By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 29, 2009

Gaon is the modern Hebrew for genius. In the Bible, gaon means glory or arrogance, depending on the context. We are told (Isaiah 24: 14), “Exult in the glory (gaon) of the Lord!” But, that God (Proverbs 8:13) “hates pride, arrogance (ga’avah, gaon)”. Indeed, gaon derives from ga’avah, and most biblical references are negative, reflecting biblical disdain for a hypertrophied ego.

From around the late sixth century, the heads of the two major Babylonian talmudic academies, Sura and Pumbedita, were called Geonim. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (1720- 1797) is known as the Vilna Gaon, revealing the esteem in which he was held.

Gaon and genius bear a superficial similarity, as they share a g and an n. However, their origins are quite different. Whereas gaon derives from glory, with a history of academic leadership behind it, the Greek genius refers to the spirit created along with a person, which is supposed to teach them throughout life. This myth is comparable to the Jewish belief of an angel teaching the baby in utero. But instead of guiding you in life, the angel causes you to forget everything on birth and to rely on your own efforts to regain the lost knowledge.

Last updated: 12:49pm, January 29 2009