadiah the Gaon, the sciences also stood in the first rank of studies and a critical spirit reigned in studying Scripture and in commenting on the Talmud. At Pumbeditha the Talmud was the only dish offered to the students, the only subject of the curriculum. R. Sherira was the first who fearlessly taught and said: "The utterances of the Gaonim require no demonstration; whoso rebels against their decisions, rebels against God and betrays His Torah." His book "Megilath Stharim." (Scroll of Mysteries), which was undoubtedly written in this autocratic spirit, is lost. But, on the other band, he has bequeathed to us a fragment which enlightens us at present, being the chief basis of all Jewish literary and theological history. This is the letter he sent to the congregation of Kairuban, termed "R. Sherira's Epistle," which treats of the history of the Talmud and of the Gaonim and is the key to the otherwise mysterious history of that epoch. From this letter only can
we take the essential information for arranging the history from the close of the Talmud to his time. Without this document many and important periods, from the time of the Maccabees to those of the Gaonim, over a thousand years, would remain to us obscure and unknown. The epistle is wonderfully accurate in respect to chronology, and is free from any bias. Only by means of it, and of other compositions of this class, as the Megilath Taanith (Scroll of Fasts), Seder Olam (Order of the World), the Sedar Tanaim and Amoraim, together with the remnants of information of R. Nathan bar Izhak the Babylonian (956) concerning the colleges at Sura and Pumbeditha, and the methods of study at their time, can the modem scholar compile the known histories, so very necessary to the understanding of the Talmud and its literature.
R. Hai, his son, was indeed more inclined towards the sciences than his father. He was proficient in Arabic learning. Nor was he averse to philosophic studies. He opposed himself with all his might against speculation about the hypothesis of religion. In theological and Talmudical knowledge, R. Hai surpassed all his colleagues and stood alone in his age. From Northern Africa and Spain, whither sparks of Talmudic literary activity had just penetrated and kindled, came to him questions in great number. He replied to them in Arabic or in Hebrew; the spirit of reconciliation between philosophy and theology is in all his answers. His list of Hebrew roots, commentaries on the Mishna, and compositions examining Scriptures exist mostly no longer, and only fragments of Talmudic jurisprudence, as laws of buying and selling, of oaths, etc., which he attempted to methodize in verse are preserved. So also is ascribed to him a didactic poem entitled "Musar Haschel" (Morality of Reason) very excellent in its thoughts, matter, and intention (purpose, aim, conception), albeit we can not extole the style or the poetic form. At all events this R. Hai, the last of the Gaonim is the first of all Talmudic scholars even at this day, and his words are oracular for all commentators and all those who decide Halakhas according to the Talmud.
His father-in-law, Samuel b. Hophni, held of the same opinions as he, but was more free in his criticism of the Scriptures than all his colleagues. Of his many works only fragments (which originally written in Arabic, we have in the
Hebrew garb) of his commentaries to the Scriptures remain. But his compositions about Halakhas and essentials of religion are all lost, and only their names survive. The fundamental principle of this thinker was: "Things opposed to human common sense should not be admitted." He combated violently also the Karaites and was attacked desperately, as they mocked and scoffed at him and even wrote satiric Hebrew poems about him.
Those three were the last of those remaining at these colleges, and at their death the sources of wisdom in Babylonia were stopped off. After the decease of ben Hophni (about 1034) the college at Sura was abolished, and two years after the death of R. Hai (1640) the college of Pumbeditha was closed. The wisdom of Israel removed to North Africa (Kairuban) and Spain and bore fair fruit there.
The city Kairuban had a great reputation. In an antique commentary, imputed to a disciple of R. Saadiah the Gaon, this city is mentioned as "the city of great sages." As is known, one of the four above-mentioned rabbis, R. Hushiel, who with his colleagues had been voyaging to collect money for the college of Sura, was cast thither. All four introduced mental activity in all places they visited. R. Hananel, the son of R. Hushiel, succeeded to his position (in 1050) and surpassed his father in wisdom and in energy. He bequeathed to us fragments of commentaries on Scriptures and the Talmud, which were of great help to the study in the conditions at that time, when Talmudic activity was diffused among Jews. He and his contemporary, Nisim b. Jacob, who also resided in Kairuban, renewed the youth of the Palestinian Talmud, which had been neglected. Especially did the latter contribute to bring about this. He also issued the book "Maphteah" (Key) for several tracts of the Babylonian Talmud and in it he cast light on many difficult passages in the Palestinian Talmud by comparing the two Talmuds.
R. Hananel also wrote a commentary on the Talmud, which was published in separate parts. Therein he explains the subject and meaning of the words in Hebrew, and draws a parallel between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud. He wrote also a book containing abstracts arranged in Talmudic order of the Halakhas, concerning service and pecuniary matters.
A careful examination of the books of the two men will show that they were in unison with their opinions with Saadiah the Gaon, and diffused his teaching and ideas among the Jews. Friendship existed between these two men and Hai and the learned men of Spain, as is seen from their large correspondence. There is also a third one of the sages of Kairuban, who contributed to the study of the Talmud, he is Hephetz b. Jatzbiah, held in great esteem by his contemporaries, and upon whom all titles of honor that great men receive were bestowed. Of his works nothing is known except the name "Sepher Hephetz" (the book of Hephetz or Desirable book) which he wrote as a commentary to the "books of duties."
The sages of Kairuban witnessed the end of the two colleges and the extinction of the Gaonim, but also the flourishing of Jewish literature in Spain, whither it had been spread from Northern Africa. After the decease of these learned men the glory of Kairuban became also extinct, and Jewish intellectual activity left the East and emigrated to the West.
An examination of the literary period after the death of the Gaonim shows that it surpassed by far the preceding period. Whereas, in the time of the Exilarchs and the Gaonim, only the Talmud had been the subject chiefly studied and only to it had contributions been made which helped to perpetuate the spirit of Judaism. Now, when Jewish learning removed to Spain and Southern France, it blossomed and became split into many branches, to each of which many good books were contributed. On the study of the Scriptures shone forth the light of free criticism; the studies of Masorah reached perfection; grammar and linguistic researches came to the front rank; the Talmud and Midrash, long ago concluded, were subjected to the analysis of commentaries and abridged into systematic abstracts. The basis of the philosophic conception of the Jewish faith was laid; and religious and ritual poems succeeded, when treated by the sublimely inspired Spanish poets. A broader and deeper comprehension of the Talmud was also the result of the intellectual awakening. It is true that the cause of this intellectual activity were the Arabs, while the polemics with the Karaites enhanced it, and made it penetrate through the wall of Judaism; but, taken up by the Jews, it made progress and continued to do so even when both Arabs and Karaites had abandoned knowledge
altogether. This spiritual awakening caused even the remotest branch of Israelite stock, from which almost all life had fled, to bloom up and to awake to new life. Even the small community of Samaritans, whose existence had been quite forgotten, came to life and took part in the Jewish culture. The book of "Joshua" of the Samaritans, the "Reminiscences of Abul-Pathah" (a historical treatise of these events), the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, and the Arabic version of the Scriptures by Abu-Laid appeared at this time. Also fragments of ritual composition there are a few left of many, but their value is small and they are not as ancient as had been at first thought. On the new Jewish literature the Samaritan sect never made any impression; but the intellectual movement of the Jews involved also the remnant of the Samaritans and aroused it from its slumber. But in the time of the Gaonim, when the bearers of the banner of the Talmud ranked themselves to battle with the Karaites, they did not condescend to notice the Samaritans.
When we say that this period surpassed the former, we are far from disparaging the great Gaonim, and from thinking them men inferior to their successors. In truth, these men were only dwarfs who stood on the shoulders of giants for had they not stood on the shoulders of those giants they could not have investigated deeply all those subjects to which in time of the Gaonim no attention had been paid. For, in spite of the precept of Sherira, above mentioned, "that the utterances of the Gaonim require no demonstration," they did not cease to give proofs, reasons, and to advance arguments in their replies to questioners. Only by means of thorough and deep research in the Talmud, by comparing and by reasoning, did the Gaonim bring the ideas of their time in accordance with the ancient Halakhas, thus increasing the practical importance of tradition and giving to the Torah a living interest. The Spanish and French scholars took up their work and carried it on, extending it to all branches of science. Then literature, therefore, attained its highest development, so that this period has been termed the "golden age of Jewish learning." The replies of the Gaonim only were the basis of their superstructure, reared when intellectual activity had removed from the banks of the Euphrates to the banks of the Tagus and the Rhine.
Their explanations of Halakha were of two kinds; either those induced by the bare love of knowledge, or answers which had to be given to question arising from practical exigencies, which occasioned the analysis of the Halakhas and the investigation whether the spirit of the Halakhas held good only at their time or applied to other times also.
Five compilations of this kind, termed "Replies of the Gaonim," exist in the Jewish literature, which have been compiled from the beginning of the seventh to the eleventh centuries. The first of the authors of those replies was the Gaon Hananai and the last Hai the Gaon. This literature of the Gaonim's replies is a large field for scientific researches in literary history in general, of historic events, and of intellectual progress. In all their replies and decisions we see that their aim is knowledge, not authoritativeness as is usual in the case of priests or even of Gaonim. For their decision they gave reasons and advanced arguments, and also forbade no learned or ingenious man to object to them.
This spirit of employing reason found in this literature of Replies still continues. By it the present is linked with the past and the future with the present. These replies touch almost all branches of thought as well as all practical questions, viz.: the value of the Agada in Talmudic literature; the value of the studies of the mysteries; opinions on philosophy, on the rights due to sciences, answers to questions about chronology and calculations of time. History, geography, and mathematics in some of their replies are also discussed. There are also answers with reasons to questions about Laws of Marriage, Gentiles, Proselytes, Testaments, Mourning, Sermons, Divorce. They also explain to those who question them different passages in Mishna and Talmud-questions even without any practical aim-only to increase and advance the Torah by the discussions made in the house of learning.