A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

PART TWO

14
The Rise of the Geonic Responsa

THE generations of scholars who, after the destruction of the Temple, taught and studied in the rabbinic centres of Palestine and Babylonia, the 'Tannaim' (Teachers) and their successors, the 'Amoraim' (Speakers), laid the foundations of a new epoch in Jewish history: the period of the Talmud. From the magnificent compendia of their teaching, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, an endless stream of inspiration radiated into the life of the Jewish people. This glorious age of Jewish learning left, however, almost no traces in the history of Jewish letter-writing (see Introduction, p. xxxi f.). Only a few letters and fragments of letters have been inserted between the innumerable dialogues and sayings recorded within the many volumes of the Talmud (see supra, pp. 44 ff.), while the letter from Galilee (see the preceding chapter, p. 66), which has been preserved merely by its inclusion in the Syriac biography of Barsauma, appears as an isolated example of Jewish letters in the century that witnessed the completion of the Babylonian Talmud.

From the beginning of the eighth century, however, the picture changes completely. The era of the making of the Talmud had by now been succeeded by a new period, called by the name of the 'Geonim' (plural of 'Gaon', i.e. Illustrious One), the heads of the great Talmudical academies in Sura and Pumbedita. From near and distant communities written inquiries (Sheelot) were addressed to them and answered by the Geonim in learned letters called Teshubot (Responsa). It is mainly these letters which distinguish the Geonic period as one of the most creative in the history of Judaism.

A large number of the Geonic Responsa have been preserved, and the following specimens will show the wide range they covered from the outset.


1. Gaon Natronai pardons the Followers of a Pseudo-Messiah

About the year 720 an adventurer, Serene (from Shirin, in Syria), proclaimed himself the Messiah and took it upon himself to abolish various Talmudic ordinances. His movement grew rapidly and spread even to

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