History of responsa in Judaism

History of responsa in Judaism spans a period of 1,700 years. Rabbinic responsa constitute a special class of rabbinic literature, differing in form, but not necessarily in content, from Rabbinic commentaries devoted to the exegesis of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and halakha (the codes of Jewish religious law).[1][2] The codes themselves contain the rules for ordinary incidents of life. The responsa literature covers all these topics and more.[2] The mode, style and subject matter have changed as a function of the travels of the Jewish people and of the development of other halakhic literature, particularly the codes. Forumulation of responsa, or she’elot ve-t’shuvot, which literally translates to questions and answers, generally involve an individual or group asking either teachers, rabbis, or heads of yeshivot about halakhah (Jewish law) and the party responding via an exchange of letters.[3] Responsa literature spans 1700 years[2] and there are even responsa being developed based on questions posed today. The development of responsa literature can be divided into four periods: the Tannaitic Period, the Geonic Period, the First Rabbinic Epoch,the Second Rabbinic Epoch, the Third Rabbinic Epoch, and the Fourth Rabbinic Epoch.[2]

Talmudic era

Main article: Talmud

The responsa of the first five centuries are not contained in special works; they are scattered through the writings of both Talmuds (the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud). Works devoted especially to responsa first appear in the post-Talmudic period. Many responsa have been lost, but those extant number hundreds of thousands, in almost a thousand known collections.[2]

Pre-Mishnaic era

No responsa are known to exist from before the Mishnah (200 CE); it is doubtful whether any were written before this period. A tradition held that no halakha (law) should be written down (see Oral Torah). Even when reluctance to write down rulings became obsolete, letters of a legal nature might be written only in cases where laws might likewise be reduced to writing. While the rule prevailed that no laws should be written, no communications of legal content were made by means of letters. Questions were usually communicated orally, or proposed to the academy by a teacher, who transmitted the answer and decision by word of mouth. The rarity of letters on legal problems in the Tannaitic era (the period the Mishnah covers) may be seen from a passage in the Tosefta (Ter. ii. 13 ), which states that Rabbi Gamliel secretly dispatched a messenger with an answer to a question; for if he desired to keep his decision secret, he would probably have sent a letter had such replies been customary at that time.[2]

Mishnaic era

Main articles: Mishnah and Tannaim

In the Tannaitic period (100 BCE to 200 CE) statements, publications, contributions concerning the calendar, and notifications were the only documents regularly committed to writing. On the other hand, it can not positively be asserted that no ruling at all had been given in writing before the completion of the Mishnah: certain exceptions were doubtless made.[2]

In the Talmud

Immediately after the completion of the Mishnah, when the prohibition or reluctance against writing halakhot had in great part disappeared, the responsa literature began to appear, traces being preserved in the Talmud. Often questions were settled by a single letter, as was later the case with the Geonim, who exchanged a series of responsa. The replies were signed by pupils and colleagues, so that, strictly speaking, the responsa were issued by a board.[2]

With the beginning of the third century of the common era, responsa begin to frequently appear in letters from Babylonia to Israel. By the end of the third century the correspondence between Israel and Babylonia had become more active, and the responsa from the one to the other had become far more numerous. These rulings from rabbis in Israel seem to have been regarded as authoritative and demanding obedience; and the threat was made to Rabbi Judah ben Ezekiel, head of the Academy of Pumbedita, that a letter would be brought from "the West" (i.e., Israel) to annul his decision (Talmud, tractate Bava Batra 41b ). Another teacher likewise protested against R. Judah's ruling, and warned him that he also would produce a letter from the West to refute him (Talmud, Shebu. 48b ), the same experience befalling Mar Ukba (Talmud, Sanhedrin 29a ).[2]


Main article: Geonim

During the Geonic period (650-1250 CE), the Babylonian schools were the chief centers of Jewish learning; the Geonim, the heads of these schools, were recognized as the highest authorities in Jewish law. Despite difficulties that hampered the irregular communications of the period, Jews who lived even in most distant countries sent their inquiries concerning religion and law to these officials in Babylonia. it was common for Jews outside of Babylon to ask to be sent a section of the Talmud along with “its explanation” or to ask the scholars in Babylon to settle Jewish arguments for which they could not find any precedent. The length of responsa from this period can span from less than a sentence to a large book. Many of the responsa are still being studied today in the Cairo Genizah. In the yeshiva during this time period, students and scholars would discuss these halakhic questions during kallah and then the head of the yeshiva would announce his decision and the leaders in the yeshiva would sign it. Another type of responsa were those that were more time-sensitive, so the gaon usually responded to them right away and with many different sections in order to answer multiple questions that were posed. Later Geonim also referred to the responsa and commentaries of earlier Geonim when writing responsa.[3] In the latter centuries of the geonic period, from the middle of the tenth to the middle of the eleventh, their supremacy suffered, as the study of the Talmud received care in other lands. The inhabitants of these regions gradually began to submit their questions to the heads of the schools of their own countries. Eventually they virtually ceased sending their questions to Babylonian Geonim, so that during this period responsa of eminent rabbis of other lands appeared side by side with geonic rulings.[2]


Earlier Geonim

In the days of the earliest geonim the majority of the questions asked them were sent only from Babylonia and the neighboring lands, where the inhabitants were more or less acquainted with the Talmud and could visit the academies in the Kallah months to hear Talmudic explanations by leading scholars. The questions, which were submitted in writing, were accordingly limited to one or more specific cases, while the responsum to such a query gave in brief form the required ruling and a concise reason for it, together with a citation of an analogous Talmudic instance (Judah Gaon, in "Sha'are Ẓedeḳ," iv. 4, 69, p. 71), and a refutation of any possible objection (ib. iv. 5, 27, p. 76b).[2]

Later Geonim

More discursive were the responsa of the later geonim after the first half of the ninth century, when questions began to be sent from more distant regions, where the inhabitants were less familiar with the Talmud, even if they possessed it, and were less able to visit the Babylonian academies, the only seats of Talmudic learning. Talmudic difficulties were often the subject of these inquiries.[2]

The later geonim did not restrict themselves to the Mishnah and Talmud, but used the decisions and responsa of their predecessors, whose sayings and traditions were generally regarded as authoritative. These responsa of the later geonim were often essays on Talmudic themes, and since a single letter often answered many questions, it frequently became book-length in size. The letters of the Geonim, which, for the most part, contained replies to many problems, assumed a definite and official form. They began with the statement that the questions had been correctly received, read, and considered, and that the corresponding answers had been given in the presence of the gaon and with his approval.[2]


Main article: Rishonim

The period of the rishonim, or the First Rabbinic Epoch, primarily consists of the writings from 11th and 12th century Spanish and French schools.[2] With the decline of the gaonate in the first half of the eleventh century, the Jews of various countries lost the central spiritual authorities who had hitherto given their decisions in doubtful problems. Thenceforth the appeal in religious and legal questions was to be made to the rabbinical authorities of one's own or a neighboring country, so that inquiries sent during this period to Babylonia were rare and exceptional.[2]


Eleventh century

Twelfth century

Thirteenth century

The Second Rabbinic Epoch consists of responsa from Spanish and Frenco-German schools in the 13th and 14th centuries. Nahmanides and R. Solomen ben Adret were two of the big scholars during this period. These responsa were written about a wide range of topics including Talmudic passages, ethics, religious philosophy, and more.[2] In this period the difference between the Spanish and the Franco-German forms of responsa vanished. On the one hand, the scientific spirit of the Spanish school partially entered the academies of southern France, and, on the other hand, the dialecticism of the French rabbis steadily increased in influence in Spain.[2]

Fourteenth century

The principal representatives of the fourteenth century were Asher ben Jehiel (RoSH) and Isaac ben Sheshet Barfat.[2]


Main article: Acharonim

The period of the Achronim, or the Third Rabbinic Epoch includes response of Italian, Turkish, German, and Polish rabbis. Given the political climate and various persecutions the Jews were experiencing throughout this time period, the majority of these responsa were written in response to questions concerning legal matters.[2] This section covers responsa written during fifteenth to the eighteenth century, and includes responsa of Italian, Turkish, German, and Polish rabbis. This period is the richest in the responsa literature. It would therefore be impossible to enumerate all the collections; this section presents a survey of the chief representatives of each century and country.


These rulings are different from those of the previous periods in the nature of the problems presented, in the method of treatment, and in the arrangement of subject-matter.[2]

Fifteenth century

Sixteenth century

Seventeenth century

In the seventeenth century rabbis of various countries prepared responsa, but the Polish scholars were in the great majority.[2]

Eighteenth century

In the eighteenth century the rabbis of various countries contributed to responsa literature, but the most important were still the Polish scholars.[2]

Nineteenth century to early twentieth century

In this period, many responsa deal with problems taken from modern experience. Responsa have been inspired or necessitated by economic growth, social movements, and advances in technology, which wrought sweeping changes in the lives and living conditions of the Jews in different countries, as well as within Judaic streams; e.g., those of Reform Judaism and Zionism.[2]

The movements for the reform of Judaism evoked many responsa in reply to questions concerning the location of the bimah, organ accompaniments, the covering of the head in the synagogue, the seating of men and women together, and prayers in the vernacular.[2]

Jewish settlement in Palestine had occasioned many responsa on questions connected with agriculture and horticulture in the Holy Land, including the problems of the cessation of all labor in the fields during the Sabbatical year and the use of etrogs from Israel.[2]

Following are representative examples:

In addition to the collections of responsa already mentioned, important examples of responsal literature in the nineteenth century include: the "Ḥesed le-Abraham" of Abraham Te'omim (Lemberg, 1898),[33] the "Ketab Sofer" of Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer (Presburg, 1873[34]-84), and the "Be'er Yiẓḥaḳ" of Isaac Elhanan Spektor (Königsberg, n.d.).[2][35]

Twentieth century

While many of the responsa throughout history have been written down and can be found in various books or anthologies, a lot of responsa today can be found on online databases such as The Global Jewish Database (The Responsa Project) at Bar-Ilan University. The Schechter Institute’s website also has six volumes of Conservative responsa written by the Rabbinical Assembly.[3]

Responsa of Orthodox Judaism

In contemporary Orthodox Judaism, responsa remain a primary channel whereby halakhic decisions and policies are formulated and communicated. Notable collections of Responsa published in the 20th Century include those by Moshe Feinstein, Ovadia Yosef, Eliezer Waldenberg and Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg.

Contemporary responsa deal with both traditional questions and phenomena associated with modern social, religious, medical and technological developments. For example, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon noted that, while orbiting the earth, the space shuttle experiences a day/night cycle approximately every ninety minutes. Thus, Ramon asked whether he should keep the Sabbath according to Earth time, or mark it once every seven day/night cycles (ten and a half hours). And if according to Earth time, then what location on Earth should this be based upon? The rabbis concluded that he was to celebrate the Sabbath in accordance with Earth time, based on the place of his departure – Cape Canaveral.[36]

Conservative responsa

Main article: Conservative responsa

Conservative Judaism holds that Orthodoxy has deviated from historical Judaism through excessive concern with recent codifications of Jewish law. Conservative rabbis make a conscious effort to use historical sources to determine what kind of changes occurred, how and why they occurred, and in what historical context. With this information they believe that can better understand a proper way for rabbis to interpret and apply Jewish law to our conditions today. Like Orthodoxy, there is no one legal body that speaks for all Jews in their religious community.

When defined narrowly as the Conservative movement, Conservative Judaism has two law committees: In the USA there is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. The CJLS is the body that sets halkhic policy. There are 25 voting members on the committee who determine whether or not to enact a specific responsa. The responsa are written after a member of the Rabbinic Assembly or the Conservative movement in general poses a question about Halakha. A responsa is deemed approved when at least 6 member of the committee vote to approve it. Despite the fact that CJLS makes decisions about the rulings of responsa, which stands as the decisions for the entirety of the Conservative Movement, individual rabbis can still make their own decision about how to rule on specific circumstances within their communities.[37] In the State of Israel there is the Vaad Halakhah of the local branch, the Masorti movement.

See also


  1. Oesterley, W. O. E. & Box, G. H. (1920) A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Mediæval Judaism, Burt Franklin: New York.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "She'elot U-Teshubot". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. Retrieved 2013-04-24.
    Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography: Responsal literature as a whole has as yet found no literary historian; single periods have been discussed while others have been entirely neglected, the works on these separate epochs including: Joel Müller, Briefe und Responsen aus der Vorgaonäischen Jüdischen Literatur, Berlin, 1886; idem, Einleitung in die Responsen der Babylonischen Geonen. ib. 1891; Zecharias Frankel, Entwurf einer Geschichte der Literatur der Nachtalmudischen Responsen, Breslau, 1865. The responsa by European and American rabbis to problems arising in America are summarized by J. D. Eisenstein, The Development of Jewish Casuistic Literature in America, Baltimore, 1905.
  3. 1 2 3 Berenbaum, Michael; Skolnik, Fred (2007). "Responsa". Encyclopaedia Judaica. 17 (2): 228–239. Retrieved 2015-03-02.
  4. תמת ישרים. OCLC 232936807. Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. שאלות ותשובות (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. שאלות ותשובות (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. תקמח (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  8. "שאלות ותשובות". Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  9. "שאלות ותשובות". Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  10. "שערי תשובות". OCLC 233099136. Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  11. נספח ג (in Hebrew). Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  12. שאלות ותשובות. Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  13. שאלות ותשובות. Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  14. י (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  15. תשובות רבינו יצחק בר ששת (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  16. א (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  17. ד (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  18. ו (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  19. יא (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  20. יב (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  21. מג (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  22. קנח (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/1/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  23. Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Isserlein (Isserlin), Israel Ben Pethahiah Ashkenazi". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  24. שו"ת מוהר"י מברונא. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  25. עא (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  26. שאלות ותשובות. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  27. שאלות ותשובות. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  28. דבר שמואל. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  29. אמונת שמואל. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  30. שאילת יעבץ. OCLC 233093324. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  31. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Passover/TO_Pesach_History/Modern_176/Machine_552.htm
  32. סי' כט (in Hebrew). Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  33. חסד לאברהם. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  34. כתב סופר חלק אורח חיים. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  35. באר יצחק. Retrieved May/6/13. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  36. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/632169/jewish/Shabbat-in-Space.htm
  37. "Committee on Jewish Law and Standards". Rabbinical Assembly. Retrieved 2015-03-02.

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