Holocaust Teacher Resource Center

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Pages 5 – 7

The term “responsa literature” refers to all written rulings made by rabbis under halakha, Jewish law, in response to questions submitted to them in writing, throughout the post-Talmudic period (from the fifth or sixth century to the present day). Responsa were also given in the time of the Tanna’im and Amoratim (Mishnaic and Talmudic sages, respectively), but until the final redaction of the Talmud in the sixth century, they were “incorporated into the Talmud and formed an integral part thereof, arranged according to the themes of the tractates and chapters. Only in the Gaonic period (Babylon, seventh-eleventh centuries) did responsa first appear as a distinct literary genre.

Professor Menahem Elon, in his book Ha-mishpat ha-‘ivri (Jewish law), describes the relationship between halakhic literature and responsa literature:

The authors of collections of halakhot and halakhic decisions draw their conclusions by abstract study of the halakhic material available to them… In responsa literature, by contrast, the reader is thrust into the midst of a living legal reality, listens to the facts and arguments that the litigants present, and accompanies the decisor (a rabbi who undertakes to issue a halakhic ruling) at each stage of his legal inquiry. The problem facing the student and researcher of responsa literature is that [this literature] plunges them into a world of creativity, the inner sanctum of the laboratory. They are partners in experiments, creation, and comprehensive and profound legal analysis. They hear the objective socioeconomic background description that is incorporated into the halakhic debate, and they are privy to the explicit or implicit allusions to the decisor’s vacillations and efforts to arrive at an answer and a legal solution that both rest on precedent and meet the many needs of his contemporaries.1

Responsa literature is also important as historical source material, because both the author of the responsum and, to some extent, the questioner, “speak impartially,” i.e., without bias, meaning that the historical facts they mention are reliable. The historical facts that surface in this literature deal with the following:

  1. The political and legal status of Jews
  2. The locations of various Jewish communities
  3. Jews’ attitudes toward non-Jews in economic and social matters and in questions of beliefs and views
  4. Community institutions
  5. Juridical and fiscal affairs
  6. Folklore
  7. Decrees and persecutions 2

There are an estimated 300,000 responsa in over 3,000 books by various authors.3

Very few responsa written during the Holocaust have survived. In this environment of brutal decrees, persecution, and annihilation, both the questioners and the respondents were seriously inhibited; often Jews were simply unable to present their questions and decisors could not remit the answers. The most comprehensive collection of Holocaust-era responsa was written by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto, between June, 1941, when the Nazi occupation of Kovno began, and August, 1944.

Rabbi Oshry wrote his responsa on scraps of paper, which he buried in hopes of returning and reclaiming them after the war.

At some point, the Nazis placed Rabbi Oshry in charge of a warehouse of Jewish books that had been gathered in Kovno. By so doing, they inadvertently gave him the access to Jewish books and rabbinic literature that he needed to write his detailed responsa. In his book Mi-ma’amaqim (From the depths), Rabbi Oshry testifies that his Holocaust-period responsa were issued with virtually no amendments or additions.4

Mi-ma’amaqim (four volumes) was published in 1959 in New York, where Rabbi Oshry had taken up residence after the war. (His other works are listed in the bibliography at the end of this guide.) The responsa in this guide, culled from Mi-ma’amaqim, deal with several halakhic issues connected with Jewish survival in the Kovno Ghetto. Although the lessons of one ghetto are hard to apply to another, it is reasonable to assume that similar problems existed in other ghettos in Eastern Europe. Therefore, these questions, or at least some of them, presumably perturbed many Jews during the Holocaust.

Students are shown the questions only. In this fashion they may reach their own conclusions after struggle and vacillation, and only afterwards compare their conclusions with Rabbi Oshry’s responsa.

1Menachem Elon, Ha-mishpat ha-‘ivri (Jewish law), Jerusalem: Magnes, 1973, Part III, p.1215.

2Ibid., Part III, p. 1223.

3Ibid., Part III, p. 1221.

4Irving Rosenbaum, The Holocaust and Halakha, Ktav Publishing House, 1976, p.14.