Responsa (Latin: plural of "responsum", "answers") comprise a body of written decisions and rulings given by legal scholars in response to questions addressed to them.

In Judaism

In 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 Talmud and 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 culture of 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 Mishnah and the Talmud.

In Islam

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).

ee also

* History of Responsa
* Oral law
* Halakha
* Rabbi
* Posek


* M. Elon, "Jewish Law", Jerusalem 1975


* [ She'elot U-Teshubot] ,
* [ Hebrew Literature] ,

External links

* [ The Bar Ilan Responsa project]
* [שות Orthodox Responsa Index]
* [ The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg]
* [ Masorti and Conservative Jewish responsa]
* [ Topical index of non-binding Reform Jewish responsa]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • RESPONSA — (Heb. שְׁאֵלוֹת וּתְשׁוּבוֹת; lit. queries and replies ), a rabbinic term denoting an exchange of letters in which one party consults another on a halakhic matter. Such responsa   are already mentioned in the Talmud, which tells of an inquiry… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • RESPONSA — Oracula sunt apud Poetas. Virg. Aen. l. 6. v. 799. Caspia Regna Responsis horrent Divûm. Ibid. v. 344. Hôc unô responsô animum delusit Apollo. Lucretius, l. 1. v. 737. Ex adyto tamquam cordis Responsa dedêre Sanctius, et multo certâ ratione magis …   Hofmann J. Lexicon universale

  • Responsa — (lat., Mehrzahl von Responsum, f. d.), 1) (R. prudentum), die Antworten, welche die classischen römischen Juristen den bei ihnen Recht Suchenden auf ihre Anfragen ertheilten. Vor Augustus war das Ertheilen solcher R. eine freie Beschäftigung,… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Responsa — Les responsa (Latin: pluriel de responsum, réponse[s] ) comprennent un corpus de décisions écrites et réglementations données par des experts en loi en réponse à des questions qui leur sont adressées. A l origine du droit romain, il s agissait de …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Responsa — /ri spon seuh/, n. the branch of rabbinical literature comprised of authoritative replies in letter form made by noted rabbis or Jewish scholars to questions sent to them concerning Jewish law. [1895 1900; < NL; pl. of RESPONSUM] * * * ▪ Judaism… …   Universalium

  • Responsa, S. — S. Responsa (21. Oct. al. 23. April), Martyrin aus der Gesellschaft der hl. Ursula, steht bei den Boll. unter den Uebergangenen. (III. 96.) …   Vollständiges Heiligen-Lexikon

  • responsa — plural of responsum * * * responsa see responsum …   Useful english dictionary

  • responsa — noun A body of written decisions and rulings given by legal scholars in response to questions addressed to them …   Wiktionary

  • responsa — n. questions and answers, type of Rabbinic literature in the form of letters with questions on Jewish and Halachic issues which are answered by authoritative Rabbisn. written answer by a rabbinic authority in response to a question on religion …   English contemporary dictionary

  • responsa — re·spon·sa …   English syllables

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