Monday 20 June 2016



In the previous post we looked at the possibility (as recorded by some classical Geonin and contemporary scholars), that the Talmud may have been finally completed in written form a lot later than commonly believed. 

On this view, although written texts were extant, the Talmud may have continued to be transmitted primarily in an oral format until towards the end of the Geonic period, sometime before 1038.

[Note: As pointed out in the previous post, not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. Most take the common view that the Talmud was completed as a written document by around 500 C.E.]

In this article we will expand on this issue, by analyzing two of the earliest post-Talmudic writings (from the Geonic period), and see what bearing they have on our thesis.


In the middle of the Geonic period, around the 8th-century Rav Achai Gaon penned the She'iltot in (what is said to be) the first rabbinic work of the post-Talmudic period. This pioneering work paved the way for what is today an unimaginably voluminous labyrinth of rabbinical writings.

Although referred to by the title ‘Gaon’, he never became an official head of either the Sura or Pumpedita academies. He was, however, groomed for the position but was upstaged by his assistant Natronai ben Nechemia with some assistance from the Nasi, Shlomo bar Chasdai.

Hurt by this apparent corruption, Rav Achai left Babylonia for Palestine, where he wrote his She'iltot.
The She'iltot is an unusual work because, in its original form, it contains very little reference to earlier Talmudic decisions. It is for that reason that it appears to have been written for the layman and not for the scholar. The book follows the order of the weekly portions of the Torah, and deals with general and broad themes such as love, kindness, respect for parents and the importance of truth. It also contains frequent repetitions of the same phrases.

Some contend, therefore, that this work may have been directed towards the youth. Others say the reason it lacked Talmudic scholarship was because it was written for the Jews of Palestine who were not known for their scholars at that time.

The Meiri (1249-1310) wrote:

“We received a clear tradition regarding R. Achai of blessed memory: He had a son who was not at all inclined to be diligent [in his studies]. And [so] he [R. Achai] compiled for him Sefer ha-Sheiltot so that, each and every Sabbath, when the Torah portion would be read, known halakhot from the Talmud [connected with the weekly reading] would be explained...”[1]

When the book was eventually printed (Venice 1546), it included material that had accumulated over time and took on a more scholarly and Talmudic appearance compared to the older and original manuscripts.[2]


Around the 9th-century, a little after the Sheiltot, Rav Shimon Kayara (or Kiara) wrote the Halachot Gedolot, in Sura, Babylonia[3]. He is also known as the ‘Bahag’- which stands for Baal (author of) Halachot Gedolot. He too, although of the Geonic period, never assumed the title ‘Gaon’.

Halachot Gedolot was to a large extent based on the She'iltot, with over 150 references to it throughout the book. However, it does have a more scholarly style and is probably one of the first attempts at codification of Talmudic decisions.

But it was only a hundred years after it was first written, that the Spanish edition, known as Mahadurat Aspamia (from around the year 900), incorporated many texts from the Talmud itself.

This may have some bearing on our discussion as that is (according to Meiri’s hypothesis) around the time that the Talmud in its entirety may have been put into writing.

(Although called the Spanish edition, it may have originated in North Africa in Kairouan (now Tunisia), as it contains references to ‘benei Africa’.)

Just like the She'iltot, with the passage of time many additional halachic rulings of the later Geonim had been added to the work, so that when Halachot Gedolot was first printed (Venice 1548), it no longer resembled its less technical and original text.

Accordingly, after looking at both the original versions of the earliest rabbinic writings of the Geonic period, the She'iltot and Halachot Gedolot, it could be feasible that Talmudic texts were not quoted as frequently as one would have expected because they were taught primarily as an oral tradition until the end of that era. This would support Meiri’s view.

(However, see previous post and here where we mentioned that Otzar HaGaonim - a collection of other Geonic writing only recently discovered in the Cairo Geniza - did contain reference to Talmudic texts! The compiler of this work, ironically, was upset that his scholarly anthology never gained acceptance by the ‘yeshiva world’.)


Rambam, an early Rishon, wrote that he was disappointed that the Geonim (whose era preceded his), had written so sparingly and sparsely. 

The Peninei Halacha underscores this point and writes; “Throughout the generations, the number of books (manuscripts) increased exponentially. Already in the era of Rishonim (in which Rambam lived, and which followed the era of Geonim) they began to write numerous commentaries to the Talmud.”[4]

The big question is why did it take in excess of 500 years to begin, in earnest, to write commentaries to the Talmud?

The Rishonim, however, did indeed make up for the Geonim’s sparseness of writing.
The Meiri picks up on Rambam’s criticism of the meagre writings from the Geonic period, but believed it was a mistake to condemn the Geonim. This was, he contends, because the Geonim were in fact so much more astute than the later generations of Rishonim, as they had committed the Talmudic teachings to memory. They transmitted the Talmud throughout their 500 year period primarily through an oral format.

What Rambam considered a flaw - was instead an attribute in the view of Meiri!

Meiri wrote that because of the Geonim’s reliance predominantly on oral tradition:

“...this is what caused them to write only a little...And even this (minimalistic writing) was not (even) for their own need, but [only] for their children or relatives who lacked the competence of the other students. And they wrote short [hiburim] (compositions) to be a mouth (means of instruction) for them...”

Then the Meiri continues:

“We have similarly received [a tradition] regarding our Master, Sa’adya (Gaon), of blessed memory regarding Sefer ha-Piqqadon - that he compiled it for one who was appointed a judge in his town...And the judge was sometimes perplexed. And pleaded with him [Sa’adya] to explain to him the laws...”[5]

It is clear that, at least according to Meiri, the Geonim hardly wrote anything (except, as our examples brought above seem to show, for the young and the relatively unlearned). This was because they were still transmitting their teachings orally.

Rav Sherira Gaon makes this point in his Iggeret, where he wrote of the Geonic era:
The Talmud and the Mishna were not written, but they were arranged. And the sages were careful to recite them by heart, but not from written versions.”[6]


- Considering the reasons why Rav Achai Gaon (She'iltot) and Rav Shimon Kayara (Halachot Gedolot) wrote their original sparse and rather non-technical compositions. And why Rav Sa’adia Gaon (Sefer ha-Piqqadon) wrote an unusual legal aid.

- Considering why there was not a major commentary on the Talmud during the Geonic period until Rashi at the beginning of the period of the Rishonim.
- And considering the forthright views of Meiri, Rav Sherira Gaon and others, that the Talmud was not written down until towards the end of the period of the Geonim... 

- Taken all together, could this not strongly indicate that the final committing of the Talmud to writing may have been closer to the year 1000 than the year 500?

[1] Translation from Professor Fishman, Becoming the People of the Talmud, p. 166
[2] Some of these manuscripts are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and also in the Bibliothéque Nationale , Paris.
[3] Some put the date at 825.
[4] Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p.7
[5] Translation from Professor Fishman, ibid.
[6] See Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon.

1 comment:

  1. In his introduction, the chovos halevovos explains why he's writing the Sefer and begins saying there are plenty of sefarim on every subject and Gemara explanations etc..
    I always thought that most were either burned or hidden away as with the geniza.