Spring Education Opportunity — Responsa

Rav Julius will lead a class on Thursdays afternoons from 1:30-3:00 (and evenings if there is interest) in which we will study and discuss selections (in English) of responsa that have been issued by the Conservative movement, and its Masorti counterpart in Israel (see Rav Julius’ article on page 1 for more information on the subject).

Classes will be held from May 31 until June 21.



Understanding the
Evolution of our Laws

From time to time, I receive questions asking whether Jewish law or custom dictates or prohibits a certain act.  And as you can imagine, some of these questions stump me; and to help answer these questions, I am blessed with a large library of volumes.  If resort to my library doesn’t produce a result, I can access numerous online sources.  Hopefully, after I have consulted these various sources, an answer will bubble up inside of me.

In a previous time, even the greatest of rabbis had limited access to those resources, as few as there were in existence at that time.  So, in those times when a local rabbi was unclear as to how to rule on a question, he would send out an inquiry to an institutional source of learning where an authoritative response would be generated and sent back to the inquirer.  The individual(s) crafting the response to these types of inquiries was referred to as the ‘Respondent’; and his answer came to be known as a ‘responsa’.

The ‘Responsa’ institution became a full partner in the Jewish exposition of law after the close of the Talmud in the 7th century of the Common Era. Despite difficulties that hampered the irregular communications of the period, Jews who lived even in the most distant countries sent their inquiries concerning religion and law to those officials whose opinions were respected.  In the earliest times of our exile from Israel, it was in Babylonia. Then, when the preeminence of the Babylonian school passed, questions were re-directed to the Jewish learning centers in Europe or in the Sephardic world.

Respondents were not appointed by any kind of official body. A rabbi was qualified to act as a Respondent simply because his peers looked upon him as a reliable authority. Needless to say, Respondents often differed in their decisions, so that debates can be found that were conducted with vehemence: for example, on the question of whether machine-manufactured matzah can be used for Passover or whether it must it be baked by hand.

The responsa system continues into the 21st century, with all the major movements having their own committees of rabbis.  Among the peculiarities of the system in the Conservative movement is that each question reviewed is considered by a group of 25 rabbis. A decision that has been approved by 6 or more members of this body is deemed to represent an ‘official’ halakhic position of the Conservative movement. Hence, there can be more than one ‘official’ halakhic position that comes out of a single responsa; and the approved positions can be contradicting!  Even so, in the words of the Rabbinical Assembly, the eventual positions are not “meant to, nor can they, substitute for the opinions of a local rabbi.” 

Two examples can be given of how the responsa process has worked:

1.When printing was invented, the question arose as to whether a printed bill of divorce could be valid, as the Talmud speaks of a written document. Since printing was unknown in Talmudic times, no direct guidance on these questions could be forthcoming from the Talmud. The Respondents had to arrive at their rulings by careful study of the Talmudic definition of a ‘writing’.

2.Similarly, when electricity was discovered, the question arose as to whether switching on an electric light constitutes making fire and is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. This, too, was considered by the Respondents by an examination of the Talmudic definition of making fire.

Among questions to which contemporary Respondents address themselves are: artificial insemination; heart transplants; and switching off a life-supporting machine. Much of the time, the questions posed for a responsa involve new institutions in our secular world that demand a new or fresh ‘Jewish look’ at an activity.

And the following, while of limited application, is sure to appeal to all: Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon noted that, while orbiting the earth, the space shuttle experiences a day/night cycle approximately every ninety minutes. Thus, Ramon asked whether he should keep the Sabbath according to Earth time, i.e., for a 24-hour period every seventh day; or mark it for a 90-minute period, but to repeat its observance every ten and a half hours? And if according to Earth time, then what location on Earth should this be based upon? The rabbis concluded that he should celebrate the Sabbath in accordance with Earth time, based on the place of his departure from the Earth, Cape Canaveral.


In addition to sharing with you this unique institution of Jewish life, I would like to announce a Spring study course (beginning soon after the conclusion — for this year, of our-popular Jewish Lives Readers Circle) in which we will examine a number of responsa generated by members of the Rabbinic Assembly, the rabbinical leaders in the Conservative movement. For example, the following are among the responsa that we can study:

Recreational Sports and Exercise on the Sabbath

Kashrut of lab-grown meat

Riding to shul on The Sabbath (more for its historical significance)

We could also look at those issued by the Masorti movement in Israel (in summary form only), the counterpart to the 

Conservative movement, which include:

Extradition of Jewish criminals to another country

Riding to shul on The Sabbath.

In examining the responsa, of course, we will consider the conclusion.  But just as noteworthy, is the review of the ‘policies’ or ‘other interests’ being considered in reaching a determination of the ‘laws.’ For example, in a responsa directed towards determining whether certain activities are permissible or prohibited on the Sabbath, we would find a discussion focusing on the creative ways we can ‘honor’ the Sabbath, without focusing on whether those same activities might also be contrary to the ‘guarding’ of the Sabbath.

You will decide which of the hundreds (thousands, if you include those written in Hebrew) of responsa that are available, will be studied. I will make a list of the available responsa at the first class setting.


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