Gaon (גָּאוֹן, excellence) is the academic title of the Jewish presidents of the colleges of Sora (q.v.) and Pumbaditha (q.v.). The title originated, according to the Jewish historian Gratz, cir. A.D. 658. When Ali, the son- in-law and vizier of Mohammed, was elected caliph (A.D. 655), and the Islamites were divided into two parties, one for and the other against him, both the Babylonian Jews and the Nestorian Christians decided in his favor, and rendered him great assistance. Ali rewarded rabbi Isaac, then president of the college of Sora, with the title "Gaon." Accordingly, the word is either of Arabic or Persian origin, and properly belonged to the presidents of the Sora college, who alone bore the appellation at the beginning. The president of the subordinate sister college at Pumbaditha was called the head of the college, ריש מתיבתא, by the Babylonians, and the appellation Gaon, whereby the presidents were sometimes styled, obtained at first among the non-Babylonian Jews, who were not thoroughly acquainted with the dignities of the respective colleges in Babylon. It was only after the year 917, when Pumbaditha became of equal importance with Sora, and especially when, after the death of Saadia (q.v.), the college at Sora began to decay altogether, and Pumbaditha continued alone to be the college of the doctors of the law, that the presidents of its college, like those of Sora, were described by the title of Gaon. The period of the Gaonim comprises the time from A.D. 658 to 1040, and is divided into that of the First Gaonim, from A.D. 658 to 760, and that of the Later Gaonim, from A.D. 760 to 1040. The only literary productions of the First Gaonastic Period are the Sheeltoth of rabbi Acha of Shabcha, which combine all the different characteristics of the study of the rabbis, viz., Halacha, Midrash, Talmud, and Responsa, arranged according to the sections of the Pentateuch, explaining their respective laws and observations by means of extracts from the Babylonian Talmud, and original compositions in the favorite form of questions and answers (שאלתות). To this period also belongs the beginning of the Neo-Hebrew poetry, or the so-called Piut (פיוט), a term obviously taken from the Greek, and the poet was, in like manner, called peitan (פיטן, ποιητής). Now these piutim (פיוטים), written either in the form of the acrostic or arrangement of words, strophes, and lines, or rhyme (חרוז) or metre (מקצב), are to be found in the Machsorim or synagogue rituals of the different countries, and consist of Keroboth (קרובות, ie. e. that part of the morning service which comprehends the first three benedictions) for the morning prayer; Penitential Prayers (סליחות); Elegies (קינות); Hosannas (הושענות); Petitions (בקשות), etc.
Of the literati among the later Gaonim, we notice Mar Zemach I, ben- Paltoj, of Pumbaditha (872-890), the author of a Talmudic lexicon called "Aruch," which however, is not the same as the Aruch of Nathan ben- Jechiel (q.v.). Zemach's lexicon has not yet come to light. Excerpts were published by Rappaport, from the collection made by Saccuto in the Hebrew essays and reviews, called Bikkure ha-ittim (Vienna, 1830), 11:81 sq. Other excerpts were published by Geiger in Zeitschrift d. D.M.G. (Leipsic, 1858), 11:144. Zemach is also supposed to be the author of the chronological account of the Tana'im and Amoraim (ואמוראי סדר תנאים), which was edited by Luzzatto in the Hebrew Essays (Prague, 1839), 4:184. Contemporary with Paltoj was, Nachshon ben-Zadok (q.v.) of Sura; A.D. 881-889. Another writer of this period was Simeon of Kahira or Misr, in Egypt, who composed a compendium of the most important halachoth from both Talmuds, with the title Great Halachoth (הלכות גדולות), about the year 900. To this period also belongs Ibn Koreish (q.v.) and Saadia (q.v.). With the latter's death the last sunset light of the Soranic academy had passed away, and about the year 948 the school had to be closed. In order to secure its further existence, four young men were sent out, never to return again, to interest their rich co- religionists in this old school of learning. The young men fell into the hands of a Spanish. corsair. Among these captives was Moses ben-Chanoch (q.v.). While the Soranic school was closed, that of Pumbaditha was presided over before its final close by two men, Sherira Gaon (q.v.) and Hai ben-Shirira (q.v.).
With the exception of the authors we have named already, the great mass of the Gaonastic literature is anonymous. We mention the Midrash-Espa (אספה מדרש), on part of the book of Numbers; the Midrash Haskem (מדרש השכם); the chronicle, entitled History of the Maccabees of Joseph ben-Gorion, which .is a translation of an Arabic book of the Maccabees, the Tarich al-Makkabain, Jussuf ibn-Gorgon. This book, says Dr. Graitz, was afterwards translated by an Italian Jew, who, by his additions to it, displayed great skill in his Hebrew style, and whichi translation is generally known under the title, Josippon (q.v.). Besides the Josinppon or Pseudo-Josephus, we must mention an ethical midrash, entitled Tana debe Eliahu, or Seder Eliahu (סדר אליהו תנא דבי אליהו), the Midrash Tanchuma or Tanchuma Jelamdenu.(B. P.)