The centuries between the final redaction of the Talmud and the beginning of Jewish culture in the West is one of the most obscure periods in the history of the Jews of post-Biblical times. If we regard the literary productiveness of a people as the only standard by which to measure its culture, then we must confess that this was a period of decline; the Geonic epoch has not brought forth one monumental work. Yet, a period which has produced such powerful religious movements as Karaism and mysticism, and has for the first time made a serious attempt to harmonize Hellenism with Talmudic Judaism cannot be considered as stagnant. The first step towards a correct understanding of this period must be a clear comprehension of the institution which gave it its name: "the Gaonate." With the exception of R. Saadia, who flourished toward the end of this period, we meet with no name of the first magnitude. But, the less important the Geonim were in themselves, the more important must have been the Gaonate to be able to impress its stamp upon several centuries. The fundamental question which we have to answer before we proceed to form an estimate of this period is: Were the Geonim only heads of Academies, or were they representatives of authoritative bodies?
The first volume of this book presents some material towards the solution of this question. Granted that we will never be able to form an adequate picture of the activity of the Geonim, for the contemporary sources are too meagre for this purpose, yet I hope to have shown that the Gaon was more than the president of a scholastic institution.