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Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi I

Sa'adiah ben Yosef al-Fayyūmi, also known as Sa'adiah ben Yosef al-Pitomi and Saʻīd bin Yūsuf al-Fayyūmi, was born in 892, in the ancient Egyptian, Jewish, town Pithom (Abu Suweir פתם).

His youth is shrouded by a cloud of secrets and we only know that his teachers were Abu Ketir and Yonan ben Zekharyah.
However, in the twenty-third year of his life, he became known as The Philosopher, The Theologian, The Exegete, The Grammarian, and The Poet.
In all of these disciplines he enriched Jewish and Arabic literature.
His fame grew not by day after day, but by hour after hour.

Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi dedicated all of his erudition and abilities to restore the lost glory of the Talmud.
He had become aware of the damage caused to the community of Talmudists, by the followers of Anan ben David ha-nasi.
Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi also realized that the main weakness of his co-religionists was ignorance of the Holy Scriptures.
In order to remove this shortcoming, Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi translated the whole Hebrew Bible into the widely used Arabic language.

Following this he wrote, in Arabic, the book Kitāb al-radd calā cAnān, that criticized Anan ben David ha-nasi and his teachings.
In this book he alleged that Anan was a wicked man who was not afraid of God.
Also that in his obduracy, he seceded, together with his adherents, from the Talmudists, even if this would cost them the loss of tradition.
Up until the age of thirty, Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi had written only one work, but his destiny was for him to have a grandiose, but difficult future.

At that time the Talmudistic World, aside from the Exilarch, was ruled by the two Academies that fulfilled the roles of the Sanhedrin.
One academy was in Sura and the second one was in Pumbedita.
These two institutions were originally educational only, but gradually they become judicial and administrative institutions.
The Sura Academy was older, so it was more prestigious than the Pumbedita Academy.
However during the time of this discussion, the Sura Academy was in such decline that it had to be closed.
But a short time after this closing the Academy was reopened, with Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi appointed as it's president.

Grätz describes it in this way;

At that time the Sura Academy reached a lamentable state of affairs and necessarily required scholars. For this reason David ben Zakkai, (Exilarch of Talmudists - translator's note) was forced to appoint, as the Gaon, a weaver whose name was Yom Tov Kahana ben Ya’aqov.
However he died two years after his appointment (926-928).

The Gaon of Pumbedita, Mar Kohen Zedek, wished to boost the prestige of his Academy, so he advised the Exilarch to dissolve the Sura Academy and move it's personnel to Pumbedita.
He also advised conferring only one title of Gaon, which would include both the predicates of Pumbedita and Sura.
This combined title was conferred to the son of a Pumbedita Gaon, whose name was Natan ben Jehuda, but he also died shortly after.
His sudden death was considered a bad sign and the people who were responsible for the dissolution of the Sura Academy felt twinges of their consciences.
The Exilarch decided to open the Academy again.
It was recommended, to him, to appoint as the president of the Academy, either Sa'adiah al-Fayyūmi, or Zemaḥ ben David, who was excellent in nothing, but had the advantage of belonging to the ancient aristocratic family.
(Grätz, The History of Jews from Antiquity to the Present, Part II, p. 224).

In spite of the many, David Ben Zakkai preferred Sa'adiah.
Sa'adiah was called from Egypt and was officially appointed as Gaon in the year 928.
That he achieved this significant post, at the age of thirty, was an exception to the rule.
No one before him had achieved this post who was younger than sixty years old and who had not gone through all the levels of the service hierarchy.1)

1) The letters of the word Gaon constitute the number 60

His influence began to grow from the moment Sa'adiah ascended this office.
The academy began to regain it's fame and the people with whom the academy had lost all it's respect, once again looked at it with reverence.
The new Gaon ensured this rectification and stopped the intellectual stagnation of the College (Collegium, Board of Academy) and the Judges.
According to Sa'adiah, this intellectual stagnation was a direct consequence of the missionary activity of Anan ben David ha-nasi and his followers.

Sa'adiah attributed this decline to the impossibility to analyze the Holy Scripture freely.
The previous Gaons did not allow free analysis inside the walls of the Academy, which instead caused the exact opposite effect of what they expected, a decline.
For the future welfare of the Academy (which was supposed to trigger the intellectual development of the Talmudic world), Sa'adiah opened wide the door of the Academy to all branches of study.
The Academy ceased to obstruct the critical thinking, the studying of grammar and the writing of poetry.

Since Sa'adiah managed the Academy impartially and fairly, he disposed of all the incompetent old men and replaced them with a young, capable and vital collective.
Though he did the best for the Academy, this was not enough because the worm had already intruded into the heart of the Academy.
Sa'adiah very soon lost his illusions and realized that what had seemed to be gold, was just a gilding.

The Supreme Judicial Authority and the Temple of Learning, with all it's staff, starting with the Exilarch and ending with the last guard, ran on the principles of corruption, extortion, and oppression.
The Gaon, the College (Collegium, Board of Academy) and even the
Exilarch were corrupted.
They laid a heavy yoke on the neck of the miserable communities, ruthlessly scourging them unto blood, and treating them as a herd of sheep.

Exilarch David ben Zakkai being a product of his time, exploited his people impudently.
His own son, Judah, gladly assisted him in this ruthless exploitation.

Although this does not concern the subject of a book, I consider it important to mention the case of the Persian community settled in Hamadan.

Hamadan was not under the jurisdiction of the Exilarch, so he decided to conquer this Persian community and impose high taxes on it.
However, this community refused to submit to his pressure.
When Judah, who was the tax collector for his father, visited Hamadan, the community leaders refused to receive him.
Judah returned to his father and told him all of what happened in Hamadan.
It is necessary to mention that he embroidered and exaggerated this story.
The Exilarch listened to his son and his anger flared.
He excommunicated this Persian community of Hamadan.
Equipped with the firman (the decree of the Caliph), with the police and
with military escorts, he burst into Hamadan.
All the property of the community members was recorded and the taxes imposed by the Exilarch were collected.
Also the community was forced to pay a high penalty to Caliph officials.
The inhabitants of Hamadan felt impoverished and became poor.
Sa'adiah, being honest and humane, could not sit back.

Sa’adiah was concerned for the fate of his co-religionists, but what could one honest man do against a horde of corruption?

This injustice brought Sa'adiah into direct conflict with the Exilarch.
The Exilarch unjustly arbitrated the dispute in favour of his heir this time.
However, for the verdict of the Exilarch to be enforced it would have to be confirmed with the signatures of both Gaons.
The Pumbedita Gaon signed this unfair verdict with no objection, but Sa'adiah refused to sign it.

But the Exilarch David was not a pliable person and was not ready to retreat from his intention.
He entrusted his son Judah to meet Sa'adiah and commanded him to force Sa'adiah into signing.
When Sa'adiah did not succumb to this pressure and did not sign, the despicable Exilarch’s collector grabbed a stick and raised his hand to strike the Gaon.
The academy staff came rushing to help him, restrained Judah (the collector) and threw him down in the street.
The angry Exilarch removed Sa'adiah from the post of Gaon and excommunicated him.
The abased and humiliated Sa'adiah left the academy and lived in Baghdad for four years.

In the end the Baghdad community also became participants of this dispute.
This strife split the community into two camps.
On Sa'adiah’s side were all the members of the Sura academy, educated members of the community, and many of the people with honest intentions.
On David ben Zakkai's side were the Gaon of the Pumbedita academy and the uneducated part of the population lead by Sa'adiah’s enemy Aaron ibn Sargadu, a man of property.
Instead of Sa’adiah, Yosef ben Yaakov bен Saṭya, an ordinary man, was installed in the office of Gaon.

The adherents of Sa'adiah found David ben Zakkai incapable of holding the post of the Exilarch, so they anointed David's brother, Josiah al-Hasan (930), to the throne of the Exilarch.
On the other side, the rich Aaron ibn Sargadu spent his gold in an effort to defeat his enemies and re-anoint his protector David to the throne of the Exilarch.
A Commission that was formed for the review of this case, led by the highest Vizier Ali ibn Issa, cost Aaron ibn Sargadu more than ten thousand dinars.
This Commission, in the end, did not even start to judge this case.