R. Saadia Gaon – Intellectual Profile

This page is a stub.
Please contact us if you would like to assist in its development.
R. Saadia Gaon
R. Saadia Gaon, Rasag, Saadia ben Joseph Al-Fayyumi
ר' סעדיה גאון, רס"ג, סעדיה בן יוסף הפיומי
LocationEgypt / Baghdad
WorksTranslation and Commentary on Tanakh, Emunot VeDeiot, Siddur, other Halakhic, Grammatical and Liturgical Works
Exegetical Characteristics
Influenced by
Impacted onIbn Ezra, R. Avraham Ben HaRambam


The term "Gaon" (plural: "Geonim"), in its narrowest meaning, refers to the official head of one of the central yeshivot of Babylonia which were active primarily between the 6th and 11th centuries. In addition to overseeing the Torah study occurring in their yeshiva, Geonim were responsible for writing responsa, answering questions posed to them in letters usually concerning matters of Jewish law. This was the exclusive literary output of the Geonim until the tenure of R. Saadia, who transformed the role of the Gaon by authoring numerous works in many genres.1


  • Name – Saadia (or Saadiah, Saadya) ben Yosef “al-Fiyumi” (from the Fayyūm district)2
    • Hebrew name – סעדיה בן יוסף (ה)פיומי
    • Acronym/nickname – רס"ג, Rasag
    • Arabic name – Saˁīd b. Yūsuf al-Fayyūmī
  • Dates – 882 - May 18 (26 Iyar), 9423
  • Location – Born in Dilāṣ, in the Fayyūm district of Upper Egypt.4 Later moved to Tiberias, then Baghdad (where he served as Gaon), and, for a short time, Aleppo.5
  • Education – Precise details of R. Saadia's education are scant, but his earliest writings indicate that even before leaving his native Egypt, he was an expert in Hebrew grammar and biblical lexicography. By that time, he seems to also have been well-educated in Greek and Muslim philosophy as well as traditional Jewish sources.6
  • Occupation – On May 15, 928, R. Saadia was appointed Gaon (head) of the Yeshiva of Sura.7
  • Family – While in Egypt, R. Saadia had already married and had children.8 Some historians believe that R. Saadia had three sons and two daughters.9 It is certain that R. Saadia had a son named Dosa, who was born after R. Saadia and was named Gaon himself much later, and another son named She’erit.10
  • Teachers – The only known teacher of R. Saadia is an Israeli named Abu Kathir Yahya al-Katib, who presumably taught R. Saadia general subjects such as philosophy.11
  • Contemporaries – R. Aaron Sarjado Gaon, Isaac Israeli,12 David al-Muqammis of Raqqa13 
  • Students – Besides for the students he taught in his official capacity as Gaon of Sura, it is known that R. Saadia had students or followers who he had left in Egypt, with whom he had corresponded after emigrating.14 Among his students are the grammarian Dunash b. Labrat and Yaakov b. Ephraim, a possible author of an early commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi.15
  • Time period – R. Saadia involved himself in numerous controversies throughout his lifetime.
    • R. Saadia wrote multiple polemics against the Karaites, some which are attacks on personal Karaite leaders.16  
    • In the summer of 921, a Gaon of Israel named "Ben Meir" was planning to announce that in the coming year, the months of both Marheshvan and Kislev should be 29 days, which conflicted with the calendar rules of the Geonim of Babylonia. R. Saadia participated in an extensive campaign to ensure that all Jews, including those in Israel, would adhere to the calendar guidelines of the Babylonian Geonim.17
    • After becoming Gaon of Sura, a prolonged dispute erupted between himself and the Reish Geluta [Exilarch] David b. Zakai, involving their respective roles and leadership. R. Saadia composed a polemical work attacking his political enemies and defending his positions.18  
  • World outlook – In the introduction to his polemical tract against David b. Zakai, R. Saadia indicates that he felt uniquely blessed by God with the abilities to be the leader of the nation.19 


  • Biblical commentaries – Saadia composed an Arabic translation of the entire Tanakh, which he titled "Tafsīr,"20 as well as a longer commentary on approximately half of the Torah and a few other books of Tanakh, including Yeshayah, Mishlei, Tehillim, Iyyov, and Daniel.21 
  • Rabbinics – 
    • Talmudic novellae – A lexicographical "comentary" on the Mishnah which mainly translates and explains difficult words,22 as well as some works on Talmudic methodology.23
    • Halakhic codes – R. Saadia wrote several treatises on select halakhic topics.24
    • Responses to the works of others – Numerous polemical works were written by R. Saadia against specific, named Karaite texts.25
    • Responsa – In his capacity as Gaon, R. Saadia answered queries sent to the Yeshiva from all over the world. About 50 of these survive, although he likely wrote many more.26
  • Jewish thought – Kitab al-Amanat wa-al-I'tiqadat, translated into Hebrew as אמונות ודעות and English as the "Book of Beliefs and Opinions,"27 has been among the most widely read and influential rabbinic books of philosophy from the Medieval Era. Additionally, R. Saadia wrote a scientific-philosophical commentary to Sefer Yetzirah, called Tafsir Kitab al-Mabadi'.
  • Liturgy – R. Saadia composed a popular prayer book, which includes short halakhic discussions of laws and customs relating to prayers and the holidays. He also wrote several poems, some of which were meant to be included in congregational prayers together with the traditional liturgy.28
  • Language – At the age of twenty, R. Saadia published the Egron, a selective dictionary and lexicography of Biblical Hebrew, which he later rewrote in the Judeo-Arabic vernacular, and he also wrote other works on the Hebrew grammar and language.29 
  • Misattributed works – Various biblical commentaries from the era have been incorrectly attributed to R. Saadia, as well as a few philosophical works.30

Torah Commentary


  • Verse by verse / Topical – 
  • Genre – 
  • Structure – 
  • Language – 
  • Peshat and derash – Generally, R. Saadia believed that all of rabbinic halakha was taught to Moshe by God at Sinai,31 including the text of the Mishnah,32 and no derivation based on derashot were ever innovated by the Sages.33


  • Reason and Allegory – R. Saadia provides several rules for when a verse should be interpreted in a way that differs from its literal meaning: if the literal meaning would contradict experience, logic, another verse, or the rabbinic tradition.34

Textual Issues

  • Manuscripts – 
  • Printings – 
  • Textual layers – 



  • Reliance on Tradition – In both his commentaries and other writings, R. Saadia frequently makes reference to the fact that people must rely on communal traditions for all of their worldly activities, and this is no less true for religious matters where we must rely on the traditions and interpretations of the earlier rabbinic Sages.35 This is especially true regarding the interpretation of Biblical commands, which must be in accordance with the rabbinic tradition.36 
  • Antiquity of Rabbinic Traditions – Even when rabbinic sources indicate that certain halakhic practices changed from Biblical times, R. Saadia nevertheless considers them to have been as old as the Torah itself, dating back to Sinai.37 Examples include the practice of keeping two days of Yom Tov and the use of a fixed calendar cycle as opposed to witness testimony regarding the new moon.38


Significant Influences

  • Earlier Sources – 
  • Teachers – 
  • Foils – 

Occasional Usage

Possible Relationship


Later exegetes