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Responsa, Jewish


The responsa literature consists of published answers to written questions directed to rabbinic authorities over a span of 17 centuries. The term responsa is the Latin word for "answers"; in Hebrew this literature is called s' e'ēlôt ut ešûbôt, "questions and answers." It is the practical supplement to the two other types of rabbinical literaturethe explanatory commentaries and novellae on the talmud (such as those of rashi and other commentators) and the codes that summarized the law in the maze of debate and coordinated the related laws found in separate places. In the early days, before the compilation of the Talmud, the oral law was a mass of tradition passed down by word of mouth through the generations. When a particular case required expert advice on a specific interpretation of the law, a written request for a ruling was directed to the distant central authority. At first the place of authority was Palestine. Later, after completion of the Talmud, the center of learning and authority shifted to Babylonia, where the Geonim (see gaon) headed the academies of Sura and Pumpeditha (from the 6th to the 11th century). The Gaonic responsa were brief, concise, and authoritative. In the middle of the 11th century the Gaonic period came to an end, and the era of the Rishonim (early rabbinic authorities) began. As the academies and books spread Talmudic knowledge and understanding over a broader area, responsa correspondence evolved to an intrascholarly legalistic level, resulting in full rabbinic essays and monographs.

The general structure included: (1) statement of the case; (2) indication of the relevant law, as recorded in one of the codes; (3) discussion of such contradictory opinions on a subject in the codes that compel reexamination of the basic Talmudical discussion from which the law is derived; (4) an analysis of passages in the Talmud containing principles possibly relevant to a case at hand. The principle is tested by being subjected to seemingly contradictory opinions in the Talmud. Having withstood the test, the principle is then applied to the case. This pattern, with variations according to time and place, was regularly followed.

The spotlight of importance highlighted the respondents of first one country and then another as the centers of learning shifted with the progress of history. Spain and its logical, scientific school produced men such as Solomon ben Adret (12351310), the author of 7,000 responsa. In France the grandson of Rashi, Rabbenu Tam (110071), achieved great fame. In Germany Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (122093) answered questions of concern to entire communities. In 15th-century Turkey, the haven for emigrants from Spain after the expulsion, Joseph caro was prominent. Remnants of many responsa from this era and the previous Gaonic era were discovered in the Cairo geniza. At the end of the 15th century the era of the later rabbinic authorities (Aharonim) began. The religious community in Poland was being developed; Talmudic schools were set up. Solomon Luria (151073) was famous in this period, as was Moses Isserles (152572). The responsa of this era were lengthier, for they quoted extensively from the responsa of the Rishonim.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, as emigration to America began and the emigrants found themselves facing a different life, they wrote to their familiar rabbis in eastern Europe for advice on how to proceed. Isaac Elhanan Spektor (181796), Rabbi of Kovno, became world-renowned for his responsa. New inventions and circumstances in the modern era raised new questions. Railroads brought up questions regarding travel on the Sabbath. Tobacco posed a problem as to whether smoking is permitted on the holidays. Electric dishwashers, radios, telephones, doorbells, microphones all raised questions concerning usage on the Sabbath. Prayers in the vernacular were questioned, mixed seating, etc. There have been rulings in every field: philosophy of religion, astronomy, mathematics, chronology, and geography, as well as interpretations of difficult passages in the Bible, mishnah, and Talmud. Side remarks inserted regarding historical circumstances through the ages have become valuable as source material for Jewish and general history, customs, moral climate, etc. Case law has come to carry as much weight as code law. The Jewish legal system is still flexible and adaptable due to the responsa of the past and present.

Bibliography: s. b. freehof, The Responsa Literature (Philadelphia 1955). j. z. lauterbach, Jewish Encyclopedia 11:240250. m. elon, Mavo Lemishpat Halvri (Jerusalem 1963) 317338. b. cohen, Kuntres Hateshubot (Budapest 1930).

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