“The Talmud really is the heart of Judaism.After the Bible, it is the book most studied by Jews.” (Norman Solomon) Whenand how did the Babylonian Talmud attain such importance? Jewscreated special institutions where they could study traditional texts, theTalmud and the Torah. These institutions, according to the aggadah, are calledyeshivah. Later, yeshivah are known as the Talmudic Academies that are believedto be the centre for Jewish learning of the Oral Law, the Torah.
Gaon (plural. Geonim)was a tittle given to Jewish scholars (amora) who were leading the TalmudicAcademies across Babylonia and Palestine, such as Sura Academy and PumbeditaAcademy. They were chosen in order to develop Talmudic Law and pass it on totheir followers. Geonim had an important mission to secure continuity of theJewish traditions.
Jews regarded Geonim as the supreme authority in theinterpretation of the Talmud. This led them to be able to reply on queries thatcame all across Jewish communities throughout the world in order to provide adeeper understanding about Jewish thought and practice. These replies have agreat value when studying how Jewish communities achieved unity in thatspecific period of time. SuraAcademy in Babylonia was one of the two major Jewish Academies in Babyloniabetween 225 CE and 1033 CE. Scholar Abba Arika, usually referred to as Rav, whowas a disciple of Judah ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah, founded thisAcademy in 219 CE.
Rav arrived at the city of Sura and was soon to find almostno religious activity. Since his arrival, he stressed importance on thecontinuity of the Jewish community in Babylonia, leading him to leave Nehardeawhen it is believed to be the start of his mission to continue the education ofJewish Oral Law. His arrival caused many teachers to come and help Rav inestablishing an academy that will help to teach the Oral Law. Thus, the SuraAcademy is believed to be the first Jewish Academy established in Babylonia inthe Geonim period. Samuel ofNehardea, usually known as Mar Samuel, was the founder and a Gaon at anotherJewish Academy in Nehardea. Alongside Rav, head of the Sura Academy, they haveestablished Babylonia as an important centre of Judaism. Rav and Mar Samuel arebelieved to be the reason Judaism continued to thrive in Amoraim and Geonimperiods, as many students were attracted to these Academies.
However, shortlyafter Mar Samuels’ death in 254 CE, the Nehardea Academy was destroyed due topolitical activity in that area. It was never reopened, but instead, a newAcademy was opened in Pumbedita by Rabbi Judah ben Ezekiel in 259 CE.1 SheriraGaon was a Gaon at the Pumbedita Academy in Babylonia. He became an importantfigure within Judaism due to his famous work, Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon. Thisletter was written in response to questions of a Jewish community Kairwan inTunisia. This letter was written around 968 CE and became an important sourceof study of early rabbinic literature.
The Kairwan community has writtenquestions to Sherira Gaon in order to get his reply, as they rejected anddoubted the authority of the Babylonian Academies. As an impact of the Jewishdiaspora after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, many communitiesfar away, such as the community of Kairwan, have developed their own centres oflearning rabbinic literature and the Oral Torah. Therefore, they decided tochallenge the concept of Babylonian Academies by writing to R. Sherira, theGaon of one of the Academies in Babylonia. Consequently, the primary objectiveof R. Sherira was to convince such communities and reassure them of theauthoritative power Babylonian Academies had.
1 Moshe Weiss, A Brief Historyof the Jewish People, (Maryland: Jason Aronson Inc., 2004), p.70