Achai Gaon (also known as Ahai of Shab?a or Aha of Shab?a, Hebrew: [?] ?) was a leading scholar during the period of the Geonim, an 8th-century Talmudist of high renown. He enjoys the distinction of being the first rabbinical author known to history after the completion of the Talmud.
As he never actually became the Gaon of either of the two academies, the description "Gaon" attached to his name is a misnomer. When the gaon of Pumbedita died, A?a was universally acknowledged to be the fittest man to succeed him. But a personal grudge entertained by the exilarch Solomon bar ?asdai induced the latter to pass over A?a, and to appoint Natronai ben Nehemiah, A?a's secretary, a man considerably his inferior in learning and general acquirements. Angered by this slight, A?a left Babylonia and settled in Israel, about 752-753, where he remained until his death. Despite Steinschneider's erroneous assertion that he died in 761, the exact date of his death is unknown.
A?a must have written Sheiltot ("Quæstiones" in the sense of disquisitions) in the Land of Israel, for the Aramaic word sheilta was employed in the sense of quæstio (the scientific investigation of a matter) by the Jews of Israel only. "Sheilta" is of Palestinian origin, as is shown by the words bu?ina and bisha, which accompany it. S. Mendelsohn is quite correct in his explanation of the term. If, therefore, Simeon Kayyara made use of the "Sheiltot" in his Halakhot Gedolot, as is now certain, the statement of Abraham ibn Daud (according to whom Simeon's work was completed in 750) must be erroneous, since A?a did not leave Palestine before 752; and we know that Samuel Gaon, whose successor he was to have become, did not die before 751-752. There are also other evidences of Palestinian influence in A?a's work. For example, his treatise indicates that besides the Babylonian Talmud (which naturally was his chief authority) he made frequent use of the Jerusalem Talmud, and of Palestinian Midrashim, Leviticus Rabbah, Ecclesiastes Rabbah, and Tan?uma, all of which at this time were quite unknown in Babylonia (indeed, even Saadia Gaon, almost two hundred years later, knew comparatively little of them).
Naturally, therefore, Sheiltot has the character of a Palestinian rather than Babylonian work. The contemporary synopses of Babylonian rabbis Yehudai Gaon and Simeon Kayyara confine themselves to important decisions of the Talmud, with the omission of all discussions, and with the addition of short elucidations of words - as these works were intended for scholars rather than common people. A?a, in contrast, wrote for thoughtful laymen. A?a's treatises upon Biblical and rabbinical laws (numbering 190 or 191, with additions from later writers) were written with special reference to the practice of such moral duties as benevolence, love, respect for parents, and love of truth. They are based upon the order of the parashot, the weekly Torah readings.
The beginning of the fourth "Sheilta," which is based upon the weekly lesson on "Noah," may serve as a specimen of the "Sheiltot." Stealing or robbery was explicitly forbidden to the Israelites; and the divine punishment for the transgression of this command is more severe than for other crimes. Thus, the generation of the Biblical Flood were punished solely on account of their violence, as it is said, "The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them." A?a elaborates on this moral condemnation, quoting from the Talmud and Midrash many passages concerning the baseness and godlessness of such crimes. He follows this statement (preceded by the introductory formula, "It is, however, questionable" [beram ?arik]) with casuistic inquiries; for example, whether it is proper to include in the designation of robbery, for which the Law requires a double restitution, the case of a theft committed in the interest of the victim.
This illustration serves to show that the work is not intended for scholars alone, but also for popular instruction. However, the statement (often repeated since the time of Meiri) that the Sheiltot was a book merely for the instruction of youth is also baseless. More likely, it is a collection of aggadic-halakhic sermons, which A?a delivered in Palestine, where certainly he was held in high regard. With the decline of rabbinical knowledge in Palestine, A?a would have found but few pupils for pure halakhic instruction; and he therefore added aggadic elements to his lectures, in obedience to the general disposition of the Palestinians, who just then favored aggadah.
This view best explains the word "derashah" (lecture), which occurs about thirty times in the Sheiltot, in connection with the citation of passages from the Talmud. If the Sheiltot were indeed derived from sermons, they may properly be considered, in the form in which they appear, as extracts or abstracts of such sermons, giving the introduction and the conclusion of the original derashah; while of the derashah proper (which no doubt consisted of aggadic and halakhic quotations from Talmud and Midrash) only the heading is mentioned. Considering them as portions of sermons, the frequent repetitions that occur in the Sheiltot are not strange, as this would happen to the best of preachers; while it would be difficult to explain them if they were found in the strictly literary productions of one man. Of course, there can be no certain conclusions concerning the composition of the "Sheiltot" until the manuscript has been examined. The printed text, while it contains much matter of later date, lacks much that, according to older authorities, was formerly included. An accurate edition of the Sheiltot would be very valuable for textual criticism of the Babylonian Talmud, as indeed for Aramaic philology in general, since A?a wrote in the Aramaic vernacular.
A?a's work very soon won great esteem, and the work Halakot Gedolot, which does not date from the year 750, but belongs to the oldest literature of the gaonic times, copies no less than 150 passages from the Sheiltot. Sherira Gaon and his son, Hai Gaon, mention the book by title; and it was likewise freely consulted by Rashi and the author of the Arukh.
The first edition of the "Sheiltot" appeared in Venice, 1546, and was succeeded by the following:
Manuscripts of the Sheiltot, but with essential divergences from the printed text, are to be found among the Hebrew manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Nos. 308, 309, and in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Nos. 539, 540, 1317. In the latter library may be found also the hitherto unprinted commentaries by Solomon ben Shabbethai (541), and Johanan ben Reuben (542).
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901-1906). "Aha (Ahai) of Shabha". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. Its bibliography: