To read about history seems easy, but to understand it takes time and effort. The eras before us are almost like distant islands, separated from our own by vast gulfs of time that we have to sail through in order to understand. Our previous cruise-based Glatt kosher vacations sought to explore the various eras of Jewish heritage across the great sea of history, from the Sephardic stories in Iberia to the resilient heroes in Normandy. One of the oldest and most important periods in Jewish history was the Geonic period, a time when the Oral Torah was written down and compiled. First compiled was the one in Jerusalem, but the more comprehensive and influential one was the Babylonian Talmud. A good chunk of the Geonic period would not have been illuminated to us if not for Sherira Gaon’s Letter.
The Life of the Gaon
Sherira ben Hanina was born around 906 Common Era, to the head of the Yeshiva in Pumbedita, one of two major academies of Jewish scholarship in Babylonia. He had a prominent genealogy, one that ties him to the house of David, and he served as ab beit din of Pumbedita before becoming the head of its Yeshiva. He suffered a brief injustice in 997 when he was falsely imprisoned, which resulted in his poor health, but was released afterwards. Despite this, he lived for about a hundred years, with a fruitful and scholarly life.
Sherira Gaon’s most famous work is his iggeret (letter), a reply to the community of Kairouan about the composition and history of the Oral Law, among other important questions. His letter provided a concise history and authorship of the passing down of the Law, and because he used many documents and records of the Babylonian academies, it also provided a glimpse into the scholarly history of that time period. The iggeret became an illuminating document that showed a glimpse of Jewish culture in the Babylonian era, a time when the Talmud was first compiled and when its history was codified. On our upcoming Jewish travels, we hope to explore more eras of Jewish history on our physical expeditions around the world.
Featured Image Photo Credit: goodreads.com/book/show/24500042-the-iggeres-of-rav-sherira-gaon