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Saadiah Gaon, Rashi and Maimonides: How Three Rabbis Revolutionized Judaism

August 14, 2022 | by Rabbi Mordechai Becher

How three great Jewish scholars transformed our views of the Bible, education, Judaism, science and life.

You may not realize it, but you and your ancestors have been impacted by the author of a rhyming dictionary in 9th century Iraq, an 11th century teacher in the Champagne region of France, and an Arabic speaking doctor in 12th century Cairo.

I am referring to three great Jewish scholars who revolutionized our views of the Bible, education, Judaism, science and life: Saadiah Gaon, Rashi and Maimonides.

Rabbi Saadiah Gaon

Saadiah ibn Yosef al-Fayumi was born in Fayum, Egypt in 882 CE. As a young man he left Egypt and travelled to Palestine, Babylon and Syria. He stopped in Tiberias, a center of Jewish learning on the shores of Lake Kinneret, where he studied Hebrew language and grammar, philosophy and theology.

Saadiah was later appointed leader of the Jewish academy of learning in Sura (south of Baghdad), and was given the title Gaon, exalted one. He wrote books on Jewish law and philosophy and translated the Torah into Arabic – the Tafsir, a translation still used today and recently republished for the Arabic-speaking world.

One of his earliest works was a Hebrew rhyming dictionary which he wrote in order to encourage the writing of Hebrew poetry.1 One of the scholars who took up Saadiah’s charge was Dunash ibn Lebrett, from Morocco, who became an accomplished poet and wrote one of the oldest songs sung at the Shabbat table, called Dror Yikrah. This actually sparked off the genre of Hebrew poetry, primarily in Spain, including great poets such as Yehudah Halevi, Shlomo Ibn Gvirol and Avraham Ibn Ezra.2

Saadiah Gaon’s greatest work was his book Kitab al Amanat wa-al-Ataqadat, The Book of Beliefs and Knowledge, which was the first systematic, logical presentation of Jewish philosophy and is one of the classics of Jewish literature. This was also one of the earliest of modern style books, written with the now familiar table of contents, introduction, sections and chapters.

Saadiah Gaon transformed how we interpret and understand the Biblical text. In his Book of Beliefs and Knowledge, he opened the door to understanding the Biblical text in a non-literal way and presented four rules that indicate that one may depart from literalism.

A street sign in Tel Aviv, Israel

“It is a well-known first principle that anything found in Scripture is to be understood according to its simple meaning, with the exception of those cases where such is impossible, due to one of four possible causes:

  1. Our perceived reality dismisses it. An example would be the verse, “And Adam called his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all life.3” Now, we see that the ox and the lion are not born from a human woman. So, we know that these words refer not to all living beings, but only to human life.
  2. Our sense of reason dismisses it. For example, the verse, “For God, your God, is a consuming fire, a God of vengeance.4” Now, fire is a creation, and it requires some sort of material to burn. At times it is extinguished. Our sense of reason cannot accept that God could be such. So, we are forced to say that there is some idea hidden within the usage of fire to describe God’s vengeance. Indeed, there is a verse, “For in the fire of My vengeance the entire earth will be consumed.5
  3. Another verse explicitly negates it. In such a case, we must provide a resolution that is not explicitly stated…
  4. We have a tradition that compromises the text in some way. In this case, we must reinterpret the text to fit the authentic tradition…”6

That a religious scholar in the early medieval period would suggest that our senses, our reason and our logic should be used in understanding the text of the holy Scripture, even to the extent of usurping the literal meaning in favor of an allegorical interpretations, was then – and is even now – revolutionary.

Image of the first edition of Saadia Gaon’s Book of Beliefs

Saadiah Gaon passed away at the age of 60 in the year 942 CE, but his lessons and philosophy live on. The prayers and songs he wrote and inspired are still recited and sung, his commentaries are still studied, and his translations used to this very day.7

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, Teacher of the Israel

Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, universally referred to as Rashi, an acronym of his title and name,8 was born in 1040 in Troyes, a small city in the Champagne region of France. He moved to the Rhineland when he was a teenager in order to study in the great academies of Worms and Mayence. By the time he was in his twenties he was an accomplished scholar with many students and had already begun writing his commentaries.

Rashi returned to Troyes when he was about thirty and was immediately appointed as its Rabbi and Head of the Rabbinical Court. Rashi founded schools in Troyes servicing children, teenagers and adults, where he also taught. Like many Jews in the region he made his living primarily as a merchant, but also engaged in financing and loans, and in winemaking.9

Rashi’s three daughters were well educated and all married important scholars. Rashi’s grandchildren also became accomplished scholars and leaders and were responsible for writing extensive commentaries on the Torah and the Talmud as well as being the heads of Talmudic academies in France.

Rashi is considered to be the greatest teacher of the Jewish people. He wrote commentaries on virtually the entire Hebrew Bible and on almost the entire Talmud. His commentaries are renowned for their clarity, brevity, accuracy, translations, and descriptions of empirical realities. Rashi’s commentary on the Bible became so popular that it was the first commentary ever printed together with the text of the Torah and became the standard commentary printed with almost every Hebrew edition of the Bible.

Rashi’s Synagogue in Troyes, France

Rashi enabled every Jew to understand the laconic Biblical text.10 He accomplished this by filling in “missing” details, by explaining difficult words and terms, sometimes translating them into French and by supplying Halachic (legal) and moral lessons derived from the text. To this day it is common practice among Jews to study the entire Five Books of Moses over the course of every year together with Rashi’s commentary.11

Although Rashi does not supply an introduction to his commentary he does, however, inform us of his intention in a number of places.12

“There are many Aggadic midrashim, and our Sages already arranged them in their proper order in Genesis Rabbah and in other midrashim, but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way.”13

“The words of Torah are ‘like a hammer that shatters a rock’ (Jer. 23:29). They divide into many meanings, but I have come to establish the simple meaning of the verse.14

As is clear from the examples above, Rashi’s goal is to give the reader an understanding of the contextual, plain meaning of the text, similar to his goal in his Talmudic commentary, which is to “get the reader through the page.”15

Rashi’s revolution of making texts accessible extended to his incredible commentary on virtually the entire Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud, written in Aramaic, an edited compendium of discussions and arguments that took place over hundreds of years, composed primarily in ancient Babylon, was a closed text to all but scholars. Rashi’s commentary fills in the missing words in the Talmud’s discussions, translates Aramaic words into Hebrew or French, and explains the empirical reality of the politics, agriculture, geography and sociology of ancient Babylon.

16th-century depiction of Rashi

Rashi succeeded in doing all this in an incredibly well edited, concise and clear commentary, originally distributed as a pamphlet and therefore called by contemporary scholars, the Kuntres, the Pamphlet.

When your rabbi, teacher, colleague or professor quotes something from the Talmud, they are almost certainly initially consulting Rashi, and usually relying on his understanding of the passage. When a Talmud student today studies in a yeshiva anywhere in the world, he will always study the Talmudic text with at least Rashi’s commentary. When someone expounds on the text of the Torah, gives a speech, sermon, class or discourse, their starting point will almost certainly be Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.

In a traditional Jewish elementary school, the first commentary to which a child will be introduced is Rashi. When a senior Talmudic scholar lectures advanced students, he will probably start with Rashi’s insights and comments. Rashi truly earned the alternative interpretation of his name, Rashi, as an acronym for Rabban Shel Yisrael, Teacher of the Israel.

Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe son of Maimon

Maimonides, Moshe son of Maimon, is known by the acronym RaMBaM - Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon - and was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135.

When Cordoba was captured by Almohades, an extremist Muslim group, in 1148, Rambam’s family was faced with choice of conversion or exile. They left Cordoba and wandered in Spain until 1159 when they settled temporarily in Fez, Morocco.

Forced to leave Fez by Islamic persecution, they landed in Acre, Israel in 1165. They stayed in Israel only for a short time due to threat of kidnapping by Christian knights in the Land of Israel. Eventually, Maimonides left Israel and settled in Fostat (Old Cairo) in Egypt in 1167. For many years he was supported by his brother, David, a wealthy businessman, until David’s tragic death in a shipwreck.

Maimonides then became personal physician to the Egyptian court in 1185 and then to Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and to his entire court.16

Many people have heard of Maimonides as a great philosopher and author of Guide for the Perplexed. The Guide deals with all the major issues of philosophy and Judaism. Maimonides discusses definitions of terms in the Torah, proofs for God, proofs of God’s unity and incorporeality, free will and its challenges, rationale for the commandments, theodicy, Divine providence, human origins and destiny, and the concept of life after death.

Maimonides is famous for his 14-volume, comprehensive compendium of all of Jewish law and practice. The book, known as the Mishneh Torah, gives detailed instructions in clear, quite modern Hebrew, covering the gamut of Jewish life. He covers laws of the intellect and character, health, financial laws, jurisprudence, tort law, governance, tefillin, Sabbath and festivals, the laws of the Temple, prayer, marriage and divorce, Torah study, everything up to and including laws of kings, combat morality, and the Messianic age.

Maimonides’ Tomb in Tiberius

Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah17 includes his famous Thirteen Principles of Belief18, printed in virtually every prayer book, recited and sung by Jews of many different communities, and one stanza specifically sung by Jews on their way to being martyred. It also includes his theories of the soul and personality, his understanding of esoteric passages in the Talmud, and a complete history of the transmission of Jewish oral tradition from Mount Sinai until after the completion of the Talmud.

However, I believe that one of Maimonides’ greatest contributions has often been overlooked. Maimonides was an extraordinary master of organizational skill. He produced a list of the 613 commandments in a logical, intuitive order that formed the basis for the structure of his 14-volume encyclopedia of Jewish law and practice. That very encyclopedia is easy to reference and simple to access because of the high level of organization in general, and even within each section and chapter.

Autograph responsum of Maimonides discovered in the Cairo Geniza, now in the British Museum

Maimonides was able to summarize succinctly and clearly all the fundamental principles of Jewish belief and thought in a brief 13 paragraphs, that has since been condensed19 and even rendered as a poem/song.20 He organized all of philosophy in his Guide for the Perplexed in an intellectually satisfying order based on logical progression of ideas.Maimonides paved the way for many scholars afterwards, encouraging them by example to organize and structure their works and make them accessible and user-friendly.21

Next time you sing a Shabbat song, read a Hebrew poem or peruse a Jewish book – think of Saadiah Gaon in 10th century Babylon.

When you hear the Talmud or Torah being referenced, explained or discussed – think of Rashi in Champagne, France in the 11th century.

And, when you’re able to easily look something up in a Jewish reference work or access some basics about Judaism on a website – say thank you to Maimonides, back in 12th century Cairo.

  1. Robert Brody, Sa’adyah Gaon, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, Portland, 2013
  2. See The Dream of the Poem, Peter Cole, Princeton University Press, Introduction
  3. Genesis 3:20
  4. Deuteronomy 4:24
  5. Zephaniah 3:8
  6. Saadiah Gaon, HaEmunot VeHaDeot Treatise 7, Paragraph 1
  7. Brody, Sa’adyah Gaon
  8. Rashi is an acronym for “Rav Shlomo Yitzh̟aki,” “Rabbi Solomon, son of Isaac.” He was also known as “Shlomo Ha-Zarfati,” “Solomon, the Frenchman;” “Rabbi Shlomo;” and as “Rabbi Salomo Gallicus.”Maurice Liber and Adele Szold, Rashi ([Philadelphia]: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1906), 33.
  9. Avraham Grossman and Joel A. Linsider, Rashi (Oxford [England]: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012)
  10. Samuel M. Blumenfield, Master of Troyes; a Study of Rashi, the Educator. (New York: Published for the Jewish Institute of Religion [by] Behrman House, 1946)
  11. Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 285:2
  12. For a comprehensive citation of every place that Rashi mentions this goal, see Ezra Zion. Melamed, Bible Commentators (Jerusalem: At The Magnes Press, 1975), 454-456.
  13. Rashi, Commentary on Genesis 3:8
  14. Rashi, Commentary on Genesis 33:20
  15. Ephraim Kanarfogel, “The History and Literary Corpus of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosfot ” (Lecture, Bernard Revel Graduate School, Yeshiva University, New York, Spring 2013)
  16. Sherwin B. Nuland, Maimonides, Schocken, NY, 2006
  17. Basic text of the Jewish Oral Law, compiled and edited by Judah the Prince in Israel between 170 CE and 200 CE
  18. Commentary on the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 10
  19. Ani Maamin – Standard prayer books – end of morning service.
  20. Yigdal Elohim Chai – Standard prayer books - beginning of morning service
  21. Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides Life and Thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2014.
    No Ordinary Genius, Moses Maimonides: A Personal Portrait of the Man Within the Genius, Louis Pollack (The Destiny Foundation, 2003)

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