Geonim

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

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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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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University