The last great Babylonian Gaon.
The last great Babylonian Gaon.
The Gaonim were the group of Torah Scholars who followed the Amoraim who were scholars of the Talmud.
Rav Hai ben Sherira was the last authoritative gaon of Babylonia. The son of Sherira Gaon, he may have worked on his father's famous Letter. Challenged for the position of gaon by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni in 998 CE, Hai solved the problem by marrying Rav Shmuel's daughter.
He received students and questions from western Christian countries, Byzantium, and Spain. He had a great influence on Shmuel Ha-Nagid.
Rav Hai was recognized as a great talmudic scholar, but he was also well-acquainted with the Persian and Arabic languages and with Arabic literature. While he permitted children to be taught Arabic writing and arithmetic, he warned against the study of philosophy (this was said in a letter ascribed to him and addressed to Shmuel Ha-Nagid). He criticized his father-in-law, Rav Shmuel ben Hofni, "and others like him, who frequently read the works of non-Jews."
Despite being gaon during the decline of the Abbasid dynasty, Rav Hai was still regarded as a great halachic authority. Avraham ibn Daud wrote that "he, more than all the geonim, propagated the Torah in Israel... both in the east and in the west... No one among his predecessors can be compared to him, who was the last of the geonim."
The measure of his influence and the volume of his responsa, decisions, and comments can be gauged from the fact that approximately a third of all extant gaonic responsa are his (some of them in conjunction with his father).
In his writings Rav Hai set out in detail his approach to the principles of faith and to the requirements of community leadership. In his piyyutim (spiritual songs) he expressed with much bitterness his sense of living in exile from Israel. He was a mystic. Contrary to the view of his father-in-law, he believed "that God performs signs and awe-inspiring acts through the righteous, even as He did through the prophets." But he vigorously opposed those who believed that the divine names and charms were efficacious in changing the course of nature, declaring emphatically that its laws cannot be modified by such means. Vehemently antagonistic to any tendency toward anthropomorphism, he maintained that anthropomorphic passages in the aggadah were to be interpreted metaphorically. In his formulation of the ideals and values of the complete Jew, he described the rewards for observing divine precepts. These rewards greet the righteous and form "groups that go to meet the Divine Presence" and say to the righteous: "Ascend to your grade, stand in your division (in heaven), you who have conquered your evil inclination... who have borne the yoke of the commandments, and in your fear of Him have endured suffering."
Rav Hai drew special attention to the duty of the Jewish judges to guide and admonish the people, as well as their responsibility for its conduct and their accountability for its sins. He demanded that strong measures be taken against dissenters and thieves, and under certain circumstances even permitted recourse to Jewish courts of law.
He was opposed to the absolute annulment of vows on the eve of Yom Kippur, his formulation of the Kol Nidrei prayer being: "Of all vows... which we have vowed... and have omitted to fulfill either through neglect or under constraint we pray that the Lord of heaven may absolve and pardon us." He adopted a tolerant attitude towards traditional local liturgical practices, but was opposed to delving into the reasons for them, insisting on "the observance of institutions introduced by those superior to our generations in learning and in caliber."
May the merit of the tzaddik Rav Hai Gaon protect us all, Amen.