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

fragment of a page from Saadya Gaon’s works on the Jewish calendar

Saadya Gaon’s Works on the Jewish Calendar: Near Eastern Sources and Transmission to the West (2021–2023) is headed by Prof. Sacha Stern and Prof. Ronny Vollandt (LMU Munich), with Dr. Nadia Vidro as a Senior Research Fellow and is funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

In the first half of the 10th century, the Jewish calendar had become a major issue for Near Eastern Jewish communities. Calendar controversies broke out among Rabbanites and between Rabbanites, Qaraites and other Jewish movements.The intensity of 10th-century calendar debates was an outcome of the major changes that had occurred through the 9th century, with the institution of a new calendar based on calculation which was widely followed by the Rabbanites by the beginning of the 10th century. These debates were not just about the technical question of how to set the months and years but were fights for legitimacy, authority, and legal independence. It is therefore hardly 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-Fayyumi, 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, 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. Saadya composed at least four works on the calendar and the calendar polemics, and possibly some others that are attributed to him in 10th-century Jewish and Muslim sources but appear lost. Yet Saadya’s works on the calendar and his role in the development of the Jewish calendar literature have not received much scholarly attention.

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. We will produce critical text editions of Saadya’s works with English translations. Based on these editions, we will study Saadya’s contribution to the development of calendar theory, 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 also reflect on the role and impact of the sciences (astronomy) and of biblical and Talmudic exegesis on Saadya’s calendar theory.

Image: Cambridge University Library, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research UnitT-S 10K2, folio 1r.

Partner website at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich


Associated Publications

Q&A Wednesday: Saadiah Gaon and the calendar, with Nadia Vidro

A Q&A about the project on the blog of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit