Geonic Responsa

The earliest exchange of halakhic questions and answers.

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

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. halakhah quiz

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.

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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.