Geonic Responsa

The earliest exchange of halachic questions and answers.

The writing of responsa on a large scale in the geonic period dates mainly from the middle of the eighth century C.E. At that time, the Babylonian academies (yeshivot) and the geonim who headed them still exercised spiritual hegemony over all the other Jewish centers of the diaspora.

The most common and frequent exchange of questions and responsa from the geonic period of which records are extant today was between Babylonia and the North African and Spanish Jewish communities. Many questions were received from the communities of Gabes, Fez, Kairouan, Tlemcen, Barcelona and Lucena, and from communities in other centers, such as Egypt.

Long-Distance Communication

The questions were generally assembled by the representatives of the yeshivot in the different centers and forwarded — sometimes tens in a parcel — by means of merchants and caravans. A central way station through which the caravans passed was Cairo, Egypt.

Emissaries of the Babylonian yeshivot, usually outstanding scholars, resided in Kairouan and Cairo, where they occupied positions of honor; they sifted through the questions, polished their language, and, as far as possible, forestalled the transmission of questions that had been answered previously. Along with the questions, the inquirers sent donations of money for the support and maintenance of the yeshivot. It sometimes took a full year for the questions to reach their destination in Babylonia.

The answers of the geonim came back by the very same route; and as they passed through Cairo, they were copied by the yeshivah‘s emissaries and by local scholars. Copies were kept there and also sent to other communities.

As a result of this procedure, copies of many responsa were preserved in the storage chamber (genizah) of the Fostat (Old Cairo) synagogue, where they were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. An invaluable treasure of geonic responsa that had been lost over the course of time was thus brought to light.

The Decision-Making Process

The gaon was not the sole author of a geonic responsum; all the scholars of the yeshivah participated in its formulation. In this respect, geonic responsa differed substantially from those of the rabbinic period. Nathan ha-Bavli described the process as follows:

This was their [the geonic] practice in responding to questions: Each day in the month of Adar [one of the months of the kallah-the semiannual assembly when all of the scholars and students gathered together at the yeshivah), he [the gaon] would present to them all the questions that he had received and give them leave to respond to them.

They, out of respect for him, would reply: ‘We will not give a response in your presence,’ until he would prevail on them, and then each would give his answer in accordance with his knowledge and wisdom. They would ask questions, give answers, and debate each matter, examining it closely. The head of the yeshivah would hear what they said, consider their statements and queries to each other, and analyze their arguments until the truth was clear to him; he would then immediately [dictate the response and] direct the scribe to record [it].

This was their daily practice until they responded to all the questions that had reached them from the Jewish communities during the year. At the end of the month, the questions and answers would be read in the presence of the entire assembly and the head of the yeshivah would affix his seal on them, following which they would be sent to their recipients.

We learn from this description that each responsum was composed by the gaon only after deliberation and debate among the yeshivah’s scholars. Because all of the questions received over a period of time were answered during one of the two months (Adar and Elul) of the semiannual assembly, the geonim would dispatch parcels that sometimes included many tens of responsa.

As can be seen from the dates recorded on certain responsa, they were sometimes also sent during the rest of the year when the question was urgent and means for delivering them were available. Copies were generally kept in the archives of the yeshivot.

Decisive Style

The special authority over the other Jewish centers enjoyed by the Babylonian yeshivot and those who headed them was also expressed in the text of the responsa of this period. The language is generally categorical and imperative (“This is the halacha,” “It may not be departed from,” “It may not be modified,” etc.); and the directive or decision in the responsum was accepted as binding in the community that had submitted the question.

The responsa of the early geonim were, in the main, extremely brief. In the course of time they became longer, but even then they were fairly concise and focused on the question asked, citing only a few talmudic sources.

Topic Areas

The questions submitted to the geonim were extremely varied. Some requested the explanation of particular Talmudic terms or passages, and some the explanation even of entire chapters or tractates (Tractates Shabbat and Avodah Zarah; one responsum is an entire book — the Siddur (prayer book) of Amram Gaon). Other questions related to matters of faith and belief, to which answers were needed for debates with Karaites or Moslems. Still others concerned medicine or science, or the validity of various customs.

The famous epistle of Sherira Gaon was composed in response to a question on the history of the Oral Law. Of course, many questions dealt with legal issues that arose out of daily life. The geonim, by basing their responsa on the Babylonian Talmud, greatly contributed to the dissemination and acceptance of that Talmud in all Jewish communities.

Compilation and Editing

The geonic responsa were collected in an early period — at the latest in the days of Hai Gaon — and grouped in compilations. These compilations included responsa by different geonim; they were sometimes arranged according to subject matter, author, or sequence of the talmudic tractates. As a result, responsa that had originally comprised a single unit were occasionally scattered among different compilations.

Sometimes, the copyists or the editors of the compilations condensed and abridged the responsa, deleting the dates, the names and locations of the inquirers, and the opening and closing lines. This editing makes it difficult to identify and to understand the meaning of many responsa.

An interesting characteristic of the responsa literature appears as early as the geonic period: the use of fictitious names (generally, the names of the sons of Jacob and the names of the matriarchs–Reuben, Simeon, Sarah, Rebecca, etc.) rather than the actual names of the parties.

The copyists or editors of the collections of geonic responsa also prepared tables of contents (or lists of the responsa) that very briefly indicated the subjects of the responsa in the compilations. These tables of contents were of great value in finding a particular matter in a compilation–not only to anyone who had a copy of the compilation, but also to anyone who could afford only a copy of the table of contents. Some of the tables were organized according to the sequence of the subject matter in the talmudic tractates.


The extant geonic responsa are only a small part of the total number written — a few thousand out of tens of thousands. A large proportion were lost when communities were destroyed or when other calamities occurred.

Scholars are still engaged in deciphering and publishing many responsa buried in the Cairo Geniza. Many have been preserved in whole or in part in the writings of rishonim, such as Sefer ha-Ittur, Or Zaru’ a, the Mordekhai, and the works of Isaac ibn Ghiyyat and Judah al-Bargeloni. More than half of the extant geonic responsa were written in the last generations of the geonim, mostly by Sherira Gaon and his son Hai Gaon.

More than 20 compilations of geonic responsa are extant. The first appeared in print at the beginning of the sixteenth century; however, most were not printed until the twentieth century, when they were published by various scholars specializing in the study of the geonic period and its literature.

The important work of Benjamin M. Lewin, Ozar ha-Geonim, is extremely useful for knowledge of the geonic responsa. The work follows the sequence of the talmudic tractates; and twelve volumes (from Tractate Berakhot to Bava Kamma, inclusive, and the beginning of tractate Bava Mezi’a) have been published. Each volume contains geonic responsa arranged according to the subjects of the tractate. Ozar ha-Geonim to Tractate Sanhedrin, edited by Hayyim Zevi Taubes, was published in 1967, with the responsa arranged according to the same principle used by Lewin in Ozar ha-Geonim.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).


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