SHE'ELOT U-TESHUBOT ("questions and answers," or "interpellations and decisions"):
- Six Periods.
- Correspondence Between Babylonia and Palestine.
- Responsa of the Geonim.
- Mode of Reply.
- Collections of Geonic Responsa.
- Rise of Local Responsa.
- First Rabbinic Epoch.
- The French School.
- Second Rabbinic Epoch.
- The German School.
- Third Rabbinic Epoch.
- Israel Isserlein.
- The Polish School.
- Fourth Rabbinic Epoch.
The Hebrew designation for the "responsa prudentium," connoting the written decisions and rulings given by eminent rabbis, teachers, or heads of academies to questions addressed to them in writing. These responsa constitute a special class of Talmudic and rabbinical literature, which in form differs both from the commentaries and from the codifications of rabbinical Judaism, yet in content is similar to both. While the commentaries are devoted solely to the exegesis and hermeneuties of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the older codes, and while the codes themselves and the writings of the casuists contain the rules and regulations for all ordinary incidents of life, the responsa include both these types of literature. Many of the questions were theoretical in character, since they requested information concerning all departments of knowledge. The responsa accordingly contain rulings on the philosophy of religion, astronomy, mathematics, chronology, and geography, as well as interpretations of difficult passages in the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. The older responsa in particular are important for readings and emendations of the Mishnah and the Talmud, affording valuable material for textual criticism. The questions were for the most part, however, practical in nature, since they were concerned with specific new contingencies for which no provision had been made in the codes, and the responsa thus supplement the literature of codification.
While early Jewish literature can show but few historical works, many important notes on the history of Judaism have been introduced into the responsa undesignedly, and for this reason they bear the marks of truth. The responsa likewise 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 and explain the conditions of the times. The responsa thus contribute much to a knowledge of the cultural circumstances of the Jews and of the people among whom they have lived. From these questions based on the problems of daily life falls much light on the moral and social relations of the times, on occupations and on undertakings, on the household, on customs and on usages, on expressions of joy and of sorrow, on recreations and on games. The responsal literature covers a period of 1,700 years, but the responsa of the first five centuries are not contained in special works, being scattered through the transactions and expositions of both the Talmudim. 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, the collections thereof being nearly a thousand. The most important of these works are listed in Ersch and Gruber, "Encyc." xxvii. 453.Six Periods.
The history of responsal literature may be divided into six periods, which resemble one another in so far as all are characterized by the same spirit of search for truth and knowledge of the Law, and in them all are expressed the same religiosity, the same rigid impartiality, the same unswerving sense of right, and the same conscientiousness which gives a decision only after most thorough considertion. On the other hand, external circumstances, the spirit of the times, and the more or less strict methods of investigation give the responsa of various periods a peculiar degree of individuality.
Neither responsa nor letters concerning specificlegal questions are known before the conclusion of the Mishnah; indeed, it is doubtful whether any were written even at that period. The reason for this lies in the custom which then prevailed that no halakah should be reduced to writing; and it may readily be seen from the following story that this prohibition or reluctance was extended to communications of a legalistic nature. In the first half of the fourth century R. Dimi went to Palestine, where he heard a new interpretation of the Mishnah. Desiring to communicate this exegesis to R. Joseph, the head of the Academy of Pumbedita, he said: "If I could find any one to send the letters to Babylonia, I would include this interpretation in my message." This remark of R. Dimi's was the occasion of a debate in the academy, and the question was raised how it would be possible to communicate exegetic decisions by means of letters, since it was forbidden to reduce halakot to writing. The academy finally justified R. Dimi by laying stress on the fact that in this instance it might have been a matter of a new and hitherto unknown interpretation, and in such a case it was allowable to commit even a legal subject to writing (Tem. 14a, b). It thus becomes evident that even when the prohibition or the reluctance against writing halakot became partially obsolete, letters of a legal content might be written only in cases where halakot might likewise be reduced to writing. While the rule prevailed, therefore, that no halakot should be written, no communications of legalistic content were made by means of letters. Questions were always communicated orally, or proposed to the academy by a teacher, who transmitted the answer and the decision by word of mouth. The rarity of letters on legal problems in the tannaitic period may readily 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 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 halakic ruling whatsoever had been given in writing before the completion of the Mishnah: certain exceptions were doubtless made, exactly as halakic notes were written in isolated instances (comp. Hor. 13b), although these sporadic decisions are no longer extant. Immediately after the completion of the Mishnah, however, when the prohibition or reluctance against writing halakot had in great part disappeared, the learned question and the elucidative responsum began to appear, traces being preserved in the Talmud. With the beginning of the third century these scholarly inquiries frequently appear in letters from Babylonia to Palestine. Thus Rab (Abba Arika) wrote a letter to R. Judah ha-Nasi I. concerning a certain legal regulation (Ket. 69a; Yer. Giṭ. v. 3), receiving an answer which seems likewise to have been in epistolary form. Rabbi Johanan of Palestine carried on an active correspondence with Rab and Samuel, addressing the former in the words, "To our teacher and master in Babylonia," but terming the latter simply "Our colleague." From Samuel, moreover, he received thirteen scrolls with questions and erudite discussions on dubious pathological symptoms in animals (Ḥul. 95b; comp. Tos. ad loc. s.v. "Tlesar"). At a later period, likewise, the authorities in control of the Palestinian academies issued their rulings in the form of letters which were used as baraitot, being made the subject of citation and exegesis (Yer. Ned. v. 5). In this learned correspondence both in Babylonia and in Palestine the form usually employed was that of familiar verses of Scripture. Thus Mar 'Uḳban, who asked R. Eleazar whether he might lodge information against certain adversaries that punishment might be meted out to them, was answered in the words of Ps. xxxix. 1 and xxxvii. 7 (Giṭ. 7a), while another responsum to a question consisted of Hosea ix. 1 (ib.; comp. Yer. Meg. iii. 2). This method may have been chosen to avoid, so far as possible, any direct violation of the prejudice against committing halakot to writing, since this reluctance had not yet been entirely outgrown. By the end of the third century the correspondence between Palestine and Babylonia had become more active, and the responsa sent in letters from the one to the other had become far more numerous. These rulings and responsa from Palestine seem to have been regarded as authoritative and demanding obedience; and the threat was made to R. Judah ben Ezekiel, head of the Academy of Pumbedita, that a letter would be brought from Palestine to annul his decision (B. B. 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 (Sanh. 29a). In like manner, the frequent use in the Talmud of the phrase "shalḥu mi-tam" (they sent from yonder, i.e., from Palestine), presupposes letters containing such responsa, and proves that they were regarded as authoritative, since passages introduced by "Shalḥu mi-tam" are generally employed in refuting rulings. Abin, who went from Babylonia to Palestine and instituted inquiries everywhere regarding doctrines and opinions, wrote repeated epistles to Babylonia containing the results of his investigations (Ket. 49b; B. B. 139a; B. M. 114a; Niddah 68a), these letters beginning with the formula, "I asked my teachers concerning these matters, and they answered me in the name of their teachers." Many other rulings are found in the Talmud which are designated as sent by Abin, the method of transit apparently being by letter, although no direct statement on the subject is made. Further details on the form of the responsa and on the manner in which they were communicated may be gathered from the following examples: Tanḥum b. Papa sent R. Jose a request for information on two distinct problems concerning the purity of blood of two families in Alexandria. One case was decided unfavorably by R. Jose, who wrote as his reply the Biblical verse on incest (Deut. xxiii. 3), while he declared the purity of the second family to be unchanged. He then directed his pupil R. Mani to sign the responsum with him, which was done. R. Berechiah, on theother hand, whom he likewise requested to attach his name to his ruling, refused, but, changing his mind in the course of the day, he went to R. Jose to sign the responsum, which, however, had already been despatched (Yer. Ḳid. iii. 12). This story shows that often questions were settled by a single letter, as was later the case with the Geonim, who exchanged a series of responsa. The halakic replies and the decisions, moreover, were signed by pupils and colleagues, so that, strictly speaking, the responsa were issued by a board.
Other statements likewise exist in the Talmud regarding halakic matters which were discussed in written responsa, if the opening words may be taken as a criterion. In these responsa occurs the introductory phrase "Hawu yod'in" (take cognizance of; R. H. 20a; Yer. Ḳid. ii. 5) or the honorific greeting, "Health and peace to thee, dear colleague" (Ket. 69a). In sending his query, one scholar modestly wrote: "I am not worthy that you should lay your doubts before me, . . . but the opinion of your pupil inclines thus . . ." (B. B. 165b). These formulas were probably used also in giving verbal decisions. The question itself, when communicated in writing, was introduced by the words: "May our teacher instruct us in this" (Giṭ. 66b). The responsa of the Talmudic period may be compared with the responsa of the Roman jurists and the epistles of the Christian patriarchs, while they are characterized by pregnant brevity and rigid restriction to their subject-matter. It is impossible to trace in all its phases the development from these jejune Talmudic responsa to those of the geonic type, with their literary form and their discursiveness, for no responsum has been preserved either of the saboraic or of the later amoraic period. From the second half of the fourth century all information regarding a learned correspondence is lacking; but the maturity of style and of epistolary form which characterizes the responsa of even the earliest geonim in the middle of the eighth century, and which differentiates them so widely from the brief decisions of the Talmudic age, justifies the inference that between the former and the latter there had been many forms of transition, and that there had been a learned correspondence between teachers and pupils in the period extending from the end of the fourth to the beginning of the eighth century, although these letters have been lost.Responsa of the Geonim.
In the geonic period the elucidative letter and the scholarly responsum are characterized, as already noted, by a more developed and rounded literary style, conditioned and fostered by the revolution which had taken place in Jewish literature. The Talmud had been definitively completed and was recognized as authoritative, and, being committed to writing, it was accessible to scholars, even though they lived far from the academies, the seats of Talmudic learning. With an accurate knowledge of the Talmud and a correct interpretation of it, scholars might deduce for themselves rulings for any of the specific cases which might present themselves. 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 not a mere "yes" or "no," "permitted" or "forbidden," "right" or "wrong," but in the shortest responsa themselves it was generally the custom for the scholars who prepared them to cite a passage from the Talmud in support or proof of their decisions, or to controvert any possible opposition on the basis of some other Talmudic passage by a refutation of it and a correct exegesis of the section of the Talmud in question. In most instances, however, the questioner himself knew the Talmudic passage from which he might draw the ruling for any specific case, the problem being whether he was able to apply this passage correctly. There were cases, on the other hand, in which he was either altogether ignorant of the application, or made it falsely, thus reaching an erroneous conclusion. In such instances the respondent was required to give an explanation of the Talmudic passage in question and its correct application to the specific case, often proving the correctness of his decision by a comparison with another passage, and adding a refutation of any other possible interpretation. He was frequently obliged, moreover, to take into consideration any consequences which might result from his decision or exegesis, and was constrained many times to explain points which, strictly speaking, had not been asked specifically, although they were more or less closely related to the subject under discussion. Many of these questions have no practical contingencies for their basis, but are concerned with the correct comprehension and explanation of certain passages of the Talmud, and the corresponding responsa are therefore restricted to detailed elucidations and fundamental interpretations. In the main, therefore, the geonic responsa are scholarly treatises, although this does not characterize them all to an equal degree, since in the course of the four centuries of the geonic period the responsum developed, in form and character, and was subjected to many changes.
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, in case considerable portions of it were unintelligible to them, visit the academies in the Kallah months to hear Talmudic interpretations and explanations. 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). 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. Although a gaon (Sar Shalom, in "Teshubot Geonim Ḳadmonim," No. 46, p. 9) declared it difficult to write elucidations of perplexing problems in many Talmudic passages, he sought,nevertheless, to give such interpretations for entire treatises and themes in the Talmud. In like manner, even those responsa which were not sent to distant lands assumed a discursive and prolix form, for though the questioner sought information only for a specific case and requested a Talmudic basis for it, the responsum was not restricted to the mere decision which might be deduced from the Talmudic passage under consideration, but included the entire context as well. It thus frequently contained more than a simple basis and foundation for the ruling drawn from the Talmud, and discussed the subject under consideration in fullest detail and in all its import, even though this had not been requested. More than this, other subjects which had but a slight bearing on the problem in question received their quota of discussion ("Ḥemdah Genuzah," No. 70, p. 14b; "Sha'are Ẓedeḳ," p. 22b); and the respondent added also the ruling which would have been given had the point at issue been slightly different from that on which information was requested (ib. p. 46a).Mode of Reply.
The later geonim did not restrict themselves to the Mishnah and Talmud, but used the decisions and responsa of their predecessors, the elder geonim, whose sayings and traditions were generally regarded as authoritative, although there were occasional exceptions, such as the assertion of Hai Gaon that the ruling of R. Naṭronai was incorrect ("Toratan shel Rishonim," ii. 51, No. 3). These responsa of the later geonim were, strictly speaking, disquisitions on Talmudic themes, and since a single letter often answered many questions, it frequently attained the compass of an entire book. 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. The introductory formula, used in the letters of the Geonim, may be illustrated by the following example: "Amram ben Sheshna, head of the academy of the city of Meḥasya [Sura], to all scholars and their disciples and to those of our brethren of the house of Israel who dwell in Barcelona, and who are dear, beloved, and revered unto us, may their prosperity increase and wax great! Receive ye greeting from us and from R. Ẓemaḥ, the president of the court, from the heads of the Kallah ["reshe Kallah"], from the authorized teacher, and from all other scholars and disciples of the academy, all of whom ever pray for your health, that God in His great mercy may have compassion on you. The questions which ye have laid before us we have caused to be read unto us, while the president of the court and the allufim and the other sages and disciples sat before us. We have studied them, and weighed all that is written in them, and with divine help have given to them the following answers" ("Teshubot ha-Geonim," ed. Lyck, No. 56, p. 21). In other introductions are found the concluding words, "We commanded and directed that the answers to your questions be written you as we have perceived them with the help of God" (Harkavy, "Teshubot ha-Geonim," pp. 32, 76). This citation shows that there were regular secretaries who prepared the letters, and it is likewise clear that the judicial board and its president formulated the replies and then presented them to the gaon, who approved and signed them if they were found correct (comp. Harkavy, l.c. No. 198, p. 88). After this general introduction the various questions and their answers were given in regular order in the letter. Each question was introduced by the phrase "she-sha'altem" (= "as to what ye have asked"), and was then repeated, either word for word or in content. The answer to each question then followed, either without any introductory phrase, or with the words, "thus is it," "the answer to this question is," "if the matter is as your letter of inquiry states, it seems to us as follows," "we regard it thus," "thus the sages say," "thus have we learned from earlier sages," "know ye," or "thus hath Heaven revealed unto us," which, however, is simply equivalent to the phrase "with divine help we have found." The answer was frequently concluded with the formulas, "thus is the final decision" ("halakah"), "thus is the correct practise," "thus is the usage in the academies," or "such cases come daily before the academies, and in them all we decide thus." After all questions and their answers had been given, the formal conclusion of the letter came. Occasionally this was the brief phrase, "may God grant us to decide according to the Law, and to teach according to valid decision" (Harkavy, l.c. No. 350, p. 179), but more frequently, especially when the letter was sent to foreign lands, it concluded with a blessing on him who had asked the question, such as, "may God reveal unto thee, oh, friend and colleague, and unto all the scholars and disciples of thy city, the Torah of wisdom and of understanding, and clothe you with a mantle of glory" (Harkavy, l.c. No. 264, p. 135; comp. also No. 369, p. 185, and No. 344, p. 172).
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 doubtless due, on the one hand, to the study and knowledge 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 thenceforth sent to distant lands, where the inhabitants were unfamiliar with Aramaic, so that it became necessary to write to them in Hebrew, the dialect of the Mishnah. When Arabic became the prevailing language of the Jews in the dominions of the califs, questions were frequently addressed to the Geonim in that tongue, whereupon the scholars of the academies used the same language in reply, thus accounting for the mass of Arabic responsa.Collections of Geonic Responsa.
Some of the responsa that have survived are unmutilated and 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 Pesuḳot 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 Ḥayyim edited a collection of geonic responsa under the title "Sha'are Ẓedeḳ" (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. In 1858 another collection was published at Leipsic with the title "Sha'are Teshubah," ten years after David Cassel had issued his corpus, which was entitled "Teshubot Geonim Ḳadmonim" (Responsa of the Earliest Geonim). A collection of responsa was published at Jerusalem in 1863 with the title "Ḥemdah Genuzah," and in the following year Jacob Mussafia edited his "Teshubot ha-Geonim" at Lyck, this being succeeded seven years later by Naḥman Nathan Coronel's "Teshubot ha-Geonim" (Vienna, 1871). In 1882 Ḥayyim M. Horowitz published at Frankfort-on-the-Main a number of geonic responsa under the title "Toratan shel Rishonim" (Responsa of the Earlier Authorities). The most important corpus of responsa, however, is that contained in a manuscript of the Royal Library of St. Petersburg and edited by Harkavy under the title "Teshubot ha-Geonim" (Berlin, 1885), which includes many Arabic decisions, while numbers of the rulings still preserve the name of the questioner and the date of his inquiry. Yet another corpus of geonic responsa has been edited by Joel Müller in his "Teshubot Geone Mizraḥ u-Ma'arab" (Responsa of the Geonim of the East and West), Berlin, 1885. In addition to these collections, a number of geonic responsa have been published in other works, as in the "Ṭa'am Zeḳenim" of Eliezer Ashkenazi (Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1856) and the "Ḳebuẓat Ḥakamim" of H. Warnheim (Vienna, 1867), as well as in the halakic works of older authorities, such as the "Halakot" of Asheri, the responsa of Solomon b. Adret, and the responsa of Meïr of Rothenburg. The most recent collection is that edited by L. Ginzberg on the basis of genizah fragments and entitled "Genizah Studies" (1905).
As stated above, the responsa of the Geonim were by no means restricted to problems of legalism or ritualism, but in addition referred to all departments of human life and knowledge, treating of liturgical, theological, philosophical, exegetic, lexicographical, archeological, and historical questions; and they likewise contain abundant material for a study of the conditions of the times in which they were written, and for the culture-history and the commercial relations of the Jews, as well as for a knowledge of the manners and customs then prevailing in Judaism. A few examples of brief geonic responsa may be cited as characteristic of the views and customs of the times: "As to what ye have asked: 'How is it with regard to the theft of non-Jewish property in cases where it has not already been forbidden as a desecration of the divine name?' thus is our ruling: The prohibition of theft has naught to do with desecration of the divine name, but is a clearly established law which forbids any theft whatever from a non-Jew. Desecration of the divine name is mentioned only in association with objects which have been lost. According to R. Phinehas b. Jair, 'Whensoever it leads to a desecration of the divine name, one is forbidden to appropriate anything which a non-Jew has lost.' The vine said to have been abstracted from the garden of a Gentile by R. Ashi was evidently taken in return for compensation," etc. ("Sha'are Ẓedeḳ," iv. 1, 6). "And as to what ye have asked: 'After the burial of a corpse many wipe their hands on the ground,' no such custom prevails among us. And as to what ye have heard: 'While returning from the cemetery many are wont to wash their hands before reaching the house and to sit down on the way; what is the reason for this?' thus is our opinion: The washing of the hands is not obligatory, but where it is the custom one should wash them. The bidding of the sages that one must sit down seven times while returning from a corpse is intended to apply solely to the case in which one goes to the place of burial and returns from it, and solely for the kinsmen, and solely for the first day, and, above all, solely for those places where the usage is customary. The sevenfold repetition of sitting down is on account of the evil spirits which follow the returning mourners, that a demon may disappear each time the bereaved sit down" (ib. iii. 4, 19-20). It is noteworthy, furthermore, that the famous Letter of Sherira Gaon, which is the chief historic source for the Talmudic and geonic periods, was a responsum of this character, sent in reply to the questions of an African community.Rise of Local Responsa.
During the entire geonic period the Babylonian schools were the chief centers of Jewish learning, and the Geonim, the heads of these schools, were recognized as the highest authorities in Talmudic matters. Even in the most distant lands the Jews looked upon these academies and their heads as once their ancestors had regarded the high court of the "Bet Din ha-Gadol," which had been reverenced as the one place whence came valid instruction and whence rulings might be drawn. Despite the tremendous difficulties which hampered the irregular communications of the period, the Jews who lived even in most distant countries sent their inquiries concerning religion and law to these high 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 in proportion as the study of the Talmud received fostering care in other lands. The inhabitants of these regions gradually began to submit their doubts to the teachers and heads of the schools of their own countries, and soon, in view of the attendant expense and difficulty, entirely ceased despatching their questions to the seat of the Geonim, so that during this period responsa of eminent rabbis of other lands appeared side by side with geonic rulings. To this class belong, for example, the responsa of R. Kalonymus of Lucca, contained in the collection "Teshubot Geonim Ḳadmonim," Berlin, 1848, Nos. 106-118, and of his son R. Meshullam (ib. Nos. 119-151; comp. Rapoport, Pref.), and the responsa of R. Gershom b. Judah of Mayence appeared in the works of later authorities, especially in the collection of R. Meïr of Rothenburg (Nos. 5572, 847, 850, 862, 865, 928, 929) and in the "Sefer ha-Yashar" of R. Tam (Nos. 366, 399). Of the responsa of R. Moses b. Enoch of Cordova only two have been preserved, in the collection "Sha'are Ẓedeḳ" (iii. 2, 21; iv. 1, 21), while his son R. Enoch cited another one by him (ib. iv. 5, 9), the same collection including also the rulings of R. Joseph b. Isaac ibn Abitur, the contemporary and opponent of Rabbi Enoch of Cordova (ii. 28; iii. 1, 27; iv. 4, 5, 6, 8, 21, 23, 42). A single responsum of R. Samuel ha-Nagid of Cordova is contained at the end of the collection entitled "Pe'er ha-Dor," while a number of responsa of Hananeel b. Ḥushiel of Kairwan have likewise been preserved. These responsa of non-geonic authorities from the latter part of the epoch of the Geonim form the transition from the geonic to the first rabbinical period, and they resemble the rulings of the Geonim both in form and in the introductory phrases, "as to what ye have asked," "we have meditated on this question," or "the answer to this question is, if the matter is as your letter of inquiry states," while the conclusion of the answer is followed by a brief greeting, "may your health be great," or simply "and health unto you," after which the letter is signed. The non-geonic responsa, however, were not dominated by the official style and the self-conscious tone which characterized the geonic rulings. Decisions of this type are written in Hebrew, and contain many theoretical interpretations of Talmudic passages in addition to the rulings governing practical cases. The responsa of this period of transition may be represented by the following ruling of R. Hananeel of Kairwan, cited from a manuscript by Berliner in his "Migdal Ḥananel" (Leipsic, 1876, p. xix.): "As to what ye have asked, whether the Talmudic saying that it is better to let the children of Israel transgress laws unconsciously which they would transgress consciously were they fully instructed, be not contradictory to many passages of Scripture, such as Lev. xix. 17, 'Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor'; Ezek. xxxiii. 9, 'If thou warn the wicked of his way,' etc.; and Prov. xxiv. 5, 'But to them that rebuke him shall be delight,' this is the answer: It is true that the children of Israel are commanded to rebuke one another and thus it is written in the prophets and in the sages, whether one man or a community be guilty of a transgression. If the violation of the words of the Torah is conscious, the transgressor must be warned, and, if necessary, he may be punished, while, on the other hand, all efforts must be made to win him back to righteousness. If, however, all this is without avail, then 'thou hast delivered thy soul' (Ezek. xxxiii. 9). In case the transgression is unconscious and there is reason to suppose that the children of Israel would obey if they were instructed, they must be warned and enlightened concerning the teachings of the Law and the way of righteousness. It is otherwise, however, when what is forbidden is regarded as permitted, and when a prohibition is regularly taken with little seriousness on account of the assumption of the presence of due precaution against violation of the Law. Thus, on the eve of the Day of Atonement folk sit at meat in broad daylight, but their meal lasts until evening draws near. Those was eat intend to finish the meal in due time and wish to fix the proper moment arbitrarily. They say 'It is still time,' while darkness is approaching; and though we should warn them they would not listen. In such cases it is better for us to remain silent, and not to cause them to become guilty of conscious sin. This case is to be differentiated from one in which we see another transgress a law consciously, for then we are in duty bound to lift up our voices against him on the chance that he may harken to us."First Rabbinic Epoch.
The third period, or the first rabbinic epoch, comprises responsa of the teachers of the earlier Spanish and French schools in the eleventh and twelfth 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. 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 Maḥzor. 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 Maḥzor, pp. 434-435). The leader of the Spanish schoolin 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. In his introduction Isaac Alfasi employed the same formulas as had been used by the Geonim, such as "know ye," "I have meditated on this question, and the answer seems to me thus," or "thus our opinion is inclined." At the conclusion some brief greeting, such as "health to you, Isaac b. Jacob," was employed before the signature, which was frequently introduced by the formula, "I sign my name Isaac b. Jacob." Such a responsum was apparently written by his secretary, and the author was required simply to affix his own signature. Numerous other rulings have the concluding phrase, "by me, Isaac b. Jacob," a phrase which he was apparently the first to use. Many of the responsa of Alfasi are devoted to the interpretation of haggadic passages of the Talmud, and manifest the broad and lucid spirit of the Spanish school. Here two brief examples only can be cited. In responsum No. 13 he declares that the strange story told of R. Bannaah in the Talmud (B. B. 58a) was not a real occurrence, but merely a dream. The story of Rabbah bar bar Ḥana (ib. 74a) that he had wandered into the desert and had found the place where heaven and earth touch was interpreted by Alfasi (responsum No. 314) as follows: According to a tradition a king of Alexandria had erected an observatory in the desert, and had placed there a globe of the heavens and of the earth near each other, thus affording a basis for the anecdote.The French School.
The chief representatives of the French school of the twelfth century were Jacob Tam, Abraham b. David of Posquières, and Eliezer b. 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. Tam's style was refined and poetic, and he often prefixed a versified introduction in praise of his questioner; in like manner his concluding formulas were flowing and sentimental, such as "My love for thee is firm and fast founded in my heart; peace and health be on thee and on all of thine." The responsa of Eliezer b. Nathan, contained in his "Eben ha-'Ezer," are partly exegetic in character and partly devoted to practical decisions. Especially interesting are his interpretations of Biblical passages, as that of Prov. xxx. 1-5 in responsum No. 119, where he explains "ha-massa" as "Massaite," and regards Agur as the descendant of the Massa mentioned in Gen. xxv. 14. In his rulings he often employed a form of introduction which laid stress on his own slight importance and on the great dignity of his questioner, such as, "but what do I know that thou knowest not?" "I know that thou needest me not," or "although I am not worthy, yet will I answer according to my scanty knowledge," his concluding formula being: "May God illumine mine eyes with His wisdom." The responsa of Abraham b. David are included in the collection entitled "Tummat Yesharim" or "Temim De'im" (Venice, 1622). Particularly noteworthy is his injunction to submit to the governance of the laws of the land, basing his argument 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 theoretical elucidations 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. These rulings are contained in a collection entitled "She'elot u-Teshubot, . . . Yosef ha-Levi ibn Migas," which was printed with the novellæ of Naḥmanides at Salonica in 1791, besides a number of responsa in the "Shiṭṭah Meḳubbeẓet" of Bezalel Ashkenazi. In responsum No. 204 he explains the various forms of synagogal poetry, such as the "piyyuṭ," "pizmon," and "kuklon." Especially striking is the remarkable circumstance mentioned by him in responsum No. 120 that the Jews of Andalusia buried their dead in their houses (probably gardens). The responsa of Maimonides, which were written in great part in Arabic, are contained in the collections entitled "Pe'er ha-Dor" (Lemberg, 1859) and "Ḳobeẓ Teshubot ha-RaMBaM" (Leipsic, 1859); the decisions in the former collection were translated by Mordecai Tamma from Arabic into Hebrew in 1761, and published at Amsterdam. These rulings contained brief decisions of problems of a ritual or legal content, as well as replies to inquiries concerning difficult passages in the author's monumental "Yad" and elucidations of astronomical and chronological questions ("Pe'er ha-Dor," Nos. 43-44; "Ḳobeẓ Teshubot ha-RaMBaM," No. 172). Among the responsa of Maimonides is one of special interest ("Ḳobeẓ Teshubot ha-RaMBaM," No. 160) concerning a Mohammedan proselyte to Judaism, in which it was declared that Mohammedans were not to be regarded as heathens, since actual idolatry had vanished from among them, and although they still retained many idolatrous customs, they interpreted them differently, and believed in the unity of God. Noteworthy likewise is the responsum addressed to the scholars of Marseilles (ib. ii. 24-26), in which Maimonides demonstrated the futility of astrology and astrological reckonings. Yet another responsum is his "Iggeret Teman," which he addressed to Yemen in reply to a question of the South-Arabian scholar Jacob Al-Fayumi regarding a fanatic who had proclaimed himself the Messiah. In his responsa Maimonides is extremely brief, and frequently dispenses altogether with formulas of introduction, although when he does employ them they are the same as those adopted by his predecessors and contemporaries, with the additional phrase "by me, Moses b. Maimon." The concluding formulas likewise are the same as those of his predecessors, although before his signature the phrase "we-katab" (and this hath he written) frequently occurs.Second Rabbinic Epoch.
The fourth period, or the second rabbinic epoch, includes responsa from the teachers of the later Spanish and French schools during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In this period the differencebetween the Spanish and the Franco-German schools vanished so far as the responsa were concerned; for, 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, so that here as well as in France and Germany the same system was adopted for deciding questions and proving these rulings by the help of the Talmud. The chief representatives of the Spanish responsa in the thirteenth century were Naḥmanides, R. Solomon b. Adret, and R. Nissim b. Reuben. Very few responsa by Naḥmanides have been preserved; those which are extant are contained in a work entitled "She'elot u-Teshubot" (Venice, 1523; Zolkiev, 1798), in which are included in great part the responsa of Solomon b. Adret. The rulings of this scholar mark the climax in the development of responsal literature. To him came questions from the most distant communities, and he answered them all with marvelous lucidity and scholarship. 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 b. Adret fall into five parts. The first part (Bologna, 1539; frequently reprinted) 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-Teshubot." 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 R. Meïr b. Baruch of Rothenburg. Like Solomon b. Adret, questions were addressed to him from all sides, and his replies were characterized by accuracy and directness. A large number 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 wretched condition of the German Jews of his time, and of their sufferings from the caprice of princes and from heavy taxation. His style is the stereotyped diction of the responsum of the period, each one being introduced by a greeting in praise of the questioner, and concluding with a greeting and with benedictions. 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 b. Jehiel and Isaac b. Sheshet Barfat. The responsa of the former, which are remarkable for their clearness, first appeared at Constantinople in 1517 under the title "She'elot u-Teshubot," while an enlarged edition was published at Venice in 1607 and again at Zolkiev in 1803. 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 scarcely the work of R. Asher himself, but was made probably by one of his pupils, possibly by his son R. Judah, who made certain additions. From the responsa of R. 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 b. Sheshet were published at Constantinople in 1546-47 as "She'elot u-Teshubot," while a new corpus has recently been prepared by David Frenkl at Munkacs under the title "She'elot u-Teshubot ha-Ribash ha-Ḥadashot." These responsa contain many interesting 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.Third Rabbinic Epoch.
The fifth period, or the third rabbinic epoch, extends from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, and includes responsa of Italian, Turkish, German, and Polish rabbis. These rulings are totally differentfrom 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 fifth period, on the other hand, the responsa were restricted almost entirely to legal regulations, and 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 clear and lucid that the reader, if at all acquainted with the subject, could easily follow them and readily gain an accurate survey of the course of the argument and its result, 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 responsal literature as well. The responsa are remarkable for the hair-splitting dialectics which characterizes them and often robs them of lucidity, and awakens in the reader suspicion as to the correctness of their decisions. In originality, moreover, the responsa of this period were inferior to their predecessors, for the most characteristic ones were evoked by the persecutions and the wretched political status which resulted in bringing so much misery upon the Jews.
These evils, however, were not entirely new, for even in the previous periods the same circumstances and distressing conditions had existed in greater or less degree—conversion to Mohammedanism or Christianity, the distribution of the heavy burdens laid on the Jews by princes, the extortion of large sums of money to avert threatening dangers, and the feeling of uncertainty produced by expulsions from home—all these had existed in times long past, so that the ancient responsa contained decisions for the most varied circumstances. With little difficulty an analogue might be found, and the determination of a point of contact with the older responsa was no hard task. On the other hand, the responsa of this period are noteworthy for their erudition. Since the respondents now belonged to the "aḥaronim" and no longer enjoyed the independence of the "rishonim," they sought to base their rulings and 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, while, in case one was found, it was necessary for him to search through the entire Talmudic and rabbinical literature to see whether his ruling was unimpeachable in the eyes of the older scholars. The lack of originality in the responsa of this period, therefore, finds its compensation in depth of learning and accuracy of reproduction. In external arrangement, moreover, the decisions of this epoch are superior to their predecessors. In the older rulings systematic sequence was almost entirely lacking, but the responsa of the new period had as models the "Arba' Ṭurim" of Jacob b. Asher and, after the sixteenth century, the "Shulḥan 'Aruk" of Joseph Caro, so that many of the responsa were arranged according to these two works, while among the later scholars this practise became the rule.Israel Isserlein.
This period is likewise the richest in responsal literature, and it would be impossible to enumerate all the collections made within it, so that 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-Teshubot" (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 b. Ḥabib, Elijah Mizraḥi, and Moses Alashkar. The most interesting of the responsa of Levi b. Ḥabib (printed at Venice in 1560) are Nos. 8 (p. 16a), treating of the belief in the transmigration of souls ("gilgul"), and 144 (pp. 249 (et seq.), on the chronological determination of the Sabbatical year and the year of jubilee. Among the responsa of Elijah Mizraḥi special stress may be laid on the decisions (Nos. 13-15, 53) governing the authorization of communal institutions and ordinances, as well as those determining the validity of the regulations of the congregation, while those responsa are also important which define the attitude of the Rabbinite Jews toward the Karaites (Nos. 57-58). The most noteworthy 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.). In the fifteenth century but one Polish rabbi, Shalom Shekna, of the latter part of this period, is known to have left responsa, while in the following century, on the other hand, responsal literature is represented almost exclusively by the Polish and the Turkish rabbis, Germany having practically no respondent of prominence and Italyonly a few. 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 Jair Ḥayyim Bacharach, the author of a collection of responsa entitled "Ḥawwot Ya'ir." 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, whose responsa, entitled "Muẓẓal me-Esh," were published at Constantinople in 1718. 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 wretched plight of the German Jews of the time, and tell of the oppression and persecution which were their lot. The responsa of Menahem Mendel Krochmal appeared posthumously; they were edited by his son under the title "Ẓemaḥ Ẓedeḳ" (Amsterdam, 1775). 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.The Polish School.
In the eighteenth century, in like manner, 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" (2 parts, Lemberg, 1884), the most interesting being one (i., No. 46) which discusses the problem whether a Roman or an Italian convert to Judaism might marry a Jewess, since the Romans were regarded as Edomites, and Edomitic proselytes were forbidden by Deut. xxiii. 8-9 to form family ties with the Jews before the third generation of the former. The principal Italian respondent of the eighteenth century was Samson Morpurgo, whose posthumous decisions were edited by his son Moses Ḥayyim Shabbethai under the title "Shemesh Ẓedaḳah" (Venice, 1743). The most important Turkish rabbi in this field was Jonah Nabon, whose responsa were published at Constantinople in 1748, as the "Neḥpah ba-Kesef." 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 practise of ostentatiously wearing white garments in the fashion of the cabalists, while the general custom was to wear black clothing. The collection of responsa by Ezekiel Landau, known as "Noda' bi-Yehudah," was highly esteemed by rabbis and Talmudic scholars, being distinguished both for its strictly 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 ("ḳadmonim").
In their formulas of introduction and conclusion the responsa of this period show little deviation from those of previous centuries. They generally begin with an apostrophe which eulogizes the fame and the glory of the questioner, this portion being frequently written in verse, and the responsum often concludes with the phrase, "what my scanty wisdom hath given me I have written thee," or, "what hath seemed right according to my scanty wisdom, I have written thee," the decision then ending with a greeting. In some responsa the date is written at the beginning and in others at the close.Fourth Rabbinic Epoch.
The sixth period, or the fourth rabbinic epoch, comprises the responsa issued in various countries from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. As regards the "teshubot," or responsa proper, this period is identical with the preceding, both in external form and in the method of discussion, but the great factor which differentiates this century from those before it lies in the questions which evoked the responsa. In foregoing centuries the decisions, in so far as they were intended to be practical, were based on questions taken from real life. The responsa of the nineteenth century, however, and especially those of the latter half of it, were evoked for the most part by problems which were merely hypothetical. Impelled by a desire for notoriety, the questioner evolved a problem which could occur seldom or never in real life, and which consequently found no solution in the older responsa or codes, so that a question was asked which was apparently new and thitherto undecided. Yet in this period as in the others 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 Reformed and national Judaism and Zionism. Only a few examples can be cited here. In a responsum ("Ḥatam Sofer, Oraḥ Ḥayyim,"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. Among the collections of such responsa written in opposition to Reform may be mentioned the "Eleh Dibre ha-Berit" (Amsterdam, 1819), by Moses Sofer, Akiba Eger, and others, protesting against prayers in the vernacular and against the use of the organ on the Sabbath; the "Ẓeror ha-Ḥayyim" of Abraham b. Aryeh Löb, rabbi at Emden (ib. 1820); the "Torat ha-Ḳena'ot" (ib. 1845), a collection of letters and responsa controverting the resolutions of the rabbinical conference at Brunswick; and the "Meḥolat ha-Maḥanayim," by Israel David Margolies-Schlesinger-Jaffe (Presburg, 1859).
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.
In addition to the collections of responsa already mentioned, the following may be noted as the most important examples of responsal literature in the nineteenth century: the "Ḥesed le-Abraham" of Abraham Te'omim (Lemberg, 1898), the "Ketab Sofer" of Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer (Presburg, 1873-84), and the "Be'er Yiẓḥaḳ" of Isaac Elhanan Spektor (Königsberg, n.d.).
- 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;
- Zacharias 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.