Amram Gaon (Hebrew: עמרם גאון, or Amram bar Sheshna, Hebrew: עמרם בר רב ששנא, or sometimes: Amram ben Sheshna  or Amram b. Sheshna; died 875) was a famous Gaon or head of the Jewish Talmud Academy of Sura in the 9th century. He was the author of many Responsa, but his chief work was liturgical.
He was the first to arrange a complete liturgy for the synagogue. His Prayer-Book (Siddur Rab Amram or Seder Rav Amram), which took the form of a long responsum to the Jews of Spain, is still extant and was an important influence on most of the current rites in use among the Jews.
He was a pupil of Natronai II, Gaon of Sura, and was exceptionally honored with the title of Gaon within the lifetime of his teacher. Upon Natronai's death, about 857, the full title and dignities of the gaonate were conferred upon Amram, and he held them until his death. He is the author of about 120 responsa (the greater part published in Salonica, 1792, in the collection entitled "Sha'are Tzedek") touching almost every department of Jewish jurisprudence. They are of great value in affording an insight into Amram's personality as well as into the religious conditions among the Jews of that period. The following decisions will serve in illustration: Interest may not be exacted even from non-Jews, nor even such minor profits as the Talmud designates as "the dust of interest", these being allowed only when customary in non-Jewish business circles ("Sha'are Tzedek," iv. 2, 20, 40). It is characteristic of Amram's method to avoid extreme rigor; thus he decides that a slave who has embraced Judaism, but desires to postpone the necessary circumcision until he feels strong enough for it, is not to be hurried (ib. iv. 6, 11). He combats superstition, and places himself almost in opposition to the Talmud, when he protests that there is no sense in fasting on account of bad dreams, since the true nature of dreams is not known. Amram's rules concerning the methodology of the Talmud are of considerable value.
Seder Rav Amram
The most important work of Amram, which marks him as one of the most prominent of the geonim before Saadia, is his "Prayer-book," the so-called "Siddur Rab Amram." Amram was the first to arrange a complete liturgy for use in synagogue and home. His book forms the foundation both of the Spanish-Portuguese and of the German-Polish liturgies, and has exerted great influence upon Jewish religious practise and ceremonial for more than a thousand years, an influence which to some extent is still felt at the present day. For Amram did not content himself with giving the mere text of the prayers, but in a species of running commentary added very many Talmudical and gaonic regulations relating to them and their allied ceremonies. His "Prayer-book," which was made familiar by the many extracts quoted from it by the liturgical writers of the Middle Ages, and which served as the model for Saadia's and Maimonides' own prayer rituals, was published complete for the first time in Warsaw, in the year 1865, by N. N. Coronel, under the title "Seder Rab Amram Gaon."
The work as published is composed of two parts. The second part containing the selichot (propitiatory prayers) and pizmonim (liturgical poems) for the month of Elul, for New Year and the Day of Atonement, is certainly not the work of Amram, but appears to belong to a much later period. Even the first portion, which contains the prayers proper, is full of interpolations, some of which, as the "kedushah" (Sanctification) for private prayer, are evidently later additions in the manuscripts. But not much weight can be attached even to portions of the book which are specifically given under the name of Amram; many of the explanations are certainly not by him, but by the academical copyists who appended his name to them, speaking of him in the third person. These explanations of the prayers make no reference to any authorities later than the following: Natronai II, Amram's teacher (17 times), Shalom, Natronai's predecessor in the gaonate (7 times), Judah, Paltoi, Zadok, and Moses, geonim before Amram (once each) Cohen Tzedek (twice), Nahshon and Tzemach, contemporaries of Amram (twice each), and Nathan of unknown date. The only authority mentioned of later date than Amram is Saadia (p. 4b). This indicates that the additions to the text of the prayers must have originated in Amram's time. Certainty on this head, however, can only be obtained by a comparison of the printed text with the manuscripts; that of Almanzi, according to the specimens given by Luzzatto, varies considerably from the printed text. Israel ben Todros (1305) mentions some azharot as having been composed by Amram; but no trace of these can now be found.
No early manuscripts of this prayer book survive, and later manuscripts appear to be heavily edited to conform with the rites in use at the time: we therefore cannot be certain of the exact wording preferred by Amram Gaon himself. Evidence for this is:
- The manuscripts differ widely among themselves
- The text of the prayers is often at variance with the surviving responsa of Natronai Gaon and other contemporary authorities, and occasionally even with the halachic commentary of the siddur itself
- There are many instances where a later authority, such as Abraham ben Nathan's Sefer ha-Manhig or David Abudirham, argues for text A "as prescribed by Amram Gaon" as against text B "found in popular usage", but the current version of Amram Gaon shows text B.
Relation to current rites
The Seder Rav Amram was originally sent to the communities of Spain, in response to a request for guidance on the laws of prayer. However, it never seems to have been adopted by them as a package deal, though they respected the individual halachic rulings contained in it. On the contrary, they appear to have edited it to suit their own requirements, so that the wording of the manuscripts and the printed version often reflects early versions of the Spanish rite. In certain respects these were different from the Sephardic rite in use today and nearer to other old European rites such as the Provençal, Italian and Old French rites, which reflect varying degrees of Palestinian influence. The later Sephardic rite has been revised to bring it into closer conformity with the rulings of the halachic codes, which themselves often reflect the opinions of the Geonim, and is therefore of a more purely Babylonian character: thus, paradoxically, it has moved away from the current wording of the Seder Rav Amram and towards what was presumably its original wording.
Conversely, the Seder Rav Amram, so edited, was a major source used in the standardization of the Ashkenazic rite, which was already akin to the old European family. For this reason, to a modern reader the wording of the Seder Rav Amram appears far closer to an Ashkenazic than a Sephardic text, a fact which misled Moses Gaster into believing that the Ashkenazic rite was based on the Babylonian while the Sephardic rite was essentially Palestinian.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Amram". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
Published texts of the Siddur
- Seder Rab Amram, ed. Coronel: Warsaw 1865
- Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Hedegard: Lund 1951
- Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Goldschmidt: Jerusalem 1971
- Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Kronholm: Lund 1974
- Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Harfenes: Bene Berak 1994
Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography
- Rapoport, Bikkure ha-'Ittim, x. (1829) 36, 37;
- Einleitung zum Parchon, xi. note;
- Reifmann, Zion, ii. 165;
- Luzzatto, in Literaturbl. d. Orients, viii. 290-297, 326-328;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 2619;
- Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, 2d ed., v. 249, 478;
- Joel Mueller, MafteaḦ, pp. 121–129, and Halakot Pesuḳot, p. 4;
- Isaac Halevy, Dorot ha-Rishonim, pp. 243–259;
- I. H. Weiss, Dor Dor ve-Doreshav, iv. 117-122.
Other secondary literature
- Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History: Jewish Publication Society 1993
- Louis Ginzberg, Geonica: New York 1909
- Goldschmidt, Meִhkare Tefillah u-Fiyyut (On Jewish Liturgy): Jerusalem 1978
- Reif, Stefan, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: Cambridge 1993. Hardback ISBN 978-0-521-44087-5, ISBN 0-521-44087-4; Paperback ISBN 978-0-521-48341-4, ISBN 0-521-48341-7
- Wieder, Naphtali, The Formation of Jewish Liturgy: In the East and the West
- Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim: their Relations, Differences, and Problems As Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa : London 1958 (since reprinted). ISBN 0-88125-491-6
- Seder Rav Amram (Jerusalem 1912 edition, Vol. 1)
- Seder Rav Amram (Jerusalem 1912 edition, Vol. 2)
- Seder Rav Amram (Warsaw 1865 edition, scanned text, Hebrew only)
- AMRAM BEN SHESHNA, jewishencyclopedia.com; Article