The First Great Jewish Philosopher (to the Jews)

It’s not Maimonides. It’s Saadya Gaon, “the first Jewish scholar whose universal mind embraced all the branches of Jewish learning known in his time.”

An etching by Ephraim Moshe Lilien. 1915.

An etching by Ephraim Moshe Lilien. 1915.

Feb. 18 2020
About the author

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of, among other books, Why Be Jewish? and Why Faith Matters. He can be found on Twitter @RabbiWolpe.

This is the third in a series of occasional essays by David Wolpe on lesser-known figures in Jewish history. The first, on the biblical king Josiah, and the second, on the talmudic figure Bruriah, are available here

Most Jews, it is safe to say, recognize the name of Maimonides. But how many recognize the name of the godfather of Judeo-Arabic culture, the first to translate the Torah into Arabic, the first to write a Hebrew grammar as well as a Hebrew dictionary, and the first to be acknowledged as a philosopher by the Jewish people?

All of this and more describes the towering achievement of Rabbi Saadya Gaon (882-942): poet, scholar, polemicist, head of a great Babylonian academy, and altogether one of the most accomplished individuals in Jewish history. He was, in the rabbinic phrase that Abraham ibn Ezra applied to him in the 12th century, rosh ha-m’dabrim b’khol makom, the primary authority in every area. Or, in the words of an early-20th-century study of his work, “the first Jewish scholar whose universal mind embraced all the branches of Jewish learning known in his time.”

About Saadya’s early life we know almost nothing, though Henry Malter in a 1926 biography tells us that he “seems to have been of humble parentage.” Humble or not, he grew up in Egypt, home to extensive talmudic learning, and must have absorbed a great deal of it both there and later in Tiberias where he went to study as a young man.

Saadya first became truly famous in 921-23, in a great dispute over the lunar Hebrew calendar. Since counting by the moon yielded an imprecise calendar—in a twelve-month cycle, the average lunar month clocks in at about 29.5 days—adjustments were regularly required that could add days or, in leap years, even a month in order to make up the difference with the solar year. In general, before the imposition of mathematical rules on its regulation, whoever controlled the calendar controlled the rhythm of Jewish life. With such control, one could decide for others when the holidays fell, when the months began and ended, and what dates marked the annual cycle of worship and ritual.

The dispute itself became staggeringly complicated, but it came down to an argument between the best rabbinic minds of Palestine and Babylonia, the two great power centers of Jewish life. Saadya was a stalwart defender of the supremacy of the Babylonian Talmud (as opposed to the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud, the less significant version in Jewish history, to which he would nevertheless also appeal from time to time). Fiercely arguing the case propounded by the Babylonian community, he wrote an entire book devoted to the calendar dispute and was a primary actor in the eventual triumph of the Babylonian point of view.


In the process of this and another major dispute, Saadya became, indeed, the leading intellectual figure of his age. The other dispute was with the Karaites: that is, Jews who accepted the authority of the Torah but not that of the talmudic rabbis who, on the basis of their interpretative traditions, legislated the religious practices of the largest number of Jews. Most of the writings of the Karaites do not survive. But enough do, as do enough of the counterarguments launched by their “Rabbinite” opponents, to reconstruct and understand their position.

The Karaites pointed, for example, to the Torah’s own strictures against additions or diminishments: “You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commandments of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Psalmist writes, in 19:8, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect.” If these verses are to be taken seriously, said the Karaites, why do Jews need to have separate plates for milk and meat when the Torah says only that you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk? Even the rabbis, they charged, conceded that the manifold laws of the Sabbath (to take another example) were based on slender scriptural bases, like “mountains hanging by a hair.”

Saadya took on the challenge of the Karaites, and in particular their leading spokesman, Anan ben David. In his modern biography of Saadya, Robert Brody expounds Saadya’s many different lines of attack, which essentially boil down to the idea that the Torah is not self-explanatory. Thus, it commands Jews not to perform m’lakhah (work) on the Sabbath but then does not define exactly what m’lakhah is or what it consists in. Moreover, he points out, even Karaite authorities agree that certain things, like prayer, are commanded by God, yet prayer itself is not explicitly commanded in the Torah. And even for commandments that are specifically ordained, like the commandment to wear fringes on one’s garments, no instructions are given as to the proper kind of fringes or how they are to be created.

Today, the rabbinic enterprise of adding seemingly innumerable details to the laws of the Torah, and thereby greatly thickening the texture of daily religious life, is often explained as an adjustment to changing times and the needs of a people bereft of the Temple in Jerusalem, their once-central authority. Saadya would have none of this. Jews need tradition, he argued, and what the talmudic rabbis were conveying was in fact no impromptu adjustment to changing circumstances but the substance of an unbroken oral tradition that dated back to biblical times: i.e., to Sinai and to the prophets. For Saadya, the rabbis were transmitters, not innovators.

In 928, in his mid-forties, Saadya was chosen to be the leader, the gaon, of the great rabbinic academy at Sura (near Baghdad). Together with the head of the other great Babylonian academy in Pumbedita, the gaon of Sura was recognized universally as Judaism’s highest religious authority, a position that would lapse altogether after the decline of these academies in the 11th century. He was appointed by the head of the Babylonian community, the “exilarch” David ben Zakkai—who had been warned against this choice by Nisi al-Nahrwarni, a prominent rabbi at Sura. “Although [Saadya] is a great man of prodigious learning and wisdom,” Nahrwani is alleged to have said, “he fears no one in the world and looks with favor upon no one in the world.” Sure enough, within two years the exilarch and the gaon had a falling-out. Nevertheless, Saadyah remained the head of the academy until his death in 942.


In later Jewish history, despite his stormy stewardship of Sura, Saadya was remembered and greatly esteemed for his commentaries, his prayer book, and his outstanding Hebrew poetry (which set the stage for the later tremendous flowering of Jewish verse in Arab lands). Above all, however, he was and remains best known as the first great Jewish philosopher.

On the surface, that phrase, “first great Jewish philosopher,” would seem open to the objection that he was preceded by Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who lived in the 1st century BCE. Yet Philo did not make his mark among the Jews. His philosophical writings, which were instead preserved by the Church Fathers, remained virtually unknown in the study halls and homes of Jews throughout the ages.

Saadya, by contrast, was the first great Jewish philosopher to the Jews. The contemporaneous Kalam school in Islam argued that the truths of reason were natural allies to the truths of revealed religion; Saadya made it part of his life’s work to elaborate this same proposition in a Jewish context. Although his form of argumentation in his famous Book of Doctrines and Beliefs may seem remote to us, the issues he grappled with—the problem of evil, the issue of whether the world was eternal or created, the reasons why God ordained both rational and non-rational commandments—are living questions in Judaism today.

Let’s take one example. For Saadya, it was important to insist that the world was not eternal, as was held most famously by Aristotle and his followers, but instead was created and fashioned by God in time. In explicating Saadya’s reasoning on this matter, the scholar Moshe Halbertal has adduced a simple parallel. We all know you can board a train in one city and get from there to another. But let us stipulate that space is infinite. If that is the case, there can be no city of origin, because space itself has no point of origin. Nor can the train ever get to the second city, because the distance it must traverse is again infinite. A train in infinite space never arrives.

As with space, so—returning to Saadya—with time. If time is eternal, the present cannot exist, because time would have to traverse eternity to get to now. Ergo, the world was created by God in time.


The ideas and arguments invoked by Saadya don’t “relate” to the argot and experience of our own day. Neither, one might conjecture, would his famously austere, contentious, and commanding figure. Yet at certain moments in his writings, philosophical, exegetical, and liturgical, both the intellect and the soul shine through like the sun. Here, from Brody’s biography, is one of Saadya’s bakashot, personal prayers, that achieved wide popularity for its conception of God and His deep human sympathy for the created world. This is the God Who

answers in any time of trouble those who go to sea in ships, or lose their way in the wilderness, prisoners of poverty and iron, invalids on their sick bed, those too weak to flee their pursuers, those facing the ferocity of beasts, those struck dumb in times of turmoil, strangers and foreigners in an ancient land, those who live in a land where the sword shall strike them, those who tend the vineyards and fields when dew and rain cease to fall, the gazelle that yearns for streams of water, the ibex that crouches when birthing its young, the raven when its chicks cry out to God. And the cry of all will be heard at once, in the twinkling of an eye You will save them all.

Saadya ben Joseph, known to history as Saadya Gaon, was a powerful and enduring force in the shaping of the Jewish tradition. May his memory continue to be a blessing to his people.

More about: History & Ideas, Lesser-Known Figures in Jewish History