Thursday, January 3, 2008

Class: Isla-Jews, Gaonim, Karaites and Ben Meir

Below is the outline I expect to present at Sunday morning’s Women’s Class on “Isla-Jews, Gaonim, Karaites and Ben Meir.” We’ll be looking at the Calendar Controversy of 1100 years ago, in which two different groups of Jews actually celebrated competing dates for Pesach and Rosh haShanah.

The basic question I hope to address is why the Gaonim and Rabbeinu Saadya (who was not yet a Gaon) crushed Ben Meir and didn’t address the issue of his specific change to the calendar.
My answer is that this event fits into a period of dysfunctional schism within Jewish history, coming after “Isla-Jewish” sects who hybridized Judaism and Islam, and the Karaites. His claim also smacked of Karaism, as he challenged rabbinic adjustment of the calendar and contested a basic masorah. Therefore, aside from the whole issue of Babylonian/Israeli authority, the Gaonim and Rabbeinu Saadya were compelled to oppose Ben Meir flat.

For some interesting theories on why Ben Meir picked the calendar change that he did, see Henry Malter as well as an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer and R’ Ari Z. Zivotofsky.

Isla-Jews, Gaonim, Karaites and Ben Meir

Ben Meir, in a nutshell

Major questions
Why does Ben Meir never present anything to justify his 942 chalakim?
Why is the response to Ben Meir so harsh?

My central thesis
Israel vs. Babylon?
Isla-Jew/Karaite aftershocks

The schisms of the 7th-9th centuries
Economic unrest (taxation)
Stratified population
Intellectual commotion from clashes of empires
Religious unrest from charismatic leaders

The Gaonic/Exilarch system

Influence of Islam
Growth of Islam

Jews undergo change in status

Isla-Jewish sects, such as Isunians and Yudganites

The Gaonic/Exilarch system


Political tension between the two

A new Gaonate in Israel?
Origins – two views

Karaite Differences
Islamic influence
    Biblical interpretation
    Human role in determining law
    Jewish practices with Muslim parallels, like washing and bowing
    Reincarnation and mysticism
Limited rabbinic authority
    Chanukah and Purim
    Oral traditions

The Great Calendar Rift of the 920s
History of the Calendar
Israeli courts
The fixing of the calendar

The rise of Aharon ben Meir
The decline of Sura and Pumbedita
The rise of Aharon ben Meir

Ben Meir takes on the calendar
Summer of 921 – rumors begin
Rav Saadia Gaon’s letters
The official Ben Meir proclamation

What was Ben Meir’s issue?
Basic calendar rules
    Rosh HaShanah – לא אד"ו ראש, לא בד"ו פסח
    If Molad is after midday, Rosh Chodesh must be postponed
    The halachic hour contains 1080 chalakim

The year 923
    Anticipating Rosh HaShanah in 923; 642 chalakim
    Why 642?
      Noon in Bavel is 56 minutes earlier than in Yerushalayim?
      Reducing the number of postponements
      A masorah
      Israel vs Bavel

The resulting conflict
Official letters to Ben Meir and the Jewish community
Ben Meir counters aggressively
Pesach 923
More warning letters
The fights spread

The end
Rosh HaShanah 923/4683
Going to the government?
Sefer haZikkaron
Rav Saadia Gaon’s book puts an end to it

Many sources of strife

Historical context
Calendar manipulation
The masorah of the gemara
The authority of the Gaonim

Ben Meir is crushed

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