Abu'l-Bishr Hai ben Sherira, Gaon of Pumbeditha (c.939 - 1038) MP

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Nicknames: "Hai Gaon", "חי גאון", "גאון האי"
Birthplace: BABYLON ?
Death: Died in Pumbedita (Fallujah) Iraq
Occupation: rabbi
Managed by: Tsvi Mostovicz
Last Updated:

About Abu'l-Bishr Hai ben Sherira, Gaon of Pumbeditha

Hai ben Sherira, better known as Hai Gaon, was a medieval Jewish theologian, rabbi and scholar who served as Gaon of the Talmudic academy of Pumbedita during the early 11th century. He was born in 939 and died on March 28, 1038. He received his Talmudic education from his father, Sherira ben Hanina, and in early life acted as his assistant in teaching.

In his forty-fourth year he became associated with his father as "ab bet din," and with him delivered many joint decisions.

Hai ben Sherira's chief claim to recognition rests on his numerous responsa, in which he gives decisions affecting the social and religious life of the Diaspora. Questions reached him from Germany, France, Iberia, Anatolia, the Maghreb, and even India and Ethiopia.

His responsa, more than eight hundred in number, deal with civil law, especially laws concerning women, with ritual, holidays, etc. Many of them contain explanations of certain halakhot, aggadot, and Talmudic matters. In halakhic decisions he quotes the Jerusalem Talmud, but without ascribing any authority to it. Many of his responsa may have been written in Arabic; only a few of them have been preserved.

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R. Yoseph I descends from King David in one of two possible ways. According to The ESKELES Genealogy by Zeev ESHKOLOT he was the son of Rav Khai (Hai) Gaon (b. 939, d. 1038 CE). See p. 320 and 1130 of vol. 7 of Encyclopedia Judaica. (See Aryeh LIFSCHEUTZ, Avoth Atarah le-Banim, Warsaw (1927) p. 163 for claim of descent from R. Hai.)

However, in Hai's eulogy, Samuel Ha-Nagid said that Hai left no child. (!?) Perhaps this simply meant that Samuel's son R. Yoseph I had already passed away.

Alternatively, According to David HUGHES, RDavidH218 at Aol.com, Yoseph was rather the son of Samuel Ha-Nagid, and Hai married a daughter of Samuel Ha-Nagid. (Gaon of the Sura academy 997-1013).

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RAV HAI GAON added by Vera Meran on 4/23/08

Amended to "GENERATIONS TO" by Vera Meran on 4/23/09

with further supplementary note below.

REFER PROFESSIONAL GENEALOGISTS' DISCUSSION on links and refutations of the connecting generations.

Tzvi Helman and the Maharal and their fathers are traditionally accepted to descend from Yehuda Hanassi and Hillel, not necessarily Hai Gaon.

"The ancestors of Chaim of Worms to Yehuda Hanassi are not recorded in any known source".

RAV HAI GAON

"Last outstanding head of the Babylonian Jewish academy and authority on religious law.

He assisted his distinguished father, Sherira ben Hanina who was gaon (head) of the great Talmudic academy of Pumbedita (situated at that time in Baghdad) in teaching and administering the academy.

After Sherira retired in 998, he was succeeded as gaon by Hai, who was the most prominent personality of the Jewish world of his time. Scholars came to study with him from many parts of the Jewish world, including Byzantium and Western Europe. Although Babylonian Jewry had started to decline, Hai, like his father, maintained Babylon's great prestige as a centre of learning and authoritative legal rulings.....

Even other great rabbinic authorities appealed to him for final decisions and some queries came from as far away as Spain and Ethiopia.."

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Rabbi Hai Ha Gaon was the last of the Geonim of Pumpeditha in Babylonia which began in 589 with Mar Rav Hanan -------------------- Hay (Hayya) Gaon

Hay (properly Hayye or Hayya) ben Sherira was one of the greatest of the geonim (heads) of the central rabbinic academies (yeshivot) and has been described as “the last of the geonim in time and the first in rank.” His death in 1038 has often been taken to mark the end of the gaonic period, which began about the middle of the sixth century C.E. Today we know that this is not strictly correct, for he was survived by at least one gaon of the academy of Sura, but he may well have been the last head of the Pumbedita academy to bear the title gaon.

The circumstances of Hay's appointment as gaon were quite extraordinary. Although geonim were frequently chosen from a small number of families, and it was not uncommon for a gaon to be the son or grandson of a previous one, Hay was the only gaon to serve as his father’s immediate successor. Furthermore, he served alongside his father for twenty years (984–1004), with the official title of Av Beit Din (second in the hierarchy of the academy), before Sherira retired and left him as sole head of the academy with the title of gaon. The division of power between father and son during the period of their joint tenure is unclear; for example, Sherira was apparently the primary author of some of the responsa issued by the academy of Pumbedita during this period, while Hay was primarily responsible for others.

We know from letters written by both father and son that the academy of Pumbedita faced great financial and other difficulties at this time, and they devoted tremendous efforts to strengthening its ties with the distant Jewish communities on which it relied for financial and moral support, as well as preserving as much as possible of traditional academic life despite the straitened circumstances. One of Sherira’s letters describes Hay’s efforts to acquaint students with the elements of talmudic reasoning and to stimulate fondness for talmudic study. The unusual talents and dedication of father and son contributed a great deal to the prestige of their academy and helped postpone the inevitable, but after Hay’s death, it rapidly lost prominence in the Jewish world and was superseded by the emerging centers of learning in Europe and North Africa.

Like other geonim, Hay was first and foremost active in the related fields of talmudic study and halakhic decision-making. He was probably the most prolific gaon of all time in the production of responsa. Over a thousand of his responsa (some issued jointly with his father) have survived. His dominance in this field was such that some scholars assume that all responsa attributed only to “a gaon” or “the gaon” are his, although this is doubtful. In addition, Hay wrote a number of monographs in Judeo-Arabic on halakhic topics, at least some of them before acceding to the position of gaon. Two of these are well known and influential, having each been translated several times into Hebrew in the Middle Ages; in Kitāb al-Aymān he treats judicial oaths, and in Kitāb al-Shirāʾ wa ʾl-Bayʿ the laws of sale. Other monographs survive in fragmentary form in the Cairo Geniza and have yet to be published in definitive editions. Hay speaks in one of his letters of writing a work on talmudic methodology, but it is not clear whether it was ever completed and published.

Outside the sphere of traditional rabbinic learning, Hay’s greatest contribution was the composition of the appropriately titled Kitāb al-Ḥāwī (Ar. Comprehensive Book), which may well have been the first dictionary of the Hebrew language (if it preceded David Alfasi’s Jāmiʿ al-Alfāẓ, of uncertain date). Written in Judeo-Arabic, it included both biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, and was arranged anagrammatically—that is, all roots which are anagrams of each other are included in a single entry. Most of this pioneering work is lost, but substantial portions have been recovered from the Cairo Geniza.

Hay also wrote both secular and liturgical poetry, and was one of the first poets in the East to reflect the influence of the Spanish school of Hebrew poetry. He did not devote separate works to theological or biblical topics, although some of his responsa deal with such issues. Although he was more conservative than Saʿadya Gaon or his own father-in-law, Samuel ben Hophni Gaon, Hay was clearly influenced by contemporary theological trends and by the incorporation of classical notions in his Arabic-speaking milieu.

Because of his prominence, numerous writings were incorrectly attributed to Hay, whether as a result of innocent mistakes or by pseudepigraphers who forged responsa and other writings in his name in order to advance their own, primarily kabbalistic, doctrines.

Fleischer, Ezra. “Studies in the Poetry of R. Hai Gaon,” in Papers on Medieval Hebrew Literature Presented to A. M. Habermann on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1977), pp. 239–274 [Hebrew].

Groner, Zvi. A List of Hai ’Gaon’s Responsa = Alei Sefer 13 (1986) [Hebrew].

Hay Gaon, Mishpeṭey Shevuʿot (Venice, 1602).

Robert Brody. " Hay (Hayya) Gaon." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 03 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/hay-hayya-gaon-COM_0009480>

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