Amram ben Sheshna

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A street sign at the intersection of Amram Ga’on and HaHashmona’im streets in Tel Aviv.

Amram Gaon (Hebrew: עמרם גאון, or Amram bar Sheshna, Hebrew: עמרם בר רב ששנא, or sometimes: Amram ben Sheshna [1] or Amram b. Sheshna; died 875) was a famous Gaon or head of the Jewish Talmud Academy of Sura during the 9th century. He authored 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.


Amram ben Sheshna was a pupil of Natronai ben Hilai, Gaon of Sura, and was exceptionally honored with the title of Gaon within the lifetime of his teacher. Eventually, he broke away from his teacher and started his own seat of learning.[2]

Rabbinic career[edit]

Upon Natronai's death, about 857, the full title and dignities of the geonate were conferred upon Amram, a title which he held for 18 years, until his death.[2] 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 aspect of Jewish jurisprudence. They afford insight into Amram's personality as well as religious practice among Jews of that period. For example, the ruling that 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.[3] 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 circumcision until he feels strong enough for it, is not to be hurried.[4] 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.[5] Amram's rules concerning the methodology of the Talmud are of considerable value.[6]

Siddur Rab Amram[edit]

The most important work of Amram, marking 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 siddur, 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 Siddur 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.[7]

The text[edit]

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[edit]

The Siddur Rab 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 contains variants likely to be derived from early versions of the Spanish rite. None of these early versions survives, but secondary evidence such as the Sefer ha-Manhig and the Siddur Rab Amram itself indicates that 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 Siddur Rab Amram and towards what was presumably its original wording.

Conversely, the Siddur Rab Amram was a major source used in the standardization of the nusach Ashkenaz, which was already akin to the old European family. For this reason, to a modern reader the wording of the Siddur Rab Amram appears far closer to an Ashkenazi than a Sephardi text, a fact which misled Moses Gaster[8] into believing that the Ashkenazi rite was based on the Babylonian while the Sephardic rite was essentially Palestinian.


  1. ^ Amram ben Sheshna,; Article
  2. ^ a b Sherira Gaon (1988). The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon. Translated by Nosson Dovid Rabinowich. Jerusalem: Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press - Ahavath Torah Institute Moznaim. pp. 146–148. OCLC 923562173.
  3. ^ "Sha'arei Tzedek," iv. 2, 20, 40
  4. ^ ib. iv. 6, 11
  5. ^ Tur, Orach Chayim, § 568.
  6. ^ Mueller, "Mafteach", p. 123.
  7. ^ see Neubauer, in "Jew. Quart. Rev." vi. 703.
  8. ^ Preface, Book of Prayer of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, London vol 1: Oxford (Oxford Univ. Press, Vivian Ridler), 5725 - 1965.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Amram". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGinzberg, Louis (1901). "Amram ben Sheshna or Shushna (known as Amram Gaon or Mar-Amram)". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. pp. 535–536.

Published texts of the Siddur[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by Gaon of the Sura Academy
Succeeded by