About Sherira ben Hananya Gaon of Pumbeditha
Rav Sherira Gaon (Hebrew: רב שרירא גאון) was the head of the yeshiva in Pumbeditha. He wrote the Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon ("[The] Epistle of Rav Sherira Gaon"), a comprehensive history of the composition of the Talmud. One of the most prominent Geonim of his period, he was the father of Hai Gaon.
Gaon of Pumbedita; born about 900; died about 1000 (Abraham ibn Daud, "Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," in Neubauer, "M. J. C." i. 66-67).
He was the descendant, both on his father's and his mother's side, of prominent families, several members of which had occupied the gaonate.
One of his ancestors was Rabbah b. Abuha, who himself belonged to the family of the exilarch.
Sherira boasted that his genealogy could be traced back to the pre-Bostanaian branch of that family, which, he claimed, on account of the deterioration of the exilarchate had renounced its claims thereto, preferring instead the scholar's life (Letter of Sherira Gaon, in Neubauer, l.c. i. 23, 33).
The seal of his family was a lion, which was said to have been the emblem of the Judean kings (Ibn Daud, l.c.).
The Talmud has numerous references to sages who were said to be descendants of King David or “from the House of David.” This is particularly noticeable in references to Hillel “the Elder” (circa 100 BCE), who is called a descendant of Shephatiah, son of Abital (tractates Ketubot and Taanit).
Sixteen generations of his descendants were called “Nasi” (prince) up to approximately 425 CE. The Talmud names only two or three generations of sages and is helpful in identification, but not in tracing genealogies.
An important source is Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon (The Letter of Rabbi Sherira Gaon), written in 986 CE. This was an early responsum by the head of the Talmudic Academy of Pumbedita in Babylonia. He was one of the dynasty of exilarchs (Resh Galuta, or Prince of the Exiles), who claimed descent from King David.
The second part of the Letter discusses the exilarchs and the heads of the academies in Sura and Pumbedita. Rabbi Sherira attempts to distinguish between facts and stories and presents an early post-biblical history written largely in Aramaic. This Letter serves as a major source of the chronology and genealogy of the Geonim.
The institutions of the exilarch began with the descendants of Jehoiachin, last King of Judah, who was exiled to Babylonia. It survived until 825 CE with Jews continuing to view the exilarch as their leader for several centuries after its decline.
Sherira's important Letter brings the Davidic genealogy to his time.
"Babylonian academy head (gaon), Sherira ben Hanina came from a noble family
which claimed to trace its ancestry to King David.
Appointed gaon of the academy of Pumbedita in 968
at the age of 62, he held the position almost until his death at the age of a hundred.
He was considered the second to the last of the truly great gaonim,
his son Hai Gaon being the last."
Sherira ben Chanina Yehuda Gaon (ca.906–1006) was a jurist descended from an exilarchic family who served as gaon of the Pumbedita yeshiva from 968 to 1004. He was the descendant, both on his father's and his mother's side, of prominent families, several members of which had occupied the gaonate. One of his ancestors was Rabbah b. Abuha, who himself belonged to the family of the exilarch. Sherira boasted that his genealogy could be traced back to the pre-Bostanaian branch of that family, which he claimed, on account of the deterioration of the exilarchate had renounced its claims thereto (Banu Tzaluba), preferring instead the scholar's life (Letter of Sherira Gaon, in Neubauer, l.c. i. 23, 33). The seal of his family was a lion, which was said to have been the emblem of the Judean kings (Ibn Daud, l.c.).
Directly prior to his appointment, the Pumbedita academy had been substantially weakened by a schism that led to the short-lived founding of a breakaway faction by Nehemiah bar Kohen Ṣedeq. In addition, throughout this period, the Babylonian academies (see Yeshivot in Babylonia/Iraq) were losing much of their influence in the Jewish communities to the west thanks to the rise of houses of study (Heb. batte midrash) there.
With the flow of financial contributions and legal inquiries to Baghdad on the wane, Sherira strove to strengthen his academy and revitalize these attenuated connections. Legal responsa, many of which survive, constituted his primary medium for such efforts. In 986, Sherira wrote an extended responsum on a series of questions addressed to him by Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shāhīn in Qayrawan concerning the evolution of the corpus of talmudic literature and the history of the geonim (see Gaon & Gaonate). This responsum, nearly fifteen thousand words in length and often referred to as his “ Epistle” (Heb. ’Iggeret), has been preserved in two recensions, each of which addresses different aspects of the oral and written redaction of the Talmud. The Epistle itself describes the history of the two competing academies of Babylonia and presents a chronology of their leaders. Much of what is says has been corroborated by independent documentary evidence, making the Epistle one of the most important works of medieval Jewish historiography. Sherira displays a clear preference for the Pumbeditan academy, portraying it as the sole surviving link with the glorious heritage of Babylonian Jewry, particularly since the Sura yeshiva was closed during much of the tenth century.
He describes the nature and composition of the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the baraitot, the Talmud, and the history of the talmudic sages (amoraim and saboraim) and the geonim up to his own time. The main questions he answers are: how and why were these works written, and who were the heads of the academies and scholars who continued the Shalshelet ha-Qabbalah (the chain of tradition) after the saboraim?
Among the many scholars who have explicitly used the Iggeret are Menahem ben Abraham ibn Zerah, Profiat Duran, and Abraham ben Samuel Zakuto. Modern scholarship is divided over the possible influence of the Iggeret on Maimonides' work and on Abraham ibn Daud's Sefer ha-Qabbalah. For modern research, the Iggeret has served as a primary source for the redactional history of the Mishnah and the chronology of the talmudic period. Although the Iggeret was written as a letter and in the style of answers to concrete questions, Sherira has traditionally been regarded as "the first Jewish 'historian' of the medieval period" (N. Roth).
Esteem for Sherira’s writings maintained the status of the Babylonian academies for a time, and played a key role in making the Babylonian Talmud the supreme source of Jewish legal authority. In addition to historiography and talmudic commentary, Sherira also took an interest in mysticism. Contrary to a talmudic ruling, he permitted the practice of addressing prayers to angels in Aramaic. Sherira assumed the headship of the Pumbeditan academy when he was more then sixty years old. In 1004, somewhat enfeebled, he abdicated in favor of his son Hay Gaon. News of his abdication spread slowly, and inquiries continued to be addressed jointly to Sherira and his son, who had been chief judge (Heb. av bet din) of the academy for some time.
Assaf, Simcha. Tequfat ha-Ge’onim ve-Sifruta (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1955).
Brody, Robert. The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
Cohen, Gerson D. A Critical Edition with a Translation and Notes of the Book of Tradition (Sefer Ha-Qabbalah) by Abraham Ibn Daud (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967).
Gil, Moshe. Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
Ginzberg, Lous. Geonica (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1909).
Lewin, Benjamin. Epistle of Sherira Gaon (Haifa: n.p., 1921) [Hebrew].
M. Schlüter, Auf welche Weise wurde die Mishna geschrieben? Das Antwortschreiben des Rav Sherira Gaon, 1993 (bibl.)
R. Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture, 1998.
Schlüter, Margarete. " Sherira Gaon." Religion Past and Present. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski and , Eberhard Jüngel. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 03 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/religion-past-and-present/sherira-gaon-SIM_025504>
Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman. " Sherira 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/sherira-gaon-SIM_0020120>