Geonic Responsa

The earliest exchange of halakhic questions and answers.

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old books with fountain penThey, 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 halakhah," "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.

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.