Note: This is based on an entry from the 1906 public domain Jewish Encyclopedia. This needs some work!
The responsa literature, known in Hebrew as Sheelot U-teshuvot ("questions and answers"), is the body of written decisions and rulings given by rabbis to questions addressed to them.
Responsa constitute a special class of rabbinic literature. Rabbinic commentaries are devoted to the exegesis of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the codes of Jewish law. The codes themselves contain the rules for ordinary incidents of life. The responsa literature covers all these topics and more:
Many of the questions were theoretical in character, since they requested information concerning all departments of knowledge. The responsa accordingly contain rulings on halakha (practical Jewish law and custom), ethics, business ethics, the philosophy of religion, astronomy, mathematics, history, geography, as well as interpretations of passages in the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Midrash.
Its use as a source for textual criticism
Older responsa are important for readings and emendations of the Mishnah and the Talmud, affording valuable material for textual criticism. The questions were usually practical, and often concerned with new contingencies for which no provision had been made in the codes, and the responsa thus supplement the literature of codification.
As a source for historical scholarship
While early Jewish literature has few historical works, many notes on the history of Judaism have been introduced into the responsa undesignedly. The responsa contain invaluable material for general history, as many events are cursorily mentioned in them which are either noted obscurely or totally ignored by contemporary historians, yet which illustrate the conditions of the times. The responsa thus contribute much about the culture of the Jews and of the people among whom they lived. Information is offered on the moral and social relations of the times, occupations and on undertakings, on the household, on customs and on usages, on expressions of joy and of sorrow, on recreations and on games.
History of the responsa literature
The responsal literature covers a period of 1,700 years, but the responsa of the first five centuries are not contained in special works; they are scattered through the writings of both Talmuds. Works devoted especially to responsa first appear in the post-Talmudic period. Many responsa have been lost, but those which are extant number hundreds of thousands, in almost a thousands known collections.
The earliest period
No responsa are known to exist from before the Mishnah (200 CE); it is doubtful whether any were written before this period. There was a tradition which held that no halakha (law) should be written down. Even when the reluctance against writing 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 (period during which the Mishna covers) may be seen from a passage in the Tosefta (Ter. ii. 13) which states that R. Gamaliel secretly despatched 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.
Correspondence between Babylonia and Palestine
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. Immediately after the completion of the Mishnah, however, 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.
With the beginning of the third century of the common era, responsa begin to frequently appear in letters from Babylonia to Palestine. By the end of the third century the correspondence between Palestine 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 Palestine 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 Palestine 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 Palestine to refute him (Shebu. 48b), the same experience befalling Mar Ukba (Sanhedrin 29a).
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.
Early medieval period
In the geonic period (650-1250 CE) the responsa are characterized by a more developed literary style. The Talmud had been completed and was recognized as authoritative, and was accessible to scholars. With an accurate knowledge of the Talmud, scholars might deduce for themselves rulings for any case which might present itself. Even in instances in which the questioner was not versed in the Talmud and the responsum was required to give only a brief decision on the case under consideration, the ruling was usually not a mere "yes" or "no," "permitted" or "forbidden," but rather it was generally the custom for the scholars who prepared responsa to cite a passage from the Talmud in support or proof of their decisions, or to controvert any possible opposition by an anticipated refutation.
Many of these questions have little practical use, but are concerned with the correct explanation of passages of the Talmud.
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, and a refutation of any possible objection.
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.
Mode of reply
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.
Geonic responsa are written in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. In the earliest period Aramaic, the language of the Gemara, prevailed exclusively, but in the middle of the ninth century Hebrew began to appear in the responsa side by side with it. This innovation was due, on the one hand, to the study of Hebrew which spread through rabbinical circles as a result of the Karaite movement, and, on the other, to the fact that the rulings of the Geonim were sent to distant lands, where the inhabitants were unfamiliar with Aramaic; it thus became necessary to write to them in Hebrew, the dialect of the Mishnah. When Arabic became the prevailing language of the Jews, questions were frequently addressed to the Geonim in that tongue, whereupon the scholars of the academies used the same language in reply.
Collections of Geonic responsa
Some of the responsa that have survived are in their original form, while others are extant only in extracts. The first collection appeared, together with brief geonic rulings, at Constantinople in 1516 under the title "Halakot Pesukot min ha-Geonim" (Brief Rulings of the Geonim), and in 1575 another corpus, entitled "She'elot u-Teshubot me ha-Geonim," was published in the same city. At Salonica in 1792 Nissim ben Hayyim edited a collection of geonic responsa under the title "Shaare Tzedek" (Gates of Justice), which contains 533 responsa arranged according to subject, and an index by the editor. For the majority of these responsa the name of the author is cited, and many of them are reproduced in their original form with their Talmudic proofs and disquisitions.
Rise of Local Responsa
During the geonic period 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 the difficulties which 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. 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.
The Spanish and French schools in the 11th and 12th centuries
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. (See: Rishonim)
The responsa of the epoch came from various countries, and from schools having different tendencies, thus showing the position and the type of spiritual life in general and of Talmudic learning in particular, since all these factors prevailed in the different countries at the time. Especially noteworthy is the divergence between the French and the Spanish school in the twelfth century, the second half of this period.
The questions were by no means restricted to practical problems, but many of them, in case the interpretation of a halakic or haggadic passage in the Talmud was the subject of inquiry, were theoretical in nature. In their discussion of theoretical problems the responsa of the Spanish scholars are noteworthy for the untrammeled scientific spirit which permeates them far more than is the case with those of the French school. Even in those responsa which are practical in bearing a distinction may be drawn between the two schools.
For the most part the rulings of this period receive their basis or their confirmation from a passage in the Talmud, and in this motivation the difference between the French and the Spanish exegesis of the Talmud is clearly shown. The Spanish school was the more logical, and strove for brevity and lucidity in the deduction of its rulings from the Talmud, while the French school was more dialectic, and frequently gave full play to casuistry at the expense of clearness.
The chief representative of the French school in the eleventh century was Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi), and many of his responsa have been preserved in the "Pardes" and in the Vitry Mahzor. His decisions are written in Hebrew, without formulas either of introduction or of conclusion, although an interesting phrase which is peculiar to him and was apparently invented by him occurs once, running as follows: "I, the undersigned, was asked whether . . . thus have I heard from my teachers, and thus is my own opinion likewise inclined,..." the ruling being followed by the signature "Solomon b. Isaac," without any concluding formula (Vitry Mahzor, pp. 434-435).
The leader of the Spanish school in the same century was Isaac Alfasi, who left many responsa, an entire collection being printed at Leghorn in 1780, under the title "She'elot u-Teshubot ha-RIF" (Isaac Alfasi). These decisions were written in Arabic, and were translated into Hebrew at an early date, being extant only in this version.
The French School
The chief representatives of the French school of the twelfth century were Jacob Tam, Abraham ben David of Posquières, and Eliezer ben Nathan of Mayence. The responsa of Rabbi Tam are contained in his "Sefer ha-Yashar" as well as in the works of other authorities, such as R. Meïr of Rothenburg and Mordecai.
The responsa of Eliezer ben Nathan, contained in his "Even ha-Ezer," are partly exegetic in character and partly devoted to practical decisions. The responsa of Abraham ben David are included in the collection entitled "Tummat Yesharim" or "Temim De'im" (Venice, 1622). Particularly noteworthy is his injunction that Jewish law obliagtes Jews to follow the laws of the land, i.e. to follow the laws of the secular government in which a Jewish community found itself living. This ruling is based on the Talmudic saying: "The law of the land is valid" (ib. responsum No. 50).
The chief representatives of the Spanish school in the twelfth century were Joseph ibn Migas and Maimonides. The responsa of the former include both practical decisions and explanations of difficult passages in the Mishnah and the Talmud, the first group being written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew, while the greater portion of the second category was composed by the author himself in the Talmudic Hebrew idiom.
Spanish and French schools, 13th and 14th centuries
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.
The chief representatives of the Spanish responsa in the thirteenth century were Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman), Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, and Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben. Very few responsa by Nahmanides have been preserved; those which are extant are contained in a work entitled "She'elot u-Teshubot" in which are included in great part the responsa of Solomon beb Adret. To him came questions from the most distant communities. His responsa number about three thousand, and in content are partly practical and partly devoted to exegesis, ethics, and religious philosophy. The exegetic rulings interpreted difficult passages of the Bible, the Talmud, and the works of older authors, while the practical responsa comprised decisions as to the ritual, civil and marital law, communal relations, and the contemporary political affairs of the Jews.
The responsa of Solomon ben Adret fall into five parts. The first part (Bologna, 1539) contains 1,255 responsa; part two, entitled "Sefer Toledot Olam" (Leghorn, 1654), contains 405; part three (ib. 1778) contains 445; part four (Salonica, 1803) contains 330; and part five (Leghorn, 1805) contains 298. Other responsa by him are included in the "She'elot u-Teshuvot."
A few examples of his decisions may be given. When asked concerning many discrepancies between the books of Chronicles and the other books of the Bible, he replied as follows (i., No. 12): "A change in phraseology without an alteration of meaning is not surprising. Even in the Pentateuch apparent discrepancies of this kind are found, so that one of the sons of Simeon is called Zohar in Gen. xlvi. 10 and Ex. vi. 15, and Zerah in Num. xxvi. 13, but since both names signify 'magnificent,' the double nomenclature is explained."
In responsum No. 395 he describes his abolition of several superstitious customs, one of which was to kill an old cock, and to hang its head at the door on the occasion of the birth of a boy. Particularly noteworthy is responsum No. 548, in which he gives a decision regarding a marvelous child at Avila, who had originally been idiotic, but later frequently fell into trances during which he composed works whose contents he declared had been communicated to him by an angel.
The German School
The chief representative of the German school in the thirteenth century was Rabbi Meïr ben Baruch of Rothenburg. Many of his responsa have been preserved, the oldest collection being the "She'elot u-Teshubot" (Cremona, 1557) with 315 responsa, while another corpus, which contained 1,022 responsa, appeared under the same title at Prague in 1608. A collection of unedited responsa was issued at Lemberg in 1860, and in 1891 Moses Bloch published at Berlin a new corpus of unedited responsa of Meïr of Rothenburg under the title "Sefer Sha'are Teshubot Maharam."
The special interest of Meïr's responsa is the picture which they give of the condition of the German Jews of his time, and of their sufferings from the caprice of princes and from heavy taxation. The collections of the responsa of Meïr of Rothenburg contain also the rulings of other older and contemporary rabbis of the Franco-German school.
The principal representatives of the fourteenth century were Asher ben Jehiel and Isaac ben Sheshet Barfat. The responsa of the former first appeared at Constantinople in 1517 under the title "She'elot u-Teshubot," while an enlarged edition was published at Venice in 1607. This collection of responsa is arranged according to 108 subjects, each of which has a special chapter, called "kelal," while at the head of every rubric stands a résumé of its contents and a numerical list of the responsa treating of each subject. This arrangement, however, was not the work of Asher himself, but was made probably by one of his pupils, possibly by his son Rabbi Judah. From the responsa of Rabbi Asher may be gleaned many curious customs of the Spanish communities. To a question addressed to him from Burgos, Asher responded (No. 68, 10) that according to Talmudic law no arrests could be made for debt, even in cases where the debtor had pledged his own person, although, on the other hand, he noted that it was the custom of the communities in Spain to imprison one who had failed to pay his quota of the royal tax until he should discharge his debt.
The 518 responsa of Isaac ben Sheshet were published at Constantinople in 1546-47 as "She'elot u-Teshuvot". These responsa contain many disquisitions illustrative of the conditions of the times, including rulings on marriage and marital relations in the case of Jews who had been forcibly baptized, as well as other decisions relating to those who had been compelled to accept Christianity (e.g., Nos. 1, 4, 6, 11, 12, 43). Especially interesting are the responsa which describe the prevailing customs and regulations of the communities of the period, as in No. 158, which contains a noteworthy account of the usages observed in many places with regard to the seven days of mourning after the death of a kinsman.
The 15th to 18th century, in Europe and Turkey
This section covers responsa written during fifteenth to the eighteenth century, and includes responsa of Italian, Turkish, German, and Polish rabbis. 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. In former times the questions had been devoted to many departments of knowledge, both sacred and profane, being concerned with halakic and exegetic themes as well as with ethical and philosophical problems, so that there was scarcely a subject of human activity or thought on which the responsa might not expatiate. In this period, on the other hand, the responsa were restricted almost entirely to legal regulations. Since the pronouncement of judgment was regarded as a religious duty, and since in most countries the Jews were unwilling to submit to a non-Jewish court, legal questions formed a large part of the responsa. While the decisions of the earlier epochs had been so lucid that the reader could easily follow them, the responsa of this period had changed completely, for the pilpulistic methods which had been in vogue since the middle of the fifteenth century in the study of the Talmud and the halakic works forced their way into responsa literature as well. The responsa are remarkable for the hair-splitting dialectics which characterizes them, and often robs them of lucidity.
Since the respondents now belonged to the Aharonim (later rabbinic authorities) and no longer enjoyed the independence of theRishonim (earlier rabbinic authorities) they sought to base their decisions on the older authorities. The field had already been thoroughly worked, and the respondent was consequently obliged to have studied it in all its aspects, and to have made a careful search for the question propounded to him or one analogous to it.
In the older rulings systematic sequence was almost entirely lacking, but the responsa of the new period had as models the "Arba' Turim" of Jacob ben Asher and, after the sixteenth century, the Shulkhan Arukh of Joseph Caro, so that many of the responsa were arranged according to these two works, while among the later scholars this practice became the rule.
This period is the richest in the responsa literature. It would be impossible to enumerate all the collections made within it, so it must suffice to mention the chief representatives of each century and country. The most important German respondents of the fifteenth century were Israel Isserlein and Israel Bruna. The collection of the responsa of the former is entitled "Terumat ha-Deshen," and comprises 354 decisions, which are important as describing many characteristic features of the time. Several of them (Nos. 341-346) discuss the apportionment of the taxes and the assessments, while others are concerned with the attitude to be observed toward a repentant apostate (No. 198). Particularly interesting is the responsum (No. 197) devoted to the problem whether Jews might so disguise themselves as to escape recognition in countries where they were absolutely forbidden to reside. The responsa of Israel Bruna, entitled "She'elot u-Teshuvot" (Stettin, 1860), likewise contain many interesting allusions to contemporary conditions, as in the case of No. 71, which discusses the problem whether the Jews might attend races. In Italy the chief representatives of the fifteenth century were Joseph Colon and Judah Minz. Especially important in the responsal literature of this century were the Turkish rabbis, among whom the chief were Jacob Berab, Levi ben Ḥabib, Elijah Mizraḥi, and Moses Alashkar.
The responsa of Moses Alashkar (printed at Sabbionetta in 1554) are those which discuss the problem whether a converted Jew may be compelled by means of the provincial court to give his Jewish wife a bill of divorce according to Jewish procedure (No. 75, pp. 136b-137a), and the question of the covering of the head and the concealment of the hair in the case of a married woman (No. 35, pp. 94 et seq.).
The chief Polish representatives of the sixteenth century were Moses Isserles, Solomon Luria, and Meïr Lublin; the responsa of these scholars throw a flood of light on the condition of the Jews of the period, who evidently took high rank in Poland and were not unfamiliar with military arts, since they offered their services to the duke or to the prince on the outbreak of a war (comp. responsum. No. 43 of Meïr Lublin).
The chief Turkish respondents of this period were Joseph Caro, Joseph ibn Leb, Samuel of Modena, and David abi Zimra. Of the responsa of the last-named, which are contained in several collections and which are characterized by lucidity and strict logic, one (iv. 92) may be noted as especially interesting in that it discusses the problem whether a Jew is permitted to abjure his religion and accept Islam when threatened with death. Abi Zimra considers the question in detail, and determines the cases in which a Jew may thus save his life and the contingencies in which he should rather choose death. The only important Italian respondent of the sixteenth century was Menahem Azariah da Fano, whose responsa were edited at Dyhernfurth in 1788.
In the seventeenth century rabbis of various countries prepared responsa, but the Polish scholars were in the great majority. The chief German representative of responsal literature was Yair Hayyim Bacharach. Among the Italian respondents the most important was Samuel Aboab, whose decisions appeared at Venice in 1702 under the title "Debar Shemu'el," while of the Turkish authorities the most prominent were Joseph b. Moses di Trani (MaHaRIT) and Jacob Alfandari.
The Polish School
The principal Polish rabbis of the seventeenth century who wrote responsa were Aaron Samuel Kaidanover and Menahem Mendel Krochmal. The decisions of the former, which were published at Frankfort-on-the-Main in 1683 under the title "Emunat Shemu'el," afford a glimpse of the plight of the German Jews of the time. The responsa of Menahem Mendel Krochmal appeared posthumously; the most noteworthy of his rulings is one (No. 2) in which he decided in favor of universal suffrage in the community, making no distinction between rich and poor, taxed and untaxed, learned and ignorant, but giving all an equal share in the choice of the rabbi, the dayyan, and the president.
In the eighteenth century the rabbis of various countries contributed to responsal literature, but the most important were still the Polish scholars. The chief representative of Germany was Jacob Emden, whose responsa form the collection entitled "She'elot Ya'abeẓ" (Lemberg, 1884).
Among the Polish scholars who prepared responsa may be mentioned Meïr Eisenstadt and Ezekiel Landau. Particularly interesting in the collection of the former, which is entitled "Panim Me'irot," is one (ii., No. 152) in which he stigmatizes as presumptuous arrogance the practice of ostentatiously wearing white garments in the fashion of the Kabbalists, while the general custom was to wear black clothing. The collection of responsa by Ezekiel Landau, known as "Noda' bi-Yehudah," was esteemed by rabbis and scholars, being distinguished both for its logical discussion and for its independence with regard to the rulings of later authorities as contrasted with its adherence to the writings of earlier scholars.
From the 19th century to the present
In this period many responsa deal with problems taken from actual experience. This is especially true of decisions evoked by many great inventions which have wrought sweeping changes in the relations of life in general, or by changes in the conditions of the Jews in different countries, or by movements within Judaism itself; e.g., those of Reform Judaism and Zionism.
Only a few examples can be cited here. In a responsum ("Hatam Sofer, Orah; Hayyim,"No. 28) Moses Sofer discussed the problem whether the "bimah" (almemar) might be removed from the center and placed near the Ark, as is now the case in all Reform and even in many Orthodox synagogues, but which was then interdicted as an innovation. In another responsum (ib. "Yoreh De'ah," No. 128) he debated whether a Jewish sculptor was permitted by his religion to carve human figures. 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.
In a responsum Joseph Saul Nathanson discussed the problem of the transfer of a corpse from one place of burial to another ("Sho'el u-Meshib," i., No. 231). In another responsum (ib. iii., No. 373) he replied in the affirmative to a question sent him from New York asking whether a Protestant church might be changed into a synagogue. Isaac Schmelkes passed judgment ("Bet-Yiẓḥaḳ," i., Przemysl, 1901, No. 29) on the question of civil marriage, which is permitted by the laws of Hungary between Jews and non-Jews, and he debated also (ib. ii., Przemysl, 1895, No. 31) whether electric lights may be used for Ḥanukkah, and (ib. No. 58) whether the telephone or the phonograph may be used on the Sabbath. The Jewish colonization of Palestine in recent times has been the occasion of 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 the Jewish colony of Palestine.
Conservative Jews believe that Orthodoxy had deviated from historical Judaism through an excessive concern with recent codifications of Jewish law. The Conservative movement rejects the Orthodox view of Jewish history, which entails near total deference to rabbis, and instead holds that a more fluid model is both necessary and theologically and historically justifiable. The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards makes 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 the proper way for rabbis to interpret and apply Jewish law to our conditions today.
There is a separate article on Conservative responsa.
Responsa of Orthodox Judaism
There will be a separate article on Orthodox responsa , dealing with the responsa of the Orthodox Jewish community since 1900.