Geonic Responsa

The earliest exchange of halakhic questions and answers.

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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.

Preservation

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 Genizah. 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 twenty 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.

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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.