The Jewish scholar Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayumi (882-942) ranks as the most important medieval Jewish scholar of literature and history.
Little is known of the early life of Saadia ben Joseph except that he was born in Egypt, lived for sometime in Palestine, and finally settled in the Jewish communities of Babylonia. Saadia became affiliated with the academy at Sura, Babylonia, and became the gaon (head) of the academy in 928. Deposed in 930, he again became gaon in 936, holding this office until his death in 942. During this period the academy became the highest seat of learning among the Jews.
Saadia's numerous works were written for the most part in Arabic, which had become the vernacular and literary language of eastern Jews. When the Babylonian schools ceased to function in the middle of the 11th century and the Jews were expelled from Spain, Saadia's works ceased to be widely known until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their importance, however, cannot be exaggerated. In bulk, in range of interest, in breadth of knowledge, and in pioneer thinking, his works are a monument between the close of the Talmudic period in the 6th century and the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment in the 18th century.
At least 20 major works, apart from Saadia's translations and commentaries, exist. Saadia translated the Bible into Arabic and added a commentary. He composed a Midrashic work on the Decalogue, translated the five Megilloth (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), and also translated the Book of Daniel and added a commentary.
Saadia's major works divide into five categories: polemical tracts, exegetical writings, grammatical treatises, works on Talmudic subjects, and philosophic works. His polemical writings arose principally from his position in Sura. His Book of the Festivals was written against Ben Meir of Palestine in 922, when the latter attempted to make alterations in the Jewish calendar. Other writings were directed against the Karaite sect and against the skeptic Hivi of Balkh, David ben Zakkai, and others.
Of Saadia's grammatical works, only his treatise on the hapax legomena (words used once in the Bible) and a poem on the letters of the alphabet survive. His liturgical writings and poems survive in greater quantity. One poem, Azharoth, is a practical enunciation of the 613 Precepts. Saadia's philosophical works display his wide knowledge of Aristotle and of Christian, Moslem, and Brahmin teachings. In his Kitab al-Amanat wal-Itiqadat (933) Saadia expressed his views of religion and human destiny. He maintained that revealed religion and human reason do not clash but complement each other.
Saadia's health was broken by the continual controversies which surrounded his leadership of the Sura Academy, and he died in 942. His importance can be measured by the fact that without his extant works there would be no direct knowledge of the inner development of Judaism and Jewish literature between the 7th and the 10th century.
David Druck, Saadya Gaon: Scholar, Philosopher, Champion of Judaism (trans. 1942), and Solomon Leon Skoss, Saadia Gaon: The Earliest Hebrew Grammarian (1955), are biographical studies. Various aspects of Saadia's life and career are discussed in two studies published on the thousandth anniversary of his death by the American Academy for Jewish Research, Saadia Anniversary Volume, edited by Boaz Cohen (1943), and by the Jewish Quarterly Review, Saadia Studies, edited by Abraham A. Neuman and Solomon Zeitlin (1943). Background information is in Heinrich H. Graetz, History of the Jews (trans. 1891-1898), and the highly technical work by Paul Ernst Kahle, The Cairo Geniza (1947; 2d ed. 1959).