By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It is the first point that everyone joins in when the chazan repeats the Shemoneh Esreh. In the Shemoneh Esreh of the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur we add a number of requests to be remembered for life.
These additions to the Shemoneh Esreh were not added by the Tannaim nor were they added by the Amoraim in the Gemara. The additions were made by the Gaonim and are not found at all in the Talmud.
Who Were The Gaonim?
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 enactments, takanos, which substantively and substantially changed halachic observance. Many of their enactments are still with us today.
Why Did They Make Such Changes?
Why did they add these additions to the Shemoneh Esreh when their predecessors didn’t? 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 Gemara.
A List Of Some Changes Made By Gaonim
Yet they made some significant changes.
1] According to the Gemara, a ketubah can only be collected on landed properties (karkaos) not movable properties (metaltelin). 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. Why?
2] A meshumad is not yoresh his father. But this is a halacha not found in the Gemara. The Ravya’s comments to Kiddushin 17a says that it is a takanah from Rav Tzaddok Gaon. Why the need?
3] It is clear that the minhag of avoiding gebrokts on Pesach started during the time of the Gaonim. 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. During the time of the Gemara it was only in the home of the Reish Galusa that Rava assured it. Why did the Gaonim extend it?
4] The Gaonim made a takanah that meat that was not salted within three days after the shechitah may only be roasted and cannot be eaten. This same meat existed in the time of the Amoraim. Why didn’t they make the enactment?
5] According to the Gemara, 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?
6] The Gaonim added special additions to the Shemoneh Esreh during the Yamim Noraim. 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 chametz was during the time of the Gaonim. Why didn’t the Gaonim think, “The Amoraim did not do this. Why should we?”
9] According to the Gemara, udders, where cow milk come from, were permitted to be cooked and eaten after they were dried. The Gaonim said no, they must be roasted. Why?
A Socio Religious Change That Occurred
Why did they make such changes in Jewish tefillah and in halacha? 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.
The answer? It was the Muslims.
During the time of the Gemara, 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 three aspects of the Umayyad conquest which had enormous repercussions on Judaism in the Gaonic era.
Firstly, the Umayyads murdered people left and right. They killed Jews at the drop of a hat. This early “holocaust” was probably responsible for the Gaonim requesting that Hashem grant us life. Secondly, the Umayyads had an agenda of trying to convert as many people as possible to Islam. Thirdly, 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 all three 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 takanah, at least temporarily, concerning grain and water. The nuschaos of pidyon haben and bitul chametz 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 Shemoneh Esreh were to help prop up the Jewish nation so that they could better connect with Hashem during this period to fortify them against the new physical and spiritual dangers of the era.
The conclusion? Firstly, 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.
And secondly, when we daven Shemoneh Esreh and add these crucial additions, let us contemplate what Klal Yisrael was undergoing at the time and realize that this Ummayad conquest served to bring us ever closer to Avinu sh’bashamayim. Let us resolve to come closer to him during the next few days and yomim tovim as well—but without the physical and spiritual threats. Amein! May we all have a gmar chasima tovah!
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