The heads of the academies in Babylon became the incontestable leaders of the Jewish world.

The major achievement of the medieval Babylonian geonim (8th to early 11th century) was the successful promotion of the Babylonian Talmud as the definitive rabbinic source regarding Jewish religious practice. Ironically, the widespread acceptance of the Babylonian Talmud (combined with the decline of the Baghdad caliphate and the impoverishment of Babylonian Jewry) contributed to the demise of the Babylonian geonim, as important, independent centers of talmudic learning emerged in the Diaspora. Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Muslim conquests were an important agent of unification for the Jewish communities throughout the diaspora. From the seventh century onwards, the vast majority of Jews were under single rule and part of a large network of commercial ties connecting the different sectors of the Muslim empire. After the Arabs conquered the Maghreb (“the west” in Arab geographic terminology, designating North Africa and Spain), thousands of Jews immigrated there, mostly from the east (particularly from the areas of Iraq and Iran of today). 

The Jewish demographic map reflected a diversity largely due to incessant migrations. Nevertheless, there was a stable framework–a central authority which delegated some of its prerogatives to each community. Existing prior to the emergence of Islam, this structure was consolidated when the Muslim caliphate embraced a world of immense dimensions, obeying first Damascus and then Baghdad.

The seat of spiritual authority of the Jewish world was the yeshivah (academy). Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, this was not simply a learning institute, but also the supreme court and source of instruction for all Jews. The head of the yeshivah, the gaon, was regarded as the highest religious authority, but his responsibilities also included organizing the courts, appointing judges and community leaders as well scribes, ritual slaughterers and other officials. The gaon was authorized to dismiss any one of these, and it was he who exercised the powerful weapon of excommunication.

The geonim became incontestable leaders of the Jewish world as a result of two developments. The first was the conflict between the heads of the academies and rosh ha‑golah (the exilarch) who officially represented the Babylonian community to the authorities. The two Babylonian academies, the yeshivah of Sura and the one in Pumbedita, were transferred to Baghdad in the early ninth century and continued to carry the names their former locations. Before then the exilarch had held full authority and he nominated the heads of the academies who were regarded as spiritual leaders only. But in time, the heads of the academies acquired more power; the office of exilarch persisted, but essential secular functions were taken over by the geonim.

The second development involved conflict between the center in Palestine and the Babylonian geonim over hegemony in the diaspora. The yeshivah in the Land of Israel had traditionally been responsible for the communities in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt; the Babylonian center had jurisdiction over the communities in Iraq, Iran and Yemen. The North African communities were autonomous and solicited by both rival centers. Ties between the communities were bilateral: the communities sent their halakhic questions and donations to the yeshivot; and the heads of the academies in turn supplied answers and commentaries (responsa), as well as laudatory poems and honorary titles, tokens of respect for their supporters.

In the competition over North Africa, the Babylonian yeshivot gained the upper hand. The centralized structure of the caliphate, the authority of the Babylonian Talmud, and the fact that many North African Jews had come from the east and preferred to address their questions and send money to their country of origin—all these combined to the advantage of the Babylonian geonim. In the tenth century, the supremacy of the Babylonian center was unequivocally established, and the geonim were responsible for fashioning the thought of all Jews within the Muslim world.

More than any other, the figure of Saadiah ben Joseph (882-942) best represents the geonic period. Born in Egypt, this original and innovative thinker immigrated to Babylon in 922. On his arrival he played a major role in the most significant medieval Jewish polemics: the debate over the calendar which revolved around the question of the precise date of Passover. Until then only the yeshivah in the Land of Israel proclaimed dates of the festivals; using Saadiah’s arguments, the Babylonian center now successfully established its authority. From 922 onwards, most Jewish communities in the diaspora were to celebrate Passover on the date decided upon by the Babylonian academy.

This polemic, together with the conflict which arose a decade later between the gaon and the exilarch, made Saadiah ben Joseph the incontestable authority for all Jewish communities in the Muslim lands–a position which was to be overshadowed only by Maimonides three hundred years later.

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