Hai Gaon

Head of the school of Pumbedita during the Geonic Age.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Hai Gaon was the head of the college of Pumbedita at the end of the Geonic period (939-I038). Hai served in the Gaonite of Pumhedita together with his father, Sherira Gaon. When Sherira died, Hai was inducted formally into the office with the pomp and ceremony typical of the institution.

It is reported that there was read in the Babylonian synagogues the narrative of Solomon's succession to the throne of David (I Kings 2: 10-12), adapted to the occasion: "And Sherira slept with his fathers ... And Hai sat upon the throne of Sherira his father; and his kingdom was established firmly." Hai was the son-in-law of the Gaon of Sura, Samuel Ibn Hofni, whose rationalism in Bible interpretation was not to Hai's taste.

A large proportion of the extant Geonic responsa consists of the replies of Hai to his questioners not only in Babylon but in North Africa and Europe. These Responsa throw much light on Hai's activity as the foremost legal authority of his day. Hai had a strong mystical bent, describing in a responsum the techniques to be employed for the ascent of the soul.

Exploring Human Free Will

As a theologian of note, Hai was among the earliest Jewish thinkers to discuss, in a responsum, the vexed question of how to reconcile God's foreknowledge with human freedom, a problem of concern to the Arabic thinkers in Hai's day. In another Responsum, Hai reacts to Islamic fatalism when he considers the idea that every man has a life-span fixed beforehand. When a man is murdered, Hai was asked, does this mean that even had he not been slain, he would have died, in any event, at that particular moment? Hai replies that we simply do not know. We can either suppose that if he had not been murdered he would have died at that moment in any event, or we can suppose that if he had not been murdered he would have lived on until a later date.

But, it might be objected, supposing a murderer killed a large number of persons on the same day, is it plausible to suggest that they would all have died in any event on the same day? "Why not?" replies Hai. Experience shows us that a large number of people do sometimes die at the same time, when, for example, a building collapses or when a ship goes down and all the passengers are drowned. But if the victim of a murder would have died in any event, Hai asks, why is the murderer punished for his crime? Hai replies that it is the act of murder that constitutes the crime, The murderer deserves to be punished for the evil act that was his and his alone.

This responsum has been quoted at length to demonstrate Hai's theological approach, one in which he is thoroughly familiar with the Islamic thought of his day (he knew Arabic and some of his writings are in this language) but proudly defends Judaism against its critics. The Talmudic Judaism, of which Hai was the great representative, was attacked also from within the Jewish camp by the Karaites.

The Karaites poured scorn on the Talmud for its grossly anthropomorphic descriptions of the Deity. The Talmud even says that God prays, wears tefillin, and wraps Himself around with a prayer shawl. Hai's reply is that the meaning is that God taught Moses how to pray and how to use the tefillin in prayer. When the Talmud gives God's prayer as: "May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy," the meaning is not that God prays to Himself but that He taught Moses how to recite the kind of prayer that will result in the flow of the divine mercy.

Hai is not original here. This interpretation goes back, in fact, to Hai's predecessor, Saadiah. On the general question of apparently strange Talmudic statements, Hai observes that these belong to the Aggadah and it is a sound principle that one does not learn from the Aggadah. It has to be appreciated, moreover, that, in their Aggadah the Talmudic rabbis were often like poets who describe natural phenomena in anthropomorphic terms. Hai draws attention to Greek mythology in which natural phenomena are endowed with personality. This statement of Hai amounts to an acknowledgement that there is a mythological element in Rabbinic thought.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.