The Torah the Masorah and the ???? – Part 5: The Geonic Period

After we have discussed the creation of (or rather the re-formulation of) the Mishna of Rebbe, we have discussed the formulation of (=re-formulation of) the Talmud based on the “newly minted” Mishna of Rebbe, we discussed the dissemination of the Talmud and the Savorayim, now it is time to move on in our journey through Jewish history and enter… the Geonim Zone. {Play “Twilight Zone” music here}

The period following the Savorayim is called the “Geonim” period. The reason for this is because Jewishly, the leaders of the generation were the heads of the Babylonian (and some in Israel) Roshei Yeshivot, (heads of the Jewish centers of learning), who were each called “The Gaon”, (Hebrew for “Genius”, but in those days, it was a proper title for the Head of a Yeshiva, named so meaning “The Praised One” or “The Lofty One”, as the verse says Mishlei (Proverbs) 16:18) לפני שבר גאון, “Before the fall (one is first) raised”, showing reverence to the learning of Torah). Therefore, this time period is called collectively “the Geonim”, in reference to all of the Roshei Yeshiva that lived during this period of time.

This Geonic period began after the Savorayim, which places it, historically, between the years 540-1000 CE. During most of this period there existed two centers of Geonim, that of Israel and that of Babylonia. However, it seems clear from the literature that Babylonia was already looked at as the more important of the two. Especially since the Babylonian center was basically stable, whereas the one is Israel was not.



As the Babylonian Talmud was already well accepted among the entire Jewish world it was looked to, in addition to the TaNa”Ch, as the major source of Jewish study. However, because, in the manner of all literature, especially Torah literature, there was a significant amount of the text that was left (intentionally) ambiguous. As a result, there were many questions that arose in the understanding of the text, and also, as a direct consequence, for the definitive halachic conclusion. In addition, there were, (and still are), many examples of cases that arise which are not addressed directly in the Talmud, therefore there were many questions as to how to apply the concepts that the Talmud taught in a practical manner. As a result, Babylon became the mainstay of all Judaism and it’s Geonim were sought after to explain the Talmud and to give Halachic decisions in all practical matters.

As the questions poured in – a system was devised that allowed for the Gaon of each Yeshiva to address each question. As is described in the famous Iggeret d’Rav Sherira Gaon the system was that the Gaon would sit in a room surrounded by several scribes. The written questions would be read to him one at a time and the Gaon would assign a scribe to write down the answer. He would then move on to the next question and the next scribe. During this process many of the advanced students/Rabbis of the Yeshiva would be present to hear the conclusions, where they would question the Gaon as to his conclusions if anything in his teachings were unknown or not understood. In this way the hundreds/thousands of questions that were forwarded to the Yeshiva were dealt with quickly, efficiently and allowed for the greatest impact on the students of the Yeshiva who were there on a daily basis.


Yarchei Kallah

In truth, however, the majority of the Jewish people and the students of the Yeshiva couldn’t afford to be there on a regular basis. Towards that end a system called the Yarchei Kallah were instituted. Basically, as the name implies, the Yarchei (=month’s) of the Kallah (bride) were two months during the year that the Jewish people looked forward to. Essentially the local Yeshiva would announce the upcoming masechet (Tractate) that was going to be learned during the Yarchei, the people would prepare the topic in bekius (skimming it, so as to gain familiarity) and then during the Yarchei they would come for two months in order to learn the Gemara in-depth. Obviously, not everyone would come to these, either for financial reasons, difficulty, or because it was not considered important enough, but despite this there were hundreds to thousands of attendees.


Public Dissemination of Torah

On a regular basis the Yeshivot were also responsible for the public dissemination of Torah, which was done in the tried-and-true fashion of public discourses. On every Sabbath day, and on every holiday, there were public discourse going on. These were referred to as just Kallah, as the Gemara in Tractate Berachos 6a mentions that the “reward for the Kallah is (gained from) squeezing (duchka in Aramaic).” At each of these public discourses all sorts of topics were discussed, focusing especially on the Halacha, as at this time there were no books of halacha at all. There was the TaNa”Ch, there was the Mishna of Rebbe, and there was the Talmud. For this reason, the halacha was a major topicת as the Geonim were THE source of all knowledge of halacha. However, as people tend not to subsist on practical halacha alone, there were derashot (sermons) incorporating teaching TaNa”Ch, Midrash and many other things within the context of the halachic teachings.

The manner of teaching during this period followed the time-honored tradition of the Maggid, the speaker, who was usually the Rosh haYeshiva, but not necessarily. As the entire Jewish community would attend these public kallah, there was a great problem of how to disseminate the Torah. After all, we are talking about a time before the invention of the microphone and loudspeakers, so how could “the speaker” get his words out to all of the people? Therefore, he was aided in his speaking by means of the Roshei Kallah, who were students (with good voices) who would hear the words of the maggid and they would then spread out through the people to disseminate the maggid’s teachings.


Difficulties and the End of the Geonic Period

For many hundreds of years, the system was great, and everything worked well. As long as the majority of the Jewish people remained in the vicinity of (Israel and of) Babylon this system worked. The problem is that, like all progress, it involves change, and as change overtook the Jewish people they began to spread out and leave Babylon in the distance. At first this didn’t present a great problem, but eventually – it did. When the Jews of Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, France and elsewhere realized that they would forever remain stagnant because of their distance from the great Babylonian Yeshivot. The solution was obvious, but there were no takers to come and open up yeshivot outside of the Torah center of the world.

The legend of how the change occurred is the legend of the “four Rabbis.” The story is that the great Babylonian yeshivot, in the manner of all Yeshivot, were in need of money. A great deal of money. So, they decided to send out a large delegation of Rabbis in order to show the pressing need of the yeshivot. As the major centers of Jewish money were outside of Babylon these sheluchim (Hebrew for “sent ones”) went by boat, with their families to the far-flung Jewish communities along the Mediterranean peninsula. However, at the time there was a severe problem for the Jews, especially, known as “pirates” and the Rabbis and their families were captured. In the manner of all pirates, these ones were no exception, and the Rabbis and their families were held for ransom from the Jewish communities. The price, apparently, was exorbitant, and the halacha, under the circumstances, forbids[1] the redemption of a captive at “more than the going price”. However, there were four Rabbis and there were four Jewish communities who took upon themselves to redeem the Rabbis and any cost, on the condition that they stay and take up residence in their communities. The four communities were Alexandria, in Egypt, Kiruan in Tunisia, Cordoba, Spain and Nadvorna, France. The Rabbis, of course, agreed to the terms, and as a result four new Yeshivot were opened in the Jewish world.

This was the beginning of the flourishing of the larger Jewish community, and the beginning of the decline of the Babylonian one. As they were now no longer dependent upon Babylon for their halachic needs and their financing of Yeshivot was now focused on their own communities the prestige of Babylon and the stability of the Babylonian communities went into decline. However, the Jewish world, as whole, began now to flourish on a whole new level.

This led to the times of the holy Rishonim.

[1] Tractate Gittin 45a

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