Responsum (pl. Responsa) – Response to a question in Jewish Law, generally used in the plural, as a collection of such responses. The collections of questions and responses are also generally associated with particular authoritative Torah Scholars.
Collections of Responsa are significant in a number of ways:
1. They provide authoritative answers to complex questions in Jewish Law, regarding situations which had not been examined in this light before.
2. They show how the Torah retains its eternal character, while adapting to modern situations, such as advances in electronics, or new medical procedures.
3. They are a treasure trove for Jewish historians trying to gain a clear picture of conditions at various times in Jewish History, such as the Middle Ages and among different populations of the Jewish World, such as the Ashkenazi (Eastern and Northwest Europe) communities vs.Sephardic (Middle East and North Africa) communities.
4. They shed light on great Torah luminaries, such as the Rashba in 13th Century Spain, who authored hundreds of Responsa, and many other great Talmidei Chachamim, such as the Maharam MiRutenberg, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg. Rabbi Meir was a principal figure in the latter half of the thirteenth century in Germany in a bitter struggle against not only the Church but the rising power of governmental authorities that ended in the defeat of the Jews and began the Dark Ages of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries for the Jews. Three typical Responsa of Rabbi Meir, bearing on general Jewish life are the following:
Q: A worm was found in the opening of the cranium of a cow at the very base where the brain joins the spinal cord. Is the cow fit to eat?
A: Above the medulla oblongata a puncture of the membrane of the brain, but not the presence of a worm, renders the cow unfit for eating purposes. But, below that region of the brain only a severance of the major part of the cord renders the cow unfit.
Q: A promised to give a certain sum of money to charity, but did not specify the particular purpose for which he intended to give the money. Which is more important, candles for the synagogue, or the care of the sick?
A: A should preferably give the money for the care of the sick.
Q: How are we to invest money belonging to orphans; are we permitted to lend such money on interest?
A: The Talmud provides that such money be invested with a rich and trustworthy person; one who obeys the Laws of the Torah and is careful not to bring upon himself a ban of the Rabbis. It should be invested on condition that the orphans share in the profits, but not in the losses (Bava Batzia 70a). To invest such money in mortgages on houses, fields or vineyards, is preferable, since money may be lost but land lasts forever. The written contract attesting the transaction should be deposited with a trustworthy person or with the trustee of the orphans. But, we are not permitted to lend such money on a definite rate of interest.
In recent times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Z”L, was considered the “Posek HaDor,” the most authoritative scholar of the generation, whose decisions in Responsa were rarely challenged. In medical matters, he had the assistance of his son-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler, a Torah scholar as well as a recognized authority in biology.
Rabbi Heineman of Baltimore is considered one of the most authoritative “poskim,” decisors of Jewish Law today.
Responsa reflecting the vastly differing experiences of the Jewish People in recent times are “Responsa from the Holocaust,” by Rabbi Ephraim Oshri and Responsa concerning the permissibility within Jewish Law for Jews in modern times to enter the precincts of the Temple, by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Z”L.