SEDER OLAM - Revisited

סדר עולם - חדש



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Index of names


Generations  1-14
(3760 - 2080 BCE)

Generations 15-21
(2080 - 1240 BCE)

Generations 22-28
(1240 - 400 BCE)

Generations 29-35
(400 BCE - 440 CE)

Generations 36-42
(440 - 1280 CE)

Generations 43-49
(1280 - 2120 CE)

Generation 50

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Saadia Gaon
(4688 AM - 928 CE)

The dispute of the Babylonian Jewry
(4697 AM - 937 CE)

Hasdai ibn Shaprut
(4709 AM - 949 CE)

The Holy Roman Empire
(4722 AM - 962 CE)

The Fear of the year 1000
(4762 AM - 1000 CE)

Rabbi Amnon of Mainz
(4781 AM - 1020 CE)

End of the Caliphate of Cordoba
(4791 AM - 1031 CE)

Samuel ha-Nagid
(4798 AM - 1038 CE)

End of the Gaonim era
(4800 AM - 1040 CE)

Solomon ibn Gabirol
(4800 AM - 1040 CE)

 Previous <<   Generation 40   >> Next

Hebrew years 4680 to 4800 (920 - 1040 CE)

This 40th generation witnessed the collapse of central authorities in the three monotheist religions. But Judaism experienced a golden age with the emergence of great thinkers in new regional centers that helped established the religion more firmly despite difficult times and instable political conditions.   

Year 4688 – 928 CE – Saadia Gaon

The next challenge faced by Rabbi Saadia came from Israel when the head of the talmudic schools there, Rabbi Aaron ben Meir, endeavoured to move the religious authority back from Babylon to Israel. This was at a time when the Babylonian Jewish leadership was in turmoil with a dispute between the schools of Sura and Pumbedita over authority. Rabbi Aaron tried to foster his position when time came to set the Jewish calendar in 922 CE: he claimed that the Babylonian Gaonim were wrong. But the latter received support from Rabbi Saadia himself who, being knowledgeable on astronomy, could point to the mistakes made by Rabbi Aaron. The dispute was resolved and letters sent to all the Diaspora, and finally the authority of Babylon was restored. In recognition to Rabbi Saadia's great knowledge on religious matters and his defence of core Judaism against the Karaites, he received the honour to become head of the school of Sura in 928 CE. After accepting the role, he became known as Saadia Gaon.

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Year 4697 – 937 CE – The dispute of the Babylonian Jewry

In 930 CE, the Jewish leadership was again in turmoil owing to the clash between the two main authorities. Saadia Gaon accused the Exilarch David ben Zakkai, who was in function since 917 CE, of avarice and unlawful actions in regards to Jewish laws. The Exilarch was the one who proposed Saadia as Gaon of Sura in the first place. In their dispute, each leader excommunicated the other, and the entire community was on the brink of collapse by schism. In 937 CE, the dispute was brought to the arbitrage of the Caliph of Baghdad, who convinced the two leaders to continue in their respective role. But the scars never healed between the two camps, until they both died, ben Zakkai in 940 and Saadia Gaon in 942.

Saadia Gaon before the Caliph of Baghdad
Saadia Gaon before the Caliph of Baghdad in 937 CE (photo: Albert Benhamou, Bet Hatfusoth, Tel-Aviv)

Saadia Gaon had proved a prolific writer, both in Hebrew and Arabic. Some of his works are as follows:

- Emunoth ve-Deot (Faith and Knowledge) [1a]: this was an attempt, the first since the works of Philo of Alexandria, to reconcile faith and philosophy; this book was written in Arabic to help educate the vast majority of Jews, who only spoke this language at the time, who started to have doubts about their faith in the face of increased pressure from both Christian and Muslim influences

- a commentary in Hebrew of the ancient Sefer Yetzirah [1b]: this book of cabbalistic nature was an attempt to explain the Biblical Creation and the role of the Hebrew Alphabet in this divine act; Saadia Gaon was the first to offer a commentary of this obscure book, and he attempted to explain it in the context of the scientific knowledge of his times (for example in drawing parallels with the number of nature of the seven planets); it was later followed by commentaries from several other sages in the centuries to come

Saadia Gaon was the most famous and one of the last of Gaonim.

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Year 4709 – 949 CE – Hasdai ibn Shaprut

In Al-Andalus, the scholar Hasdai ibn Shaprut, born in 915 from a wealthy Jewish family, was appointed physician to the Calife Abd ar-Rahman. Beside being a scholar and a man of Sciences, he was also a diplomat. He entertained correspondance with leaders of the various states of his times, as well of course with heads of the Jewish establishment in Babylonia. Under his leadership, Al-Andalus started to become a place of Jewish scholarship who attracted many Jewish thinkers who could rely upon Hasdai's protection. This also happened at the time when the religious authorities in Babylon were in conflict with the Exilarchy. This dispute contributed to create other Jewish centers outside Babylonia.

Later in life, Hasdai heard about Khazaria having adopted Judaism as state religion. His entousiasm knew no limtit. He sent emissary to the king of Khazaria in about 960 and entertained a correspondance which had been discovered in the 19th century.[2] Hasdai died some years later about 970. Thanks to the patronage of ibn Shaprut, the Jewry of Al-Andalus enjoyed a golden age that continued to last beyond his lifetime.   

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Year 4722 – 962 CE – The Holy Roman Empire  

After the success of Charlemagne to unite the parts of the previous Western Roman Empire into one empire again, his successors started the division again under Carolingian kings. But the Central European region was unified again in one empire under Otto the Great as the Holy Roman Empire in 962 CE. This empire included most of modern-day Germany, northern Italy, Austria and central European states bordered in the East by Poland, in the South by the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire, and in the West by the Frankish kingdom. Otto was crowned emperor in Rome by the Pope and reigned from the imperial city. But conflicts finally raised between him and the religious authorities and he finally moved to Germany in 972 before dying there a year later.

The Holy Roman Empire lasted for 844 years until Napoleon put an end to it in 1806.

Banner of the Holy Roman Empire
Banner of the Holy Roman Empire

Maybe as a balance to the potential hegemony of this new empire, the Frankish kingdom started a new dynasty, the Capetians, in 987 with hereditary rights from the founder, Hughes Capet, who also came from the Carolingian royal family. The Capetian dynasty ruled until 1328 when all the heirs of the royal lineage died in a very short period of time.

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Year 4760 – 1000 CE – The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year: myth or reality?

In Medieval times, there was a popular belief that te world will come to an end in 1000. The reason for this date was the perception that the world will end 1000 years after Jesus' birth. Before the doomed time, people started to make penitence more than ever before. But, when the year 1000 passed, nothing had happened. There was a risk of decrease in Faith. So a new date was set: the 1000 years should have been counted not from Jesus' birth but from Jesus' crucifixion. This date was set to be the year 1033. Then 33 years passed on and nothing happened.

The existence of  this Fear may however have nurtured in the minds of later historians. In the 19th century, no serious historian believed in it. The main argument against its existence is that the Medieval world did not have a full understanding of chronology over long periods of time, and didn't even have the numerical system to calculate what the number 1000 was. Dates were set by the years of reignor major events. The monks even got the calculation of the year for Jesus' birth wrong. Yet, other research showed that around year 1000 a lot of writings of apocalyptic nature appeared in the Christian world: this cannot be understood as a mere coincidence.

The facts are that, in this 11th century, the Church was however going through an internal crisis of "apocalityc nature" that led to the Great Schism. The Holy Land also was in turmoil with a series of natural catastophes and no less than three powerful earthquakes that destroyed many buidings in Jerusalem. Politically, the previaling rule of the Abbasid was coming to an end and the Holy Land changed hands a few times in that century, from Abbasid to Fatimid (El-Hakim, one of the Fatimid rulers, even destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in 1009), then to Saljuk and to Fatimid again a few months before the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. The Crusades themselves have been nurtured by the Church as a necessity to free the tomb of Jesus from Muslim hands, and a way to avoid the doomed Apocalypse in these times. 

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Year 4781 – 1020 CE – Rabbi Amnon of Mainz

Rabbi Amnon was the leader of the Jewish community of Mainz. He was a reknown scholar, respected even by the Christian authorities led by the Archbishop of Mainz, Willigis, who had held his role for many years, from 975, and was himself a very well respected leader. But when he died in 1011, he was replaced by a mere abbot, Erkanbald, Abbot of Fulda, who owned his election thanks to his family who was well connected with the ruler of Germany. At first, Erkanbald continued the good relation that Willigis had with Rabbi Amnon. But, in September 1020, a few days before the Jewish New Year of 4781, Erkanbald requested from Rabbi Amnon to convert to Christianity. The latter asked for three days to consider. But when he got back to his home, he felt distraught to have even questioned the possibility of conversion by asking some time, which he saw as his betrayal of God. He spent the three days in fasting and asking for repentance from God. After the delay, Rabbi Amnon was brought by force in front of the Bishop of Mainz who demanded his response. The Rabbi answered that he should have his tongue cut out for having asked any delay and not having refused in the first place. The Bishop became very angry and ordered not only to cut the Rabbi's tongue, but also his feet for not having come to him by his own will, and also ordered his hands to be cut off. The Rabbi was then taken back to his home. When Rosh Hashanah came the next day, Rabbi Amnon, who was dying from bleeding, asked to be carried to the synagogue to sanctify the name of God for a last time. There he uttered a prayer that he had just composed and died in the synagogue. Three days later, he appeared to one of his disciples, Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam, from the prestigious family Kalonymos (originated from Lucca, Italy), to teach him the words of his final prayer, requesting that it should be recited in all synagogues during the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since this time, the prayer, called Unetanneh Tokef, is indeed part of these prayers. The text portrays God as a shepherd who counts His flock (mankind), one by one, to judge them on the Day of Judgment:

All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed - how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!
--- Extract from the prayer Unetanneh Tokef

The city of Mainz in medieval times
The city of Mainz in medieval times (source: University Gutenberg of Mainz)

Erkanbald died a few months later too, on 17 August 1021 (corresponding to the date of 29 Av 4781), which falls in the same year as Rabbi Amnon, who died on Rosh Hashanah 4781. Erkanbald's office in Mainz only lasted 10 years unlike his predecessor who was blessed with 36 years in office.

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Year 4791 – 1031 CE – End of the Caliphate of Cordoba

When the last powerful Caliph of Cordoba died in 976, he named as a successor his 10 years old son. Since, the Caliphate suffered a steady decline. The child's key advisor was the actual regent and he allowed Berbers to come from Africa to build his own personal support. This created a legitimacy issue, as the powerless Caliph was quickly manipulated by factions. The caliphate ultimately collapsed in 1031 and split into many regional taifa kingdoms.

The taifas kingdoms after 1031 CE
The taifas kingdoms after 1031 CE (source: Wikipedia)

The taifas slowly collapsed and were first absorbed into more dominant Muslim neighbours, or to Christian dominions. The number of taifas passed from 33 in 1031 to 22 one century later, and then to 10 by about 1250. Then the Christian Reconquista, under the joint banners of Castile and Aragon, subjugated many of the remaining taifas until only one remained Muslim after 1238: the Emirate of Granada.

During the taifas period, and depending on the ruler in charge in any given city, the Jews moved from one city to another to escape persecutions. Some eventually moved north to the Christian dominions too, and even over the Pyreneans into the Languedoc region. 

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Year 4798 – 1038 CE – Samuel ha-Nagid

Samuel ibn Naghrillah (or Naghrela), who became known as ha-Nagid, was born in Merida, Al-Andalus, in 993. He played a very important role between Jews and Muslims because he served as vizir to the Berber king who took Cordoba in 1013, and, in 1038, became the vizir and chief of armies for the king's son and successor. And indeed Samuel got to engage in many battles in his time. In total, he held the post of vizir for about 30 years until his death in 1056. His writings are mainly composed of religious poetry.

Cordoba later fell to the Christians in 1091.

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Year 4800 – 1040 CE – End of the Gaonim era

In Sura, the Gaon Samuel ben Chofni died in 1034 CE. He was not replaced in this position and thus was the last Gaon of Sura.

In Pumbedita, Hezekiah ben David was tortured to death in 1040 and was never replaced. He was the last Gaon of Pumbedita. His sons escaped to Muslim Spain where they found refuge with the Jewish community in Al-Andalus which was flourishing at the time due to the presence of great scholars. 

With the death of the two Jewish leaders of Babylonian Jewry ended the era of the Gaonim. At that time, Babylonia was no longer the main center of Jewry as other centers had developed and prospered over the past centuries, notably in Cordoba (Spain), in Kairuan (North Africa), Fustat near Cairo (Egypt) and in Christian Europe. The loss of Babylonian preponderance in the world Jewry of the time was parallel to the decline of Abbasid Caliphate over the Muslim world which saw the emergence or strenghening of other Caliphates: Al-Andalus, the Western Maghreb with the Umayyads, the Eastern Maghreb with the Aghlabids, principally.

The Caliphate of Cordoba in 1000 CE
The Caliphate of Cordoba in 1000 CE (source: Wikipedia)

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Year 4800 – 1040 CE – Solomon ibn Gabirol

Solomon ibn Gabirol was born in Malaga, Al-Andalus, in 1021. His parents both died when he was very young and he found solcae in the studies of the Talmud. He rapidly showed great skills in composing religious poetry. Before the age of 20, he already composed some poems that have been included in the Jewish daily and festivals prayers. But many of his poems reflect the sadness and the difficulties of his personal life, and hope for redemption at the hand of God:

Lord, what is man but flesh and blood? O weep !
His days unconscious stray, like shadows sweep,
His stroke comes sudden and he falls on sleep.

Lord, what is man? A carcase fouled and trodden
A noxious creature brimming with deceit,
A fading flow'r that shrivels in the heat.
Wert Thou as stern as he with sin is sodden,
How could he face Thy wrath? Ah, see him creep:
His stroke comes sudden and he falls on sleep.
--- Ibn Gabirol, "Lord, what is man?", first paragraph [3]

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[1a] To read the book online in its Hebrew translation, click here ; to read the page of this chronology about the Sefer Yetzirah, click here

[1b] To read the book online in one of the English translations (Dr Isidor Kalisch, New York, 1877), click here

[2] This correspondance is generally published as an addition to the Book of Kuzari, mentioned in next generation

[3] To read severeal of Ibn Gabirol's poems online, click here

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