Institut für den Nahen und Mittleren Osten



Saadya Gaon's Works on the Jewish Calendar: Near Eastern Sources and Transmission to the West

This project, run in collaboration by Sacha Stern (UCL, London) and Ronny Vollandt (LMU, Munich) will reconstruct, edit, and study, for the first time, the full corpus of Saadya Gaon’s writings on the Jewish calendar.

In the first half of the 10th century, the Jewish calendar had become a major issue for Near Eastern Jewish communities. Debates raged on how calendar was to be set and who had the right to set it. Calendars occupied a central position in medieval Jewish society and culture as an organizing principle of religious, economic and communal life. Conflicts over calendar were fights for legitimacy, authority, and legal independence. It is therefore not surprising that the calendar was of great interest to Saadya Gaon, a preeminent scholar and communal leader of rabbinic Babylonian Jewry in the first half of the 10th century.

Saadya b. Joseph al-Fayyūmī, better known as Saadya Gaon (882–942 CE), was the most important and influential scholar of Judaeo-Arabic culture in the 10th century. The head of the rabbinic academy of Sura (in Baghdad), a polemicist and a polymath, Saadya produced a vast body of writings that had a lasting impact on Jewish literature and culture. His works cover philosophy, liturgy, grammar, Bible translation and exegesis, religious law, and other areas of intellectual activity. Yet Saadya’s literary production on the calendar and his role in the development of the Jewish calendar literature have not received much scholarly attention. This is despite the universally agreed importance of the calendar in Saadya’s polemics in defence of the Oral Tradition, as well as the fact that Saadya’s treatise on the principles of the Rabbanite calendar calculation is among the earliest works of this genre, and predates by about two centuries the first European Jewish calendar monographs composed in the 12th century.

This project investigates Saadya Gaon’s literary production on the calendar by reconstructing and editing the full corpus of Saadyanic calendar writings, and analysing this corpus against the background of earlier calendar literature and the diffusion of the Rabbanite calendar in later medieval Europe. Our corpus will include Saadya’s treatise on the principles of the Jewish calendar, his polemical works in defence of the Rabbanite calendar calculation and against the observational calendar of the Qaraites, as well as calendar passages included in Bible commentaries. The project will deliver critical text editions of Saadya’s works with English translations. We will study the textual history and calendrical contents of Saadya’s works on the calendar, Saadya’s contribution to the development of calendar theory and its terminology, and the role of his works in fomenting or resolving Near Eastern communal conflicts over the calendar and in the diffusion of the calculated Jewish calendar to the West. We will reflect on the role and impact of the sciences (astronomy) and of biblical and Talmudic exegesis on Saadya’s calendar theory. This project will make a lasting contribution to future research on Saadya Gaon, on the Jewish calendar, and more generally on Jewish medieval science and literature.