גאונים – sing. גאון (Gaon) – the formal title of the head of one of the yeshivot (academies) of Bavel (Babylon, or present-day Iraq), which was also known as Rosh Yeshiva (Gaon Yaakov) or Reish Metivta. The office itself is referred to as the gaonate and stood in contrast to the Reish Galuta, “Head of the Exile,” which was the political high office of the Iraqi Jewish community (known as the exilarchate) interfacing with the Muslim government. Together, the Gaon and Reish Galuta were the public representatives of the Jewish community in Bavel/the Abbasid empire.

The period of the Geonim begins after the close of the text of the Talmud Bavli, whose latest layer was redacted by an anonymous group of rabbis known as Savoraim. The period of the Savoraim begins c. 500 CE and may only extend a generation, or as late as the second half of that (6th) century. That means that the period of the Geonim, also called the gaonic (or Geonic) period, is often said to begin in the mid- to late 6th century and, traditionally, continues until 1038 CE, although this was likely more of a process than the result of an abrupt end date.1 Among the most well-known geonim are Amram Gaon, Se’adyah Gaon, Sherira Gaon, Hai Gaon, and Shemuel b. Chofni. There are also well-known scholars in other parts of the Jewish world, notably Qayrawan (also spelled Kairouan) in present-day Tunisia, from the Geonic period, such as Rabbeinu Chananel b. Chushiel and R. Nissim (b. Ya’akov) Gaon.

The two famed yeshivot of Bavel are known as Sura and Pumbedita, after the cities in which they were located in Amoraic times, i.e. during the formation of the Talmud Bavli. Sura is \associated with Mata Mechasya, a nearby city. There was also an academy in the city of Nehardea associated with Pumbedita, the former’s students having transferred to the latter when it was destroyed. However, the two remaining academies at Sura and Pumbedita both relocated to Baghdad, probably in the late 9th century, when it was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate and the major city of its time and place. It has been recently argued by Haym Soloveitchik that Ashkenazi learning traditions attest to the existence of a third academy.2

The literature of the Geonim includes books of halakhic decisions (halakhot pesukot, including an important book of that title), halakhic monographs (books on particular halakhic topics), the first prayerbooks, the first philosophical treatises, and early commentaries on Tanakh, Talmud, and other writings, such as the mystical book Sefer Yetzirah. Also of note are scattered works of a historiographical character, such as the important letters of R. Sherira Gaon and Natan ha-Bavli, and R. Se’adyah Gaon’s translation of the Torah into Arabic.

Since the 18th century, especially with the rise to fame of the Gaon of Vilna (Gra), “gaon” has become the generic Hebrew term for “genius.”

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  1. The date is taken from Avraham Ibn Daud’s Sefer ha-Kabbalah, which was written in Toledo, Iberia in 1161, and details the chain of transmission of Masorah. An excellent edition is Gerson D. Cohen, ed., A Critical Edition with a Translation and Notes of The Book of Tradition (Sefer Ha-Qabbalah) by Abraham Ibn Daud (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967). On the dating, see “Defining the Geonic Period,” in Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 3-18. The whole book is an indispensable study of the gaonic period from the sources.
  2. Haym Soloveitchik, “The ‘Third Yeshivah of Bavel’ and the Cultural Origins of Ashkenaz – A Proposal,” in Collected Essays, vol. 2, 3 vols. (Oxford, 2014; reprint, Liverpool: Littman, 2019), pp. 150-201. Robert Brody’s evaluation of the suggestion is published as, “On the Dissemination of the Babylonian Talmud and the Origins of Ashkenazi Jewry,” Jewish Quarterly Review 109, no. 2 (2019): 265–88. Soloveitchik’s response was then published as, “On the Third Yeshivah of Bavel: A Response to Robert Brody,” Jewish Quarterly Review 109, no. 2 (2019): 289–320. A second response is posted to his website. Except for the latter, those are all paywalled links, but see also this interview with Brody on the JQR blog.