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eBook The Responsa Literature
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2001
Language:  English
Pages:   304

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ISBN: 1-59045-200-3

About the Book -- The Responsa Literature

In a broader sense than is generally recognized, the Jews deserve the proud title of “The People of the Book.” Bible, Talmud, various types of rabbinic works have constituted not only a chain of Jewish tradition, but a veritable life-line for the Jewish people. The Jews produced these books; and these books in turn have preserved the Jewish religion and people. One example of this process is the Responsa Literature, which this book describes.

Responsa were (and are) answers to questions. They are the more significant half of an active correspondence carried on for the past two thousand years between individuals and communities, on the one hand, and scholars, on the other, wherever Jews found home. What is extraordinary about this correspondence is that both questions and answers derived from a deep religious quest. In Judaism, God’s will is expressed in the sacred literature as expounded by authoritative teachers. Since life imples constant change, so that new situations offer continuous challenge to the faithful, questioners sought to discover hoe their lives might, in one or another particular, be guided by those who were thoroughly acquainted with the traditional interpretation. The respondents – men like the Babylonian geonim, Maimonides, Solomon ben Adret, Joseph Karo and, in more recent times, Ezekiel Landau, Sholom Schwadron and numerous others – were rabbis of great learning and deep spirituality who offered advice and instruction on the basis of logic and precedent. The Responsa Literature thus provides the key to the process of Jewish religious development and adjustment.

This is the first book to give a complete review of the Responsa Literature from its beginnings. In direct, untechnical style, the author introduces the reader to the foremost respondents; traces the development of the Literature, offers examples of its style and content, evaluates its influence and, finally, indicates the reasons for the changes in approach and subject matter from Talmudic times to the present day. Many of the response are shown to be thoroughly human documents, mirroring the life of the Jewish people in various countries and different ages. This volume, therefore, will serve as an introduction to an aspect of Jewish life and letters which, until now, has remained largely unknown to all but the expert.

About the Book




  1. Origins and Development of the Responsa
  2. The Leading Respondents
  3. A Selection of Responsa
  4. Widespread Debates
  5. History in the Responsa
  6. Modern Inventions
  7. Curious Responsa
  8. Prospective Development of the Responsa Literature


Reference List of Responsa Volumes Cited


An Excerpt from the Book -- The Responsa Literature

When the legal system has not yet been clearly codified, but is still to a large extent a mass of unorganized tradition, then those who are the carriers of the tradition attain a special status. The average man is, under the circumstances, unable to learn the law independently, as he could if it were codified. He has to turn to those who are the repositories of the tradition. “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth” (Malachi 2:7). The priest was the transmitter of the old traditions and, since there was no clear code, the only way for a person to know the law was to ask him.

Such personal inquiries were the rule in many legal systems at the stage when they carried a body of unorganized or half-organized traditions. Besides, the greater the reliance upon a non-professional judge—so that the judgment of the average person, sitting as a member of a jury, was the source of decision —the greater was the need for special legal guidance. The amateur judge needed someone to whom to turn with an inquiry in cases of special difficulty.

These personal inquiries inevitably take the form of correspondence when the people under the legal system involved live scattered over a large area or in various countries. There is almost certain to develop some system of asking and receiving opinions from an expert who dwells in the metropolis or in the mother country from which the colonists had spread. Such were the circumstances which prevailed in earlier Roman history. The Law itself, originally in the keeping of the priest, was imperfectly codified. Also, the judge, the index, was not generally a professionally trained lawyer. Thus there emerged a group of people who specialized in the knowledge of the traditions and forms of the Law. These were known as “Consultants in the Law” (iuris consulti), or the “Wise Men of the Law” (iuris prudentes). The answers which they gave to the questions asked of them were known therefore as responsa prudentium, “the answers of the learned.” In later Roman Law these responsa attained considerable authority. The Emperor Augustus, for example, gave certain jurists the right to issue responsa which carried the emperor’s authority. The right to answer legal questions officially fell into disuse by the end of the third century of the present era, but in the meantime a body of responsa had accumulated which had considerable legal authority.

Similar conditions prevailed in Mohammedan Law. The Mohammedan world was widespread and the Law was still largely in the form of unorganized tradition. Hence there developed the Moslem fatwa as an important element in Moslem Law. The bases of Islamic Law, in addition to that found in the Koran, are the decisions and statements made by Mohammed himself. These were handed down by tradition. These traditions were variously collected and organized into different systems of law. Moreover, since the judge, the cadi, was not a professionally trained lawyer, there was constant need for experts who could be approached for opinions. Thus there was a mufti in every community who gave fatwas, or responsa, as to what the law was. These fatwas were generally not discussions, but merely brief answers to the questions before him, sometimes merely “yes” or “no.” The sultan in Constantinople appointed a supreme mufti who answered questions which the Palace presented to him.

In the American legal system, there is also some need for what might be described as responsa, or law set forth in correspondence. This is chiefly due to the fact that the amount of new legislation is always large; and it is frequently important, before undertaking certain business enterprises, to know what the implication of the relevant laws may be. Hence the attorney general of most states, and also the attorney general of the United States with regard to Federal laws, will issue opinions which constitute a definition of the meaning of a law. While they do not always have the effect of law itself or that of a case decided in the courts, these “responsa” of the attorneys general have great weight in the development of law. This parallels exactly the place and influence of responsa in Jewish Law.

An Excerpt from the Book

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