Latin: plural of "responsum", "answers") comprise a body of written decisions and rulings given by legal scholars in response to questions addressed to them.
rabbinic literature, the Responsa are known as "She'elot u-Teshuvot" (Hebrew: שאלות ותשובות "questions and answers") and comprise the body of written decisions and rulings given by poskim ("decisors of Jewish law").
Judaism's responsa constitute a special class of
rabbinic literature, to be distinguished from the commentaries ("meforshim")—devoted to the exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud—and from the codes of law which delineate the rules for ordinary incidents of life.
The responsa literature covers a period of 1,700 years—the mode, style and subject matter have changed as a function of the travels of the Jewish people and of the development of other halakhic literature, particularly the codes. See
History of Responsa.
Responsa play a particularly important role in Jewish law. The questions forwarded are usually practical, and often concerned with new contingencies for which no provision has been made in the codes of law, and the responsa thus supplement the codes. They therefore function as a source of law, almost as legal precedent, in that they are consulted by later decisors in their rulings; they are also, in turn, incorporated into subsequent codes. See
Posek; The sources and process of Halakha.
In addition to requests for Halakhic rulings, many of the questions addressed were theoretical in character, particularly amongst the earlier responsa. The responsa accordingly contain rulings on
ethics, business ethics, the philosophy of religion, astronomy, mathematics, history, geography, as well as interpretations of passages in the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmudand the Midrash. Thus, while early Jewish literature has few historical works, many notes on the history of Judaism have been introduced into the responsa.
Responsa contain valuable information about the
cultureof the Jews and the people among whom they lived. Information may also be gleaned about the moral and social relations of the times, occupations, the household, customs, expressions of joy and of sorrow, and recreations and even games. Older responsa are also important for readings and emendations of the Mishnahand the Talmud.
A similar use of responsa (Ar. fatwā, pl. fatāwā) is found in
Islam. Here the mufti(from the same root as fatwā) is a member of the Islamic scholarly class ('ulamā', sg. 'ālim) who form the Muslim religious establishment. In Islam, the term muftī is largely restricted to Sunnism, and has both a formal and informal use, the former for state-appointed officials who gave rulings on matters concerning the state or the public, the latter for individuals shaykh who respond to their followers or to others.
Nowadays, questions can be asked via the Internet, where numerous sites have sprung up offering legal rulings and advice.
In Shi'ism, fatwa is also used. There personal devotion to specific clergy is mandatory for believers. High-ranking members of the '
ulama' class achieve the status of marja' al-taqlīd (pl. marāji'), that is, 'the point to which imitation returns': in other words, they pronounce on religious matters, especially legal ones, and the rest of mankind are muqallid or imitators, who do nothing without the mandate of their specific marja'. There are very few marāji' at any time, though on a number of occasions since the 19th century, the title has come to rest on a single individual for the entire Shi'i world. There are larger numbers of Shi'i clergy with the rank of mujtahid, who are empowered to give independent opinions on religious matters. Traditionally, as in Judaism, the answers of marāji' and mujtahids are collected in a compilation called Risāla-yi su'āl va javāb (Pers.) or 'Epistle of Questions and Answers).
There is generally greater latitude for Shi'i 'ulamā', insofar as the principle of independent reasoning (ijtihād, from the same root as mujtahid)) in matters of religious law remains valid in Shi'i jurisprudence, whereas it is deemed to have ended in Sunnism as far back as the 10th century (though it is now reckoned that this perception of the desuetude or 'closing of the door' of ijtihad did not always apply).
History of Responsa
* M. Elon, "Jewish Law", Jerusalem 1975
* [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=576&letter=S She'elot U-Teshubot] , jewishencyclopedia.com
* [http://95.1911encyclopedia.org/H/HE/HEBREW_LITERATURE.htm Hebrew Literature] , 1911encyclopedia.org
* [http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Responsa/ The Bar Ilan Responsa project]
* [http://www.halachabrura.org/alephlink.htm#שות Orthodox Responsa Index]
* [http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/diduknow/lgresponsa/ The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg]
* [http://www.responsafortoday.com/ Masorti and Conservative Jewish responsa]
* [http://data.ccarnet.org/resp/tindex.html Topical index of non-binding Reform Jewish responsa]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.