The Takanos of the Gaonim


gemaraBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman

This shiur was given last night lezaicher Nishmas the author’s father – Dr. Nathan Hoffman, ob”m on histhird yahrtzeit.  Please learn it l’zaicher nishmas Nosson Yoseph Ben Moshe.

The Gaonim were the Rabbis who formed the great transitional period between the era of the Talmud and the era of the Rishonim.  They lived in Bavel – what is now Iraq which was the same country in which the Babylonian Talmud was formed.

The Gaonim enacted a number of measures.  They made takanos which substantively and substantially changed halachic observance.   Many of their enactments are still with us today.

The question is, why did they make these changes?  Some Jewish history professors have expressed the notion that the Gaonim’s self-perception was beyond that of the Amoraic period Rabbis that preceded them.  Those with a yeshiva training, of course, cannot accept this.  The Gaonim certainly shared the view that exists in traditional Jewish circles – the generations have gotten smaller.  They looked up at those who wrote and compiled the Gemorah.

One can therefore ask, why did they make such profound changes in Jewish law?  There had to have been socio-religious changes that occurred during the Gaonic era to account for their enactments.  Otherwise they would not have made them.

We will deal with a few of them.

1] According to Talmudic law a Ketuvah can only be collected on landed properties not movable properties.  In other words, when a wife wished to collect what was contractually due to her from her marriage document she could only collect what was owed to her from land that was owned by her husband – but not from cows or horses or other movable properties.  The Gaonim changed all that.  They allowed her to collect from any type of property.


2] A Meshumad is not yoresh his father – why did the Amoraim not make this takana – enactment?  The Ravya’s comments to Kiddushum 17a says that it is a takana from Rav Tzaddok Gaon.  Why the need?

3] We just finished Pesach.  It is clear that the minhag of gebrokts started during this time.  There are three reasons for this minhag but we will start with the earliest one – that people may come to put real flour in these mixtures.  The Gaonim forbade it across Bavel.  The question is why?  During the time of the Gemorah it was only in the home of the raish galusa that Rava assured it.  Why did the Gaonim extend it?

4] The Gaonim made a takana that meat that was not salted within three days after the shechita may only be roasted and cannot be eaten.  Why?  This same meat existed in the time of the Ammoraim.  Why didn’t they make the enactment?

5] According to the Gemorah – we could eat liver by cooking it if we previously cut it up criss- cross – shesi ve-erev.. The Gaonim said – No – only tzalua – roasted..They were afraid people would not do it properly.  But why – all of a sudden?

6] The Gaonim added special additions to the Shmoneh Esreh during the Yamim Noraim.  Why did they do this?  The Amoraim felt no need to do so. Why did they?

7] The nusach of Pidyon haBen also dates from the period of the gaonim – Why now?

8] The nusach of  the bitul of Chometz was during the time of the gaonim, again – why then?  Why didn’t the Gaonim think, “The Amoraim did not do this – why should we?”

9] The next question is udderly shocking.  The pun was intended, as my father loved puns.. Udders, according to the Gemorah were permitted to be cooked and eaten after they were dried.  The gaonim said no, they must be roasted.  Why?

LeZaicher nishmas my father, zichrono livracha, I would like to try to answer these questions.  My father loved, loved, history, and I have no doubt that he would have loved the answer that will be proposed to resolve these questions.

There was a change during this time. During the time of the Gemorah, the Rabbis were under the Sassanian Persians who practiced the Zoroastrian religion.  During the time of the Gaonim, however, the Umayyad Caliphate had taken over and had conquered Bavel.  There were two aspects of the Umayyad conquest which had enormous repercussions on Judaism in the Gaonic era.  Firstly, the Umayyads had an agenda of trying to convert as many people as possible to Islam.  Secondly, their economic policies of taxing all land equally, regardless of the specific fertility of that land also wreaked havoc in Babylonia.

It could be argued that both of these aspects of the Umayyads contributed to the need of the gaonim to make these changes.  For our first question, the enactment of allowing the collection of debts from movable properties – the Muslim courts specifically allowed this.  If Jewish courts forbade it and Islamic courts did not there was a chance that a woman would seek redress in the Islamic courts and possibly be further attracted to that system as well.  By the same token, since the Umayyads promulgated a tax for non-Muslims and there was a concern that people may convert to avoid the tax, the gaonim felt a need to create a counter balance by not allowing a convert to inherit his father’s possessions.  The upheavals caused by the Umayyad economic policies accounted for a drop in knowledge of Torah too, since Jews were moving into cities and looking for Parnassah.  People would have been confused about halacha.  Therefore they made the Takana, at least temporarily, concerning grain and water.  The nuschaos of Pidyon HaBen and Bitul Chometz can be explained by the same concern.  The enactment about the udder was out of concern that the weakened Jews may inadvertently think that other types of milk-meat issues are permitted too.

The enactment about not letting meat go for three days without removing the blood was out of concern that the weakened Jewish people might give in to arguments that Muslims may present about Muslim slaughter being better since that removes all blood.

The additions to the Shmoneh Esreh were to help prop up thye Jewish nation so that they could better connect with Hashem during this period to fortify them against the new spiritual dangers of the era.

The conclusion?  Far from being innovators with a perception of having greater powers than their predecessors, the Gaonim used the tools they had available to them to respond to the new challenges of the time.  Their innovations were limited to these areas alone.  The respect and admiration for the Amoraim the Gaonim had – was remarkably high.

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  1. Sadly, the study of gaonim has been neglected in our yeshivos and mosdos and has been largely left up to academics and the Conservative movement. We need to re-explore their writings, which is something that the Netziv attempted to do in his day.

  2. “Some Jewish history professors have expressed the notion that the Gaonim’s self-perception was beyond that of the Amoraic period Rabbis that preceded them.”

    There is no need to give even a modicum of recognition to these foolish “history professors”.